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Do multilingual children recognize irony better than monolingual children?

If a friend hands me a cup of cold coffee, I can let them know that I’m not happy about it by frowning heavily, tilting my head slightly and saying “What a nice cup of coffee!” in a grumpy tone. My friend will immediately catch my meaning and understand that I am being ironic. In ironic expressions, verbal information (the words you say) and non-verbal information (what you do with your face, the rest of your body and your intonation) do not match. So to understand an ironic sentence, you have to be able to recognize this mismatching information and understand that the speaker means the opposite of what they say.

For children, irony is very difficult. Children begin to understand ironic sentences when they are around 5. Since previous research shows that multilingual children pay more attention to non-verbal information than their monolingual peers, we wondered whether multilingual children are better at recognizing irony than monolingual children.

This past year, 120 children aged 5 to 7 participated in our study. Half of the children were monolingual (Dutch-speaking) and the other half had learned at least one other language besides Dutch. Children did a variety of language tasks either at school or in their homes. The main task was the ‘irony task’: children watched videos of different speakers saying phrases like, “What a nice car!”. The speakers said these lines in either an ironic way or a non-ironic way. The task for the children was to decide for each phrase whether they thought the speaker really meant what he said or not. Not only their decision (that is, is the phrase ironic? Yes or no?) was measured, but also the speed with which they gave their answer.

The preliminary results show that all children responded more slowly to ironic than to non-ironic utterances. This suggests that these are more difficult to recognize. The multilingual children had more difficulty recognizing irony than monolingual children. For non-ironic phrases, there was no difference between the groups.

Why monolingual children recognized ironic sentences more easily may be because they were able to process speech more fluently. For example, if you are still busy understanding what you hear, you may pay less attention to what you see, even if you pick up non-verbal information better.  With further analysis and a follow-up study, we will try to find a good explanation. The final findings will be shared with you in a future newsletter, so stay tuned!

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