It was long thought that children's pragmatic abilities - that is, those which enable inferences to the intended meanings - were something of a late acquisition. This has been disconfirmed by recent experimental evidence. Already during the preschool years, children rely on their abilities to infer speaker intentions in learning the meaning of new words, in their use and understanding of gestures and pronouns, and in interpreting complex noun phrases. So the view of young communicators has changed from an assumption of lack of pragmatic abilities to one of surprisingly well-functioning pragmatics. But there is one puzzling exception: During the preschool years, children tend to have difficulties with non-literal uses of language, that is, cases where they have to go beyond conventional word meanings to arrive at the speaker intended meaning. For instance, they may interpret a metaphorical utterance of 'John is a lion' as communicating that John is a kind of animal rather than a brave and strong person.
This project focuses on Norwegian-speaking children, both with typical development and with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and their use and understanding of non-literal language, including neologism, concept adjustment, irony and so-called implicatures. Through use of a novel methodological framework, combining explicit and implicit measures of understanding, the project will investigate the hypothesis that children?s growing sensitivity to sense conventions in language acquisition impedes their pragmatic inferences with non-literal uses of language. The project will contribute new theoretical insights into typical and atypical development of communicative abilities, with broad applied implications for language acquisition, learning and education.
For Work Packages 1 and 2: ?The atypical development of lexical innovation (WP1) and lexical modulation (WP2), four studies are currently in various stages of development that will evaluate comprehension of lexical innovation among children with autism spectrum conditions (ASC) and typical development: two studies on novel metonymy comprehension, two studies on loose use, as well as a potential fifth study to assess novel metaphor comprehension. We are also in the process of adapting a novel sense convention assessment to Spanish which will work to assess whether difficulties in non-literal language comprehension present in ASC stem from a heightened sensitivity to sense conventions.
For Work Package 3: The typical and atypical development of irony and manner implicatures (WP3), we have designed a forced choice picture selection task to examine children?s increasing sensitivity to conventions and a project that will explore the relationship between irony comprehension and sensitivity to conventions. These tests, together with a battery of background tests, are now ready for piloting which will start shortly in kindergartens and schools in the Oslo area.
In recent years, as a result of a growing body of evidence from a number of pragmatic tasks, the general view of children's early pragmatic abilities – that is, the cognitive abilities enabling the expression and comprehension of communicative intentions – has changed from an assumption of lack of pragmatic skills to one of surprisingly well-functioning pragmatics. In this light, pre-school children's difficulties with non-literal uses of language, that is, cases where they have to go beyond the conventional senses of the words to arrive at the speaker’s intended meaning (e.g., 'John is a lion', conveying 'very strong'), are puzzling.
The project's objective is to provide an account of the stages and factors involved in children's developing competence with non-literal uses of language, focusing on typical development and the atypical development of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, whose pragmatic difficulties with non-literal uses are still poorly understood. Through studies of children's performance on production and comprehension tasks involving lexical innovation, lexical modulation, irony and manner implicatures, we investigate the hypothesis that children's growing sensitivity to sense conventions impedes their pragmatic reasoning with non-literal uses. The project uses a set of novel methodologies which combine explicit and implicit measures, assuming that while children's performance on explicit measures is liable to be affected by a growing sensitivity to sense conventions, implicit measures may be more revealing of their actual pragmatic abilities. The empirical results will provide input to a novel theoretical account of pragmatic development that resolves the developmental puzzle of non-literal uses of language. Better knowledge of the underlying causes of a challenging domain of children's language and communication may inform the development of educational and intervention programs and help optimise children's learning contexts and outcomes.