Events

English speakers know that the sentence "Alice saw herself in the mirror" means that Alice saw Alice in the mirror and the sentence "Alice saw her in the mirror" means that Alice saw someone else in the mirror. In other words, they know herself is a reflexive pronoun and her is a non-reflexive pronoun. Learning these grammatical categories of pronouns poses a circularity problem. In order to learn that a pronoun is reflexive, learners need to know which entity the pronoun refers to in a sentence, but in order to infer its referent they need to know that the pronoun is reflexive. This study examines one possible information source that learners might use to acquire grammatical categories of pronouns: discourse information. Experimental results demonstrate that adults can use discourse information to accurately guess the referents of pronouns. Simulations show that a Bayesian model using guesses from the experiment as a proxy for learners’ prior knowledge successfully categorizes English pronouns into categories corresponding to reflexives and non-reflexives. Together, these results suggest that knowing which entities are likely to be referred to in the discourse can help learners acquire grammatical categories of pronouns.