Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Comprehension of Indirect Meaning in Spanish as a Foreign Language

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Comprehension of Indirect Meaning in Spanish as a Foreign Language

Article excerpt


Although classroom teaching largely focuses on comprehension of literal meaning, the ability to make inferences of nonliteral meaning is equally important in everyday communication. For example, indirect communication is frequently used when refusing someone's invitation or request to save the hearer's positive face and for economy of communication when the hearer can supply enough contextual assumptions to infer the underlying meaning. Indirectness is also used to create a specific communicative effect: The use of sarcasm and irony purposefully disregards the maxim of quality (be truthful) (Grice, 1975) to add humorous effects and emphatic tone. Given the frequent use of indirectness, along with its essential functions in communication, comprehension of indirectness represents a critical resource for second language (L2) learners, which can enhance or limit their participation in the target language community.

This study investigated L2 Spanish learners' comprehension of indirect meaning using an original multimedia listening test involving videorecorded conversations. Test items incorporated conventional and nonconventional patterns of indirect communication established in the previous literature (e.g., Taguchi, 2011). Although such a listening test exists in several languages (e.g., English, Japanese, Chinese), a multimedia test that combines visual and auditory input in Spanish represents a new approach. Because inferential processing involves parallel processing of all available signals, both linguistic and nonlinguistic, to interpret the indirect utterance (Sperber & Wilson, 1995), multimedia input combining a number of signals at once (e.g., audio, images, video, and text) closely reflects real-life inferential processes. Using multimodal input, this study examined whether L2 Spanish learners' comprehension accuracy and speed differed across item types that featured different levels of conventionality and examined theoretical claims about inferential mechanisms and their applicability to L2 comprehension.

Literature Review

Comprehension of Indirect Meaning: Theoretical Background and Empirical Findings

Comprehension of indirect meaning involves understanding linguistic and contextual cues and using them to infer the speaker's intentions. This is a challenging process in an L2 because learners have to first recognize the mismatch between the literal utterance and the intended meaning and then reprocess the utterance to understand the unspoken meaning. L2 learners need a wide range of knowledge and skills, including linguistic knowledge (grammar and lexis), comprehension skills (listening and reading), and knowledge of interactional conventions in the target language culture. These multiple layers of knowledge, which are a prerequisite for comprehension, make it difficult for learners to comprehend indirect meaning.

Comprehension of indirect meaning has mostly been examined in the area of conversational implicature, the term first coined by Grice (1975). Implicature generates meaning beyond what is literally said. Grice explained the process of implicature comprehension based on the cooperative principle, a set of assumptions that people follow to achieve mutual understanding. According to Grice, conversation is built upon a set of conversational maxims, or rules of communication, shared by the speaker and listener. Specifically, there are four maxims: (1) quality (Be truthful. Don't lie.); (2) quantity (Be informative. Don't say too much or too little.); (3) relevance (Be relevant to the preceding discourse.); and (4) manner (Be clear. Avoid ambiguity.). The relevance maxim is particularly important because it enables people to interpret indirect meaning, such as in B's response:

A: We are out of shampoo.

B: There is a store in the next block.

Assuming that B is following the maxim of relevance and has made an appropriate comment, A draws the conclusion that the store sells shampoo. …

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