Shook, N., Brehm, L., Hopp, H., & Jackson, C. N. (2018). The (non)interaction of discourse and grammatical cues in L1 and L2 processing: The case of English singular they. Poster presented at the 2nd International Symposium on Bilingual and L2 Processing in Adults and Children (ISPBPAC-TU), Braunschweig, Germany.
While research suggests that L2 speakers rely more heavily on discourse cues than L1 speakers during real-time processing (Cunnings, 2017), how discourse and grammatical cues interact in L1 and L2 comprehension remains of interest. The present study investigates how the plural grammatical cue of English singular they(a grammatically plural pronoun used to refer to a grammatically singular antecedent; Figure 1) interacts with discourse cues (referential status) of the antecedent to shape L1 and L2 speakers’ real-time processing and final interpretations. In a self-paced reading task, L1 English monolinguals and L1 German-L2 English speakers read sentences containing either a referential (e.g., that jogger at the intersection) or a nonreferential (e.g., a jogger) antecedent. A second clause referred to this antecedent using a grammatically singular (he/she) or plural (they) pronoun. Following each sentence, participants indicated whether the subject was singular or plural. L1 and L2 English speakers showed no reading time differences for they vs. he/she in either referential context (Figure 2), suggesting that neither group had difficulty integrating the plural feature of they while reading. Interpretation responses revealed that L1 and L2 speakers were more likely to interpret the subject as plural with nonreferential than referential antecedents. L1 speakers also showed an increase in plural responses in nonreferential contexts after reading they vs. he/she, but not in referential contexts (Figure 3); L2 speakers showed an increase in plural responses after reading they vs. he/she in both referential contexts (Figure 4). These results suggest that the L2 speakers were not sensitive to the interaction between the grammatical cues of singular they and the discourse (referential) cues of the antecedent. The L1 speakers’ interpretations, conversely, were modulated by the discourse cue of the antecedent. This highlights that L2speakers may not always privilege discourse over grammatical cues during language processing.