Figurative language acquisition
In this installment of the linguistic departmental seminar, the guest of honor is Ingrid L. Falkum. The topic of the talk is language acquisition in the area of semantics and pragmatics, and it is discussed by means of experimental method: Eye-tracking and picture selection.
It is widely agreed that a pragmatic ability, enabling the expression and recognition of communicative intents, is present early in development. For instance, children rely on their pragmatic abilities in word learning, which requires intention reading, knowledge of discourse status, inferences about speakers’ word choices, and some types of perspective taking.
At the same time, a large body of evidence suggests that until quite late in development, children have difficulties with certain pragmatic inferences that require them to go beyond the literal meaning of the linguistic form used to obtain the meaning intended by the speaker, as in implicature and uses of figurative language.
This makes pragmatic development seem like something of a puzzle: How can children be early experts at a pragmatically complex task such as word learning, but later have difficulty inferring what a speaker means in using a figurative expression? What is it about figurative uses that poses a challenge to children’s acquisition?
In this talk I present two recent experiments, conducted in collaboration with Franziska Köder, which investigate figurative language comprehension in children aged 3-8 years, focusing on metonymy and irony. Using a novel methodology which combines an online (eye-tracking) and an offline (picture selection) measure, we were able to shed light on some possible causes of children’s early difficulties with figurative language comprehension.
While the results of the metonymy comprehension task suggest that picture selection might underestimate children’s understanding compared to eye-tracking, the results of the irony comprehension task suggest that children might be sensitive to some cues to ironical intent while ignoring others. We discuss these results in the light of children’s developing pragmatic competence.