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Comprehending figurative language

Date Released: Tue, 14 June 2011 09:46 +0200

Recently Kristin van der Merwe did a presentation at a departmental research seminar on a study which looked at the comprehension of figurative language, namely idioms and similes, in three groups of boys between the ages of 8 and 10. These three groups included typically developing Afrikaans first language speakers, typically developing Afrikaans second language speakers and Afrikaans first language speakers with specific language impairment (SLI).

The study aimed to assess whether, or to what degree, the three groups of children were able to comprehend idioms and similes. Children experiencing language disorders, including children with SLI, have often been noted to have difficulty in comprehending figurative language, to a greater or lesser degree. Children with SLI have a normal non-verbal IQ and lower verbal IQ. They are said to be following the developmental path of that of a younger child. SLI affects both receptive and expressive language. Children with SLI typically have problems with grammar, narrative construction, using language to reason, context and speaker intention, semantic and word recall difficulties and emotional, behavioural, social or academic difficulties.

Idioms and their meanings are said to be entered into an adult’s mental lexicon and then retrieved as a whole unit much like individual words. But idioms are experienced largely as novel sentences for children. Initially no contexts were provided for the idioms, but if the participant produced an incorrect or literal answer for the idiom, the idiom was placed in context.  The participants’ answers were then scored as either correct, related, restatement, unrelated answer, literal interpretation or no response. Below one can see some example answers supplied by the participants for the idiom Ek is nie onder ‘n kalkoen uitgebroei nie (I was not hatched out from under a turkey which means that you are not stupid):

  • Correct answer: Ek is nie stupid nie. (I am not stupid.)
  • Related answer: Ek lyk nie so simpel soos ‘n turkey nie. (I don’t look as stupid as a turkey.)
  • Restatement: ‘n Kalkoen het my nie in ‘n eier gelê nie. (A turkey didn’t lay me in an egg.)
  • Unrelated answer: Jy kom nie uit ‘n kalkoen nie, jy kom uit ‘n hoender uit. ’n Hoender broei jou uit,dan is jy net ‘n kleintjie, dan raak jy net so groot soos hy.(You don’t come out of a turkey; you come out of a chicken. I chicken hatches you out they you are just a small chicken then you grow to be as big as that chicken.)
  • Literal interpretation: Ek is uit my ma se maag uitgebroei. (I was hatched out of my mother’s stomach.)
  • No response: Ek weet nie. (I don’t know.)

It can be argued that there is a category missing here and that might be “plausible figurative answers”. For example, when a child was asked about the meaning of the phrase Die koeel is deur die kerk (the bullet is through the church,) which means that something is over and done with, he responded by saying that Die dominee is dood (the minister is dead).This response seems to suggest that the child interpreted the idiom in somewhat of a euphemistic manner. Might this be seen as an ability to infer figurative meaning?

As far as the results of the study are concerned, performance of the SLI group proved to be only slightly inferior to that of the other two groups, but no statistically significant differences were found among the three groups. The use of context proved to be beneficial to all groups. However it proved to be most beneficial for the children with SLI. This is an interesting finding given that younger children are said to be more reliant on context. It seems to indicate that children with SLI are indeed following the developmental path of that of a younger child. The similes proved easier for all groups to comprehend, most likely due to their greater explicitness.

The second language participants were asked to translate the idioms and similes into English. It was found that the Afrikaans idioms and similes were seldom likened to their English equivalents. Idioms which were semantically and syntactically similar or identical to the Afrikaans sentences often incited literal interpretations. Incorrect phonological transfers also appeared to create confusion and to obscure meaning. The L2 speakers’ difficulties possibly arose from a lack of familiarity with figurative language, an inability to grasp figurative language, and/or a lack of proficiency in Afrikaans. Pedagogical implications and recommendations were also discussed.