Why is learning the gender of nouns so difficult for some bilinguals? We test the hypothesis that different language learning backgrounds or life experience with Spanish determine how learners follow different morphosyntactic cues for gender assignment in Spanish by testing learners with early and late language experience in an experiment with invented nouns. A total of 44 monolingually raised native speakers, 44 heritage speakers, and 44 L2 learners of Spanish were trained to learn 24 nonce words in Spanish presented in four input conditions that manipulated the number and type of cues to gender marking (determiner, word marker, adjective). After the learning sessions, the participants completed a word naming task, an elicited production task, and a debriefing questionnaire. The L2 learners were different than native speakers and heritage speakers in learning nonce nouns. They used morphosyntactic cues differently, relying on adjectives as their most-used strategy to assign gender, unlike native speakers and heritage speakers who used all cues. Our findings confirm processing differences between L2 learners and heritage speakers and suggest language learning background determines how learners discover reliable morphosyntactic cues to the gender of nouns in the input.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number45
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2024


  • lexical gender assignment
  • oral production
  • heritage speakers second language acquisition
  • native speakers
  • nonce words
  • Spanish
  • gender agreement


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