What is Pragmatic Language and Why is it Important?

You may have heard the term “pragmatics” thrown around here and there, but what does it actually mean? What makes it so important?

This may be a familiar scenario: your child, or a child you know, is extremely interested in superheroes. They can name all the DC ones, all the Marvel ones, and tell you their kryptonites and what city they are protecting. But when it comes to playing superheroes with someone else, they really struggle. In this case, pragmatic language may be their kryptonite.

In the field of speech-language pathology, pragmatic language refers to the social aspect of language, meaning using language with others. It sometimes falls under the umbrella of “social skills.” Having adequate pragmatic skills is extremely important for many reasons. At a deep level, we are social beings, meaning we were made to live in communities, and we thrive on forming connections with others through friendships, relationships, and more. This is also important because, especially as children, we are reliant on others to help us throughout our days. A child needs to communicate to their caregivers their wants and needs, pains and weaknesses. As adults, we need to be able to communicate with doctors, bosses, co-workers, and friends. Without having sound pragmatic language skills, these daily tasks are severely affected.

Sometimes, pragmatic language difficulties are hard to spot. Someone may seem like they are typically (socially) functioning, but they have trouble forming close friendships. They may have difficulty playing a team sport. Group projects may be difficult. Maintaining a job could be harder. They could be passed up on opportunities they are qualified for because someone else is more charismatic (i.e. has stronger social skills) than them.

Who may struggle with pragmatic language?

It is very typical of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to present with pragmatic language weaknesses. Other individuals who may have pragmatic language deficits include those with intellectual disabilities, developmental disabilities, learning disabilities, and brain injuries.

The table below notes some pragmatic language milestones. For additional information, check out the ASHA website on social communication or this article on pragmatic language assessments.

Age Skills
0-6 months Follows movement with eyes
Shows excitement when familiar person approaches
Differentiates cries (for hunger, discomfort, etc)
Responds to name
Vocalizes in response to someone else’s speech
6-12 months Initiates vocalizing to someone else’s speech
Recognizes familiar people
Enjoys interacting with others
Uses gestures to request needs (being picked up) or preferred items
1-2 years Requests objects by name or pointing, also brings objects to show adult
Says or indicates “no”
Says or makes gestures for common words such as “hi,” “bye,” “please”
Acknowledges others’ communicative attempts by making eye contact,
vocalizing a response, or repeating word
2-3 years Expresses emotions (excited, tired, thirsty)
Engages in short conversations
Initiates conversations
Begins to tell short stories (e.g. about an event that they experienced)
3-4 years Plays make believe or takes on other roles during play (e.g. as parent, teacher)
Uses appropriate eye contact
Maintains conversation topic for 2-3 turns
Clarifies information if listener does not understand
5-6 years Tells stories with greater detail and coherence
Maintains conversation topic for 4+ turns
Asks permission to use others' belongings
Responds appropriately to wh- questions (e.g. who, when, where)

What can I do?

If you suspect that your child or loved one has pragmatic language difficulties, they can be evaluated by a speech-language pathologist. If your child is being seen by a speech-language pathologist, you may ask them for activities or things they can work on at home or in the community related to pragmatic language.

Because the scope of pragmatic language is wide, blanket recommendations may not be helpful for your child. In general, the more time spent interacting with others and in different environments allows your child more opportunities to strengthen their pragmatic language skills.

Looking for more information?

We have posts about pragmatic language goals, pragmatic language resources, and a number of others that reference it as well!

Citations/further resources

Pragmatic Language Assessment Guidelines: A Best Practice Document ECICMC Standards and Guidelines Speech Sub-Committee, K Marasco, C O'Rourke, L Riddle, L Sepka, V Weaver - SeeMyIEP Website, 2004.

https://www.asha.org/Practice-Portal/Clinical-Topics/Social-Communication-Disorder/

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