"Pragmatics And The Development Of Communicative Ability" by Daniela O'Neil

Relevance To Lectures

There are two related reasons for combining this reading with this week's lecture materials. First, we consider in detail in class only one theory of how words become meaningful. With this reading, I wanted to ensure that you understand that there are many, many other approaches to this issue, and that in fact it is an enormously complex (and interesting) research problem. Second, in the lecture I make an argument that when we understand meaning, we are dealing with a computational level issue. Many people might believe that this "sterilizes" this research topic, and I want to make sure that you don't walk away with such a feeling. Also, many people might argue that the study of meaning has computational elements, but must also be dealt with at other levels too - a view that is supported by some of the research reviewed in the chapter. I'm sympathetic to this position too, and want the chapter to serve as a counterbalance to some of the directions that we take in the lecture.

Margin Notes


"As an adult, there are many things about using a language to communicate with other people that you would not have to learn about when learning a second (or any other) language." Pragmatics is the understanding of how to use language in interactions with other people. Children have to acquire pragmatics too! Pragmatics requires 4 different kinds of mutual knowledge: community membership, physical copresence, linguistic copresence, and indirect copresence. "Although these four types of knowledge may seem quite basic to you on first reading, they actually rely on having a sophisticated understanding of what other people can be expected to have remembered or forgotten from the past, to have noticed along with you, to have inferred from previous conversations and so on." But children don't start making such assumptions until they are 3-4 years old. So, by understanding how this information develops, we can get a sense of the foundations of pragmatics.

Definition Of Pragmatics

Pragmatics is hard to define, because it is studied by many disciplines. It involves "use of language." It involves taking context into account. "But it is at this point that it becomes very difficult to pin down a precise definition that captures what the field of pragmatics is all about." Problems - how do you include context, and how do you exclude semantics?

With respect to context, to what degree do you have to go beyond the language to understand an utterance? With respect to semantics, some aspects of meaning is involved in pragmatics - not just semantics. So...which aspects of meaning are due to pragmatics? This is a problem. Grice's view: semantics = sentence meaning, pragmatics = utterance meaning. "Another way to conceptualize this distinction is to view semantics as concerned with those elements of meaning that can be directly decoded from the words of the sentence itself, and pragmatics as concerned with those elements of meaning that depend on contextual information beyond the words of the sentence itself and on the interpreter's inferential abilities."

What features of context are important? One feature is the "cooperative principle" defined by Grice's four maxims: maximum of quantity (be just as informative as required), quality (provide true contributions), relation (make your contribution relevant) and manner (be clear). The listener's assumption is that the speaker will conform to these maxims. Bu t this is just a first step. "Be informative" doesn't say how this is to be achieved. How do listeners make inferences that connect what is said to what is assumed to be known? Relevance theory is based on Grice, but emphasizes finding answers to such "how" questions.

The basic idea underlying relevance theory is that "human cogntion is relevance-oriented: we pay attention to information that seems relevant to us." Relevance is affected by a) contextual effects derived from some information, and b) cognitive effort - the more expended, the less the relevance. "These two factors combine to make obvious the optimally relevant interpretation: the interpretation that gives the hearer enough contextual effects to be worth his or her attention without putting the hearer to any gratuitous processing effort."

There has also been a functional approach to pragmatics. Issue here are the various uses for or functions of language.

Now let's turn to the developmental topics in the chapter...

Inferences About Communicative Intent

A definition of communication must take intention into account. Grice "argued that the sender must not only intend to get across a message, but he or she should also intend that the receiver recognize that intention. According to Grice, successful communication can only be said to have taken place if the sender's communicative intention has become mutually known to both the sender and the receiver."

When do children begin to communicate intentionally? This question has been the focus of intense debate because it is hard to measure. "First, a child's communicative behavior is claimed to be intentional if the child persists with the behavior when it is not responded to by an adult and only stops the behavior once the adult has responded. Second, if a child accompanies his or her gesture and/or vocalization with an alternating glance between an adult and the object being requested, this is considered to be an even more decisive sign that children are communicating intenionally." With these definitions in hand, it looks like intentional communication doesn't start until the child is 9 to 12 months old.

