In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Anaphora Resolution in Second Language Acquisition

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Textbooks
  • Early Studies: Pronouns and the Pro-Drop Parameter in SLA
  • The Overt Pronoun Constraint versus Discursive Constraints
  • The Interface Hypothesis and AR in SLA
  • Online Experiments: The Processing of AR in SLA
  • Corpus-Based Approaches to AR in SLA

Linguistics Anaphora Resolution in Second Language Acquisition
Cristóbal Lozano
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 March 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 March 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0268


An area of second language acquisition (SLA) that has received much attention over the past decades is how adult second language (L2) learners acquire and process anaphors like overt and null pronouns. Anaphors are a pervasive phenomenon in language. SLA researchers have focused on Anaphora Resolution (AR), i.e., the mechanisms that allow speakers to determine how anaphors refer to their antecedents. Consider the English sentence David greeted Hugo while he was opening the door. The anaphor (the obligatory overt pronominal subject he) could potentially refer to either antecedent (the subject David or the object Hugo). In null-subject languages (e.g., Spanish, Italian, Greek, Arabic, Japanese, etc.), the situation is more complex, since both an overt (él ‘he’ in Spanish) and a null (Ø) pronominal subject can syntactically alternate and either can potentially refer to either antecedent: David saludó a Hugo mientras él/Ø abría la puerta. Adult L2 learners have an additional difficulty when resolving the anaphor since the way AR works in their mother tongue (L1) could influence their L2 acquisition. AR is a very frequent phenomenon whose investigation can shed light on fundamental questions in the discipline of SLA and Bilingualism: Acquisition and processing issues (How do adult learners acquire and process AR in their L2?); cross-linguistic influence (How does the anaphoric setup from their L1 influence their L2 acquisition? Does the learners’ L1 have a facilitative effect on their L2 in cases where the L1=L2 in terms of AR?); L2 development (How does AR develop in an L2 across proficiency levels?); ultimate attainment (Can near-native learners eventually master the subtleties of AR in their L2 in a native-like fashion?); the multiple factors that constrain AR (Which are the multiple (psycho)linguistic and discursive factors that determine learners’ anaphoric choice?); research methods (Which research methods (naturalistic versus experimental) can best reflect learners’ competence and performance of AR?); linguistic theory (Which are the SLA models that can best account for the observed AR facts in an L2?). In this article we will refer to key studies that address these topics. Given the topics covered in this bibliographical article (AR in adult SLA), the reader is referred to other related Oxford Bibliographies articles: anaphora and pronouns (see Anaphora, and Pronouns) as well as chapters covering aspects of SLA and bilingualism (Psycholinguistic Perspectives on Second Language Acquisition and Bilingualism, and Bilingualism and Multilingualism).

General Overviews and Textbooks

To date there is no academic second language acquisition (SLA) work exclusively dedicated to the acquisition and processing of Anaphora Resolution (AR) in different mother tongue–second language (L1-L2) combinations. Holler and Suckow 2016 is a monograph devoted to the multiple factors that constrain AR in native grammars, L1 and L2 acquisition in general. Ryan and Crosthwaite 2020 is a recent monograph devoted to reference in SLA, where one can find several L2 studies on anaphora. Quesada 2014 is a self-contained chapter presenting an overview of empirical work on AR focusing in L2 Spanish acquisition, which is expanded in the monographic book Quesada 2015. Domínguez 2013 deals with the acquisition of two of the key properties of the pro-drop parameter (null subjects and subject-verb inversion) in different bilingual populations in L2 Spanish. Given that AR is such a seminal topic in SLA and Bilingualism, many SLA textbooks and handbooks dedicate a section to the acquisition of pronouns and AR. Montrul 2004 devotes a chapter to subject and object pronouns. Current textbooks have started to dedicate a section to the syntax-discourse interface since AR is simultaneously constrained by syntactic factors (the possibility of having a syntactic alternation between overt and null pronominal subjects) and discursive factors (information status: topic continuity versus shift). In particular, Slabakova 2016 devotes a subsection to pronominal resolution and Hawkins 2019 also discusses the acquisition of pronoun reference resolution by L2 speakers in a section dealing with how the context constrains the use of forms in L2 acquisition.

  • Domínguez, L. 2013. Understanding interfaces: Second language acquisition and first language attrition of Spanish subject realization and word order variation. Vol. 55. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    DOI: 10.1075/lald.55

    This monograph explores two properties of the so-called pro-drop parameter: pronominals (which are related to our topic, AR) and subject-verb inversion. Dominguez investigates these in L2 Spanish learners and Spanish language attriters (i.e., those whose L1 is eroded as a result of continued exposure to an L2). Learners’ deficits with AR can be attributed to the syntax-discourse interface (cf. The Interface Hypothesis and AR in SLA), though representational deficits cannot be ruled out.

  • Hawkins, R. 2019. How second languages are learned: An introduction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781108565875

    In a section devoted to how the context shapes the acquisition of an L2, Hawkins discusses pronoun reference resolution, accompanied by tables summarizing the key findings from several SLA studies.

  • Holler, A., and K. Suckow, eds. 2016. Empirical perspectives on anaphora resolution. xxxxx: De Gruyter.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110464108

    This monograph contains a series of varied chapters on different empirical aspects on AR. It covers in detail the multiple factors that constrain AR at a discursive level. Some of the chapters deal with aspects of AR in L2 acquisition.

  • Montrul, S. 2004. The acquisition of Spanish: Morphosyntactic development in monolingual and bilingual L1 acquisition and adult L2 acquisition. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    DOI: 10.1075/lald.37

    Chapter 4 is mainly devoted to subject and object pronouns in L2 acquisition. There is an emphasis on the morphosyntactic aspects of pronouns since, at the time of writing this book, studies on the syntax-discourse aspects of AR were still in their infancy. This chapter is therefore aligned with the early approaches to AR under the section Early Studies: Pronouns and the Pro-Drop Parameter in SLA).

  • Quesada, M. L. 2014. Subject pronouns in second language Spanish. In The handbook of Spanish second language acquisition. Edited by K. L. Geeslin, 253–269. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781118584347.ch15

    This is probably the most complete chapter presenting an overview of pronominals and AR in L2 Spanish to date. Quesada reviews key L2 studies that have been conducted from multiple theoretical perspectives: generative approaches (principles and parameters theory, syntax-discourse interface), processing models (Position of Antecedent Strategy), discourse-pragmatic approaches (Givenness Hierarchy) and sociolinguistic/variationist approaches. However, it does not review studies based on models like the Accessibility Hierarchy.

  • Quesada, M. L. 2015. The L2 Acquisition of Spanish subjects: Multiple perspectives. Boston: De Gruyter Mouton.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781614514367

    This is the only monograph to date dedicated entirely to the acquisition of pronominal and anaphoric reference in L2 Spanish. It is an expanded and more complete version of the author’s earlier publication in Quesada 2014.

  • Ryan, J., and P. Crosthwaite, eds. 2020. Referring in a second language: Studies on reference to person in a multilingual world. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780429263972

    This monograph contains several chapters devoted to reference and anaphora in SLA from diverse theoretical and methodological perspectives and sampling several L2s (English, Spanish, French, Korean, and Japanese).

  • Slabakova, R. 2016. Second language acquisition. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This textbook contains a subsection entitled Pronoun Reference, where Slabakova presents in an accessible manner a series of studies on AR in the L2 acquisition of Italian, Spanish, and Chinese.

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