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Processing Referentially Ambiguous Pronouns by Adult Learners of English as a Foreign Language

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Masoud Motamedynia , Aliakbar Khomeijani Farahani

Department of English, Faculty of Foreign Languages and Literatures, University of Tehran, Tehran, Iran Corresponding author: Masoud Motamedynia, Department of English, Faculty of Foreign Languages and Literatures, University of Tehran, Tehran, Iran. Email: m.motamedynia@alumni.ut.ac.ir


Introduction: Processing ambiguous pronouns by L1 speakers of English has been the subject of a great bulk of research. Only a few studies, however, have investigated the ambiguity resolution of pronouns by people for whom English is a second or foreign language. In this study, the researchers employed a picture selection task to explore how adult Iranian EFL learners treated ambiguous pronouns. Methodology: The materials were 20 experimental items in four different conditions (i.e., manipulation of neither noun phrases [NP1] nor NP2, NP1 manipulation, both NPs manipulation and NP2 manipulation) plus 30 filler items. The principal purpose of this study was to investigate whether the manipulation of NPs by attaching extra content/semantic information to them had any impact on their accessibility and how the participants associated ambiguous pronouns with NPs when attempting to choose an antecedent. Results: The results confirmed the idea that increasing the length of an NP is an important mechanism employed by EFL learners in the process of ambiguity resolution of pronouns. The results also indicated that the NP length mechanism was a better predictor of accessibility in comparison with other mechanisms, such as the primacy effect, the subject rule, and the grammatical role. Conclusion: The findings demonstrated that when an NP carries extra-linguistic information compared to other NPs, it might have a better chance of being selected as the referent of an ambiguous pronoun.


How users of a language treat pronouns have received particular attention by and sparked interest among psycholinguists. In fact, interpretation of pronouns has proved to be problematic for comprehenders on a number of occasions as they can be a source of ambiguity. The main question is how listeners/readers recognize the referent when a pronoun such as he is ambiguous in terms of interpretation in a sentence like David slapped Joseph. He was angry. This has led researchers to conduct different studies to investigate how listeners/readers decide on the referent of an ambiguous pronoun. Furthermore, what mechanisms are involved in the act of pronoun ambiguity resolution is a question which has been partly answered. Research has focused on the ambiguity resolution of pronouns from various perspectives. Over the past few decades, researchers have suggested a number of mechanisms which might play a role in the ambiguity resolution of pronouns. For example, Gernsbacher (1989) considers what she refers to as the advantage of coming first to be a mechanism which might have a considerable impact on resolving pronoun ambiguity. In the example sentence mentioned above, there are two noun phrases (NP), namely David and Joseph. The mechanism of the advantage of coming first suggests that the NP mentioned first in the sentence, that is David, is more likely to be selected as the referent of the ambiguous pronoun He. Other researchers have suggested other mechanisms that compreherenders may employ when attempting to find the referent of a pronoun.

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