An Exploratory Study of the Interlanguage Pragmatic Comprehension of Young Learners of English

Cynthia Lee


This paper describes the developmental pattern of the interlanguage pragmatic comprehension of
young learners of English based on their performance in a multiple-choice comprehension exercise
consisting of five direct and indirect speech acts (requesting, apology, refusal, compliment and
complaint) in contextualised dialogues, supplemented with information on their processing strategies
as elicited from their verbal protocols. The findings contribute to the literature on the interlanguage
developmental pragmatics of young learners, an area on which research literature is scarce.
Three groups of seven-, nine- and twelve year-old Cantonese learners of English participated.
The overall mean comprehension scores of the three groups increased steadily, but the difference in
the scores across groups was only statistically significant between the seven- and nine-year-olds. All
of the learners performed well in the comprehension of direct speech acts, but the seven- and
nine-year-old learners encountered problems in comprehending indirect speech acts, particularly
indirect refusals, compliments and complaints. Their performance and processing strategies provide
some evidence for the development of direct and indirect speech act comprehension in learning a
second language - from relying on literal meaning or the semantic congruence between meaning and
expression to other strategies, such as speaker intention and contextual clues, as they transit from
early to middle childhood.

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