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Academic skills

Do L2 Learners Read Differently for Comprehension than for Translation?

March 2023 | Academic reading | Academic skills | Research | Teaching & Learning | Translation

Lim, J. H., & Christianson, K. (2013). Second language sentence processing in reading for comprehension and translation. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 16(3), 518-537.


What the study was about and why this research is important

Some researchers hypothesize that second language (L2) learners rely on different types of information when reading and comprehending sentences than native (L1) speakers. Additionally, reading for different purposes can have an effect on how we read and understand a sentence, as we pay attention to different kinds of information based on task demands. This study investigated how Korean L2 learners of English read subject/object relative clauses (SRCs/ORCs) that either depicted plausible or implausible events and how reading for comprehension differs from reading for translation. Participants read plausible and implausible SRCs and ORCs, indicated whether a word had appeared in the sentence, and whether a paraphrase of the sentence was correct or not. In the translation task, they additionally translated the English sentence into Korean. The results show that reading goals, as well as proficiency, have an impact on the type of information that L2 learners access during reading in the L2.

What the researchers did

  • Thirty-six university-level Korean L2 learners of English and 33 L1 English speakers participated in the study. L2 learners’ proficiency was measured using a test, in which participants read a text and had to supply missing words.
  • Forty-eight target sentences were created and each sentence appeared in one of four conditions (along with 96 unrelated sentences):
    • SRC plausible/implausible: The bird that ate the worm was small./The worm that ate the bird was small.
    • ORC plausible/implausible: The worm that the bird ate was small./The bird that the worm ate was small.
  • In one session, L2 learners read half of the target sentences and unrelated sentences word-by-word on a screen by pressing a button while their reading times (RTs) for each word were measured, decided whether a word was part of the sentence they had read, and indicated whether a paraphrase accurately represented the meaning of the sentence. L1 speakers completed the same task with all sentences. In a second session, the L2 learners completed the same task with the remaining half of sentences but afterwards they verbally translated the sentence into Korean.

What the researchers found

  • For the L1 speakers, plausible SRC sentences were the easiest and implausible ORC sentences were the most difficult to read, both in terms of reading times and comprehension accuracy.
  • Similar to the L1 speakers, L2 learners took longer to read ORCs and implausible sentences than SRCs and plausible sentences. However, performance differed according to L2 proficiency and task type (comprehension vs. translation). In the comprehension task, L2 learners’ RT differences were greater between SRCs and ORCs than between plausible and implausible sentences. In the translation task, there were RT differences between plausible and implausible sentences but not between SRCs and ORCs. The lack of RT differences between SRCs and ORCs suggests that during the translation task, L2 learners immediately paid attention to structural information and did not have to revise any initial misinterpretations.
  • The L2 learners’ comprehension accuracy was similar during both sessions, and they were less accurate in their comprehension of ORCs and implausible sentences. Additionally, proficiency modulated comprehension accuracy, in that the more proficient L2 learners were more accurate in comprehending the sentences.
  • During the translation task, the L2 learners were least likely to produce correct translations for implausible ORC sentences. The L2 learners often produced translations of implausible ORC sentences that preserved the ORC structure, but turned them into plausible sentences by reversing the two nouns. This shows that even though the L2 learners accurately interpreted the structure, implausibility had an impact on interpreting the sentence accurately.

Things to consider

  • The results show that the L2 learners paid attention to different kinds of information based on the type of reading task they completed. Manipulating the specific goal of a reading task may thus be helpful to focus learners’ attention on different aspects of a sentence, especially with less-proficient learners. This, in turn, could support the learning of specific grammatical structures.
  • Future research should consider whether the same pattern of findings would hold for other sentence types and other grammatical structures, and whether these findings would hold for L2 learners with an L1 besides Korean.


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How to cite this summary: Keppenne, V. (2018). Do L2 learners read differently for comprehension than for translation?.OASIS Summary of Lim & Christianson (2013) in Bilingualism: Language and Cognition.