Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Doctor of Philosophy


Hispanic Studies


Bruhn de Garavito, Joyce

2nd Supervisor

Herment, Sophie


Aix Marseille Université



Adult language learners demonstrate extensive variation and are believed to rely largely on explicit knowledge and declarative memory, directly impacting how target language input is processed, represented, and retrieved. The overarching aim of this thesis is to identify and better understand the factors that are most important for adult language acquisition by examining how linguistic features, task demands, and individual learner differences may impact performance with Spanish grammatical gender. This research seeks to draw principled conclusions about what knowledge types and memory systems language users exploit as proficiency develops. 115 language users of Spanish from diverse language backgrounds, including native speakers (n=25) and late/adult instructed Spanish learners (n=90), completed a language learner profile questionnaire, a Spanish proficiency test, four experimental tasks with strategically manipulated conditions, and a metalinguistic awareness exit survey. Findings indicate enhanced late learner accuracy with frequent, grammatical, and masculine noun tokens and slightly enhanced native speaker accuracy with high-frequency tokens. Intermediate and beginner learner performance was found to be enhanced on self-paced and written tasks whereas advanced learners and native speakers performed better on speeded tasks and showed no stimuli modality effects. Individual differences in Spanish proficiency, metalinguistic awareness, and the Ideal L2 Self component of motivation produced the largest effect sizes among late learners. A slight typological multilingual learner advantage was also found that produced the greatest learner advantage on tasks conditioning online language processing. This thesis contributes to the domain of adult language acquisition by providing evidence that as global proficiency in the target language develops, qualitative patterns of sensitivity to linguistic and task features become more native-like as do quantitative measures of performance. Findings suggest that at lower levels of proficiency, learners strategically exploit their explicit linguistic knowledge to compensate for deficits in their developing implicit linguistic system. This research further contributes to our understanding of the individual differences that impact performance and makes a novel contribution to the field of multilingualism by elucidating the nature of the multilingual advantage for language learning. Findings show that advanced proficiency late learners are able to mirror both quantitative and qualitative native speaker norms of performance. Pedagogical implications are also discussed.

Summary for Lay Audience

This thesis looks at how linguistic qualities, task requirements, and learner differences affect performance with Spanish grammatical gender in order to better understand the factors which influence adult language acquisition. A questionnaire, a Spanish proficiency test, experimental tasks, and an exit survey on metalinguistic awareness were all completed by 115 Spanish language users from various backgrounds. The findings indicated that high-frequency tokens somewhat improved the accuracy of native speakers, while frequent, grammatical, and masculine noun tokens improved the accuracy of late learners. On written and self-paced tasks, learners who were beginner or intermediate performed better while native speakers and advanced learners did better on tasks that were speeded up. The greatest effect sizes among late learners were found in individual differences in Spanish proficiency, metalinguistic awareness, and the Ideal L2 Self component of motivation. This study adds to our knowledge of individual differences and multilingualism and suggests that late learners of advanced proficiency can closely resemble the performance standards of native speakers.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 4.0 License.