The use of linguistic units and their implicatures in the listening section of toefl ibt test

Implicature is a means of conveying what speakers mean linguistically, and it is most commonly used in spoken language. Identifying the possible interpretations and discovering the implied meanings of the information, nevertheless, are really challenging for non-Native English speakers, especially for ESL/EFL test-takers who are under testing pressure. This descriptive study, therefore, aimed to quantitatively and qualitatively explore the language units and their implicatures used in the listening section of TOEFL iBT (Test of English as a Foreign Language versioned Internet-based test). A corpus consisting of 87 lectures, 97 long conversations, and 31 short conversations/adjacency pairs that were sourced from TOEFL iBT materials was developed. The framework employed to analyze data was based on the initial lists of triggers proposed by Gazdar (1979), Grice (1978), Levinson (1993), and Yule (1996). The findings reveal that linking words are the most common linguistic units while set phrases are the least common ones that are used to trigger implicatures in the listening section of TOEFL iBT materials. Additionally, diverse implicatures of linguistic units used in the listening section of TOEFL iBT are uncovered

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 Le T. N. Lien & Tran Q. Thao. Journal of Science Ho Chi Minh City Open University, 7(4), 47-59 47 
THE USE OF LINGUISTIC UNITS AND THEIR IMPLICATURES 
IN THE LISTENING SECTION OF TOEFL iBT TEST 
LE THI NHU LIEN 
Dak Lak Teacher Training College, Vietnam - lethinhulien@gmail.com 
TRAN QUOC THAO 
 Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology, Vietnam - tq.thao@hutech.edu.vn 
 (Received: July 30, 2017; Revised: August 28, 2017; Accepted: November 29, 2017) 
ABSTRACT 
Implicature is a means of conveying what speakers mean linguistically, and it is most commonly used in 
spoken language. Identifying the possible interpretations and discovering the implied meanings of the information, 
nevertheless, are really challenging for non-native English speakers, especially for ESL/EFL test-takers who are 
under testing pressure. This descriptive study, therefore, aimed to quantitatively and qualitatively explore the 
language units and their implicatures used in the listening section of TOEFL iBT (Test of English as a Foreign 
Language versioned Internet-based test). A corpus consisting of 87 lectures, 97 long conversations, and 31 short 
conversations/adjacency pairs that were sourced from TOEFL iBT materials was developed. The framework 
employed to analyze data was based on the initial lists of triggers proposed by Gazdar (1979), Grice (1978), 
Levinson (1993), and Yule (1996). The findings reveal that linking words are the most common linguistic units 
while set phrases are the least common ones that are used to trigger implicatures in the listening section of TOEFL 
iBT materials. Additionally, diverse implicatures of linguistic units used in the listening section of TOEFL iBT are 
uncovered. 
Keywords: Implicature; Language unit; Listening; TOEFL iBT. 
1. Introduction 
Since the English language has been 
long adopted as the medium of instruction 
throughout the world, ESL/EFL learners have 
to take different types of English language test 
in order to gain the admission requirements 
to study at universities or colleges in terms 
of English language proficiency. The 
standardized Test of English as a Foreign 
Language (TOEFL) versioned Internet-based 
test (iBT), emphasizing integrated 
communicative skills and communicative 
competence, is of those designed to assess 
English language skills of non-native speakers 
and to be taken on the Internet, (ETS, 2015). 
It is not meant to test academic knowledge or 
computer ability, and as such, questions are 
always based on materials found in the test. It 
is, however, agreed that the TOEFL iBT test 
is challenging, especially the listening task. 
Listening, according to ETS (2007), is one of 
the most important skills necessary for 
success on TOEFL iBT and in academics in 
general. The listening section measures test-
takers’ ability to understand spoken English 
from North America and other English-
speaking parts of the world. Test-takers have 
to listen to a wide range of lectures and 
conversations in academic environments, in 
which the speech sounds very natural. 
