Pragmatics: What It Is & What To Expect

Pragmatics is the piece of speech and language that deals with how and why we communicate with other people. When we talk about pragmatics, we are referring to the social rules that govern how we use our language to interact with those around us. These social rules, which are often unspoken, tell us how to communicate for a variety of reasons, how to participate in conversation, how to interact with people without upsetting them, and how to string together sentences and weave them into stories that are easy for others to understand.

When we break the rules of pragmatics, we are often seen as rude or confusing. Imagine, for example, that a friend of yours comes up to you and begins to tell you about her vacation. Rather than ask her a question about her vacation, you blurt out that your cat has gained a bit too much weight lately. Most of us understand that this is rude—you’ve not only changed the topic of conversation abruptly, but you’ve missed a chance to show your friend you are interested in her by asking questions about her topic of interest (her vacation).

Children who struggle with pragmatics, however, simply might not know that they are supposed to follow these rules of conversation.

As with all other aspects of speech and language development, the understanding and use of pragmatics develops over time as children grow. Pragmatic skills unfold in a few key areas: language purpose, conversation, and narratives.

Here’s how:

Language Purpose

Almost as soon as children start talking, they learn to communicate for different purposes. As speech-therapists, we look not only at how a child is communicating, but why she is doing so.

  • By 12-18 months, children gesture, vocalize and use words to:
    • Request things
    • Point out things of interest
    • Greet others
    • Refuse things, and
    • Participate in social games such as peek-a-boo.
  • By 18-24 months, children start using their communication skills to gain information (which often accomplished by a child asking “what’s that?” over and over!) and to answer simple questions.
  • By 3 years, children begin to use “please” to make their requests more polite. They’ll also start to use indirect requests, so that instead of demanding, “Open the door!” your child might say, “do you want to go outside?”
  • By 4 years, children begin to use language for a variety of new reasons. You’ll notice that your child can now use language well to tell you about things that have happened to him, to predict what might happen in the future, to reason, and to talk about the feelings of others.
  • By 5 years, children have become even more saavy in their requesting skills. You’ll notice that your child has learned that simply hinting at what he wants can be a form of asking for it. For example, you might notice your child says “Oooh, that cake looks really good,” when he really means, “I want a piece of cake!” At this age, children also begin to understand that other people have thoughts that are different from their own (something called “theory of mind”). This understanding though, evolves more fully over the next few years.
  • By 7-9 years, children learn to use and understand figurative language effectively. This means they understand that a phrase such as, “it’s raining like cats and dogs” does not actually mean that cats and dogs are falling from the sky. They also begin to more thoroughly understand that other people have different perspectives and start to take those perspectives into account and use them to negotiate more effectively with others.
  • It’s not until children reach 15-18 years of age, however, that their ability to understand the perspective of others, persuade, and argue a point reaches adult levels.

The ability to participate in conversation is a distinct pragmatic skill that emerges across many years. It starts early in the preschool years, when two- and three-year olds begin to answer the questions that others ask them. Conversations with young preschoolers, though, are marked by interruptions and off-topic comments; at this age, children simply don’t have the ability to be skilled conversationalists! As children grow older, their ability to converse politely with others unfolds.

  • By 5 years old, children can more consistently clarify their statements if they are misunderstood by others and will converse on a topic for a short period of time, although they still occasionally veer off topic rather abruptly. By the age of 8, children can talk on one single topic for many turns, show interest in the topics of others, and successfully change how they talk depending on who they are talking to (so, they will talk more politely to a teacher than they do to their peers). Conversational skills continue to be refined all the way up to the teen-age years.

The ability to tell stories (narratives) is a third area of pragmatics. Much like the development of conversation skills, narrative skills emerge slowly over a long period of time. Preschoolers attempt to tell stories, but their stories are generally lists of events that cluster around a single theme. Often the events are out of order and hard to really understand. As children enter the elementary school years, though, their narratives mature a bit. By 5 years old, children can tell simple stories with the events in the right order; these stories will also surround a simple plot. By 7-9 years of age, children’s stories have become much more clear and thorough.

At this point, their narratives generally contain basic story elements:
  • A setting and characters (Joe and Melissa were at the pool),
  • A goal (They wanted to swim),
  • An obstacle (But Melissa forgot her swimsuit!),
  • Attempts to overcome the obstacle (They tried to call her mom, but she wasn’t home),
  • Feelings about all of this (They were so disappointed), and
  • A resolution or ending (But then Melissa’s friend Jenny loaned her a swimsuit and everyone got to swim).

As children grow through the elementary and middle- school years, these stories become more complex, interwoven, and detailed.

Because social skills develop slowly over time, it can be hard to tell if your child truly struggles with pragmatics. Speech-language pathologists have extensive and detailed knowledge about pragmatic development. If you have concerns, talk to your pediatrician about a speech-language evaluation—only a speech- language therapist can assess whether or not your child has a pragmatic language disorder.

Paul, R. (2007). Language Disorders from Infancy Through Adolescence: St. Louis, MO: Mosby Elsvier.

Owens, Robert. (2011) Language Development: An Introduction. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon