Second language comprehension : information/processing approach



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Kintsch (1974) presented a theory of representation in semantic memory. The theory hypothesized that language information is represented by a set of propositions and their case relationship , the "text base." In order to evaluate the comprehension of sentences, what is needed is to specify the transformation of information needed to be performed on the information in order to meet the task demand (Alston, 1975,note 1). This paper advanced the thesis that different levels, or degrees, of processing (i.e., transformation) will be required for first language (L[lowered 1]) and second language (L[lowered 2]) text bases. It was posited that L[lowered 2] elements are mapped onto the cognitive structures of L[lowered 1], which then undergo further processing. Within this system, two types of processes were identified : passive processes which do not require attention, and active processes requiring attention (Cf. Norman, 1969). Automatic processing facilitates performance on complex tasks by eliminating the need for sequential processing, thus reducing the task demand. These features were incorporated in a model of second language processing presented in this paper. The model proposed two additional basic assumptions. First, it assumed that L[lowered 1] is processed automatically, while L[lowered 2] elements require attention. Second, if an L[lowered 2] code could be translated into a corresponding L[lowered 1] code, the code would utilize automatic information-flow route activated by L[lowered 1]. The model thus enabled the definition of the difficulty of an L[lowered 2] item as the combined effect of the number of transformations required for a translation into L[lowered 1], the "between-language" component, and the number of transformations required for the processing of the L[lowered 1] code, the "within-language component". This formulation enabled the generation of testable hypotheses. Two sets of experiments were carried out : One assessing syntactic transformations, and the second assessing phonological processing. The first of the two syntactic experiments compared recognition memory for six L[lowered 2] categories differing in difficulty on both the within language component, and the between language component. The second attempted to evaluate hypothesized syntactic difficulties in terms of their effect on recall of lexical information. The results obtained on both syntactic experiments were in the direction predicted,and supported the suggested model. Results of the second set of experiments, testing phonological processing were only partially successful. An analysis is offered suggesting that some of the discrepencies between the hypotheses and the results may be overcome by a more careful examination of the model and its implications.