What is Pragmatics or Pragmatic Language?

Hymes (1971) simply defines pragmatics as a student knowing when to say what to whom and how much. It is the final element necessary for appropriate and effective communication to occur. Pragmatic language binds together semantics, morphology, syntax, and overall language comprehension and oral expression for the purpose of effective communication. Any deficit in pragmatics results in significant disruption in the communication process

Why is it Important?

Without appropriate pragmatic language skills, quality communication cannot occur. When one presents with pragmatic impairment, the listener is reluctant to attend to the message, whether grammatically sound or not. This concept is highly relevant in an educational context. Pragmatic language deficits adversely affect the social and academic performance of school-aged children, especially those who present with high functioning autism and social (pragmatic) communication disorder. The relevance of considering pragmatic language impairment and the importance of identifying students who present with such difficulties cannot be understated, as it requires specialized education and support.

Pragmatic Judgement versus Pragmatic Performance

At the Lavi Institute, we define pragmatic judgment as equivalent to receptive pragmatic skills, and we distinguish it from a broad definition of pragmatic language skills, as this allows a more detailed grasp of an individual’s ability to understand social situations. Pragmatic Performance is defined as congruent to an individual’s expressive pragmatic skills. This is measured by the response given in social situations. Responses vary to include appropriate answers to questions or statements and appropriate responses to expressed emotions. Measuring both skills can be a more detailed approach to understanding the pragmatic profiles of individuals who present with social language deficits, which in turn results in a more individualized and effective intervention plan.

Instrumental versus Affective Communication

In addition to assessing pragmatic judgment and pragmatic performance skills, at the Lavi Institute, we differentiate pragmatic language skills as either instrumental or affective, non-instrumental communication. In instrumental communication, the primary goal is to relay information effectively to the interlocutor and where communication is used as a means to an end (i.e. communication is focused on benefitting the self). Non-Instrumental Communication or affective communication involves higher level communication skills, such as expressing emotions (i.e. joy or sorrow) to another person. Affective Communication is a key component of nonverbal communication and also requires higher-level thought processing.

Paralinguistic Cohesion

Current standardized assessments in the field frequently define pragmatics; however, the definition of paralinguistics, and specifically, how paralinguistics is affected among those with pragmatic impairment, is scarce to non-existent. Our definition of paralinguistic cohesion is the integrative interaction between an individual’s ability to detect a speaker’s intent by recognizing meanings of various non-verbal cues and their ability to express various types of intent with help of non-verbal signals, such as facial expressions, tone of voice, inflections in prosody, gestures, and overall body language. It is the final element of communication, and it can be argued to be the most critical for communicating emotions, such as anger, stress, and happiness.

Six New Constructs

1. Instrumental Performance Appraisal

Instrumental Performance Appraisal examines the ability to judge the appropriateness of introductions, farewells, politeness, making requests, responding to gratitude, requesting help, answering phone calls, requesting information (e.g., directions), and asking for permission when provided a specific scenario. In other words, it assesses whether an individual can discern the difference between appropriate and inappropriate language when used in means-end or basic communication processes. These skills are necessary in order to satisfy an individual’s basic needs and behave appropriately in social situations.

2. Social Context Appraisal

Social Context Appraisal represents the ability to understand the dynamic nature of a social context and adequately process the interactions between various contextual variables (such as physical setting & environment, communication partners, communicative intent, conflict/solution, etc). This skill requires an ability to demonstrate perspective taking, one component of theory of mind. Perspective taking is defined as understanding that another person’s beliefs about events may be different from reality and that those beliefs will guide future behavior (Daneshvar, et. al., (2003). Successful social context appraisal requires one’s understanding of personal intent, as well as the ability to infer what others are thinking. This also includes interpreting components of language that are not interpreted for face value, which individuals with autism struggle with: irony, sarcasm, idioms, and at times, humor. Understanding the intent of others or the receptive aspect of social context will, in turn, result in the appropriate behavior or expressive response. Social context appraisal also involves interpreting social situations, settings, changes in settings, disruptions of routines, and flexibility in disruption of routines.

