The Importance of Pragmatics

The ability to adapt language to the social context of a conversation is known as Pragmatics. Children acquire pragmatic skills by observing adults and other children around them. They learn from the social cues they see other people use when communicating, such as eye gaze, facial expressions, and body language. Having age-appropriate pragmatic communication is essential for people to participate in conversations and interact with others in socially acceptable ways. Most of us do not even realize that pragmatics are an important part of our communication, but without it, life could be difficult.

Pragmatics is a branch of philosophy and linguistics that focuses on the context-dependency of many aspects of linguistic interpretation. It deals with how one word can have different meanings in different circumstances, the implication that a speech act may have, or the fact that conventional meaning is often supplemented by other information. It also discusses the role that non-linguistic cues play in understanding the semantic or pragmatic meaning of an utterance, such as gestures, body language and tone of voice.

It is important to understand that Pragmatics differs from Semantics, the branch of linguistics that focuses on the meanings of words and phrases. Morris explains this distinction by saying, “Pragmatics, like semiotics in general, deals with the relation of signs to their interpreters. Semantics deals with the relations of symbols to objects which they may or may not denote.”

Another distinction is that a Pragmatist places more importance on practical value. A pragmatist believes that knowledge is useless unless it can be applied in real-life situations. A pragmatist will also be more interested in teaching methods that will allow students to apply their new skills immediately.

For example, let’s say a mother and daughter are discussing the effects of eating too much sugar on their weight. Their daughter says that eating cookies can make you fat. In a literal sense, the daughter did not mean that she was calling her friend fat, but in a pragmatic sense she meant it. The mother understood the implication because of her daughter’s body language, tone of voice and the other social cues that she used during her statement.

A large and diverse literature on pragmatic development exists that addresses various aspects of this phenomenon. The research ranges from early cognitive development to adulthood, with a special focus on child-provided data. In addition, a growing number of empirical studies have examined the relationship between linguistic growth and cognition on the one hand, and pragmatic development on the other.

The Herculean task of organizing and comparing these disparate sets of research has been taken on by the authors of the present volume. As the papers in this issue demonstrate, there are no simple answers to the fundamental questions about the nature and growth of pragmatic communication. Instead, the answer lies within a complex intention-recognition system that interfaces with both language and non-linguistic cognition in several specific ways. Future progress will depend on making precise, theoretically motivated connections between pragmatic mechanisms on the one hand, and semantic and cognitive mechanisms that underlie individual phenomena (and the tasks used to test them) on the other.