In this talk, I discuss the processing of wh-dependencies by native English speakers and Mandarin Chinese-speaking learners of English. Wh-dependencies involve a long-distance relationship between a fronted wh-word (e.g., who) and the position in the sentence where it originated, called a gap site. The examination of wh-dependency resolution presents an interesting test case for whether or not grammatical knowledge is used online because, in languages such as English, wh-movement is constrained such that extraction is only possible from certain positions and is barred from other positions, called islands (Ross, 1967). In examining whether native speakers and second language (L2) learners are sensitive to island constraints online, this study tests predictions of prominent theories which argue that adult learners are unable to utilize abstract grammatical information during processing (e.g., Clahsen & Felser, 2006).

This study uses event-related potentials (ERPs) to examine L2 processing of wh-dependencies within and outside of islands. The results from native speakers (N=44) and L2 learners (N=36) shed light on the possibilities and limitations of adult L2 acquisition, showing that while both native speakers and L2 learners are able to use grammatical information during online processing, L2 learners do not show evidence of engaging in predictive processing during the resolution of wh-dependencies.

This study additionally explores whether the processing of wh-dependencies is related to individual differences in attentional control, as measured by a number Stroop task. Our findings reveal a complex relationship between cognitive abilities, individuals’ brain responses during processing, as well as offline island sensitivity measured via an acceptability judgement task.