3. Paralinguistic Decoding

Paralinguistic Decoding is a form of non-instrumental communication, which measures the subject’s ability to read micro-expressions and nonverbal language. Non-verbal communication can be as meaningful as spoken words. It can suggest what a person is feeling and thinking without the use of words. Often, it can reveal how a person feels, although their verbal communication may be contradictory. An appropriate understanding of non-verbal language is critical in understanding another person, and in turn, it leads to an appropriate verbal response.
Previous research has shown that individuals with autism show impairment in pragmatic language that requires attention to social cues, such as facial expressions in a social context. Colich, Wang, Rudie, Hernandez, Bookheimer, and Dapretto (2012) found that individuals with autism struggled to use facial cues when inferring the intent of others (Colich et al., 2012). Philofsky, Fidler, and Hepburn (2007) noted that failure to understand gestures and body language can result in the use of uninhibited, socially inappropriate comments, an overuse of stereotyped utterances and tangential language, and increased use of made up words.

4. Instrumental Performance

Instrumental Performance assesses the ability to adequately and appropriately use introductions, farewells, politeness, make requests, respond to gratitude, request help, answer phone calls, request information (e.g., directions), ask for permission, etc. Instrumental performance is defined in the same manner as instrumental performance appraisal; however, instead of understanding, it assesses one’s ability to adequately and appropriately express or use verbal means-end processes. Means-end or essential communication skills are necessary, as they are the building blocks to more complex language processes, such as taking turns in conversation, expressing appropriate emotion, and more generally speaking—social communication.

5. Affective Expression

Affective Expression is a non-instrumental form of communication which examines the ability to appropriately express polite refusal, regret, support peers, give compliments, use humor, express empathy, gratitude, and encouragement. This requires higher level thinking because its purpose is not designed to fulfill basic needs. Children who more often make reference to emotional states do so because they possess a deeper understanding of mind and emotion. This skill crucially affects the flow of conversation, the ability to understand others point of view, and is essential in relationship building. Individuals with autism not only struggle with understanding emotional cues but also with affective expression. Affective expression also encompasses or can mutually affect conversational techniques, such as topic selection, maintenance, introduction, transition, and closure. Generally, a speaker is responsive to their conversational partner. This can be expressed through verbal feedback or affective expression. Selection of either or both of these expressions is often changed or determined pending on what the conversational partner may say. The use of affective expression or non-verbal language is a significant factor that may impact a speaker’s language use. These expressions are often noted in facial expressions, body posture, tone of voice, and eye contact.

6. Paralinguistic Signals

Paralinguistic Signals is also a non-instrumental form of communication, which assesses one’s ability to appropriately use facial expressions, gestures, and prosody. As opposed to paralinguistic decoding, paralinguistic signals can be referred to as the acting out of the facial expressions and gestures. Similar to affective expression, paralinguistic signals impact the speaker’s choice of language, and consequently, the flow of the conversation. Assessing for such a construct is critical, as it helps target specific pragmatic deficits in an individual who we may already know has general difficulty in pragmatic language.
Multiple studies have examined the topic of prosody (Carter, 2014; Nguyen et al., 2011; Fox, 2000). Prosody is defined as the rhythm, stress, or intonation of speech (Nguyen et al., 2011). In regards to pragmatics, a speaker’s tone can reveal information regarding a speaker’s intent. However, studies have revealed that individuals with ASD have deficits in their speech prosody, prosodic comprehension, and therefore, difficulty with the ability to draw inferences from a speaker’s rate or tone of voice (Dilley et al.,2014; McKann et al., 2003). This makes understanding of idioms, metaphors, and irony, and sarcasm even more difficult to understand, as the inferred meaning differs from its literal meaning (Colich, 2012).