Thursday, 29 September 2011

Children’s response to irony with irony


Children as young as 7 years old can produce verbal irony

When a person we are with produces an ironic remark it is quite usual for us to respond to that comment with our own ironic remark. The comment ‘Beautiful weather, isn’t it?’ made in the middle of a summer thunderstorm might elicit the response ‘Yes, I’ve put my sunscreen on so that I don’t get sunburn’. This type of response can be termed ‘mode-adoption’ to reflect the way that a speaker is continuing the conversation’s ironic tone.

We know that irony has a number of different functions in verbal communication. It allows a speaker to be humorous, it can be used to mock or tease or it can soften (or intensify) a hurtful comment. The most common form of irony, ironic criticism, is characterised by the use of a positive statement to convey a negative meaning as in the remark about the weather in the above example. Less usual is an ironic compliment, saying something negative to mean something positive, as in the sentence ‘This tastes so horrible’ from someone who is clearly enjoying a delicious cake. Being able to understand verbal irony and having the ability to produce ironic remarks reflect advanced social reasoning. These are useful social tools – the skilful use of irony can demonstrate a high level of social competence. But at what age do we begin to acquire these skills?

Children begin to understand irony from a young age. At around age 5-6 they will understand that a speaker holds a belief contrary to the literal meaning of what has been said and at around the age of 9-10 they will develop an appreciation of humour in irony. Very little is known, though, about children’s ability to produce ironic remarks themselves. To bridge this gap in knowledge, researchers Whelan and Pexman have conducted experiments to investigate the development of children’s understanding and ability to produce irony, and in particular the development of ‘mode-adoption’, the ability to produce verbal irony in response to others’ ironic remarks.

In the first of two experiments, 65 children aged between 7 and 11 years old were presented with 9 short stories played in random order on a laptop. Each story ended in a negative outcome. After 6 of the stories the experimenter made an ironic criticism ‘What a wonderful way to end the day’ and after 3 of the stories the experimenter made a literal remark ‘What a terrible way to end the day’. After the experimenter comment the child was given the opportunity to voluntarily respond to the experimenter’s remark and if they didn’t respond voluntarily, they were prompted to do so. The experimenter then asked the child some brief comprehension questions. In this experiment the children of all ages were very successful in understanding the speaker’s true belief when ironic criticisms were made. The results also showed that children as young as 7 mode-adopted by responding with an ironic remark. However, mode-adoption increased with age – the 11 year olds were significantly more likely to engage in mode-adoption than the 7 and 9 year old age groups.

The second experiment was designed to determine when children start producing irony in response to ironic compliments. It is generally considered that an understanding of ironic compliments emerges later than an understanding of ironic criticism. In this experiment, 68 (different) children aged 7-11 were similarly shown 9 short stories with the same story topic as for the first experiment except that the story outcomes were positive. At the end of each story the same experimenter used either an ironic or a literal compliment and then followed the same procedure as for Experiment 1. In this experiment the results showed that the older children were able to appreciate the speaker’s belief more accurately than younger children although the difference did not reach significance in the statistical analysis. This experiment also showed that children as young as 7 mode-adopted and responded to ironic compliments with an ironic remark. However, there was no development in mode-adoption with age; mode-adoption occurred among the 11 year olds but not the 9 year olds. 

The researchers’ take-home message from these experiments is that children ‘can, and sometimes do, respond to verbal irony by producing ironic utterances of their own’. Like adults, they share the tendency to mode-adopt in conversation and this starts to develop quite early on. The experimenters admit that their approach may not mirror what happens in everyday conversations and suggest that observation of naturalistic data would provide an ideal follow-up study.

Whalen, J. and Pexman, P. (2010). How do children respond to verbal irony in face-to-face communication? The development of mode-adoption across middle childhood. Discourse Processes 47: 363-387.
doi: 10.1080/01638530903347635

This summary was written by Sue Fox

Monday, 26 September 2011

Children’s Early Actions in Language Learning

Pointing is one of the first communicative devices that children acquire between 9 and 12 months

How do children’s first words come about? Are children passive receivers of their caregivers’ linguistic input? Many studies have focused on the input of the parent and regard a child’s naming of objects and actions at the age of around 12 months as the natural outcome of the frequently occurring utterances based on highly routinized activities such as eating and washing. Others have looked at pre-verbal interaction such as joint visual attention between parent and child to physical objects as a pre-requisite for learning to name objects. According to this view, the child and parent both look at the same object, the parent then names it and the child subsequently acquires a shared understanding of meaning. But what about children’s actions and their first utterances – what role do these things play in acquiring the shared meanings of words and in the production of first recognisable words?

