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Pragmatics is the piece of speech and language that deals with how and why we communicate with other people. When discussing pragmatics, we refer to the social rules governing how we use our language to interact with those around us. Often unspoken social rules tell us how to communicate for various reasons, participate in a conversation, interact with people without upsetting them, and string together sentences and weave them into easy stories 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 their vacation. Rather than ask them about their vacation, you blurt out that your cat has gained 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 friends you are interested in them by asking questions about their topic of interest (their vacation).

However, children who struggle with pragmatics might not know 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 develop over time as children grow. Pragmatic skills unfold in critical areas: language purpose, conversation, and narratives.

The Purpose of Language and the Role of Pragmatics

  • 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 (often accomplished by the child asking “What’s that?” repeatedly) and to answer simple questions.

By 3 years, children begin to use “please” to make their requests more polite. They’ll also use indirect recommendations 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 savvier in their requesting skills. You’ll notice that your child has learned that simply hinting at what they want can be a form of asking for it. For example, your child might say, “Oooh, that cake looks really good,” when they really mean, “I want a piece of cake!” At this age, children also begin to understand that other people have different thoughts (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 phrases such as “it’s raining like cats and dogs” do not mean that cats and dogs are falling from the sky. They also begin to understand that other people have different perspectives more thoroughly. They start to consider those perspectives and use them to navigate conversations with others more effectively.

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