The Importance of Pragmatics (Use of Social Language)
I remember as a child going to the grocery store for the first time with my mother and her friend, and being excited by the array of foods on offer – looking at the various colours, sizes, shapes of all the different types of fruit and vegetables. As a child (and still to this day) I enjoyed eating pears, and remember distinctly walking across to the aisle where the pears were located. Being excited (and a little hungry) I decided to pick up a pear and take a bite of it to satisfy my immediate urge and hunger. I then turned to my mother’s friend (who was standing next to me at the time) and said to her, “you should have more of these, ‘cause you’re quite fat”. My mother turned to me and then to her friend looking completely embarrassed about what I had just said. My mother then scolded me for biting the pear without paying for it and then for saying such nasty things to her friend. As an adult, my mother could distinguish what was appropriate language and what was not, but as a child I was unaware about appropriate use of social language given that I meant no harm by my comment.
What is Pragmatics? The Pragmatics of Human Conversation
Pragmatics is a branch of linguistics that refers to the manner in which we deal with language and the contexts in which language is used. In particular, pragmatics focuses on the transmission of meaning (both structural and linguistic) of utterances conveyed by the speaker (including the knowledge and beliefs of the speaker) and the relation of meaning between both speaker and listener. Pragmatics involves:
- Using language for different purposes;
- Changing language according to the needs of the listener and the social situation; and
- Following rules for social conversation and storytelling.
As we get older we become more pragmatically competent in how we view and understand a speaker’s intended meaning.
What is Pragmatic Language Impairment?
Pragmatic language impairment (PLI) is the inability to understand the pragmatic areas of language. Children who present with PLI demonstrate traits such as excessive talking with limited variety in language use, disorganised storytelling, atypical choice of words and inappropriate conversational skills (i.e. interrupting the speaker, lack of eye-contact).
Tips to Improve your Child’s Pragmatic language
- Ask your child questions about the topic being discussed
- Encourage role-play conversations
- Provide visual cues
- Encourage rephrasing
- Respond to your child’s intended message rather than correcting them.
1. ASHA. (1997-2013). from The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association
2. Botting, N. & Conti-Ramsden, G. (1999). Pragmatic language impairment without autism – the children in question. Autism, 3( 4), 371-396.