Pragmatics: Everyday communication

A deaf toddler and her mother play with stacking bricks.

Pragmatics is the skill of using language socially and being able to adapt it to different situations. It’s key to being able to take part in conversations and interactions in socially acceptable ways.

For example, if you go into a room and someone else is in there.

Do you:

  • Ignore them?
  • Make eye contact?
  • Nod to them?
  • Speak to them?

The answer will depend on where you are, and if you know the other person or not, but most people make these decisions in an instant without any real thought. But for a child without age-appropriate pragmatics it can be a real challenge.

Most children pick up pragmatics skills during their early years through being exposed to language around them and engaging socially with adults and other children. However, deafness can sometimes make it more challenging to develop pragmatics.

What is pragmatics?

Pragmatics is the skill of using language socially and being able to adapt it to different situations.

Pragmatics covers three main areas.

1. Understanding how to use language differently for a variety of purposes. For example:

  • informing (I'm going to get a biscuit)
  • demanding (Give me a biscuit)
  • requesting (I would like a biscuit, please)
  • explaining (I’m hungry, I’d like a biscuit).


2. Adapting language according to the needs of a listener or situation.
For example:

  • talking differently to an adult, child or baby
  • understanding that people might need extra background information to take part in a conversation if they don’t know you or the subject
  • speaking differently in a classroom than in a playground.


3. Following the rules for conversations and storytelling. For example:

  • turn-taking in conversation
  • introducing topics of conversation
  • staying on topic
  • finding other ways of explaining things if the person you’re speaking to doesn’t understand what you’re saying
  • using non-verbal signals (such as raising your eyebrows to show that something is surprising)
  • how close to stand to someone when speaking
  • how to use facial expressions and eye contact
  • knowing when to add more information for the listener to help them understand
  • knowing to tell the story in the right order so it makes sense.

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Deaf children and pragmatics

 Twins Liam and Oscar, who both have hearing loss, enjoy a book with Mum.

Deaf children can find it more difficult than their hearing peers to use pragmatics. This is because they may miss out on hearing how language is used in different ways and/or have fewer opportunities for interacting with other people.

Research has shown that deaf children can be up to three to five years behind hearing children in how they use language socially. This means that a deaf child aged six or seven will probably have developed some pragmatic skills, but a hearing child would have had these skills at the age of three or four.

As they get older, this delay in pragmatics means deaf children will have to focus more on what’s being said and how it’s being said to understand or recognise sarcasm, advanced humour, inference and the nuances of language.

Even when a child has an age-appropriate knowledge of words and their meaning, they might not have learned how to use this knowledge in a socially appropriate manner. This can make it harder for deaf children to make friends, so it’s important to encourage them to develop their pragmatics so they can form good relationships with family and friends. 

A good understanding of pragmatics is also important later in life. For example, it’s important to know how to use language formally and appropriately to make a good ‘first impression’ when going to a job interview.

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Does my child have difficulty with pragmatics?

Children who aren’t developing age-appropriate pragmatics may have difficulties with a range of activities and social skills. Some of these difficulties are easier to spot than others.

Obvious difficulties include not:

  • using appropriate eye contact
  • starting, joining in and maintaining conversations
  • joining in during structured activities with peers
  • saying appropriate, related things during conversations
  • sharing
  • varying their language use.

More subtle difficulties include not:

  • using their imaginations or participating in imaginative play
  • creating and retelling stories and personal narratives in an organised way
  • understanding their emotions and feelings and those of the people around them
  • trying to take on someone else's view point and imagining how they think and feel
  • understanding when someone doesn’t really mean what they say, for example, when someone is being sarcastic or where there’s a hidden meaning.

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How to develop pragmatics at home

Photo of two little girls and a boy with their hands in the air.

There are lots of simple things you can do help your child develop their pragmatics, especially in the early years.

Plenty of high quality, two-way communication between a parent and child is extremely important, and you can build on this in two main way

  • matching thoughts with word
  • including your child in everyday activities.

Matching thoughts with words

In the early years, children learn quickly when the words they hear match the thoughts in their heads.

Follow your child’s attention and try and be responsive to what they’re interested in. Avoid trying to ‘control’ the conversation too much or switching your child’s attention to something you want to talk about.

Watch and wait before you respond to make sure you’re saying the right words at the right time – this is what pragmatics is all about.

Examples:

  • Asking for more
    When playing a game of peek-a-boo with your baby, at some point in the game wait a bit and see if they give you any sign that they want more. If they indicate they want you to carry on, you could say "Ooh look you want some more..."

  • Talk about feelings
    When your child is upset, angry or happy they’ll let you know through their behaviour. Respond to what you see with simple questions like “Are you feeling sad?”
  • Show an interest in things they like
    Show your child that you notice the things they like by commenting on them, for example, “Look, there’s a building site with lots of diggers”.

  • Open questions
    Use open-ended questions rather than questions that can be answered with a yes or no. For example, if you’re reading a book with different characters in it, ask “How is he/she feeling?” rather than asking “Is he/she feeling happy?

Including your child in everyday activities

  • Encourage turn-taking with games like building a tower out of blocks, pushing a train along a track, ball games or computer games.
  • Encourage turn-taking with everyday activities like putting laundry in the washing machine, or cracking eggs for baking.
  • Join in your child’s imaginative play.
  • Role-play scenarios with problems and solutions, for example, finding a broken toy that needs mending, ordering food in a restaurant.
  • Create stories together, and talk about what you’re thinking and feeling as the story unfolds.
  • Practise greetings and ‘small talk’ with familiar people, for example, family friends, grandparents, neighbours and shop assistants.
  • Talk about your thoughts and feelings during the day.
  • Introduce games with rules such as snap or Connect 4.
  • Read books and talk about the characters’ thoughts and actions. Predict what might happen next and point out when characters have used language to request, apologise, express feelings etc.
  • Watching TV together and commenting on how different characters are behaving. For example, if a character is using sarcasm or appears to be ‘hiding’ their true feelings, pause the programme and discuss with your child what you think they’re really feeling or saying, and how you know this. Encourage your child to do the same. 

Many of the above suggestions can be used with your child as they get older. For example, if your child is a teenager, you can practice a range of role-play scenarios such as job interviews or going to the doctor on their own for the first time.

If you have any concerns about your child’s skills in pragmatics, ask your child’s Teacher of the Deaf for advice on how this can be addressed.

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Tips from parents on developing pragmatics

“My little one is only just turning four so we are constantly working on this. We have always read to her and broken down stories in terms of feelings and what will happen next and I think this has helped her be more socially aware.

“We are trying to encourage my son to ask question about things himself without prompting all the time.”

“We have role-played conversations and been strict about turn-taking etc.”

“Expose to different social situations early in life and make these a part of regular life."

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See also