An ELT Glossary : Inference

Inference subskills are a range of subskills used when listening or reading, and involve the reader in "working out" something which is not explicitly stated or not immediately understood. This may be eg :

  • inferring the relationship between speaker and listener
  • inferring non-explicitly stated meaning
  • inferring the meaning of unknown expressions
  • inferring the attitude of the speaker/writer
  • etc

Ability to use these subskills  are based not only on  the ability to decode and understand  the words heard or read but may also involve the listener/reader being able to go outside the text and to draw logical conclusions based on their knowledge of the world.

For example :

a) inferring the relationship between speaker and listener

A : David, did you write the essay?
B : I did it Miss Evans, but I've left it at home. I'll bring it tomorrow
A : That's the second time in a row. If it happens again, you'll be in detention.

From this you can infer that A is a school teacher and B a pupil. How do you know this? The reference to "the essay" leads you to place the conversation in an educational setting; the fact that A uses B's first name while he uses title + surname suggests an age and power distinction (so we are not in an adult evening class situation), and this is reinforced by the fact that A has the power to punish B for not doing what was asked (so neither are we in a university context). None of this is stated explicitly in the text - it's your knowledge of the "how the educational world works" world which supplies the clues.

b) Inferring non-explicitly stated meaning

Look at the following text message. How is the person travelling? : Will be late. We're on the motorway and we've had a flat tyre. The driver's waiting for them to send a replacement.You can imagine - fifty passengers all complaining.
The text doesn't tell you explicitly. But your knowledge of what the motorway is immediately rules out various possibilities - train, plane, boat, bicycle. The writer's own car is ruled out by the reference to "the driver" and this leads you to interpret "them" as meaning some sort of transport company. It could be a taxi firm - but again, in the next sentence your knowledge of the world tells you that no taxi could take fifty passengers - so you infer that they must have been travelling by coach. Notice that none of this is explicitly stated in the text - it's all in your interpretation.

c) Inferring the meaning of unknown words.

Be careful if you go down to the beach. the bonxies are nesting and they get really aggressive if you go too near their eggs. They'll attack you and can really hurt. John had to go to hospital last week.

Unless you're from the Shetland Isles, bonxie* is probably an unknown word for you. But you can work out what it means from a combination of the information in the co-text and your knowledge of the world - you understand nesting and eggs in the co-text, and your knowledge of the world tells you : a) that birds build nests and lay eggs so bonxies must be birds, b) that as it's by the beach they must be seabirds, and c) that as they can hurt you seriously they must be quite large. (For a detailed look at this subskill and example see here and here.)

d) Inferring the attitude of the speaker/writer

Attitude may not be expressed explicitly but through eg the connotations inherent in the words chosen. For example, what would be your interpretation of the speakers's attitude (admiring? critical? unstated?) to a person if she was described as in (i) or (ii) below?
i) She's interested in everything we do.

ii) She pries into everything we do.

So listening and reading are active processes in which the listener/reader is not simply "taking in" explicitly stated information, but is also working on it and interpreting in the light of its own meaning,  of other elements stated in the text, and also of extra-textual "knowledge of the world". This causes two problems for our learners :

a) particularly when listening, they may have to devote so much attention to actually decoding the words they hear (bottom up processing) that they don't have time to work on the information in this way (top-down processing).

b) "knowledge of the world" may differ from culture to culture. For example, if a student says I've got an exam tomorrow, the typical British person will imagine a large room with students at individual desks doing a written paper, all with the same questions, under timed conditions, with an invigilator watching to check that there is no communication between students, no-one is referring to textbooks, notes or other reference sources etc. An Italian person's mental image (schema) of the same thing might be quite different : an oral exam taken by an individual student in front of a panel of examiners, and watched by other students who are waiting to take the same exam but who will be asked slightly different questions. Clearly, if the reader/listener's schema is different from that of the speaker/writer, this may lead them to an interpretation that is not actually true.

*Bonxie is the Shetland dialect word for Skua - and if you want to see what it's like to be attacked by one, have a look here

Further Reading

Grellet, F. Developing Reading Skills, CUP