Moreover, there are nine types of questions in 
the listening section, namely, Gist-Content, 
Gist-Purpose, Detail, Understanding the 
Function of What is Said, Understanding 
the Speaker’s Attitude, Understanding 
Organization, Connecting Content and Making 
Inferences (ETS, 2007). One of the most 
challenging types of question in the listening 
section of TOEFL test is inference since test-
takers may have to infer an opinion, attitude, 
48 Le T. N. Lien & Tran Q. Thao. Journal of Science Ho Chi Minh City Open University, 7(4), 47-59 
organization, connection among statements, 
but the purposes are not always explicitly 
stated. Rather, they are implied. 
Not many ESL/EFL learners, in reality, 
may not find it easy to realize the implicature 
triggers in the English language because there 
are two ways for speakers to transmit 
information: the first way is using explicit 
language use (literal meaning); the other way 
is by making interpretive inferences through 
which the information is left implicit. A 
written or spoken piece of information can be 
interpreted based on what can be inferred 
from the utterance, but it is not a condition for 
its truth. Let us consider the utterance: Even 
John came to the party (To, 2007). It is 
noticed that the word even enables the listener 
to infer that the speaker means not to expect 
John’s coming. The right judgment, however, 
sometimes cannot be made if the listener only 
interprets the literal meaning of what is said as 
seen in the following example: 
(1) Annie: Was the dessert any good? 
 Mike: Annie, cherry pie is cherry pie. 
Mike’s response seems quite irrelevant in 
the surface structure level as far as the 
question-answer content is concerned. This 
way that speaker conveys what he/she means 
is linguistically defined as implicature. 
Albeit the area of implication has been 
intensively and extensively researched by 
scholars (e.g., Horn, 2004; Kate, 2000; 
Levinson, 1983; Nguyen, 2000; Nguyen, 
2007), in order to examine the phenomena of 
implication in particular and communication 
in general, there is, to the best knowledge of 
the researchers, no research on linguistic units 
that triggers implications in the conversation 
extracts in the listening section of TOEFL 
iBT. This paper, hence, purports to identify 
the linguistic units to signal implications and 
their implicatures used in the listening tasks of 
TOEFL iBT in order to assist ESL/EFL test-
takers with the procedural functions of 
words/expressions used in the listening section 
of TOEFL iBT. The research questions are 
formed as follows: 
1. What are the common linguistic units 
to signal implications used in the 
listening section of TOEFL iBT? 
2. What are their implicatures used in the 
listening section of TOEFL iBT? 
 2. Methodology 
Linguistic Corpus 
This descriptive study involved the 
development of a corpus of transcripts 
including 87 lectures, 97 long conversations, 
and 31 short conversations/adjacency pairs 
(about 36,127 words) (see Table 1). They 
were sourced from TOEFL iBT materials, viz. 
Building Skills for the TOEFL iBT 
(Beginning), Developing Skills for the 
TOEFL iBT (Intermediate), Mastering Skills 
for the TOEFL iBT (Advanced), How to 
Master Skills for the TOEFL iBT 
(Intermediate Listening), Barron’s TOEFL 
iBT (12
th
 edition), iBT TOEFL Listening 
Breakthrough, which were chosen based on 
their availability in the researchers’ context. 
Table 1 
The corpus of transcripts 
Type 
Number of 
word/each 
Total of words 
Lecture 87 About 216 About 18,792 
Long 
conversation 
97 About 172 About 16,684 
Short 
conversation 
31 About 21 About 651 
Total 215 409 About 36,127 
Research procedure 
In order to achieve the set goals, the study 
was carried out by the combination of 
descriptive, quantitative and qualitative 
approaches, based on the analysis of 
frequencies of the linguistic units that signal 
implicature (quantitative analysis) and content 
analysis of the use of implicatures of those 
linguistic units (qualitative analysis). The 
study was done based on an initial list of 
 Le T. N. Lien & Tran Q. Thao. Journal of Science Ho Chi Minh City Open University, 7(4), 47-59 49 
triggers (See Table 2) proposed by Gazdar 
(1979), Grice (1978), Levinson (1993), and 
Yule (1996). 
