Processing epistemic modality in a second language: a self-paced reading study

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The current study brings together two novel perspectives: one is concerned with second language acquisition of complex modal semantics by learners of a Slavic (Croatian) language, and the other relates to online processing of modal auxiliary verbs in L2 English. The study sought to examine how English L2 learners process modal verbs can and may in their epistemic, deontic, and dynamic meaning, referring to epistemic possibility (e.g. He may come to the party), to giving or asking permission (You may/can come in), or to the expression of ability (He can speak four languages). Participants were a group of Croatian university students majoring in English (N=12) and a group of English L1 speakers studying at a UK university (N=8). They all completed a self-paced reading task which is thought to be tapping into implicit linguistic knowledge. Results suggest that Croatian native speakers acquire the dynamic and deontic modal meaning up to the native level, but they differ from English native speakers as far as epistemic modal semantics is concerned. The results are in line with previous studies in L1 and L2 research which demonstrated delayed acquisition of epistemic modality in comparison with non-epistemic modality. However, the findings also contribute to research on cross-linguistic influences and L1 concept transfer, suggesting that features and their related concepts which are not instantiated in one’s L1 may not be fully acquired even at more advanced levels.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)245-264
Number of pages19
JournalInternational Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching
Issue number3
Early online date7 Sep 2017
Publication statusPublished - 21 Sep 2017

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  • modality, epistemic, deontic, dynamic, processing, self-paced reading

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