Presentation Details

The Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

Wordplay Ambiguity: Bringing Clarity to Second Language Learners’

Dr. Virginia Costa.

Most students’ experience of English in Hong Kong is based on a traditional approach that places grammar and vocabulary learning as the central focus of attention, without much bearing on their relationship to meaning and use. The many years spent preparing for examinations that test this grammar and vocabulary knowledge provide students with the necessary skills to pass their examinations in basic comprehension type tests and fill-the gap exercises, but do not necessarily equip students with the ability to use their knowledge to understand non-academic language texts such as advertisements, headlines and photocaptions.

Several groups of Hong Kong students in a tertiary institution in Hong Kong were given the chance to engage with authentic non-academic texts that contained wordplay ambiguity. This was an attempt to develop their ability to probe texts for meaning, and to promote greater awareness of how text and word meaning derive from the writer’s intention and the presence of multiple cues, including visual and intertextual cues. This presentation reports on students’ development over a year-long course that encouraged students’ exploration of meaning in advertising and other short texts. The need to situate the text, and to determine intended meanings from a number of potential meanings in texts containing wordplay ambiguity provided a challenge requiring students to confront their own insecurities and apply critical thinking when deciding upon intended text meaning.


Dr. Virginia Costa  (Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of China)
Senior Lecturer
Division of Language Studies
City University of Hong Kong

Virginia Costa is a Senior Lecturer in the Division of Language Studies at the City University of Hong Kong. She has experience in ESL/EFL in Australia, France, China and Hong Kong. She has taught at primary, secondary and tertiary levels and has written course texts for use in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Hong Kong. Her interests include wordplay ambiguity in second language acquisition, discourse analysis, cross-cultural communication, humour studies, and language education.

  • Wordplay ambiguity
  • Advertisements
  • Headlines
  • Photocaptions
  • Hong Kong
  • Second language learners
  • Intertextual
  • Potential meanings
  • Intended meanings

(30 min. Conference Paper, English)