The processing of the object marker a by heritage Spanish speakers

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Objectives: Previous research has found that object marking with the Spanish particle a is variable among heritage Spanish speakers, based on data from offline experimental measures. The online self-paced reading method used for the present study has the advantage of being less metalinguistic, which may be important with heritage speakers. This incremental measure of sentence processing can also examine whether the single letter form a is simply skipped over during reading. Methodology: Thirty-two heritage Spanish speakers and 16 later Spanish-English bilinguals participated. Critical stimuli were 20 items testing a marking with direct objects and 20 items testing a marking of indirect objects in ditransitive constructions. Data and analysis: The data set included reading times from self-paced reading, accuracy for post-stimulus comprehension questions, and secondary data from an offline acceptability judgment, all of which were analyzed via ANOVAs by subject and by item. Findings: Both groups exhibited robust sensitivity to a marking of indirect objects, sensitivity to a marking with inanimate direct objects, and no sensitivity to a marking with animate direct objects. Originality: This is the first study to examine the real-time processing of object marking among heritage Spanish speakers. It is the second study to include a comparison group of late Spanish-English bilinguals in the US, as opposed to monolinguals residing abroad. Significance: Incremental data from online processing indicate that the visual nonsalience of the marker a is not the sole or primary cause of variability in the marking of animate direct objects, because it was noticed in other written sentential contexts. In addition, the similarity between the two participant groups shows that variability with differential object marking is not limited to heritage speakers, but can also occur among US Spanish users educated abroad, where incomplete acquisition is not a question.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)585-602
Number of pages18
JournalInternational Journal of Bilingualism
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 1 2018


  • Bilingual sentence processing
  • Spanish as a heritage language
  • case marking
  • differential object marking
  • heritage speakers

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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