Equal Opportunity Interference: Both L1 and L2 Influence L3 Morpho-Syntactic Processing

Nawras Abbas, Tamar Degani, Anat Prior

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We investigated cross-language influences from the first (L1) and second (L2) languages in third (L3) language processing, to examine how order of acquisition and proficiency modulate the degree of cross-language influences, and whether these cross-language influences manifest differently in online and offline measures of L3 processing. The study focused on morpho-syntactic processing of English as an L3 among Arabic-Hebrew-English university student trilinguals (n = 44). Importantly, both L1 (Arabic) and L2 (Hebrew) of participants are typologically distant from L3 (English), which allows overcoming confounds of previous research. Performance of trilinguals was compared to that of native English monolingual controls (n = 37). To investigate the source of cross-language influences, critical stimuli were ungrammatical sentences in English, which when translated could be grammatical in L1, in L2 or in both. Thus, the L3 morpho-syntactic structures included in the study were a mismatch with L1, a mismatch with L2, a Double mismatch, with both L1 and L2, or a no mismatch condition. Participants read the English sentences while their eye-movements were recorded (online measure), and they also performed grammaticality judgments following each sentence (offline measure). Across both measures, cross-language influences were assessed by comparing the performance of the trilinguals in each of the critical interference conditions to the no-interference condition, and by comparing their performance to that of the monolingual controls. L1 interference was evident in first pass sentence reading, and marginally in offline grammaticality judgment, and L2 interference was robust across second pass reading and grammaticality judgments. These results suggest that either L1 or the L2 can be the source of cross-language influences in L3 processing, but with different time-courses. The findings highlight the difference between online and offline measures of performance: processing language in real-time reflects mainly automatic activation of morpho-syntactic structures, whereas offline judgments might also involve strategic and meta-linguistic decision making. Together, the findings show that during L3 processing, trilinguals have access to all previously acquired linguistic knowledge, and that the multilingual language system is fully interactive.

Original languageEnglish
Article number673535
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
StatePublished - 28 May 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported by ISF grant 340/18 to AP and TD. NA was supported by funding from the Arabic Language Academy, and by Edmond J. Safra Brain Research Center, the Jewish-Arabic Center, and the Graduate Studies Authority, all at the University of Haifa.

Publisher Copyright:
© Copyright © 2021 Abbas, Degani and Prior.


  • English as a foreign language
  • cross-language influence
  • interference
  • morphosyntax
  • trilingualism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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