Comprehension of communicative intentions: The case of figurative language

Year
2009
Volume 10
Issue 2
Pages
245-278
Authors
Francesca M. Bosco, Marianna Vallana, & Monica Bucciarelli
Abstract
This study is concerned with children’s comprehension of the communicative meaning of conventional figurative communication acts. We assume that comprehending the communicative meaning of both figurative and non-figurative communication acts involves the same cognitive processes. We hypothesize that the complexity of the mental representations involved accounts for the increasing difficulty in comprehending the very same conventional figurative expression, uttered with a sincere, deceitful or ironic intent. A pre-test on 20 children (7 to 7; 6 year-olds) ascertained the conventionality of the 6 figurative expressions used as the experimental material, e.g. To be as mute as a fish. For each figurative expression we created three different communicative contexts, within which that expression acquired either a sincere, deceitful or ironic communicative meaning. In the experiment, we presented 108 children aged 7 to 10; 6 years with brief audio-recorded stories, each involving a figurative expression in a specific communicative context. The children’s performance reflects the predicted trend in difficulty for comprehending the use of the very same figurative expression, from the easiest to the most difficult: sincere, deceitful, ironic. Our results are in favor of a unifying framework for explaining the comprehension of figurative and non-figurative communication acts.

Keywords: cognitive pragmatics, speaker’s meanning, development, communication and inferences