Tuesday, July 06, 2010

"a significant proportion of native English speakers are unable to understand some basic sentences"

OK, help me again, readers. I happened to read this post on Science Daily, called:
Many English Speakers Cannot Understand Basic Grammar
So, I figured, oh, another thing about how we don't know what a 'passive' is or maybe another peevologist ranting about 'between you and I'. Wrong. Dead wrong. Science Daily basically took the story from the Northumbria University website, where they announced the breakthrough of Ewa Dabrowska, on their faculty. Here's the core of the release (save for the part about how this shows that Chomsky is wrong about all native speakers having the same basic grammar):

The project assumed that every adult native speaker of English would be able to understand the meaning of the sentence:

“The soldier was hit by the sailor.”

Dr Dabrowska and research student James Street then tested a range of adults, some of whom were postgraduate students, and others who had left school at the age of 16. All participants were asked to identify the meaning of a number of simple active and passive sentences, as well as sentences which contained the universal qualifier “every”.

As the test progressed, the two groups performed very differently. A high proportion of those who had left school at 16 began to make mistakes. Some speakers were not able to perform any better than chance, scoring no better than if they had been guessing.

Dr Dabrowska comments: “These findings are ground breaking, because for decades the theoretical and educational consensus has been solid. Regardless of educational attainment or dialect we are all supposed to be equally good at grammar, in the sense of being able to use grammatical cues to understand the meaning of sentences.

I just cannot figure out how you'd end up with a study showing that a significant number of English speakers literally cannot understand the meaning of “The soldier was hit by the sailor.” That is, I'm finding it hard to imagine a native speaker of English who doesn't get that this is something about a seaman whacking an infantryman.

Here's where I need the help: How does the study actually work? What did they do? There's no reference at all to any publication that I saw, just mention of a conference presentation.

Oh wait, I guess the story IS about people not knowing what a passive is, just not in the sense I thought!

Image from here.


Drew Smith said...

The citation to the study is:

Lingua; Aug2010, Vol. 120 Issue 8, p2080-2094

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks, just downloaded it.

Mr. Verb said...

Well, I'm not feeling much clearer about this stuff since reading the article.

Anonymous said...

So this is somewhat old news, I heard about this back in 2007ish. You give participants basic basic English sentences and then ask them questions about the sentences. This is a standard psycholinguistic task to keep attention focused on your stimuli. But you find that a not trivial number will make errors.


1. The soldier was hit by the sailor.

a. Did the soldier hit someone? Y/N

From my understanding it boils down to native speakers not being perfect speakers, which is not an crazy statement. I'll try to find a citation.

This also relates to a line of work concerning 'good-enough' language processing. We find that speakers aren't getting at every single fine detail concerning grammar and semantics but rather are grabbing the easiest or prima fascia information.

The Stranded Preposition said...

Three wonders after skimming this article.

1. I wonder at the possibility of the authors equating performance with competence. Each experiment, data elicitation session, you name it, is a form of a performance. What I was looking for was a bit about clarification answers in the protocol such as in the worn Communicative Competence story of working class boys clarifying their pronouns, thereby demonstrating that they, in fact, were in full command of competence but their initial performance mismatched the expectations of the researchers.The question here is, what is the performance code that some individuals are using for these tasks?

2. I wonder about the clash of grammatical and statistical legitimacy of comparing one group with a 'normal' distribution (the perfect statistical group) to an abnormally distributed group (the perfect grammar group).

3. I wonder if they've read Labov.

"Finally, it is also possible that the participants in the less-educated group were less efficient language learners, and hence needed more experience to reach the same level of attainment."

Like they didn't talk to anyone growing up? Maybe experience in formally taught elaborated code, maybe? A number of the quotes remind me of the kind of thing addressed by Labov's The Logic of Nonstandard English.

Chris said...

I just saw this story myself and downloaded Dabrowski's paper (from her Northumbia academic profile page pdf). It turns out this was a picture matching paradigm. Subjects were given a passive sentence like "the soldier was hit by the sailor" and two pictures, one where the soldier is hitting a sailor and one where a sailor is hitting a soldier. they were asked which picture matched the meaning of the sentence.

Happily, she includes some of her picture stimuli and some of here test sentences. But what confused me was the fact that "Participants were tested individually in a similar setting at the place were they worked or studied" (p 10). I find this odd and not in keeping with scientific standards.

Anonymous said...


That is odd that they weren't tested in an actual controlled environment. Do we know of research whether that would affect performance so considerably? Presumably the participants were not distracted but more comfortable in their study-places and I would expect them to be less prone to errors from nervousness.

Donna said...

I did not read the details of the study, but I am wondering if the people taking the test had to read the sentence themselves or if it was read to them. This can make a big difference in the outcome of the test since there are many people that are functionally illiterate, and if they had to read it themselves, the problem could be a problem with reading comprehension and not actually with understanding the language.

John said...

@ Donna

Pre-recorded sentences were played to them.

For me, this may have its own drawbacks as opposed to reading. By reading, subjects (albeit only literate ones) can see the sentence as often as they like (even if only for a given amount of time) by re-reading it. By hearing the sentence (likely only once, or a standard number of times), subjects may be limited in their ability to comprehend it, especially less educated as compared to more educated subjects.

Still very interesting data!

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GamesWithWords said...

So I'm late to the party, but I'd like to point to my extended discussion of this study.

BTW testing in the place of work or study was probably done in order to get ahold of the low-attainment participants. It's very hard to recruit such participants to come to labs for studies. I don't see it being particularly problematic unless you think passive comprehension is location-dependent (and if so, I'd love to hear the theory!). So long as the room was quiet and without distractions, that seems fine.

Put it this way, Jane Goodall studies Chimpanzees in the wild, not in a lab, and most people think that's ok.