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The graded salience

hypothesis in

Advanced SLA Class Research

Spring 2004
Rebekah Johnson
The Graded Salience
3 things must be true:
 a. – salient (=conventional) interpretation has
unconditional priority over less salient
(=novel) interpretations – the salient meaning
is always activated
 b. – novel interpretation of a salient meaning
involves a sequential process (1st the salient
meaning is processed, then the non-salient)
 c. – novel interpretation must be more difficult
to derive  it requires more and different
contextual support (Giora 1997)
Definitions of Salience
Giora 1997
 Salience = a function of its conventionality,

familiarity, frequency, or givenness status in

a certain context (p. 186)

Giora 1999
 Salient = can be retrieved directly from the

The Literature
 Many contemporary cognitive
psychologists believe literal and non-literal
language requires and equivalence
process (Gibbs, Glucksberg, Keysar…) ;
 Traditional theorists assume non-literal
language requires a sequential process
and is more difficult to understand (Grice,
 Combined: the graded salience theory
Constructivist Theory
 Constructivists hold that language learners
continually revise their ideas over a language
each time they process a language chunk or
 Constructions are “recurrent patterns of
linguistic elements that serve some well-
defined linguistic function” (Ellis, 2003, p. 64)
 Cognitive linguists say that the meaning of
words depends on the perception of the
world around us and the way things are
organized and related
Constructivist Literature
 Chunking and bracketing
 Associative learning
 Generic learning mechanisms (not UG)
 Emergentism (beyond generative grammar) – systematicity
emerges from associations and connections
 Implicit learning in natural settings
 Natural Language Processing (NLP) and corpus linguistics
 Connectionism
 Data-driven processing
 Prototypical representations
 Emphasis on acquisition
 Incremental, context-sensitive, structure-sensitive
 Graded, distributed
 Construction grammar: Language
acquisition is the acquisition of
constructions (sequence: formula
low-scope pattern construction)
 Formulae = lexical chunks resulting
from memorizing the sequence of
frequent collocations
 Sinclair: Idioms = semi-preconstructed phrases
that constitute single choices (appear to be
analyzable into segments but are not) – Sinclair,
 Collocations even more frequent in spoken than
written language – “off the top of one’s head” and
are made up of single clauses and are often highly
predictable in terms of sequence
 Pulling language from old memory and making it fit
the current context = context shaping
 Idiomatic phrases and formulae
acquisition are essential for obtaining
native-like competence
The Original Study
Giora & Fein 1999

Question  to see if irony (a form of figurative

language) is as easy to understand as non-ironic
(literal) language

The study:
 60 4th-graders in Tel Aviv
 used native language (Hebrew)
 20 target sentences put into literal or figurative
(ironic) contexts
 on the page following the context story, there
were 2 fragmented words printed, 1 related to
literal meaning and 1 related to ironic
 A. After he had finished eating pizza,
falafel, ice-cream, wafers and half of
the ice cream cake his mother had
baked for his brother Benjamin’s
birthday party, Moshe started eating
coated peanuts. His mother said
to him, “Moshe, I think you
should eat something.”
 B. At two o’clock in the afternoon,
Moshe started doing his homework and
getting prepared for his Bible test. When
his mother came home from work at
eight p.m., Moshe was still seated at his
desk, looking pale. His mother said to
him, “Moshe, I think you should eat
Test Words

 l i __ __ l e (little)

 s __ __ p (stop)
 Giora and Fein (1999) found that the
comprehension of ironic language involved
both ironic and literal meanings (slightly higher
literal meanings were more salient in the
results than figurative for the ironic stories
 However, for the literal stories, mainly only
literal concepts were activated
 Giora and Fein (1999) concluded that
the graded salience hypothesis was a
good predictor of activation and
understanding of ironic language –
refuting the prior research’s claims
that the literal meaning does not
need to be processed when there is a
figurative meaning
This study
Replicates Giora and Fein’s (1999) study
 8 idiomatic sentences embedded in story

 Assessment by controlling reaction time

 Tested on NSs and NNSs (all adults) – 8 per

group (16 total)
Changes in the current
 Instead of using irony, uses idioms 
Rationale: idioms are more important,
more often learned by language learners;
Irony is not the same as idiomatic &
metaphorical language – it is very difficult
and only learned at high levels of fluency

 Uses both NSs and NNSs

 Uses English
Other considerations
 It is important to avoid the
comparative fallacy (comparing NSs
and NNSs)

