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Referential choice in a second language: evidence from highly proficient learners of English

Carla Contemori & Giuli Dussias (Pennsylvania State University)


Referential choice; syntax; English; Spanish

The ability to refer to entities in the surrounding world constitutes a prerequisite for successful communication. Native speakers use attenuated forms (e.g., pronouns or phonologically silent elements) when the referent is in the addressee’s focus of attention (e.g., Arnold & Griffin, 2007, A&G). However, they use more explicit forms (e.g., full NPs) when their own focus of attention is distributed among potentially competing referents in the discourse, either through the visual presence (Fukumura et al., 2010) and/or through the previous mention of another animate referent (A&G). Studies on learners of pro-drop languages (e.g., Spanish) have demonstrated that highly proficient second language (L2) learners may over-use pronominal forms when a null subject is required, showing residual indeterminacy in the L2 referential choice (e.g., Sorace & Filiaci,2006). However, we do not know if learners of a non-null subject language experience similar problems in the choice of referring expression. The present research aims at contributing to fill in this gap, by examining the process of choosing between pronouns and proper names in L2 speakers of English whose L1 is Spanish.

Eighteen English monolinguals and seventeen L2 speakers participated in a story telling task based on A&G. Participants were presented with two pictures that contained: (1) one character in the first panel and one in the second panel; (2) two characters in the first panel and two in the second panel (different gender); (3) two characters in the first panel and one in the second panel (different gender); (4) two characters in the first panel and one in the second panel (same gender). After listening to a description of the first panel, participants were asked to describe the second panel.

For native speakers, even when a pronoun would not be ambiguous, the presence of another character in the discourse (either in the first panel or in both panels) decreased pronoun use to refer to the most prominent character in the discourse. For the L2 group, results showed a higher production of pronouns than in native speakers when there were two characters in the preceding discourse who had either similar or different gender. We conclude that the production of referring expression is susceptible to L1 interference in highly proficient learners of English. We hypothesize that L2 participants fail to suppress the assumption from their native language that overt pronouns are interpreted as referring to a non-topic referent. The learners produced more overt pronouns in two-referent contexts than native speakers of English likely because an overt pronoun is more explicit for them than a null form. While it may seem that they are being more explicit, in fact they are not yet explicit enough as an English native speaker.



[1] Arnold, J. & Griffin, Z. M. The effect of additional characters on choice of referring expression: Everyone counts. Journal of Memory and Language, 56(4):521–536, 2007.

[2] Fukumura, K., van Gompel, R. P. G., & Pickering, M. J. The use of visual context during the production of referring expressions. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 63:1700–15, 2010.

[3] Sorace, A., & Filiaci, F. Anaphora resolution in near-native speakers of Italian. Second Language Research, 22(3):339-368, 2006.