When we think of language, we tend to think of using and understanding words. Language, though, is full of social nuances that surpass words. Imagine you arrive home and see a neighbor. You greet him by smiling and waving, and initiate a conversation by commenting on the weather. You know how far to stand from him, and how to maintain eye contact while taking turns speaking and listening to each other. You use facial expressions and gestures to communicate different feelings.
All of these nuances fall under the umbrella of pragmatic language, one of three areas of language along with expressive language and receptive language. A person can have an exceptional vocabulary and ability to form sophisticated sentences and still struggle to relate to others because of poor pragmatic language skills.
Along with receptive language, your baby begins acquiring pragmatic language long before his first word. Every time you interact with him he learns about the social norms of language from the way you speak to him and use your face and body to communicate.
What Are Pragmatic Language Skills?
Pragmatic language skills can be divided into three main areas:
Knowing How to Use Language
Using words for different purposes, such as:
- Greeting someone: Hello! How are you?
- Asking for something Could I please have a piece of paper?
- Persisting when not heard or understood: I’m not sure you heard me, could I have a piece of paper? Or: No, that’s not what I meant. Let me explain.
- Informing someone: I’m going to get a piece of paper.
Knowing How to Change Language
Different situations require different types of language. For example:
- The language we use at a sporting event may be loud and boisterous, while at a library it’s quiet and subdued.
- Speaking to a close friend requires less background information than if we’re talking to a person we’ve just met.
- When we talk to a baby, we use different words and tones of voice than if we are speaking to an adult.
Knowing How to Follow the Social Rules of Language
Social interactions are a complex dance involving:
- Making eye contact.
- Gauging a comfortable distance between ourselves and others.
- Taking turns.
- Knowing how to give just enough information to portray something without going on and on.
- Being able to listen and offer appropriate responses.
- Using and understanding implied meaning.
- Staying on topic.
- Seeing something from another’s perspective.
- Using and reading nonverbal cues like tones of voice, posture, gestures and facial expressions.
How to Nurture Pragmatic Language Skills
Pragmatic skills may seem obvious to many of us—we use them every day without even thinking about it! Like all skills, though, they are learned, and the primary way we learn and practice them is by interacting with others.
Miami-based Speech-Language Pathologist Mandy Alvarez, says that she has seen a rise in language and social challenges. “We’re seeing a lot of kids who struggle socially,” she says. “They have a hard time making friends and playing with other kids.” Although it’s hard to pin down a reason for this uptick, Alvarez believes it may be related to a rise in screen time, which takes away from human interaction.
One of the areas kids miss out on when they’re in front of a screen, or bogged down with organized activities, is free play. Free play and pretend play are drivers of pragmatic language (as well as many other areas of development) because they involve cooperative back-and-forth and acting out of social situations.
The key is to interact with your child in meaningful ways as often as possible. If you’re doing daily BabySparks activities with him, you’re boosting his pragmatic language skills. Whether encouraging him to crawl or showing him how to stack blocks, the engaging back-and-forth between you during these activities helps prepare him to navigate the complex social world.