For part two of this series, please click here.

My 14-year old daughter was on Instagram responding to a friend who lives on the coast and turned to me questioningly, “They don’t say expression X in Vallarta, do they?” Her doubt stemmed from having spent eight years in another region of Mexico where expression X is commonly used.

I thought she was being a bit overly concerned with such a minute detail and just couldn’t imagine the friend having a big problem with jargon not normally used where she lives.

Yet the ability to adapt language to a specific situation or audience is an important social communication skill. This fact was driven home when interviewing Judith O. Roman, M.A., CCC-SLP, about pragmatics, otherwise known as social communication.

“Teens are absolute pros at modifying their language for each other,” stated Roman who is a clinical faculty member at Northwestern University’s Center for Audiology, Speech, Language, and Learning with extensive experience with early intervention as well as preschool and school-aged children. She is also certified in providing neuro-developmental treatment.

Thus, my daughter’s diligence was put in proper perspective by an expert.

Social communication, or pragmatics, corresponds to the “use” component of the “form-function-use” framework that has created the structure for this exclusive MultiBrief series on expressive language from an SLP perspective.

Pragmatics in daily life

Pragmatics, according to American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), are the rules associated with the use of language in conversation and broader social situations.

“We use the same word sets and sentence structures but speak very differently to different listeners for different purposes,” says Roman. “Research shows that very young children understand that they need to speak differently to their peers than their parents and differently again to their grandparents.”

“Being able to use social media ‘correctly’ is another example of pragmatics skill,” she adds. “Doesn’t everyone have a funny story about grandparents who don’t text the way they ought to?”

While most of us have surely experienced feeling socially inept in an unfamiliar situation — perhaps even with social media — we take for granted our ability to communicate easily in daily life.

Yet for people who have difficulties with pragmatics, forming friendships and successfully navigating the various social situations inherent to daily life can become a nightmare. In the classroom, children can be pushed away by peers because their manner of communication makes them come across as rude and uncaring.

Ways social skills affect communication

It’s normal for children to break some of the rules of communication as they learn, according to information on the ASHA website. Such rules include saying hello, goodbye or thank you, and laughing or smiling at the right point in a conversation.

“Children who have difficulties with pragmatics don’t understand how to use language well. They can choose words and can create grammatically correct sentences, but miss the social decision-making involved in communication,” explains Roman.

“They may not be good at using language appropriately for different reasons like knowing when to demand the dog — ‘Give me the ball!’ verses when to politely request — ‘Grandma, may I have a cookie, please?’

It may be hard for a child with a pragmatic difficulty to change language for a listener or situation.

“A boy or girl should have the ability to use one style of language when in a group of peers on the playground and a different style in the classroom with a teacher. We know that very young children already understand how to modify their language for situations and listeners,” adds Roman.

Additionally, children with pragmatic difficulties may not conform to conversational rules, she notes. For instance, they may monopolize conversations, not acknowledging or showing interest in what others are saying. They may not realize or even care when their own message is unclear to the listener.

Accurately gauging a listener’s prior knowledge can also be challenging for someone with pragmatic difficulties.

In an informative article for families, author Caroline Bowen, A.M., Ph.D., shares an example of a boy who gave her a highly detailed explanation on how to wash a car, assuming that she’d never washed one and wanted this information.

“On the other hand, they may assume prior knowledge that the listener could not possibly have and launch into a long disquisition without describing in sufficient detail the participants, location and general background of their story,” she writes.

Other potentially problematic areas of social communication that Bowen notes include reading and responding appropriately to a listener’s body language and mood as well as maintaining the right amount of eye contact during a conversation.

Here, Roman offers a word of warning regarding the popular conception that use of eye contact is the primary signal for difficulties with social pragmatics. While eye contact is indeed a component of conversational rules, it is only one component among many.

Supporting students with pragmatic difficulties

Roman names several ways teachers can support and encourage children with pragmatic difficulties within the classroom.

“The more the very nebulous idea of social appropriateness can be turned into ‘rules’ or concrete ways of thinking, the more helpful it can be for kids,” she explains. “So, saying ‘everyone gets to say two sentences’ might be a way of helping a child avoid monopolizing a class discussion.”

She suggests that teachers create specific rules like, “You can call your friends ‘dude,’ but you only can call me by my name.”

“It is important to encourage children with pragmatic difficulties to try to think about how and what others think. A teacher might reason, ‘How do you feel when you don’t get a turn to talk? That’s how your friend feels right now.’”

At the point where a child’s language style begins to interfere socially and within classroom interactions, a referral to a speech and language pathologist is highly recommended. Addressing the issue in a timely matter is crucial; when a child is disliked because of social language, he or she quickly can become isolated from the group, warns Roman.

Not only can SLPs pinpoint social language skill areas to work on, but they can often group that child with others who experience similar difficulties, she explains. This creates a supportive, non-judgmental environment where children can help each other, find an accepting social group and learn together about social language use.