The contributions of proficiency, exposure, and working memory capacity to second language learners’ comprehension of indirect speech
Pragmatic inferencing necessary to interpret indirect speech can be problematic for second language (L2) learners and could be influenced by factors such as L2 proficiency and L2 exposure as well as the difficulty of inference to be made (e.g., conventional vs. nonconventional inference) – particularly difficult inferences could tax working memory capacity. The comprehension of direct speech (acceptances and refusals), conventional indirect speech (acceptances and refusals – some with introductory phrases), and nonconventional indirect speech (opinions) was measured in adult Spanish-English bilinguals (n = 58) and native English speakers (n = 38). L2 speakers generally performed worse than native speakers and were influenced by inference difficulty. They more accurately and quickly comprehended direct speech than nonconventional indirect speech, and most conventional indirect speech items fell between these extremes. L2 proficiency was found to be a strong predictor of both conventional and nonconventional inferencing, with L2 exposure also having some impact. Importantly, L1 working memory capacity was shown to independently contribute to L2 learners’ accuracy on one type of conventional and one type of nonconventional inference. Thus, some pragmatic inferencing may require both enough skill to process the second language and enough working memory capacity to make the inference.
Keywords: conversational implicature, indirect speech, pragmatic inferencing, second language proficiency, second language exposure, working memory
Published online: 17 August 2020
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