We investigated whether 68 non-native, tutored beginning L2 learners of Italian – with alphabetical and non-alphabetical L1s – discriminated between sentences containing target-like and non-target-like auxiliaries. We questioned whether learners’ choices could be informed by a grammatical rule, frequency of auxiliaries in the input or whether both grammatical and statistical knowledge could be eclipsed by processing difficulties. Eye-tracking and timed acceptability judgment data showed that – unlike native speakers – these L2 learners were unskilled readers of the target language and that their processing was still non-optimal. In particular, they did not process “core” (i. e., strongly agentive and inherently telic) and “peripheral” (i. e., less semantically specified) intransitive predicates differently, nor did they do so with “matching” and “mismatching” predicates. Frequency and transition probabilities speeded up learners’ decisions on acceptability, but did not affect response accuracy or reading patterns. Finally, recency and length of classroom instruction – unlike learners’ L1, duration of stay in Italy, and proficiency level – positively correlated with greater nativelikeness in the processing of auxiliaries. Our results indicate that beginning L2-Italian learners – as long as their processing is still non-optimal – are not sensitive to the consequences of the unaccusative/unergative split at the syntax-semantics interface.
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