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PhD Defence Miriam Ellert on January 7
How do native speakers and L2 learners of German and Dutch resolve personal and d-pronouns in ambiguous discourse? On January 7, 2011, Miriam Ellert will defend her thesis on the topic of ambiguous pronoun resolution in the Aula of the Radboud University Nijmegen at 10:30.
January 6, 2011
Ellert investigated how ambiguous pronouns are resolved in German and Dutch. 'Unlike English', she states, 'the two languages possess two pronominal forms to maintain reference to a previously mentioned singular masculine entity: personal pronouns (German er and Dutch hij) and d-pronouns (German der and Dutch die). Linguists have argued that the two forms have two different functions in contexts such as in (1): the personal pronoun refers to the topical entity (Peter) while the d-pronoun prefers the non-topical entity (Paul). Or, as some researchers have claimed (at least for German), the d-pronoun is marked for non-topical reference, whereas the personal pronoun is neutral in this regard.
German: Peteri wollte mit Paul j Tennis spielen. Doch eri / derj war krank.
Dutch: Peteri wilde met Paul j gaan tennissen. Maar hiji / diej was ziek.
English: Peteri wanted to play tennis with Paul j. But he [Pi / Di] was sick.
'In my thesis, I tested the resolution preferences for personal and d-pronouns in native speakers of German and Dutch in an online visual-world eye-tracking task and an offline forced-choice comprehension questionnaire. In contrast to earlier studies where discourse and syntactic role information are often confounded, the participants heard short texts in which the potential antecedents for the ambiguous pronoun were presented in double nominative comparative constructions (2) and we asked how the order of mention of the antecedent candidates influenced pronoun resolution.'
German: Der Schrank ist schwerer als der Tisch. Er/ Der stammt aus einem Möbelgeschäft in Belgien…
Dutch: De kast is zwaarder dan de tafel. Hij/ Die is afkomstig uit een meubelwinkel in België...
English: The cupboard is heavier than the table. It [P/ D] originates from a furniture store in Belgium…
The results showed that the German and Dutch native speakers resolved the personal pronoun towards the first-mentioned topical entity and the d-pronoun towards the second-mentioned non-topical entity. So the two pronouns seem to have different co-reference preferences. However, the visual-world eye-tracking task also revealed a cross-linguistic difference. In German, the personal pronoun was resolved relatively late compared to the d-pronoun and therefore indicated a higher degree of ambiguity. The d-pronoun appears to have a disambiguation function, thus is marked for non-topical co-reference relations, while the personal pronoun is unmarked. Such an effect was not found for the Dutch pronouns.
Learn to differentiate
How do L2 learners in both language pairings (L1 Dutch - L2 German, L1 German - L2 Dutch) resolve personal and d-pronouns? 'Contrary to our positive L1 transfer predictions, we found that the Dutch learners of German had an overall preference to resolve the two pronominal forms towards the topical entity. The German learners of Dutch showed targetlike resolution preferences, in that they resolved the personal pronoun towards the topical and the d-pronoun towards the non-topical entity.'
Dutch learners of German at lower proficiency levels resolve the two pronouns towards the topic, while learners at higher proficiency levels showed the targetlike resolution pattern. Ellert therefore concludes that lower proficient learners have two forms for one function. As their proficiency level increases they learn to differentiate between the functions of personal and d-pronouns.