Hemispheric asymmetries in processing L1 and L2 idioms: Effects of salience and context

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Brain and Language


This study investigates the contribution of the left and right hemispheres to the comprehension of bilingual figurative language and the joint effects of salience and context on the differential cerebral involvement in idiom processing. The divided visual field and the lexical decision priming paradigms were employed to examine the activation of salient and nonsalient ambiguous idiom interpretations (i.e., literal vs. non-literal) in the two hemispheres. Literally plausible ambiguous idioms, L1 (Polish) and L2 (English), were embedded in unconstraining ambiguous (e.g., I knew he kept an ace up his sleeve) or constraining unambiguous context clearly favoring their conventional idiomatic interpretation (e.g., The debating president kept an ace up his sleeve). Idioms were presented centrally, followed by laterally presented targets related to the figurative (e.g., GAIN) or literal (e.g., SHIRT) meaning of the idiom and displayed at Interstimulus Intervals (ISIs) of 0. ms (Experiment 1), 300. ms (Experiment 2), and 800. ms (Experiment 3). Results indicate that context and salience effects are significantly modulated by the language (native vs. nonnative) of the stimulus materials being presented to each hemisphere. Literal facilitation was found for L2 idioms in all three ISI conditions, which supports the notion of the special status that literal meanings of L2 idioms enjoy in the course of their processing by nonnative language users. No significant differences were found between the right and left hemispheres in regards to their sensitivity to contextual constraints. Results are discussed in terms of the Graded Salience Hypothesis and the Fine/Coarse Coding Theory. © 2010 Elsevier Inc.

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