Table 2 
Categories of linguistic units proposed by 
Gazdar (1979), Grice (1978), Levinson 
(1993), and Yule (1996) 
No. 
Linguistic 
unit 
Example 
1 Determiner all, most, many, some, few, 
etc. 
2 Adverb always, often, sometimes, 
etc. 
3 Linking 
word 
but, and, or, etc. 
4 Adjective hot, warm, cool, cold, etc. 
5 Verb love, realize, recognize, 
forget, etc. 
6 Set phrase without doubt, no way, etc. 
7 Interjection hey, oh, well, etc. 
With respect to the reliability of the data 
analysis, double-check was employed. For the 
quantitative data, the researchers asked two 
experts as double-checkers to randomly check 
the occurrences of conventional implicature 
triggers. In respect of the qualitative data, two 
experts, likewise, were invited to work as 
double-checkers to randomly check three 
pieces of utterances. The two double-checkers 
and researchers had to reach to an agreement 
level of reliability (over 85%). 
3. Results and Discussion 
3.1. Categories of Linguistic Units Used 
in the Listening Section of TOEFL iBT 
As seen from Table 3, linking words, 
among seven linguistic units that trigger 
implicatures account for the highest 
percentage per 1,000 words (42%) of 
individual items, signaling up to 1533 
occurrences of implicature out of a total of 
3626, followed by determiners with 542 
occurrences (15%) and verbs with 506 
occurrences (13.9 %). The next number of 
implicature triggered by adverbs and 
interjections was 481 occurrences (13.2%) 
and 412 occurrences (11.4%), respectively. 
The least used linguistic units of implicature 
are adjectives with 103 occurrences (2.8%) 
and set phrase with 50 occurrences (1.4%). 
Table 3 
Occurrences of conventional implicature 
triggers 
No. Linguistic 
units 
Raw 
number 
% Per 1,000 
words 
1 Determiners 542 15.0 
2 Adverbs 481 13.2 
3 Linking words 1533 42.3 
4 Adjectives 103 2.8 
5 Verbs 506 13.9 
6 Set phrases 50 1.4 
7 Interjections 412 11.4 
 Total 3,626 100.0 
When it comes to the comparison of the 
distribution of linguistic units in lectures and 
conversations, it can be noticed from Table 4 
that the total distribution per 1,000 words of 
linguistic units in lectures (51.8%) and 
conversations (48.2%) is relatively similar. 
Specifically, the frequency of linking words 
(25.4%) and determiners (9.4%) in lectures is 
much higher than that in conversations 
(linking words: 16.9%; determiners: 5.6%). 
Additionally, adjectives account for 1.6% in 
lectures, whereas those in conversations are 
1.2%. Meanwhile, other linguistic units 
(adverbs: 6.8%; verbs: 8.0%; set phrases: 
1.0%; interjections: 8.7%) appear more often 
in conversations than in lectures (adverbs: 
6.4%; verbs: 5.9%; set phrases: .4%; 
interjections: 2.7%). 
50 Le T. N. Lien & Tran Q. Thao. Journal of Science Ho Chi Minh City Open University, 7(4), 47-59 
Table 4 
Distribution of conventional implicatures in lectures and conversations 
No. Linguistic units Lectures 
(% per 1,000 words) 
Conversations 
(% per 1,000 words) 
Total 
(% per 1,000 words) 
1 Determiners 9.4 5.6 15.0 
2 Adverbs 6.4 6.8 13.2 
3 Linking words 25.4 16.9 42.3 
4 Adjectives 1.6 1.2 2.8 
5 Verbs 5.9 8.0 13.9 
6 Set phrases .4 1.0 1.4 
7 Interjections 2.7 8.7 11.4 
 Total 51.8 48.2 100.0 
3.2. Implicatures of the Linguistic Units 
Used in the Listening Section of TOEFL iBT 
a. Determiners 
When producing an utterance, a speaker 
chooses the word which is most informative 
and truthful in the circumstances, as in (2): 
(2) There are several theories. Some of 
these are superstitions - that is, things 
that many people believe but that 
aren’t really true. 
