What It Is and 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.

The Purpose of Language

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.

  • 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 is often accomplished by the 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?”

Grand-parents with grandkids playing checkers

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 savvy 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 navigate conversation with others more effectively.