 We also have evidence that mono-

linguals are different from multi-
linguals, cognitively
This study hypothesizes that
 1. NNSs will not select the figurative
meanings, even when the stories are
using the idioms figuratively as often
as NSs
 2. Figurative meanings may be more
salient to NSs, even when the idioms
are placed in a non-figurative context
The Subjects

Male Female

NSs 5 3

NNSs 3 5

8 8
Non-Native Speakers
 L1s:
 1 Polish
 1 Portuguese
 2 Chinese
 4 Japanese

 Years spent studying English

 A range of 8-22 years
Non-Native Speakers
 LOR in US
 Ranged from 8 months to 13 years

 Education
 All had BAs, many had MAs, some were currently MA or
doctoral students

 Age
 Ranged from 23 to 60
Non-Native Speakers
 Other languages spoken
 5 spoke only English in addition to L1
 3 spoke 2 or more additional languages
  multilingual
 Participants were told to read each
text quickly, only once, and to turn the
page and fill in the first word that
came to mind, not going back to the

 After doing the task, the researcher

generally asked participants for
feedback about the tool
Text - Literal
 While painting the walls of his house, an
old man suddenly felt tired. He climbed
down from the ladder he was on and
tried to avoid stepping on the paint
bucket and many brushes on the ground
near the ladder, but he couldn’t avoid all
of the paint supply items. He stumbled
over some paint brushes. Then he made
a real mess. The old man kicked the
Text - Figurative
 While painting the walls of his house, an
old man suddenly felt tired. He climbed
down from the ladder he was on and
stumbled over some paint brushes. He
clutched at his heart and suddenly fell to
the ground. The man’s neighbors called
911 and the paramedics soon arrived,
but they were too late. The old man
kicked the bucket.
Test Words

 d __ __ d (died)

 s p i ___ l e __ (spilled)
Tool Variation
 8 of each set of idioms was used
(each set differed on whether it was
the figurative of literal use of the
idiom phrase and these were
randomly ordered

 The researcher created the tool and

briefly trialed it with native speakers
Native Speakers
 1 thrown out (filled in both words)

 Mainly correctly chose figurative

word when figurative context, but
often also chose figurative word even
with literal context
Native Speakers
Matching Non matching

Figurative 24 5
29 items 83% 17%

Literal 10 17
27 items 37% 63%
Non-Native Speakers
 NNSs, like NSs, matched more of the
figurative words with the figurative
stories and with the literal stories

 Results are essentially the same for

NNSs as for NSs
Non-Native Speakers
Matching Non matching

Figurative 25 5
30 items 83% 17%

Literal 13 21
34 items 38% 62%
Revisiting the Hypotheses
This study hypothesized that
 1. NNSs will not select the figurative
meanings, even when the stories are
using the idioms figuratively as often as

 The results do not support this – NNSs

performed nearly the same as NSs
Revisiting the Hypotheses
The second hypothesis was that
 2. Figurative meanings may be more salient
to NSs, even when the idioms are placed in
a non-figurative context

 This seems to be true – for both NSs and

NNSs, figurative meanings were more
salient for not only the figurative uses (83%
for both groups) but also for the non-
figurative uses (63% and 62%)
 It seems that the graded salience
hypothesis works in the same way for both
NSs and for NNSs

 Figurative meanings seem to be more

salient in the case of idiomatic phrases,
perhaps due to the fact that the figurative
uses are more frequent (thus more salient)
than literal uses for idioms
A caveat
There are limitations to this study, however:
 The main limitation is the data collection tool.
There are many possible explanations for results
and the tool should be re-formatted and re-trialed
to overcome these issues
 The NNSs in the study are highly educated, often
graduate students, with long exposures to English
and may not be representative of NNSs in general
 A small sample was used and a small number of
text examples were used
Tool Trouble
Feedback from participants noted:
 The shortest word was often easiest to “see”

first (results favor shorter words)

 The first word was the most noticeable (also

reflected as more often filled in)

 The stories sometimes seemed contrived

 Some of the stories were ambiguous (could

have been a literal or figurative sense)

Future Research
Future research should
 Use more varied NNSs with different educational
backgrounds and more diverse exposure to English
 Use a larger sample population and more texts in the data
collection tool
 Re-design the tool to avoid issues discussed in feedback
 Do a longitudinal study, testing NNSs at different intervals
to see if prolonged exposure to English or longer LORs in
the U.S. changes the saliency of idioms
That’s all, folks!

Rebekah Johnson