This paper presents an overview of the results of the research project “The psycholinguistics of a grammar for reading German” which has been carried out at the University of Fribourg/Freiburg (CH). The project is based on the idea that the most natural and direct way to multilingualism starts with receptive competence in a third language. In the context of research into European intercomprehension, it investigates Italian and French students' grammatical problems while reading in German as an L3 or L4. To achieve this aim, we worked with specially developed experimental designs. The main research instrument was a reading test which consisted of encyclopaedia articles on imaginary animals. By way of these articles seven grammatical structures of German were tested for their receptive difficulty, with a particular focus on grammatical structures that are traditionally deemed to be difficult for learners of German as a second/foreign language. This general opinion, however, is based on teachers' experience and/or production evidence and not on a systematic investigation of comprehension processes. Further research instruments were a German placement test as well as a self-evaluation of the students' competences in reading in other foreign languages. In addition, oral translation exercises into the L1 of the participants were carried out which helped to gain further insight into the process of reading comprehension.
In our paper, we will discuss under what circumstances certain grammatical structures pose problems to readers at various levels of language proficiency. On the basis of oral translation protocols, of general cognitive (language) processing mechanisms, and the structure of the German language, tentative explanations will be given as to why certain sentences/structures are more difficult to understand than others and why some structures do not seem to be a problem at all. The results of the study allow fine-grained insights into the impediments (or their absence) particular structures represent for in-depth comprehension of German texts at various levels of competence.