Social Language Use (Pragmatics)

You have invited your friend over for dinner. Your child sees your friend reach for some cookies and says, “Better not take those, or you’ll get even bigger.” You’re embarrassed that your child could speak so rudely. However, you should consider that your child may may not know how to use language appropriately in social situations and did not mean harm by the comment.

An individual may say words clearly and use long, complex sentences with correct grammar, but still have a communication problem – if he or she has not mastered the rules for social language known as pragmatics . Adults may also have difficulty with pragmatics, for example, as a result of a brain injury or stroke.

Pragmatics involve three major communication skills:

  • Using language for different purposes, such as
    • greeting (e.g., hello, goodbye)
    • informing (e.g., I’m going to get a cookie)
    • demanding (e.g., Give me a cookie)
    • promising (e.g., I’m going to get you a cookie)
    • requesting (e.g., I would like a cookie, please)
  • Changing language according to the needs of a listener or situation, such as
    • talking differently to a baby than to an adult
    • giving background information to an unfamiliar listener
    • speaking differently in a classroom than on a playground
  • Following rules for conversations and storytelling, such as
    • taking turns in conversation
    • introducing topics of conversation
    • staying on topic
    • rephrasing when misunderstood
    • how to use verbal and nonverbal signals
    • how close to stand to someone when speaking
    • how to use facial expressions and eye contact

These rules may vary across cultures and within cultures. It is important to understand the rules of communication.

An individual with pragmatic problems may:

  • say inappropriate or unrelated things during conversations
  • tell stories in a disorganized way
  • have little variety in language use

It is not unusual for children to have pragmatic problems in only a few situations. However, if problems in social language use occur often and seem inappropriate considering the child’s age, a pragmatic disorder may exist. Pragmatic disorders often coexist with other language problems such as vocabulary development or grammar. Pragmatic problems can lower social acceptance. Peers may avoid having conversations with an individual with a pragmatic disorder.

Pragmatic Language Tips

Parents, cargivers, families, and teachers can help individuals use language appropriately in social situations ( pragmatics ). Some general suggestions to help develop skills in three major pragmatic areas are listed below.

Using Language for Different Purposes

  • Ask questions or make suggestions to use language for different purposes:
Desired Language Function Suggested Question or Comment
Comment “What did you do?”
“Tell me about…”
Request “Tell your friend…”
“What do you want?”
Question “Ask me”
  • Respond to the intended message rather than correcting the pronunciation or grammar. Be sure to provide an appropriate model in your own speech. For example, if an individual says, “That’s how it doesn’t go,” respond, “You’re right. That’s not how it goes.”
  • Take advantage of naturally occurring situations. For example, practice greetings at the beginning of a day, or have the individual ask peers what they want to eat for dinner or request necessary materials to complete an project.

Changing Language for Different Listeners or Situations

  • Role-play conversations. Pretend to talk to different people in different situations. For example, set up a situation (or use one that occurs during the course of a day) in which the individual has to explain the same thing to different people, such as teaching the rules of a game, or how to make a cake. Model how the person should talk to a child versus an adult, or a family member versus a friend of the family.
  • Encourage the use of persuasion. For example, ask the person what he or she would say to convince family members or loved ones to let him or her do something. Discuss different ways to present a message:
    • Polite (“Please may I go to the party?”) versus impolite (“You better let me go”)
    • Indirect (“That music is loud”) versus direct (“Turn off the radio”)
    • Discuss why some requests would be more persuasive than others

Conversation and Storytelling Skills

  • Comment on the topic of conversation before introducing a new topic. Add related information to encourage talking more about a particular topic.
  • Provide visual cues such as pictures, objects, or a story outline to help tell a story in sequence.
  • Encourage rephrasing or revising an unclear word or sentence. Provide an appropriate revision by asking, “Did you mean …. ?”
  • Show how nonverbal signals are important to communication. For example, talk about what happens when a facial expression does not match the emotion expressed in a verbal message (e.g., using angry words while smiling).

From asha.org