French-Speaking Children's Understanding of Sarcasm: The Role of Intonation and Context

Laval, Virginie; Bert-Erboul, Alain
June 2005
Journal of Speech, Language & Hearing Research;Jun2005, Vol. 48 Issue 3, p610
Academic Journal
The aim of this study was to examine a form of sarcasm that has hardly been considered to date, sarcastic requests, at an earlier period of development than addressed in past developmental research. This article looked specifically at the role of intonation and context in sarcastic-request understanding by native French-speaking children ages 3 to 7 years. Forty-eight children (16 per group) had to complete stories that varied on 2 factors: intonation (sarcastic and neutral) and context (sarcastic and neutral). To maximize the contrast between the 2 types of intonation, the same phrase expressing sarcasm was added at the end of each test utterance. As a methodological control, the intonation of this phrase was evaluated both acoustically (by a computerized signal editor) and perceptually (by a group of adult participants). It turned out that the experimental task was too difficult for the 3-year-olds. However, this study offers some highly interesting information about sarcastic-request understanding by 5- and 7-year-olds. The ability to take into account cues that help children understand sarcastic requests evolves considerably between the ages of 5 and 7:5-year-olds appear to primarily base their interpretation on intonation; it is not until they are 7 that children are also able to take context into account. Thus, intonation seems to be an earlier cue than context in sarcastic-request understanding.


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