The involvement of working memory in L2 pragmatic production under imposed strain: Measurement issues

Working memory (WM) has been identified as a crucial component of the processing that underlies L2 comprehension and production (Linck et al., 2014). Especially where production is concerned, methodological challenges have led many studies to resort to correlational measures to establish this connection (e.g. Weissheimer & Mota, 2009). A particularly challenging case is pragmatic production, which is highly variable due to its context-dependent nature and as a result has been largely neglected to date. Nevertheless, there is reason to assume that cognitive control (here represented by WM) plays an important role in pragmatic competence (Bialystok, 1993; Hassall, 2014).

Drawing on frameworks and methods from educational psychology, this study uses a dual-task set-up to obtain a direct objective measure of the involvement of WM in L2 pragmatic production. The primary task consists of producing speech acts (requests) and routine formulas (responses to thanks) in oral Discourse Completion Tasks (oDCTs). The secondary task artificially induces additional cognitive strain: while performing the oDCTs, participants are asked to continuously tap a simple rhythm (Park & Brünken, 2015). Comparing this tapping to the respective participant’s tapping of the same rhythm before the oDCTs, irregularities are taken as indicators of increased cognitive strain. This design requires two choices related to measurement: a) how to analyse of the pauses between the taps (inter-tap intervals), and b) exclusion or inclusion of errors in rhythm.

It is argued here that these choices crucially affect the results with respect to their informative value on WM involvement. To illustrate this, the approach applied by the authors of the rhythm method (Park & Brünken, 2015) is contrasted with an alternative approach, which is suggested to be more meaningful for complex primary tasks like pragmatic production.

References:

Bialystok, E. (1993). Symbolic representation and attentional control in pragmatic competence. In G. Kasper & S. Blum-Kulka (Eds.), Interlanguage Pragmatics (pp. 43–57). New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hassall, T. (2014). Knowledge or control? A comment on Lundell and Erman (2012). Journal of Pragmatics, 68, 73–76.

Linck, J.A., Osthus, P., Koeth, J.T., & Bunting, M.F. (2014). Working memory and second language comprehension and production: A meta-analysis. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 21(4), 861–883.

Park, B., & Brünken, R. (2015). The rhythm method: A new method for measuring cognitive load – An experimental dual-task study. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 29, 232-243.

Weissheimer, J., & Mota, M.B. (2009). Individual differences in working memory capacity and the development of L2 speech production. Issues in Applied Linguistics, 17(2), 93–112.

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