Signs & Symptoms

Pragmatic Language

Is your child demonstrating poor social language?

Some children may speak very well but seem unable talk to friends. They may enjoy facts and details and love books about insects or outer space, but they may express little interest in socializing.

If your child has poor social language, you may hear him say “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember” any time you ask about his day or his feelings. He may do well in structured, school-based tasks but may sit alone at recess.

She may say she has lots of friends but may not be able to tell you much about them.

He may say he has friends in class but may not remember their names.

She may know her friends’ heights and eye color but may not recall what they like to do for fun.

Your child may boss other kids around or lecture on a topic without stopping to assess whether anyone is listening. Perhaps, your child never asks how you are or fails to carry on a back-and-forth conversation.

Maybe you sit with your child and watch endless hours of a video game that he just has to show you, feeling like an audience member rather than an engaged participant in a back-and-forth exchange. You may find yourself getting really bored as you listen to your child going on and on about something.

You may find yourself describing your child as literal and inflexible. Your child may have trouble with phrases like ‘zip your lip,’ not understanding that these phrases are figures of speech and are not meant to be taken literally. You may note that your child’s pretend play is not well coordinated or reciprocal. For example, your child may pretend to be a character in a video game, but he may be unable to engage with a playmate or to incorporate other’s suggestions into play.

What do challenges with Pragmatic Language look like?

  • Struggling with social language?
  • Appearing gullible?
  • Not following the give and take of conversation?
  • Struggling to talk to peers, in spite of adequate expressive language?
  • Using a formal vocabulary that sounds too mature for his or her age?
  • Unable to read nonverbal cues?
  • Having trouble interpreting another person’s intent?
  • Lecturing others?
  • Getting stuck on a topic?

Why is Pragmatic Language happening?

Clinically, social communication is called pragmatic language. Pragmatic language refers to the social aspects of speech, such as conversation, reading nonverbal cues, and maintaining a back-and-forth flow of information. An individual must understand what a peer is saying and consider one’s own knowledge or interest in that topic. This skill requires noticing when a peer is disinterested by reading nonverbal cues like shifting eye contact, appearing squirmy or not responding to what has been said. In order to have conversations, an individual must be able to do the following: 

  • think of relevant things to share
  • draw on experiences
  • pay attention
  • take turns
  • formulate questions
  • know when and how to end the conversation in a polite way. 

Social communication is much more complex than vocabulary. Even very bright individuals can have difficulties with pragmatic communication. In that case, speech therapy is often required to get along with peers, do well in school, and to support long-term success and happiness.

How can I manage Pragmatic Language at home?

In order to improve pragmatic language, a parent can do a number of things.

First, use and model social and emotional language for your child. Talk about your own feelings, and share about your day and how you cope. “Work was stressful for mom today, so I’m going to take a walk. Would you like to come too?”

Second, get your child enrolled in social activities that are low risk, like a Lego club, cooking class, robotics club, swimming, and the like. Find something that has team aspects but is not as competitive as a typical team sport (like soccer or softball). Start with something that has a structure but is about individual performance. Pay attention to who the coach or adult sponsor is, and seek those individuals who are accepting, warm, and not competitive.

Third, practice social conversation with your child, and provide feedback like, “you could ask Sally what she did this weekend.” Provide a bit of structure to family discussions instead of simply asking, “how was your day?” as that question may get little response. Opportunities to play with an adult guiding the conversation can really help your child learn new skills.

Fourth, provide breaks and down time. Give your child time to relax after school, and then have a framework you discuss, like “who I sat with at lunch” or “what game we played in PE”.

Finally, if your child continues to struggle, seek out a social group, social skills therapy and see what supports your child’s school has available. With practice, the authors of Cleape have seen children make great gains in pragmatic language skills.

How can Clear Child Psychology help with Pragmatic Language?

If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his or her learning, relationships, or happiness, it’s time to seek professional help.

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