Two studies on figurative language comprehension in different age-spans: what insights about language acquisition can they provide?

Maitê Gil (Universidade Católica Portuguesa, Portugal) and Maity Siqueira (Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil)

Although many studies have been carried out on children’s figurative ability in language, some questions remain unanswered. This paper aims to provide some insights about figurative language acquisition, informed by two studies which combine the theoretical background of Cognitive Linguistics (CL) with psycholinguistic methods. Study 1 focuses on the comprehension of primary metaphors, using a crosslinguistic-developmental perspective. The data comes from interviews with 210 monolingual Brazilian Portuguese (BP) and American English native speakersof ages 3 to 10, along with adults. Study 2 aims to assess the comprehension of complex/cultural metaphors related to the southern Brazilian culture. The data comes from interviews with120 BP native speakersof ages 10 to 12 and adults. Similar tasks were developed for data collection in both studies: different metaphorical sentences were presented and, after each one, the participants had to answer one close and one open question regarding the metaphorical meaning. The results of both studies were verified through variance analysis (ANOVA), and a 0.05 significance threshold was used. While the first study indicates three different patterns of comprehension within the five age-spans investigated (revealing that from 7-8 year-old, the performance of the participants was compatible with adult performance), the second study presents a significant age effect in the understanding of complex/cultural metaphors (revealing that adults scored significantly better than 10-12-year-old children). Taken together, these results indicate that the ability to comprehend complex/cultural metaphors is developed in a later stage in comparison with the ability to comprehend primary metaphors. We argue that a combined analysis of the outcomes of these two studies provides additional evidence of the CL’s notion of the embodied basis of conceptualization, and thereafter reinforces the necessary interaction between general human cognitive abilities and cultural patterns in language acquisition: individual minds and cognitive processes are configured through social and cultural interactions. In other words, the acquisition of linguistic components, particularly figurative ones, takes place beyond language itself. This indicates the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to this phenomenon.


Gibbs, Raymond.2003. Embodied experience and linguistic meaning. Brain and Language. 84(1). 1-15.

Gil, Maitê & Siqueira, Maity 2010. Compreensão de metáforas relacionadas à figura do cavalo na cultura gaúcha. Línguas & Letras. 11(20).

Siqueira, Maity & Gibbs, Raymond. 2007. Children’s Acquisition of Primary Metaphors: a crosslinguistic study. Organon(UFRGS). 21. 161-179.

Siqueira, Maity & Lamprecht, Regina. 2007. As metáforas primárias na aquisição da linguagem: um estudo interlinguístico. Documentação de Estudos em Linguística Teórica e Aplicada(D.E.L.T.A). 23. 245-272.

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