Social-Cognitive and Pragmatic Aspects of Language Acquisition from a Developmental Perspective
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The dissertation is rooted in an empirical study investigating the social-cognitive background of the different aspects of pragmatic competence (metaphor-, humor-, irony comprehension and the recognition of the infringement of conversational maxims), and their relationship to Theory of Mind (ToM) skills. The empirical study serving as the backbone of the dissertation is based on two ToM tests: a verbal, first- and second order test (Wimmer and Perner 1983) and a novel non-verbal eyes-test developed by the author (Schnell 2012). We compare nonverbal and verbal ToM test results with performance in both verbal and non verbal tasks of pragmatic competence to see if there is a verbal performance limitation as hypothesized by some researchers in cognitive development (Astington and Jenkins 1999). The results suggest that ToM skills and pragmatic competence do correlate, and that verbal ToM tasks prove to be more predictive in forecasting pragmatic abilities. Furthermore, the cognitive mechanisms responsible for humor and irony processing are different. Children were more successful in irony tasks than in humor tasks, suggesting that they rely on different heuristics, possibly on a short-cut strategy in irony comprehension, and make use of ToM skills only when simpler heuristics and mental strategies fall short or do not suffice. The dissertation also targets neuropragmatic investigations, mapping noncompositional processing abilities (conventional metaphor, unconventional metaphor, irony, humor and success in maxim infringement recognition) in schizophrenia, tracking the cognitive mechanisms of interpretation with fMRI brain imaging techniques. The findings reveal that irony processing is in fact easier than that of metaphor and humor not only in the developmental but also in the pathological conditions since a compensatory strategy triggered by salient prosody and intonation (i.e. distinctive features of irony) and by linguistic surface cues provides a shortcut in the deciphering of intended meaning. This also reveals that irony and metaphor processing seem to be based on fairly distinct cognitive mechanisms, just as irony and humor interpretation. These findings on the cognitive background of holistic interpretation provide a novel and fruitful framework for clarifications in the otherwise fuzzy definitional overlap of these polysemous forms of language in cognitive linguistics, psycholinguistics and humor research. Neuropragmatic investigations also confirm the facilitating role of contextual cues in interpretation, revealing that in the irony with surface cue condition success rates of patients’ understanding ironies significantly improved, what’s more, cues even normalized brain activation patterns. The results provide important data for the resolution of long-standing debates on the relationship of language and mentalization: whether there is a relationship between the two at all and if so, what the direction of this relationship may be. The findings of the present investigation suggest a bidirectional relationship between ToM and language in cognitive development where basic level mentalization is indispensable for early language acquisition, then language takes the lead by providing embedded structures which serve as the framework of embedded thoughts, thus ToM, our guideline in attributing thoughts when deciphering speaker’s intention and thus speaker’s meaning. Then this basic mentalizing ability gives ground to further linguistic, i.e. pragmatic development enabling productive, interactive discourse organization. The dissertation contributes to current social-cognitive and psycholinguistic research in that it investigates different aspects of pragmatic competence and their cognitive developmental background; clarifies fuzzy definitions of metaphor vs. irony and humor vs. irony; examines all four maxims of the Gricean CP concurrently, and applies not only prefabricated but spontaneous and non verbal humor stimuli. Furthermore, its methodology integrates current theoretical debates, namely, if verbalization truly represents a form of performance limitation. In doing so, a novel non-verbal test of mentalization is created, outlined, and adapted for the age group of the sample. It also discusses developmental findings parallel to neurocognitive research results. In the neuropragmatic chapters the study relies on fMRI brain imaging technique, which reflects the conviction that speech processing is a function of the human brain, and in understanding the psycholinguistics of non-compositional language comprehension neurocognitive processes need to be integrated. The dissertation thus applies a methodology that stems from natural sciences, and sees language as an important part of human biology. It also advocates the view that in understanding the working of the human mind language needs to play a key role, and has to serve as a crucial pillar of investigation.