Measuring Complexity in anaphoric and cataphoric expressions in English as a second language.An eye-tracked case study.

Nicoletta Simi

University of Pisa – visiting Lancaster University

In the past decades, the research has flourished around the topics of anaphoric expressions and the ways in which subjects retrieve the antecedent elements in the discourse. Several studies have shown that pragmatic factors, together with grammatical, syntactic and cognitive constraints contribute to determine the distribution of different types of anaphoric expressions (Warburton and Prabhu, 1972; Kazanina et al., 2006; Filiaci, 2010; Chien-Ju et al., 2014). However, most of the works on the inferential process in act during pronoun interpretation have focused on assessing which strategies affect the search for an antecedent pronoun. Considerably fewer studies have been conducted on backwards anaphora. Cowards and Cairns (1987) noticed the tendency to interpret cataphoric pronouns as the first noun phrase encountered after the cataphora. The research on eye movement patterns carried out by Van Gompel and Liversedge (2003) later confirmed Cowards and Cairns (1987) claims. Nevertheless, anaphoric pronouns are processed faster than cataphoric ones (Kennison et al., 2009). Furthermore, results of experiments with visual and comprehension tasks (McKee, 1992; Cornish et al., 2005) clearly suggest that cataphoric pronouns tend to be poorly interpreted. The present contribution investigates forwards and backwards anaphoric interpretation in Italian university students with dyslexia who learn English as a second language. The scientific literature still overlooks the processes involved in anaphoric pronouns retrieval in subjects with different language proficiencies. The study of Kazanina et al. (2006) suggests that in this type of structures, the parser “initiates an active search for an antecedent for a pronoun, leading to gender mismatch effects in cases where a noun phrase in a potential antecedent position mismatches the gender of the pronoun”. My research will investigate when and which syntactic constraints become available during the processing of long-distance backwards pronominal dependencies.

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