Researchers Laakso, Helasvuo and Savinainen-Makkonen, all working on a project of Child’s developing language and interaction, have been analysing the pointing actions of young children used alongside their first utterances to see how these things relate to the shift from non-verbal communication to actual speaking. They have also been examining the responses of parents to the child’s pointing and first utterances in order to see how they are sequentially organised.

The team analysed approximately 12 hours of parent-child interactions comprised of 23 videotaped recordings of four children aged around 12 months. They were particularly interested in gazing, proto-words (these are the first articulated word-like structures which do not yet have a referential linguistic meaning) and pointing. They found that all the children used pointing to initiate interaction with their parents and that the children’s gestures were mainly accompanied by proto-words or other sounds. However, although the proto-word remained the same in many cases, the parents did not always interpret them in the same way. The different interpretations seemed to be affected by the context and the accompanying non-verbal activities.

Sometimes the interaction initiated a naming sequence. The child would look and point at something while uttering the proto-word and the parent would then say something along the lines of ‘yes’ (to indicate that the caregiver understands the child) and go on to name the possible thing that the child was pointing at. For example, in one sequence the child utters a proto-word while she looks and points towards a window where there are two butterflies hanging for decoration. The parent says ‘yeah, they are those butterflies there in the window’. These child-initiated naming sequences consisted of two parts – the initiative action by the child and the interpretation supplied by the parent.

On other occasions the child’s actions were interpreted as a request for something by the parent. The researchers offer two examples. The first is a meal time where the child rejects the offer of food from the mother and turns instead and, while uttering the proto-word, points towards the sink. The mother sees this as a request for water and when she gives the child some water, the child is satisfied. In the second example, the child points and leans towards a flower, trying to reach it. The mother treats the action as a naming referent but the child clearly wants to have the flower and so rejects this interpretation by crying. These examples are considered to be interactive three-part sequences with the child’s request, caregiver’s response and the child’s acceptance/rejection.

The researchers emphasise that in contrast to studies that stress the input of the parent in language acquisition their study shows that it is most often the child who initiates the interaction by using proto-words and pointing. The responses of the parent then provide a model of adult production of the words and meanings that the child is trying to express. This is the model for the child’s first words which gradually emerge from the proto-words. Importantly, this work nicely captures the notion that language acquisition is embedded in social interaction.


Laakso, M., Helasvuo, M-L. and Savinainen-Makkonen, T. (2010). Children’s Early Actions in Learning Language: A Study of Proto-words and Pointing Gestures in Interaction between One-year-old Child and Parent. Sky Journal of Linguistics 23: 199-226.

This summary was written by Sue Fox

Friday, 23 September 2011

Prof, I need help! lol

E-mail exchanges can affect educational interactions

Does the title of this article reflect an appropriate way for a student to request help from a professor? E-mails are a common form of student-professor communication but, sharing aspects of written and spoken language as they do, they are also by nature rather informal and arguably allow more personal communication than face-to-face interactions. This informality may not be suitable for all exchanges. Some studies have even suggested that instructors are less willing to help with requests when they are conveyed in overly casual e-mails. A student’s ability to modify his/her e-mail style would therefore seem to carry educational advantages.
Researchers Knupsky and Nagy-Bell have conducted experiments in order to compare the personalization and politeness of e-mails written to peers versus professors. They invited undergraduate females aged 18-22 from introductory psychology classes to construct an e-mail requesting help from either a) a male peer from the same class (16) b) a female peer from the same class (16) c) a male professor (17) or d) a female professor (17), making a total of 66 e-mails examined. The participants were given a scenario in which they were told to ask for help on a topic which was likely to come up in an exam in two days time. The same name was used for the male/female professor (Professor Hillman) and for the male/female peer (Jamie) to reduce the influence of name preference. The relationship between the sender and recipient was described as friendly but not intimate.
The e-mails were then examined by two trained judges for number of words used, number of personal pronouns, number of exclamation marks and number of negative/positive adjuncts used. They were also judged for grammaticality and overall personalization using Likert scales, with scores of 0 indicating not at all grammatical/personal and scores of 6 indicating very grammatical/personal. For grammar, features such as punctuation, capitalization and spelling were considered and for personalization ratings, such things as formality and word choice were considered. The judges also examined the presence/absence of greetings and closings, the formality of the greeting (when it occurred) and also calculated scores for writing complexity.
The results showed that the only significant effect of recipient sex was that the participants were more likely to use greetings when writing to male peers. Overall, though, there was a trend for e-mails to be more personal and more polite when the recipient was female. The effect of status of the recipient was significant; participants were more likely to write more personalized and more polite e-mails to their peers than to their professors. While this might be a surprising result, Knupsky and Nagy-Bell suggest that it may reflect the fact that students know that there is a faculty obligation for professors to help them with their requests. On the other hand, there is no such obligation on the part of their class peers and the e-mails may therefore require broader politeness markers in order to justify the request. It may also be that the students acknowledged time impingements for professors and therefore kept their e-mails more concise. The participants did however use more formal greetings when addressing the professors and significantly greater written complexity, suggesting that they adjusted their language upwards in this context.
A limitation of the study is that it was conducted using experimental techniques with fictitious recipients; knowing the characteristics of the recipient may well have an effect on e-mail style. The authors also acknowledge that the e-mails were limited to requests and the results may therefore not apply to other forms of communication. Nevertheless, it provides a step towards an understanding of how e-mail exchanges can affect educational interactions.
Knuptsky, A. and Nagy-Bell, N. (2011). Dear Professor: The influence of recipient sex and status on personalization and politeness in E-mail. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 30(1): 103-113.
doi: 10.1177/0261927X10387104

