PhD ceremony: Ms. J.C. van Rij-Tange, 12.45 uur, Academiegebouw, Broerstraat 5, Groningen
Dissertation: Pronoun Processing. Computational, behavioral, and psychophysiological studies in children and adults
Promotor(s): prof. P. Hendriks
When someone utters the sentence “Yesterday, James talked to Rob. He admitted the theft”, this could either mean that James admitted the theft, or that 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.
Adult listeners usually know immediately to whom the pronoun refers. Children, on the other hand, frequently interpret pronouns differently from what the speaker intended. Jacolien van Rij investigated why understanding pronouns appears to be easy for adults but is difficult for children. To answer this question, Van Rij developed computational models that simulate the production and comprehension of pronouns. She tested these models in various experiments with children and adults.
Van Rij found that children perform more adult-like and make fewer errors interpreting pronouns when the speech they hear is slowed down. This supports the idea that children lack sufficient processing speed required to utilize available information relevant for successful pronoun interpretation. Adults, in contrast, were found to perform more child-like when they had to carry out a second task while interpreting a pronoun, such as remembering numerical digits. Further studies that measure brain activity through EEG and pupil size through eyetracking suggest that sufficient working memory capacity is necessary for adults to effectively make use of context when interpreting pronouns. Thus, the seemingly simple interpretation of pronouns actually is a complex process that can go wrong if the listener lacks sufficient cognitive resources.
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