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, they are 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 challenges are a prominent communication problem in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Because social communication deficits are among the core features of autism, 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 disorder focus on social (pragmatic) communication skills skills.
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Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, is author of the award-winning books, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools and Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT. He is also editor of 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. His latest book is A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools, (2nd Edition).