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Award Abstract #1251450

Discourse and prosody in non-native speakers' reference resolution

Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences
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Initial Amendment Date: August 13, 2013
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Latest Amendment Date: August 13, 2013
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Award Number: 1251450
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Award Instrument: Standard Grant
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Program Manager: William J. Badecker
BCS Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences
SBE Directorate for Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences
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Start Date: September 1, 2013
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End Date: February 28, 2017 (Estimated)
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Awarded Amount to Date: $286,827.00
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Investigator(s): Theres Gruter Nell theres@hawaii.edu (Principal Investigator)
Amy Schafer (Co-Principal Investigator)
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Sponsor: University of Hawaii
2440 Campus Road, Box 368
HONOLULU, HI 96822-2234 (808)956-7800
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Program Reference Code(s): 1311, 7495, 9150
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Program Element Code(s): 1311, 7495, 9150


Pronouns like 'he' and 'she' are among the most frequently used words in English. Yet neither a dictionary nor a grammar book will satisfy a learner of English as a second language who is trying to understand their full meaning and use. Pronouns often occur in contexts that contain more than one possible referent. Native speakers accumulate knowledge of patterns in the language that shift the interpretive preference one way or another. One such pattern involves the nature of the event being described: for example, a pronoun is more likely to refer to the doer of the last-mentioned action when that action is incomplete. Another pattern involves prosody, that is, what parts of a sentence receive emphasis. Native speakers deftly integrate such information to unconsciously anticipate how a conversation is going to continue, building expectations about who will be referred to next even before a name or pronoun is heard.

This project investigates how Japanese- and Korean-speaking learners of English interpret pronouns, asking specifically whether their interpretation is affected by patterns of event structure and prosody. Early evidence indicates that even when learners have advanced knowledge of English grammar, they may have a reduced ability to generate expectations during language comprehension, resulting in interpretation of pronouns different from that of native speakers. Five experiments will examine how native speakers versus learners continue written and spoken stories with pronouns, and how their eye fixations reveal, in a fraction of a second, which person in a story they think is most likely to be referred to next.

There are more second language users of English worldwide than there are native speakers as a first language. Understanding the nature of their language comprehension has the potential to improve strategies for successful communication, language teaching techniques, and our general understanding of how the human mind functions.


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