 (Worchester, Lark, & Eric, p.254) 
By choosing some in (2), the speaker 
creates an implicature (+> not all). In saying 
‘Some of these are superstitions’, the speaker 
also creates other implicatures, for example, 
(+> not many / not most) theories are 
superstitions. By using sometimes in (3), the 
speaker communicates, via implicature, the 
negative forms higher on the scale of 
frequency (+> not always, +> not often). 
(3) He was sometimes violent, but that 
was OK in the military. 
 (Edmun & Mackinnon, p.223) 
(4) Students should carry their ID card at 
all times. (Edmun & Mackinnon, 
p.233) 
+> not must on a scale of ‘obligation’ 
The utterance, as seen in the above 
example (4), implicates that ‘students must 
not carry their ID card at all times’ or ‘they 
sometimes should carry their ID card with 
them’. 
b. Adverbs 
Adverbs also have conventional 
implicatures such as: only, mainly, especially, 
actually, even, yet, soon, just, already, also, at 
first, at least, etc. 
Some adverbs can be used to emphasize 
that only one particular thing is involved in 
what we are saying. For instance: 
(5) Some people once thought that only 
four things made up the Earth: earth, 
water, air and fire. 
(Edmun and Mackinnon, p.210) 
With adverbs once and only in the above 
statement (5), the hearer can derive from that 
utterance some implicatures like these: ‘In the 
past, some people thought that the four things: 
earth, water, air and fire but nothing else made 
up the Earth’ and the effect of this is ‘At 
present, they don’t think so.’ 
Adverbs are not normally used at the 
beginning of a sentence. Only, however, is 
used to begin a sentence when it focuses on 
 Le T. N. Lien & Tran Q. Thao. Journal of Science Ho Chi Minh City Open University, 7(4), 47-59 51 
the things that follow it as in (6): 
(6) In the next reading, you can start 
highlighting. Only underline one or 
two key words or phrases per page. 
(Worchester, Lark, and Eric, pp.248 
– 249) 
The conventional implicature of only, in 
this case, is that ‘when you highlight the key 
words/phrases each page, you do underline 
them except for any other ways.’ 
(7) He was a very good general, but 
unfortunately he was not a very good 
politician. In politics, he was not 
always honest. 
(Edmun and Mackinnon, p.223) 
Adverb unfortunately in (7) can provoke 
a negative implicature that shows the 
politician’s disadvantage. The implicature 
from unfortunately can be a criticism. In fact 
the explanation of this is used by a scalar 
implicature. This utterance may implicate that 
‘the very good general is criticized for not 
being a not very good politician because he 
was sometimes honest in politics.’ 
(8) M: Yes. I just need to see proof that 
you are enrolled in a summer course. 
 W: I haven't enrolled yet. 
(MacGillivary, Yancey and 
Malarcher, p.706) 
As seen in (8), when the woman uses yet, 
she denotes the present situation is different as 
expected, or perhaps the opposite to the man’s 
expectation. Recently, she hasn’t enrolled in a 
summer course, so she cannot show the proof 
to the man. 
Adverbs are also used to emphasize 
uniqueness from the point of view of the 
speaker in a given situation as in (9): 
(9) He was the only one who knew 
Batman and Robin’s real names. 
(Worchester et al., p.236) 
Obviously, the speaker uses only to assert 
that he was the person who knew Batman and 
Robin’s real names. If he didn’t reveal, no one 
would know their real names. 
Additionally, adverbs are used as 
conjunctions but, yet, however, etc. to express 
absoluteness as in (10) & (11): 
(10) Leave plenty of space, but try to 
make it just one page. 
(Worchester et al., p.286) 
(11) By the way, may I ask what exactly 
you wrote about me? 
(Link, Kushwaha and Kato, p.321) 
The above utterances show absolute 
requirements, in (10) the speaker wants the 
hearer to leave exactly one-page space, but no 
more. In (11) the speaker, nonetheless, wants 
to know correctly about what the addressee 
wrote about him/ her. 
c. Linking words 
The three central coordinators (and, but, 
or) can function as sentence logical operators 
and other sentential connectives (Mitchell, 
1998). Some linguists suggest many ways of 
interpretation showing a variety of meanings 
in accordance with each particular situation. 
