Reference interpretation in Spanish and Italian: from adult monolinguals to bilingual children

Reference interpretation in Spanish and Italian: from adult monolinguals to bilingual children

Reference interpretation and production are complex tasks involving linguistic and cognitive abilities, such as the representation of referents in discourse, the mastering of language-specific constraints for the use of referring expressions, and the management of discourse updating. In Sorace (2011) it is shown how although two null-subject languages like Spanish and Italian have similar pronominal forms, they behave differently regarding the scope of overt pronouns. Moreover, in her findings Spanish/Italian bilinguals accept as pragmatically appropriate some contexts that monolingual peers don’t accept.

In a recent study on anaphora interpretation in monolinguals, Leonetti&Torregrossa (to appear) found that Italian was strongly driven by syntactic constrains, while Spanish was not; a subsequent experiment (a sentence continuation task) on Spanish anaphora production revealed strong effects of implicit causality and coherence relations (following Kehler&Rodhe 2013).

In order to analyse how these differences are reflected in bilingual interpretation and production, Spanish/Italian bilingual children (aged 8-12) were tested regarding their syntactic competence, their narrative coherence and their referential expression interpretation. After performing a cloze-test that would yield results for proficiency and dominance, they completed a narrative task (story retelling) and a sentence continuation task. The results from the narrative task show no effect of dominance or language, and present a similar outcome as previous experiments: Italian appears more driven by syntactic constrains, and establishes a clear distinction between the roles of null and overt pronouns, while in Spanish this distinction is far less clear. The sentence continuation task reveals an important effect of both implicit causality and coherence relations, and no effect of dominance or language. Overall, these findings suggest that Spanish/Italian bilingual children are able to separate their two linguistic systems and behave accordingly in each language.


Kehler, A. and H. Rodhe (2013). A probabilistic reconciliation of coherence-driven and centering-driven theories of pronoun interpretation, in Theoretical Linguistics, vol. 39, issue 1-2.

Leonetti, V. and T. Torregrossa (to appear). The interpretation of null and overt subject pronouns in Spanish compared to Greek and Italian: the role of VSO and differential object marking. Glossa.

Leonetti, V. (to appear). Reference management in written narrative production by Spanish-Italian bilingual children. New trends in typical and atypical language acquisition. Frontiers in Communication.

Sorace, A. (2011). Pinning down the concept of ‘interface’ in bilinguals, in Linguistic Approaches to Bilingualism 1(1):1-33.