Are Second Language Learners’Scalar Inferences More Logical or Pragmatic?

  • Sperlich, Darcy (PI)

Project Details


It has been claimed that learners of a second language accept more ‘pragmatic’ interpretations of scalar implicature than their ‘logical’ alternatives. For example, if I ate all the cookies and were to say ‘I ate some of the cookies’, this would be false under the interpretation of ‘some’ as ‘some but not all’ – a pragmatic interpretation; if I meant the stronger term ‘all’, I would have said it. However, ‘some’ can also be interpreted as ‘some and possibly all’, the logical interpretation, as if I have eaten all the cookies, then it also must be true I have eaten some of the cookies, as some is a subset of all. This interpretation may be used by someone who wishes to lie, as logically, they are telling the truth. In the first language both interpretations are possible (although the pragmatic interpretation is the more frequent one), but do second language learners have a preference for either reading as compared to their first language? Contrary to the literature, I argue that second language learners behave just like their first language.The key factor that has led to the conclusion in the literature are some of the experimental materials used which are unsuited for scalar implicature study. For example, if one believes that ‘some elephants have trunks’ is false, this is incorrect as there may be elephants who do not have trunks due to poaching, birth defects, etc. In testing absolute truths, one must use such items like ‘some water boils at 100C’, which is patiently false. Thus test sentences must be carefully crafted. Apart from the issues with materials, several other factors must be taken into consideration. Only testing ‘some’ versus ‘all’ may induce a distance effect; it is more acceptable to say ‘most elephants have trunks’ which reduces the abnormal subset size – thus better allowing for a ‘logical’ interpretation. A second aspect is measuring the working memory of the participants, as processing capacity may limit how many alternatives a second language learner considers, compared to a native speaker. Thirdly, reaction timing using a self-paced reading methodology is introduced to trace these processing effects. Finally, the literature has not considered participants’ views of honesty – a person may not accept a logical interpretation of ‘some’ because they prefer not to lie. These aspects are dealt with to provide a valid and reliable study of scalar implicature. Finally, with a clear database, we will be able to answer important questions of theory, in that does a neo-Gricean theory make better predictions than Relevance theory in relation to when a pragmatic implicature is processed versus a logical implicature, as both theories make opposite predictions. That is, will a pragmatic implicature be generated first, and if found to be inconsistent with the context, a logical interpretation will be developed – or vice versa? These questions of theory, along with the applied aspects will all be addressed by this study.
Effective start/end date1/08/1831/07/19

UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This project contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 11 - Sustainable Cities and Communities
  • SDG 15 - Life on Land
  • SDG 17 - Partnerships for the Goals


  • Scalar implicature
  • logical
  • pragmatic
  • second language
  • working memory


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