You learn what you hear: Discourse exposure guides pronoun comprehension - Speaker: Jennifer Arnold

It is well known that listeners adapt to the most frequent patterns in language at the sound, word, and syntactic levels (Chang et al., 2012). Do people also track the frequency of referential structures and use this frequency to guide interpretation? Referential structures are more complex, and require identifying the relation between a word (e.g. a pronoun), the entity it refers to, and how that entity has been presented in the recent context. We examine this question in the domain of pronoun comprehension. Our first question is whether people adapt to the most frequent pronoun-antecedent structure in the current context.

If so, it would require categorization at some level for the purpose of counting frequency. Thus, our second question is whether people represent these relations in terms of narrow or broad categorizations of pronouns and antecedents. We demonstrate that indeed comprehenders do adapt to pronoun-antecedent structures. These representations are specific to anaphoric 3rd person pronouns (and not names or I/you pronouns), but they generalize from he to she pronouns and vice versa. People also generalize across different antecedent types. This suggests that the frequency of pronoun-antecedent structures underlies contextual biases in pronoun comprehension, and that these frequencies can be updated based on recent exposure. It also shows that the representations are stored at grain that is limited to anaphoric reference, but broad enough to include all anaphoric pronouns and multiple antecedent types.