“I Think” in NS and Chinese NNS Spoken English

“I Think” in NS and Chinese NNS Spoken English

Lan-fen Huang (Shih Chien University, Kaohsiung, Taiwan)
DOI: 10.4018/ijcallt.2014010105


In spoken English, “I think” is a frequently-used chunk. The frequent use of “I think” in the Chinese non-native speakers' (NNSs') speech has been interpreted as being somewhat overused in previous studies, such as Xu and Xu (2007) and Yang and Wei (2005). The same phenomenon is also found in the present study, which is based on a detailed analysis of three corpora: The Spoken English Corpus of Chinese Learners (SECCL), MICASE and ICE-GB. “I think” is over-represented in the Chinese NNSs' speech in SECCL. However, it is questionable as to whether the Chinese NNSs use “I think” too much, and inappropriately. The investigation into the frequency information and contexts provides an explanation of the generic constraints and national backgrounds underlying the over-representation of “I think” in the speech of Chinese NNSs as well as revealing differences between Chinese NNSs and NSs.
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The features of spoken language are widely discussed (e.g. Aijmer (1989, 2002, 2009, 2011), Brazil (1995), Biber et al. (1999), Carter (2006), Cutting (2006) and Adolph (2008)). Most of the studies explore native speakers’ (NSs) speech. There are relatively few studies of non-native speakers (NNSs), in particular Chinese NNSs. A few exceptions are Yang and Wei’s (2005) and Xu and Xu’s (2007) studies, in which the frequent use of I think in the Chinese NNSs’ speech has been interpreted as an overused fragment.

This paper begins with a review of the literature, including the grammar aspects of I think with emphasis on its grammatical ambiguity, which causes difficulty in the distinction between its non-discourse use (Type A) and discourse use (Type B). It then introduces the three major corpora under investigation and research methods. The analysis presents the frequency information first, showing an overall sense of the use of I think in the six sub-corpora under investigation. The major analysis is the examination of co-occurring linguistic environment of Type B I think. Based on the identified co-occurrence, its functions are suggested. This paper concludes from the corpus analysis that both Chinese NNSs’ and NSs’ awareness of usages differences of I think can be raised.

Similar to the previous studies, the present study, based on a detailed analysis of three corpora: The Spoken English Corpus of Chinese Learners (SECCL) (Wen, Wang, & Liang, 2005), the Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English (MICASE) (Simpson, Briggs, Ovens, & Swales, 2002) and the International Corpus of English The British Component (ICE-GB) (2006) (see Table 1 for more details), finds that the Chinese NNSs in SECCL use I think more frequently than the NSs. However, it is questionable whether or not Chinese NNSs overuse I think. It seems reasonable that the sheer number of occurrences is interpreted as overuse; on the other hand, it seems that frequency information has been over-generalised without considering possible factors in using I think. The aim of this paper is to discuss some possible contributing factors of the over-representation1 of I think in the corpus of Chinese NNSs’ speech. Two aspects are to be considered: the context of I think, within such macro-factors as discussion topics and micro-factors, like mirroring linguistic usages.

Table 1.
Corpora under investigation
CorpusNumber of TextsWord Counts (Tokens)*Average Words per Text (Tokens)
SECCL: Monologues (Chinese NNSs)1,143336,303294
SECCL: Dialogues (Chinese NNSs)1,143596,639522
MICASE: Highly monologic discourse mode (American NSs)13134,09610,315
MICASE: Highly interactive discourse mode (American NSs)48577,99612,042
ICE-GB: Unscripted monologues (British NSs)70153,6462,195
ICE-GB: Private direct conversations (British NSs)90185,0002,056

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