Pronoun processing: Computational, behavioral, and psychophysiological studies in children and adults

When someone utters the sentence “Yesterday, James talked to Rob. He admitted the theft”, this could either mean that James admitted the theft, or Rob did. The reason for this ambiguity is that pronouns such as he and him do not have a fixed meaning. Rather, their interpretation depends on the context and can be influenced by the preceding sentence.

This thesis investigates pronoun processing in children and adults by studying the interaction between linguistic factors such as grammatical principles and discourse context, and cognitive factors such as processing speed and working memory. Computational models are developed within the cognitive architecture ACT-R that simulate the production and comprehension of pronouns. These models are tested in various experiments with children and adults, including a truth-value judgment task, a dual task experiment, an EEG study, and a pupil dilation study.

The results show that pronoun processing requires sufficient processing speed for an adult-like discourse representation as well as for adult-like use of grammatical principles. The proposed account of pronoun processing provides new insights for theories of language development, models of sentence processing, and accounts of communication deficits.