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When children use shared knowledge to interpret irony

Zajaczkowska, Maria Katarzyna, Abbot-Smith, Kirsten, Kim, Christina S. (2019) When children use shared knowledge to interpret irony. In: Child Language Symposium, 11th-12th July 2019, Sheffield, UK. (The full text of this publication is not currently available from this repository. You may be able to access a copy if URLs are provided) (KAR id:75329)

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For an ironic meaning to be successfully conveyed, a speaker and listener need to know what information they share. Thus, if a speaker says (1) where the listener can see that the footballer missed the goal, then they share the knowledge needed for the listener to infer that (1) is ironic. However, if the listener is in another room, then this knowledge is not shared and thus the listener may interpret this literally.

(1) That was a great shot!”

This kind of understanding of what others know is often referred to as Theory of Mind. Irony interpretation is also likely to incur an Executive Function (EF) load. Previous studies investigating the role of either Theory of Mind or EF on irony interpretation in children have used correlational designs. The only exception is a study by Nilsen, Glenwright and Huyder (2011), who presented children with vignettes similar to the one above in which a speaker and listener either shared the knowledge necessary for the listener to understand the ironic intent (SHARED KNOWLEDGE CONDITION) or the listener did not have visual access to the requisite knowledge (NON-SHARED KNOWLEDGE CONDITION). They found that 7-year-olds olds did not take the shared knowledge into account when determining how the listener would interpret the utterances.

However, this study – like almost all others in the field of irony interpretation – required children to give meta-pragmatic judgements; that is, they had to say whether the listener believed that the shot was good or bad. Meta-pragmatic ability develops slowly and indeed may not relate to actual pragmatic language ability (e.g. Collins, Lockton & Adams, 2014). Therefore, in the current study, we developed a more ecologically valid measure; children were instead asked to decide which out of two responses the listener might give as a reply (see (2) versus (3).

(2) LITERAL INTERPREATION: Was it? So our team won?

(3) IRONIC INTERPRETATION: I know! It’s a pity that he missed.

In addition to the within-subjects manipulation of Shared vs. Non-Shared Knowledge, we also assigned our 7-year-old participants (N = 78) to one of three between-subjects Flexibility conditions, to determine whether the interpretation of irony is more difficult if participants are required to switch between Shared versus Non-Shared Knowledge vignettes (= high EF load) than when participants are administered each condition in blocks.

A binomial mixed effect model found that 7-year-olds do take shared knowledge into account when selecting the listener’s response (p < .001). There was no main effect or interaction with Flexibility condition. We are thus the first to experimentally demonstrate the role of Theory of Mind in how children as young as seven years interpret ironic utterances.

Item Type: Conference or workshop item (Paper)
Uncontrolled keywords: irony; common ground; children
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology > BF41 Psychology and philosophy
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Human and Social Sciences > School of Psychology
Depositing User: Kirsten Abbot-Smith
Date Deposited: 14 Jul 2019 07:28 UTC
Last Modified: 16 Feb 2021 14:05 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

University of Kent Author Information

Zajaczkowska, Maria Katarzyna.

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Abbot-Smith, Kirsten.

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Kim, Christina S..

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