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Language Log

Wednesday, Jun. 21, 2006 - 6:18 p.m.

So, I gave this experiment of mine to my conversation partner. She just sent it back. The thing I like about experimental linguistics, it's always surprising.

a. The instructions said to circle a number on a 5-point likert scale. Instead, she chose to use break the likert numbers down into decimals. Because five points's worth of acceptability wasn't enough? So instead of a 1, she was giving me lots of 1.5, 1.25. WTF? A 20-point likert scale, in effect.

b. She didn't like any of the sentences. Mind you, I intended 95% of them to be grammatical (I threw in a couple marginal ones in the distractor set because I wanted to see what people do with ungrammatical sentences when they're being asked about semantic acceptability. Mark everything as unacceptable, is apparently one answer).

What I did was provide a context, and then a grammatical sentence, and the task is to indicate how well the sentence describes the scenario. Some of her reactions are just mystifying. Like, there's one story that's about a guy going swimming, seeing a jellyfish, and getting out of the water quickly. The test sentence translates to "He swam for a short time", and she rated it about a half-point up from not describing the scenario at all. Again, I say, WTF?

Well, one problem could be that some words that I am using in one sense, she has another primary sense for. The word for 'swim' also means 'to bathe', so maybe that's the primary meaning (or only meaning) of the word in her lexicon. If this one item stood out somehow, that would be the most likely explanation, but a number of the responses are like this. Unfortunately I won't get to talk to her about it till next week (after I have hopefully given the test to my real subjects). So, let's hope she's the weird one and that my test isn't fundamentally fucked up. I mean, I'm reading the thing going, "How is it that we manage to have conversations in Swahili?" Clearly we are not speaking the same language.

Maybe it's just a good illustration of how dramatically interlanguage grammars can diverge from both the target and from other interlanguage grammars.

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