Beyond the Position of the Antecedent Strategy: Animacy effects in L2 anaphora resolution

Activity: Talk or presentationOral presentation


There is evidence that the interpretation of overt subjects may be sensitive to animacy, as they tend to prefer animate antecedents (Morgado et al.2018). However, L2 studies on anaphora resolution have mostly considered contexts in which all potential antecedents are animate, concluding that L2ers typically display persistent optionality regarding overt but not null subjects (e.g. Sorace2016). This has been disputed by some studies which have found no problems in the resolution of pronominal subjects at advanced levels (Rothman2009).
This study investigates the interpretation of overt and null subject pronouns in intrasentential contexts, considering the role of animacy in antecedent assignment. It addresses the following questions: In overt subject resolution, do L1 Italian-L2 E(uropean)P(ortuguese) learners behave target-like regarding antecedent animacy at L2 developmental stages and at the near-native level, as the hypothesis that properties at the syntax-semantics interface are easy to acquire (Sorace2011) would predict?; With animate antecedents, do these learners exhibit permanent optionality in the interpretation of overt but not of null subjects, as claimed by e.g. Sorace (2016)?
The participants in the study were 15 adult native speakers of EP, and 10 upper-intermediate, 10 advanced and 10 near-native L1-Italian adult learners of L2 EP. Participants were administered two multiple-choice tasks (speeded/untimed) to elicit their interpretation preferences in complex sentences. The tasks had a 2x2 design crossing the following variables: animacy of the matrix object (animate vs. inanimate) and type of pronominal embedded subject (overt vs.null) (6 items*4 conditions+24 fillers).

O porteiro viu o professor quando ele/pro caiu das escadas.
___________________ caiu das escadas.
o porteiro|o professor|nem o porteiro nem o professor

Results show a weak animacy effect in overt subject resolution in L1-EP (contra Morgado et al.2018), visible in the increased RTs in the inanimate condition in the speeded task (animate vs.inanimate:p=.0468). However, overt and null subjects are assigned to object and subject antecedents, respectively, regardless of animacy. Near-natives behave target-like with overt subjects regarding animacy, in the untimed, but not in the speeded task, where they perform differently with animate and inanimate objects (p=.0115). Unlike near-natives, advanced and upper-intermediate learners distinguish animate and inanimate conditions in both tasks (ps≤.00501). In the interpretation of overt subjects in the animate condition, L2ers exhibit a target-like preference for the object antecedent in both tasks and across all levels. In contrast, in the interpretation of null subjects in the animate condition, all groups display optionality (subject vs.non-subject antecedent:ps≥.108), except for near-natives in the untimed task (p=.0132).
A follow-up study on L1-Italian with the same design and items revealed that Italian and EP differ regarding the resolution of overt subjects with inanimate object antecedents (stronger animacy effect in Italian) and the resolution of null subjects (weaker bias for subject antecedents in Italian), which are the areas where L1Italian/L2EP learners behave non-target-like. Our results point to the importance of L1 influence in anaphora resolution, a factor played down in previous studies (Sorace2016). Moreover, they challenge the ideas that only overt subjects are difficult in L2 anaphora resolution and that the syntax-semantics interface is unproblematic.
Period20 May 2021
Event titleThe Acquisition and Processing of Reference and Anaphora Resolution
Event typeConference
Degree of RecognitionInternational