This summary was written by Sue Fox

Friday, 2 September 2011

Using metaphor to talk about emotionally difficult topics

How do we talk about emotional and sometimes painful experiences? Do we address them full on and talk about them in an open and direct way? Or do we avoid talking about them altogether? Many people find such topics difficult to talk about and use linguistic strategies in order to cope with these situations.  One way is by the use of metaphor. Researchers Karmen Erjavec and Zala Volčič have been investigating the ways in which adolescent girls born of war rapes in Bosnia and Herzegovina use metaphorical language as a way of expressing their painful situations.

Studies have shown that victims of abuse often find it difficult to make sense of what has happened to them and have difficulty in telling their stories. They are often considered to be a ‘muted’ group without the means of expression to help them define their own experience. Erjavec and Volčič show how victims born of war rape use appropriate language to describe their own experiences.

They interviewed nineteen Bosnian female adolescents aged between 14 and 16 years old who were willing to tell their stories. Most lived with their mothers and all were aware of the way they had been conceived. The interviews took place in locations chosen by the girls and lasted between one and two hours. The interviewees were asked a very general open question such as 'Please tell me your life story, and share with me whatever you think is relevant' but this technique did not elicit a coherent story from the participants and so they were then asked four questions at the end of the talk which were directly connected to the study of self-presentation. These were; 1) How would you describe yourself? 2) How do you describe your situation? 3) Who are the most important and influential people in your life? How do you think they perceive you? 4) Which crucial events define your life and in what ways did these events affect you? One of the main findings of the study was that seventeen of the nineteen girls interviewed 'used metaphors as the only possible way to describe their situation' and only two of the girls did not use (only) metaphors to describe themselves, their situation and important people. The girls used the metaphors as a way of avoiding vocabulary directly associated with describing painful situations.

The researchers identified three major themes of metaphors. The first theme, called ‘I am a shooting target’, referred to the use of metaphors by girls who see themselves as being the object of attack. The metaphors were drawn from the semantic field of warfare and included terms such as ‘shooting target’, ‘to attack’, ‘traitor’, cowardly enemies’ and ‘to struggle’ to describe their life experiences. The researchers note the fact that war discourse is still socially dominant in Bosnia Herzegovina even though it is more than 14 years since the war ended.  The second theme which they label ‘I am a cancer’ refers to metaphors drawn from the semantic field of illness. They include terms such as ‘cancer’, ‘cells’, ‘malignant cells’, ‘uncontrolled division of cells’ and ‘blood’ which were used predominantly by four girls who were not publicly known to be children born of war rape. The researchers claim that ‘their descriptions revealed the way in which they internal­ized the knowledge of their situation as a kind of hidden disease’. Finally, they identify a third theme of ‘I am a fighter’ to refer to the use of metaphors by two of the interviewed girls. Drawn also from the semantic field of warfare, the researchers claim that the use of terms such as ‘a fighter’, ‘a struggle for peace’, ‘a peaceful force’, ‘a war’, ‘a hero’ and ‘a pact’ by these girls invokes positive associations and allows them to ‘claim their own status as survivors of war crimes’.

The study provides interesting insights into the linguistic strategies that speakers employ in such situations and importantly, claim the researchers, the study ‘has uncovered severe abuse of adolescents who are already victims of war crimes, and an urgent need for intervention to protect them’. They conclude by urging that coverage of the topic of adolescents born of war rape in local media and in political, educational and academic discussions should not be social taboo, ‘which only contributes to the public stigmatization of adolescents who are already the victims of abuse, injustice, discrimina­tion and ethnic hatred’.

Erjavec, K. and Volčič, Z. (2010). ‘Target’, ‘cancer’ and ‘warrior’: Exploring painful
metaphors of self-presentation used by girls born of war rape.  Discourse and Society 21(5), 524-543. doi: 10.1177/0957926510373981

This summary was written by Sue Fox