Research on Interpretation Process of Bridging Reference in English Discourse with Think Aloud Protocol

Daqing Zu, Shuying Xia


Bridging reference (BR) refers to the relationship between a linguistic expression and its intended referent not explicitly mentioned in previous context. It has been studied for more than three decades with various approaches. However, limitation exists in those approaches except the relevance theory (RT) which suggests that each affecting factor is necessary for the cognitive effects and processing effort required to reach an acceptable overall interpretation. BR interpretation process has seldom been explored and only some questionnaires were adopted in earlier studies. This thesis tentatively approaches BR interpretation process by adopting the think aloud protocol (TAP). In addition, retrospective interview is used to complement TAP. Results from this research indicate that contextual assumptions with cause-effect relation are more accessible in BR interpretation. Contrary to findings from previous researches, contextual assumptions with contrast relation are not considered in this experiment. Encyclopedic information is not always used to test the acceptability of bridging referents. Subjects make choices in order of accessibility of contextual assumptions even though the referent is inconsistent with one’s general knowledge. It supports RT in that one stops inferring once a cognitive effect is achieved. Sometimes one’s activated general knowledge plays a decisive role in BR interpretation. Moreover, encyclopedic information, temporal sequence and syntactic position are taken into consideration in some cases. The constraint of discourse connectives on BR interpretation is proved again in this experiment. It also proves that backward inference is the only comprehension strategy employed by the subjects. The discussion of BR is within the framework of relevance theory. The exploration of BR within RT again verifies the explanatory power of this theory. Moreover, many factors affecting BR interpretation have been studied, but how does each of them work on interpreting BR remains unclear to us. The present study will not only focus on crucial factors affecting BR interpretation but also include other important factors in the analysis. The results from this experiment confirm the validity of TAP in examining BR on the one hand, and suggest alternative research method for later empirical studies of BR on the other hand. It reveals English majors’ cognition process of interpreting BR in English discourse in particular, and their cognition model in second language acquisition (SLA) in general. Analyzing TAP data within RT again validates the great explanatory power of this theory.

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English Linguistics Research
ISSN 1927-6028 (Print)   ISSN 1927-6036 (Online)

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