Speaking ironically to children: analysis of instances of figurative language in child-directed speech in the Providence corpus of CHILDES

The importance of adult-child interaction in language acquisition is undeniable: The quantity and quality of language input is widely accepted as a key factor for the development of language and pragmatic skills (e.g. Hoff, 2003; Huttenlocher, 1991). For the last three decades, research on development of irony comprehension in children was an important contribution to the area of social and language development (see e.g. Milanowicz & Bokus, 2011; Recchia et al., 2010). However, there has been no research on the linguistic input considering figurative speech that children receive in their first three years of life.

The aim of our research is to fill this gap. We planned to check how often – if at all – ironic comments are present in child directed speech when the interaction takes place between a mother and a child as young as three. Moreover, once it was found that children are exposed to irony that early, we were interested in the types of ironic comments used.
We identified ironic utterances in the videos of 200 hours of recordings that included mother-child interactions of six children aged 2;11 – 3;05, available through the CHILDES – Providence Data (Demuth et al., 2006). The extracts were then assessed by competent judges to make sure the identified instances meet the criteria for verbal irony (Dynel, 2014).

Preliminary results suggest that during nearly each hour of conversation between a mother and a child, at least one instance of irony occurs in one of the mothers’ conversational turns directed to three-year olds, with the personal “criticism through praise” irony as the most common type of ironic utterance. It is a relevant discovery which outlines new prospects for research and may be the basis for future work of researchers interested in nonliteral communication, inferencing, figurative language comprehension, parent-child interactions and language acquisition.
We will present the types of ironic utterances used by the caregivers, some of which include: blame irony, hyperbole, playful irony and auto-irony.


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