Nevertheless, it is vital that the coordinators 
can make the regular semantic implication. 
Semantically, and is usually regarded as a 
logical operator which can join two explicit 
contents of assertions or one implicit to 
another explicit meaning. In another aspect, 
the implications of the coordinator and are 
those which denote consequence- result, 
condition, concession, contrast, purpose, 
similarity, and explanation as follows: 
(12) Well, she covers all the same 
basic material, but you'll find 
the lectures won't be exactly the 
same. And you'll have some writing 
assignments. 
(Worchester et al., p.320) 
(13) You'll find out how different 
governments were formed. And 
you’ll learn how technology has 
changed us. 
(Worchester et al., p.320) 
Clearly, the meaning of and in (12) and 
(13) is simply plus or in addition. In the above 
52 Le T. N. Lien & Tran Q. Thao. Journal of Science Ho Chi Minh City Open University, 7(4), 47-59 
examples, the fact that ‘you'll find the lectures 
won't be exactly the same’ (= q) is plus, via 
coordinator and, the information that ‘you'll 
have some writing assignments’ (= p). Thus, it 
can be clarified as: q & p (+> q plus p). 
The coordinator but can mark the 
unexpected result. But also shows the direct 
opposition as in (14): 
(14) Earth, water and air are all forms of 
matter, but fire is really different. 
+> That fire isn’t matter. 
 (Worchester et al, p.210) 
p & q (+> p is in contrast to q) 
Another meaning of contrast is showing a 
correction. It can change the balance of an 
argument in favor of another viewpoint. 
Consider the following sentence: 
(15) To the nerve cells in your brain, 
caffeine looks just like adenosine, 
but caffeine acts differently. 
(Worchester et al, p.267) 
The above illustration (15) indicates that 
but (+> however). The utterer wants to 
explain some more about caffeine’s influence 
to the nerve cells in the brain. 
The interpretation of any utterance of the 
type p but q will be based on the conjunction 
p & q plus an implicature of contrast between 
the information in p and the information in q. 
(16) W: I’ve got a secret that helps me in 
math class. Wanna know what it is? 
 M: OK. But it probably won’t help me. 
(Worchester et al., p.255) 
In this conversation (16), the speaker uses 
but to show that he is observing the maxim of 
relation and implies the importance of what is 
going to be uttered. The man wants to get a 
secret of studying math from the woman, but 
he is afraid that it will not help him in math 
class at all. Thus, we can establish the 
effective implicature of but as follows: 
x but y → x in contrast to y and y is the 
thing that is interested in. 
→ y is shown to terminate the inferred 
presuppositions from x. 
d. Verbs 
Verbs were found to make up one of the 
biggest group of conventional implicature 
triggers collected in the data. They involve the 
use of a wide range of factive verbs: realize, 
recognize, forget, regret, know, remember, 
learn, find out, etc., non-factive verbs: 
believe, claim, say, assert, think, is possible, is 
likely, etc., and verbs of feelings: like, love, 
hate, dislike, fear, mind, etc.. 
Semantically, factives and non- factives 
differ in whether or not the truth of their 
complement clauses is presupposed. In (59), 
the truth of the sentential complement user 
factive know is presupposed, while under non- 
factive think in (17), the same complement 
need not be evaluated as true. 
(17) W: I'm looking at Woods College. 
They have lots of good courses in 
the catalog here. 
 M: Woods College? I know that is a 
very good school, but it is so far 
away! (Link et al., p.271) 
+> (I know that is a very good school) has 
a factive implication that Woods College is a 
very good school, and a belief implication that 
I believe that Woods College is a very good 
school. 
(18) My secret is I think about numbers 
in math as if they were money. 
(Worchester et al., p.255) 
+> I think about numbers in math as if 
they were money has an uncertain implication 
that numbers in math as if they were money. I 
hope so. 
An actual explanation of the fact that one 
utters t

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