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Referential choice in bilingual and monolingual children: the role of perceptual and discourse competitors

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The choice of a noun phrase – NP – (the woman) vs. a pronoun (she) when identifying a referent in discourse requires – among other things – sophisticated linguistic knowledge of anaphoric relationships (i.e. the relationship between an anaphoric pronoun, e.g. she, and its antecedent, e.g. the woman), inhibitory control skills to take the interlocutor’s point of view, and working memory skills that allow for the establishment of the link between a pronoun and its antecedent. In this study we used a referential description task in which children had to name a target referent in the presence/absence of a visual and/or discourse competitor. We investigated whether the use of NPs vs. pronouns was predicted by inhibitory control, working memory, and by bilingual language exposure/use in children (mean age = 5;11) who spoke either only English (N = 87) or English and an additional language (N = 87). The target referent was more likely to be identified by a NP when it had a visual competitor, but not a discourse competitor, except in children with better inhibitory control. Overall NP use was correlated with amount of bilingual experience.

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