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May vs. Might in native vs. non-native English: Implications for inference and judgement in legal and educational contexts

  • Luna Filipović EMAIL logo

Abstract

In this paper we discuss the empirically documented difference in a mock-jury judgement task between native speakers of English and speakers of English as a second language. We discovered a difference between these two populations in the understanding of events described by witnesses with regard to the use of verbs may and might. The events described with may were scored much higher on the possibility and witness certainty scales than when the same events were described with might by the non-native English speakers. On the other hand, the native speakers of English did not judge the events described with may and those with might differently. Further, the results for the non-native speakers did not vary based on their L1. A closer look at a sample of textbooks has provided support for the hypothesis that it is the L2 instruction materials and a specific learner strategy that are the most likely causes of the significant difference in inference and judgement between the two speaker groups. We discuss these findings in light of their applicability in, and their relevance for, legal contexts of witness testimony and jury judgement as well as their pedagogical implications and applications.

Acknowledgment

The author hereby expresses gratitude to the anonymous reviewers who have been extremely helpful and whose comments have inspired numerous improvements in the paper. Thanks are also due to the journal editor, Li Wei, for providing an expedient and supportive review process. Any remaining errors are exclusively the author’s.

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Websites

www.bnc.ox.ac.uk

http://www.learnersdictionary.com/qa/what-is-the-difference-between-may-and-might

http://www.qlmediation.com/author/andrewhildebrand/

http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/sport/liverpool-fc-certainly-europe-next-9273951

Appendix

Experimental stimuli

Statement 1

There was a lot of noise in front of the co-op. Two men were having a heated discussion in a foreign language. When Mr Jimenez threw the bottle towards the car, the man standing beside it may have been hit. [version 2: When Mr Jimenez threw the bottle towards the car, the man standing beside it might have been hit.]

Statement 2

I was standing at the bus stop, waiting for the 9.07 to the park &ride. Jerry was running very fast around the corner and that is the moment when he must have collided with the postman.

Statement 3

I was sitting on one of the new benches. The man rushed into the park, past the benches and then made a sharp turn towards the playground. He might have thrown the bag before entering the playground. [version 2: He may have thrown the bag before entering the playground.]

Statement 4

I was standing on the platform when suddenly a man appeared out of nowhere. He reached for his pocket watch, he looked a bit nervous. I then saw him hobble over to the information desk, and after chatting to a railway worker there he moved along. He may have dropped the keys somewhere around there. [version 2: He might have dropped the keys somewhere around there.]

Statement 5

The knocking on the door was deafening but I did not open. I was not expecting anybody at that hour. It will have been a prank by the rowdy kids next door.

Statement 6

He was speaking very slowly, asking for directions to the ferry. I had an impression that he was an elderly man, like in his 70ies or something, because of his low husky voice and all, but he might have been younger, just pretending to sound older, you know what I mean? [version 2: he may have been younger]

Raw scores by participant

Possibility of Occurrence Scale

ParticipantsL1 EnL2 EnL1 EnL2 EnL1 EnL2 EnL1 EnL2 En
MAYMAYMIGHTMIGHTMUSTMUSTWILLWILL
P133315544
P233214444
P333426654
P533326544
P623215544
P733225544
P844326655
P933326654
P1033315555
P1134426655
P1233325554
P1323214444
P1434325655
P1523315544
P1634336665
P1723214444
P1823325555
P2033335555
P2123214444
P2243326554
P2333324544
P2434324544
P2543426655
P2634325555
P2723326544
P2823215554
P2933226565
P3034335555
Total79917950144143130123

Estimated Witness Certainty Scale

ParticipantL1 EnL2 EnL1 EnL2 EnL1 EnL2 EnL1 EnL2 En
MAYMAYMIGHTMIGHTMUSTMUSTWILLWILL
P133315444
P223214444
P344315555
P523325444
P622316554
P733326554
P844426665
P933326565
P1023325654
P1134326655
P1234215555
P1323214545
P1433224544
P1533224544
P1634326565
P1723214545
P1833314444
P2033315654
P2122214444
P2232325444
P2333314544
P2434314544
P2543426644
P2623215454
P2744226665
P2833225564
P2934326464
P3032315554
Total80887642140138133121
Published Online: 2016-5-31
Published in Print: 2016-6-1

©2016 by De Gruyter Mouton

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