When you isn't you
The attraction of self-ascription in children's interpretation of pronouns in reported speech

Franziska Köder and Emar Maier


Abstract: In language comprehension, you is a de se pronoun, which means that its interpretation is guided by a simple de se rule (you = self-ascription by addressee), while the interpretation of other pronouns requires more complicated reasoning. This predicts that you should be easier to process than I or he, especially for children. But not all occurrences of you can be correctly interpreted via self-ascription. We consider two cases where you does not indicate self-ascription: interpretation as an eavesdropper and you in direct speech. In our experiment, we compare children’s interpretation of the pronouns I, you and he, in both direct and indirect reported speech, and in both addressee and eavesdropping situations. We tested 71 five-year-olds, 63 nine-year-olds, and 52 adults in a referent-selection task and found a clear de se effect for children when directly addressed: they performed better with you than with I/he in indirect speech, but worse with you than with I/he in direct speech. We explain the latter finding in terms of the attraction of the de se interpretation strategy, which leads addressees to automatically self-ascribe you even in a direct speech report.

keywords: de se, second person, aquisition, pronoun interpretation, direct/indirect speech reports