University of Cambridge > > RCEAL Tuesday Colloquia > Looking at Language Acquisition XII - Why some (but not all) adults compute scalar implicatures

Looking at Language Acquisition XII - Why some (but not all) adults compute scalar implicatures

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In the experimental pragmatics literature, it is consistently reported that the majority of adult listeners reject under-informative utterances, for example, statements like ‘some of the cards have a star’ used as a description of a situation where all of the cards have a star. This is taken as evidence that they have interpreted the critical utterance with a scalar implicature, to the effect that ‘some but not all of the cards have a star’. However, acceptance rates of under-informative utterances exceed 35% in many cases (Noveck, 2001; Noveck and Posada, 2003; Bott and Noveck, 2004; Pouscoulous et al, 2007; i.a.). Participants are typically bimodally distributed, either consistently rejecting or consistently accepting the critical items (Bott and Noveck, 2004). This suggests that a sizeable part of the adult population systematically fails to generate SIs in response to these stimuli.

We ask the following question: what is the individual profile of participants who reject under-informative utterances? Currently, there is no satisfactory explanation for this question. We presented participants with a classical binary judgment task, where they were asked to provide a truth-value to statements that were true and fully informative, true but under-informative, or false, for a given visual display. Participants were also given a battery of cognitive and personality tasks that may be relevant to scalar implicature generation. For example, Bott & Noveck (2004), and De Neys & Schaeken (2007) report that fewer implicature responses are obtained under time-restriction and processing load respectively, suggesting that an individual’s working memory is implicated. Nieuwland et al. (2009) report that N400 amplitude to under-informative utterances is modulated by score on the Autism-Spectrum Quotient (Baron-Cohen et al., 2001). Katsos & Bishop (forthcoming) suggest that the decision how to respond to under-informative utterances is a metalinguistic process distinct from the linguistic competence required for detecting under-informativeness and may be modulated by personality traits. To date however, there has been no investigation in individual differences that may predict rejection of under-informative utterances. Correlational and logistic regression analyses reveal that age and working memory are significant predictors of the rate of rejection of under-informative utterances.

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