Tuesday, 6 December 2011

What does 'pragmatics'mean?

By Vanessa King, Smart Talkers, Surrey

Baby Sale – lots of bargains! 

What is meant by this sign? We know without asking that it means items related to baby care are for sale, not that the shop is not literally selling babies. We know this because we have a context for the sign, a society in which we don’t sell babies in shops.

Pragmatics is a branch of linguistics concerned with the ways context contributes to meaning. It studies how meaning doesn’t just depend on understanding grammar and vocabulary, but also the situation of the speaker and the listener. It explains how language users are able to overcome apparent ambiguity in meaning, because meaning is transmitted by more than just the words the person is saying. The ability to understand another person’s intended meaning is called pragmatic competence and is regarded as one of the most challenging aspects of language learning because it comes only through experience.

We can divide pragmatics into three main sections:

  • Using language for different purposes
  • Modifying language according to the needs of the listener or the situation
  • Following rules for conversation and storytelling
To understand the importance of pragmatics, you might find it helpful to think about conversations you may have had with people from other cultures. If you have ever felt offended, confused or misunderstood, it’s probably due to a difference in pragmatics.

Using Language
We use language for many different purposes. Consider a typical conversation between me and my children regarding dinner in one evening.
“I’m hungry.” “I will make dinner in a minute.” “Get me an apple!” “I want doesn’t get!” “Mummy, will you make my dinner please?” “I’m making dinner now.”

All of that makes me sound like a really bad parent, but each of those phrases represents a different purpose to language. Language is used for informing, promising, demanding, instructing, requesting and many more. Eventually my children are fed so the language fulfils its purpose in each instance and my children are learning to communicate meaningfully.

Modifying Language
We frequently modify our language according to the needs of a listener or a situation. Even though we both speak English, my partner and I sometimes have difficulty understanding each other. He will say something and even though I understand the words I have to hesitate before replying. This is because in my mind I’m thinking ‘he can’t possibly mean what I think he means, so what does he actually mean?’ An example of this that happened recently – the computer was switched on and my Facebook account was displayed on the screen. My partner said ‘are you on the computer?’ I thought he was asking if I’m logged into the computer, which clearly I was so he must have meant something else. I didn’t know what he meant so he had to modify his question to ‘Can I use the computer?’ For me these are quite different questions but for him they mean the same thing. A similar thing occurred less than ten minutes later when I picked up a sample of my son’s artwork and he said ‘Oh have you seen that?’ Well, of course I’ve just seen it, it’s in my hand so what does he mean?!

Rules of conversation and storytelling
The ability to abide by rules of conversation and storytelling is of particular importance and crucial to success at school. Such rules are often learned through example and having an explicit understanding of just some of these rules will help you become a better communicator. Examples of the rules I’m talking about might include:
Taking turns. A conversation is at its most rewarding when it occurs between two or more people. If you listen to others as they speak, you’re taking the opportunity to think about their contribution which in turn enriches your own. If you dominate a conversation then you might as well be talking to yourself.

Introducing a new topic of conversation can be tricky too. I’ve been so tempted to interrupt someone (not taking turns!) with something that may or may not be related to what they’ve been saying because what they’ve said has triggered a memory or a thought I’m just desperate to share. I’m sure you’ve met people who do this habitually and they can be quite tiresome because they’re not following those unspoken rules of conversation.

Staying on topic is related to the above example. How can you be sure that what you want to say contributes to the conversation? There are verbal and non-verbal signals that we need to learn to recognise and some adults find them difficult to identify, how much harder it must be for young children who are quite ego-centric in their view of the world.

Apart from the words we use, being able to recognise the meaning of and using non-verbal signals is very important to communication. I know someone who frequently misses the shuffling feet, moving eyes and fiddling hands of the person they’re talking to, so they don’t recognise that the person has lost interest in what they’re saying. This is related to the use of facial expression and eye contact. Put simply, eye contact indicates interest while wandering eyes might indicate boredom, disinterest or lack of understanding.

Personal space

In conclusion, pragmatics is the study of the complex ways in which we use language and how context creates meaning. Pragmatics is learned by example by most people, but sometimes, for whatever reason, some people miss some of the lessons and they find it difficult to communicate and are frustrated when they can’t identify why. An understanding of pragmatics can help to diagnose communication issues and provide a framework for addressing those needs.

Frequently, in may areas NHS therapists cannot provide input for this type of difficulty but fortunately, Small Talk can help www.private-speech-therapy.co.uk


  1. Nice Post ..Thank you so much for aware people about the Speech and Language Therapy..

  2. Great post! i highly appreciate,i want remove the people communication disorders and you are absolutely right we let them motivate the anyone who have a this problems...

  3. It's a hidden difficulty and often mis-diagnosed!