How Children Acquire Pragmatic Knowledge

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In this lesson, we will examine how children learn pragmatic knowledge. First, we will define pragmatics and then we will break down the stages of development.

Pragmatics Definition

Think about the ways you express your attitude, emotions, and reasons behind the things you wish to communicate to others. Experts agree on three components of oral language development: phonological (speech sounds), semantic (word meanings), and syntactic (sentence structure). However, there is a fourth component that some linguists believe to be equally important, which is pragmatics. Pragmatics relates to the way language is used in various settings to communicate. For example, does the situation call for formal or conversational language? Pragmatics is an understanding of the intent behind the words. Pragmatic knowledge is necessary to fit in and conform to society. Let's learn more about how pragmatic knowledge is developed.

Connecting Speech to Language

In order to successfully build pragmatic knowledge, the learner must be able to connect speech to communication. For example, when Jaimie says, 'Mama,' she is not just randomly uttering sounds, but is aware of the connection between her sounds and her mother. Further, she uses that knowledge to communicate something.

There are three components of spoken language: illocutionary force (intended function), locution (style), and perlocution (effect on listener). An example of perlocution might be if an infant accidentally utters 'nana' and gets a big reaction from his grandmother. The baby may not have intended to communicate, but the utterance affected the grandmother who will be known as 'Nana' for the rest of her days.

An example of illocutionary action would be if Nana is holding the baby, but he reaches for his mother. The child intentionally communicates his desire to go to his mother by reaching for her, but does not connect an utterance to his intention. An example of locution is when the child intentionally uses words to communicate. For example, the child cries, 'Mama' when he wakes up alone because he wants his mother to come get him.

Conversational Skills

The next step is to learn conversational skills, such as taking turns speaking, starting/stopping conversations, and asking/answering questions. As the child's conversational skills are developing, they will require a great deal of modeling, scaffolding, and practice to learn to listen to others. Conversations between a child and an adult will result in more productive exchanges than conversations between two children where neither serves as an example to the other.

Cultural Norms and Genres of Speech

The third component to communicative competence is understanding cultural norms--for example, correctly using 'please' and 'thank you.' Another aspect of this component is understanding that there are subtle differences in formality in the way you speak to your little brother and the way you talk to your teacher. Further, children learn to pick up on non-verbal cues that contribute to communication.

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