Age differences in adults' use of referring expressions

Abstract
The aim of this article is to investigate whether choosing the appropriate referring expression requires taking into account the hearer’s perspective, as is predicted under some versions of bidirectional Optimality Theory but is unexpected under other versions. We did this by comparing the results of 25 young and 25 elderly adults on an elicitation task based on eight different picture stories, and a comprehension task based on eight similar written stories. With respect to the elicitation task, we found that elderly adults produce pronouns significantly more often than young adults when referring to the old topic in the presence of a new topic. With respect to the comprehension task, no significant differences were found between elderly and young adults. These results support the hypothesis that speakers optimize bidirectionally and take into account hearers when selecting a referring expression. If the use of a pronoun will lead to an unintended interpretation by the hearer, the speaker will use an unambiguous definite noun phrase instead. Because elderly adults are more limited in their processing capacities, as is indicated by their smaller working memory capacity, as speakers they will not always be able to reason about the hearer’s choices. As a result, they frequently produce non-recoverable pronouns.
Keywords Bidirectional Optimality Theory  Discourse structure  Language comprehension  Language production  Referring expressions
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