Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format

Monograph

Degree

Master of Science

Program

Psychology

Supervisor

Jared, Debra

Abstract

In Malay, accidental actions are marked with the prefix -ter. Malay speakers typically assume a deliberate intent when the prefix is absent. I investigated whether Malay-English bilinguals are more likely than English monolinguals to interpret actions in English sentences as deliberate when they are not clearly indicated as being accidental. In Experiment 1, Malay speakers completed a recognition memory task. The results showed that Malay speakers remembered unintentionality accurately. This accuracy in remembering unintentionality suggests that Malay speakers encode the intentions of others. In Experiment 2, participants completed a cross-modal priming task. They first heard scenarios in which a character’s action was either accidental or was ambiguous as to intent, and then they saw either a word that was consistent with an unintended-action interpretation, an unrelated word, or a nonword and made a lexical decision. The grammatical intention marker in Malay influenced speakers’ perception of intentions even when listening to English. Bilinguals showed a smaller priming effect than monolinguals only in the ambiguous condition, suggesting that they were more likely to have interpreted intention-ambiguous actions as deliberate. These findings inform our understanding of cross-cultural communication differences.

Summary for Lay Audience

“Users of markedly different grammars are pointed by their grammars towards different types of observations and . . . hence are not equivalent as observers but must arrive at somewhat different views of the world” (Whorf, 1956). Research has shown that the grammar of a language may influence the way we think. In Malay, accidental actions are clearly indicated as they are grammatically marked with the prefix -ter such as in terlanggar (langgar – “hit”). Malay speakers typically assume a deliberate intent when accidental actions are not clearly indicated such as when the prefix is absent. In English, however, accidental actions are not grammatically marked. I investigated whether the habitual way of interpreting intentions in Malay was carried over to the interpretation of intentions in English for Malay-English bilinguals. More specifically, the present study examines whether Malay-English bilinguals are more likely than English monolinguals to interpret actions in English sentences as deliberate when they are not clearly indicated as being accidental. In Experiment 1, Malay speakers completed a recognition memory task. The results showed that Malay speakers remembered unintentionality accurately. This finding suggests that Malay speakers encode the intentions of others. In Experiment 2, participants completed a cross-modal priming task. They first heard scenarios in which a character’s action was either accidental (unambiguous condition) or was ambiguous as to intent (ambiguous condition). They then saw a word presented visually that was either consistent with an unintended-action interpretation, an unrelated word, or a non-word. Participants had to decide as quickly as possible if the word was a real English word or a non-word. The results showed that the way of interpreting intentions in Malay, as indicated by the grammatical intention marker, influenced speakers’ perception of intentions even when listening to English. More specifically, Malay-English bilinguals showed less facilitation for unintended action words compared to unrelated words in the ambiguous condition than in the unambiguous condition. In contrast, English monolinguals showed comparable facilitation effects for unintended action words compared to unrelated words in both conditions. This result suggests that the unintended action word in “ambiguous” scenarios was more incongruent to the expectations of Malay-English bilinguals than for English monolinguals. Malay-English bilinguals were more likely to interpret the actions as deliberate, as they habitually would in Malay when accidental actions are not clearly specified. These findings inform our understanding of cross-cultural communication differences.

Available for download on Thursday, August 20, 2020

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