What is Social Language (Pragmatics) ?

Beyond Please & Thank You

What is the real meaning of social language?

The Ins and Outs of Social Language

By Lori Savage Grayson, MMSc, CCC-SLP


Social language starts early! Photo: PPW

Can we talk? Well, maybe…depends who you are talking to, I mean with. YES, that’s right, with.

You may have noticed how some children speak clearly and may even use complex sentences with correct grammar, but miss the mark when it comes to communicating with those around them. In other words, they are not following the rules of social language, also called pragmatics.

As a parent, you may be thinking about autism as you read this article on social language since children with autism often experience challenges in this area. While this is true, it is important to remember that not all children with pragmatic language problems have autism.

Briefly, social communication is comprised of social interaction, social cognition, and social language. As expected, none of these areas stands alone. Instead, they are interwoven and closely related in the development of a child’s ability to relate, interact and communicate with the world around them.

Social language involves three major communication skills and comes into play from the moment we wake until we go to sleep. To be successful a child must understand and use these rules to “switch gears” throughout the day by:

  • Using language for different purposes, e.g., greeting hello/goodbye, informing, demanding, promising and requesting;
  • Changing language based on the listener or situation, e.g., talking differently to a peer or adult, knowing how much information to share with familiar and unfamiliar people, and using the appropriate speaking voice inside vs. outside;
  • Following rules for conversation/storytelling, e.g., taking turns in conversation, introducing & staying on topic, rephrasing to clarify and using verbal & nonverbal communication signals such as, eye contact, appropriate physical distance to others, gestures, and facial expressions.

Remember, the rules governing social language vary based on many factors including the listener’s culture, age, familiarity with the speaker, and the setting of the social interaction. Should a child miss any of these factors, infractions typically occur.

As a result, a child who has difficulty recognizing and following social language rules will be less efficient and less effective as a communicator, often wondering why others appear annoyed, confused, or leave their conversation, and subsequently may feel rejected  or excluded by peers.

Surely you can think of a child who insists on telling a lengthy story without ever taking a breath. Each story is filled with details beyond your wildest dreams and seems to go on forever. But, this same child may not be able to pause and engage in a turn-taking conversation. While you, as an adult, will indulge this “talkative” child, peers will not.

Parents are always sharing stories about that embarrassing moment when their child in an all too loud voice and in an all too public setting, let’s say the grocery store, uttered an all too inappropriate comment about another person standing nearby. Said parent then attempts to discreetly disappear by turning a corner down another aisle. Of course, as a parent, you will use this as a “teachable moment”.

Experiencing difficulty with social language is bound to occur as children learn the rules, but this should be infrequent and align with your child’s age, decreasing with maturation.

However, a pragmatic language problem may be present if:

  • Challenges occur often, with no improvement even with teaching & maturation;
  • Your child’s language seems disorganized, limited in variety or lacks flexibility;
  • S/he just doesn’t seem to “get” the gist of what your or others are saying; or
  • Your child’s responses consist of ideas unrelated to the conversational topic.

The GOOD news is that difficulties with social communication, including pragmatics, can be evaluated and diagnosed. The BETTER news is that Speech-Language Pathology (SLP) intervention can be implemented.  And, the BEST news is that these SLP services yield positive changes leading to improvements in a child’s social engagement and peer relations!

NOTE: For this article, children are the focus, however, anyone can experience challenges with social communication skills.

For more information, contact us

Leave a Reply