What is the nature of these first intentional communications? Work on this issue is rooted in the theory of speech acts begun by Austin and refined by Searle. According to this theory, in adult speech there are 5 different types of utterances. Similar approaches - with highly varying results - have been applied in an attempt to classify children's speech acts. "Even if there is disagreement among researchers as to how to best classify the functions of children's early prelinguistic communications, the fact that different functions exist is generally accepted."

The other side of the coin is children's development as listeners. As children get older, they use more and more indirect requests. This sophistication probably depends on developing ability to adopt different perspectives. Re listening... "it was not until 9 years of age that children could reliably distinguish between promises and predictions."

Inferences About Shared Knowledge

Four skills are required to plan what to say at the global level of the sentence itself:

  1. Introducing a topic. Language can refer to absent entities. By the age of 17 months, children can request objects that are out of view. At about 2 years, children can make a comment about an object out of view. By 30 months children can talk about past and future events beyond the present day. "Researchers have suggested two reasons why the ability to initiate communication about a non- present or abstract topic may take a while to develop. First, the nonverbal devices that children have relied upon to initiate topics about present objects cannot be used. Second, the grammatical elements that are used to initiate such abstract topics are late in developing." (e.g. articles, anaphoric pronouns).
  2. Considering new and given information. Successful communication depends on assessing the other person's knowledge. Early Piagetian results indicated that egocentric communication exists until children are 7 or 8 years old. More recent results how that children as young as 2 can take the knowledge of other people into account.
  3. Contributing relevant information: "Coherence is concerned with the relationships between ideas expressed in utterances. The notion of coherence is implied in Grice's maxim of relation." Children of 2-3 years can provide contingent utterances (on-topic utterances). Sophistication of these utterances develops rapidly in this age range.
  4. Recognizing and repairing misunderstandings. "Children's repairs in miscommunication episodes have been argued to reveal the ability, even of prelinguistic infants, to recognize 'a partner's capacity to understand a message' and attribute 'an internal state of knowing and comprehending' to a communicative partner." Children as young as 12 months begin to repari their utterances. Lots of debate about what such results mean - sophisticated communication abilities, or not? Debate is beginning to revolve around methodological issues.

Two other skills come into play in the planning of sentence constituents:

  1. Deixis: "Deictic terms are words that refer to places, times, or participants in a conversation from the speakers point of view. For example, I, you, here, there, this, that, yesterday, and tomorrow are deictic terms." Children as young as 2-3 years are sensitive to deixis.
  2. Presupposition: "Presupposition is restricted to referring to certain pragmatic inferences or assumptions that seem to be built into linguistic expressions and which can be isolated using specific linguistic tests." Certain linguistic terms seem to give rise to a predictable set of inferences. Linguists have catalogued about 13 of these presuppositions. Verbs that presuppose the truth of the complement are called factives. Children's understanding of factives develops late - gives even 8th grade children trouble. But this is based on measures that might be too difficult. With other measures, sensitivity to factives may develop by 4-5 years of age.

Pragmatic Impairment

"Communicative impariment is a hallmark feature of autism." But autism is not associated with problems in the development of phonology or syntax. "In contrast, the development of pragmatic aspects of language is deviant among individuals with autism." Such pragmatic impairments can't involve problems with a single ability - at least three very general abilities must be involved. First, there are some syntactic deficits that hurt the production of narratives. Second, impairments in world knowledge, or general cognitive ability, will cause problems with communication. Third, "sociocognitive knowledge encompasses our ability to make social inferences about the actions, beliefs, and intentions of other persons." But autism might be associated with an "impaired theory of mind." "That is, it has been hypothesized that people with autism may have a general inability to represent another person's representations and thereby to consider another person's mental states such as their desires or beliefs."

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