Developing conceptual understanding of sarcasm in a second language through concept-based instruction

Open Access
Kim, Jiyun
Graduate Program:
Applied Linguistics
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
May 31, 2013
Committee Members:
  • James Lantolf, Dissertation Advisor
  • James Lantolf, Committee Chair
  • Karen E Johnson, Committee Member
  • Celeste S Kinginger, Committee Member
  • Matthew Frank Jordan, Committee Member
  • sarcasm
  • irony
  • L2 learning and teaching
  • concept-based instruction
This thesis reports on a study that used concept-based instruction (CBI) to mediate U.S. university learners of English (L1=Korean, N=9) into developing a conceptual and functional understanding of native speaker use of sarcasm. Derived from Vygotsky’s theory of consciousness and Gal’perin’s associated theory of educational development, this research represents the first attempt to provide direct instruction on sarcasm in any L2 environment. The study analyzes both qualitative data (i.e., individual interviews, in-class interaction, focus group discussions, student-produced SCOBA (Schema for the Orienting Basis of Action), interpretive-essay writings) and quantitative data (i.e., performance on pre-, post-, and delayed-post tests). Through these analyses, the study documents student development in (1) their conceptual knowledge of English sarcasm and (2) their functional ability to detect and understand the underlying speaker intent in sarcastic utterances produced by native U.S. English speakers. The analysis of CBI interactions and test scores reveals significant learner development. Students gained mature knowledge of the concept and improved their ability to comprehend different intentions and attitudes conveyed by sarcasm users. By developing scientific knowledge of sarcasm, students established a solid cognitive framework for understanding the L2 concept more readily, which in turn raised their awareness of the comprehension and use of sarcasm in their L1. More importantly, learners gained a sense of empowerment by finally understanding the subtle features of sarcasm that they had not previously recognized. The results highlight the importance of instructional quality and teacher-learner dialectics, referred to by Vygotsky with the Russian term 'obuchenie' in which learners interact with an expert tutor who offers pedagogically designed psychological tools and semantic-pragmatic explanations to promote a functional understanding of subtle concepts like sarcasm.