What is Pragmatic Language?
Natural language; social communication; social discourse; social language; social skills
Pragmatics is broadly defined as the ability to understand and use language in social-communicative contexts.
Pragmatics is the area of communication function that involves the use of language in social contexts (knowing what to say, how to say it, when to say it, and where to say it). It is the ability of natural language speakers to communicate more than that which is explicitly stated and to understand another speaker's intended meaning. Pragmatics includes both the verbal and nonverbal aspects of communication and may be thought of as a conversational code of conduct or a set of rules for communication. We learn this system of rules naturally and implicitly. If one has good pragmatic skills, he or she is able to communicate an appropriate message effectively in a real world social situation. Pragmatics involve the following social linguistic skills: (a) using language for different purposes (e.g., greeting and requesting); (b) changing language according to the needs of a listener or situation (e.g., talking differently to a peer than to an adult and speaking differently in a classroom than on a playground); (c) understanding non-literal language (e.g., metaphor, irony, figurative language, sarcasm); and (d) following rules for conversations (e.g., taking turns and staying on topic). The pragmatic aspect of language also includes appropriate eye contact, intonation, and the body movements and gestures that accompany communication.
Relevance to Autism
Children must be fluent and capable in the areas of pragmatic language in order to interact and participate successfully in school. When typical children engage in reciprocal conversation they are aware of the knowledge, interests and intentions of the other person, as well as the social rules which determine pragmatic competence. In contrast, children with poor pragmatic skills have significant problems using language socially in ways that are appropriate or characteristic of children their age. Many children with developmental disabilities have difficulties learning the complex rules of social interaction. For example, pragmatic language disorders are the most prominent communication deficit in children with autism spectrum disorders. Because social communication deficits are among the core challenges of autism spectrum disorders, an evaluation of pragmatic competence is always a vital part of the assessment process. However, few standardized tests can effectively evaluate and quantify the complexity of pragmatic language. Valid norms for pragmatic development and objective criteria for performance are also limited. Indeed, formal testing may not identify the presence of a social pragmatic problem, thereby preventing the child from receiving the appropriate support. Assessment of pragmatic social skills requires more than a traditional standardized testing approach. Less formal naturalistic assessments are necessary, including observations of children’s pragmatic competency in everyday contexts. Given that pragmatic language is a critical part of everyday communication and social interaction, it is imperative that interventions for children with autism spectrum disorders focus on social linguistic skills. Programs designed to enhance social communicative competence include the SCERTS Model, a comprehensive developmental-pragmatic and research-based educational approach, and the Social Thinking Curriculum, a social cognitive approach to understanding social communication and reciprocity.
Prizant, B. M., Wetherby, A. M., Rubin, E., Laurent, A. C., & Rydell, P. J. (2006). The SCERTS model: A comprehensive educational approach for children with autism spectrum disorders. Baltimore, MD: Paul Brookes Publishing Company.
Winner, M. G. (2005). Think social! A social thinking curriculum for school-age students. San Jose, CA: Think Social Publishing.
Wilkinson, L. A. (2011). Pragmatics in Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development, Part 16, 1138-1139, DOI: 10.1007/978-0-387-79061-9_2209
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, CCBT, NCSP is author of the award-winning book, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. He is also editor a text in the American Psychological Association (APA) School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools, and author of the book, Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT. Dr. Wilkinson's most recent book is A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools, (2nd Edition).