Hicham Assaoui’s research


Focuses: ArabicSyntaxAnaphoraReferencePsycholinguistics

Hicham is currently researching the sentential/discourse processing and interpretation of certain anaphoric constructions in Arabic. The purpose of this research is to understand how non-native learners of Arabic keep track of and resolve the relationship between anaphors and their antecedents. Put simply, an anaphor is a cohesive element in the sentence that connects current information with previous discourse.

This line of research is of particular interest in Arabic given that many anaphors (i.e. pronominal ones) are sometimes adjoined to other words and cannot stand by themselves. Therefore, a higher level of morphological awareness might play a crucial role in how speakers interpret the who and what of discourse. Other factors of interest are perceptual salience of the referenced entity, its lexical frequency, definiteness, distance, and the type of anaphor itself (e.g. pronominal, verbal, lexical, standalone word, or adjoined). Consider the examples below (word order from Arabic is preserved to showcase the importance of resumptive pronouns):

  1. I watched a movie [that] I enjoyed-it.
  2. This is a man [who/whom] needs-him the team.
  3. This is a man [who/whom] needs the team.

Note: the “it” and “him” are adjoined to the verb. The relative pronouns are implied.

In (1) the interpretation of the resumptive pronoun “it” will not result in any ambiguity in the sentence because it is simply a way to fill the slot left by the topic noun “movie”. In English, this is redundant and not required.

However, in (2) the insertion of “him” is required to disambiguate the sentence and show “who” needs “whom”. In (2) the intended meaning is “the team needs this man”, whereas in (3) the intended meaning is “this man needs the team”. In English this requires a word order change, but in Arabic the same word order is used and a resumptive pronoun is inserted (or left out) to disambiguate the sentence. Note also that the relative pronoun is implied, not stated in this type of sentences due to the indefiniteness of the antecedent. In Arabic, the relative pronoun is stated explicitly only when the antecedent is definite.

Although anaphoric constructions are interesting from a syntactic perspective, the primary focus of this line of research is investigate the psychological and cognitive factors involved in the resolution of coreferential dependencies between anaphors and their antecedents. Therefore, factors like accessibility, processing costs, working memory, and neurophysiological responses are the main interests of this research. Another question of interest is whether nonnative speakers of Arabic resolve this type of coreference dependencies in the same way that native speakers do. Hicham’s research will also likely involve some ERP studies to see how the anaphor resolution of the types mentioned above modulate neurophysiological responses in the brain.

Students interested in working with Hicham will help with participants’ recruitment, scheduling and running experiments, and data analysis. Students of all backgrounds are welcome.