When we think about how well someone communicates, we usually think about whether their speech is clear and understandable, and whether they can use language to express themselves. However, a person can have crystal clear speech and a great vocabulary and still have a communication deficit. Pragmatics, or the way that we use language in social situations, is an essential communication skill that can also be problematic for many people.
One major aspect of pragmatics is the ability to change language based on your listener or situation. For example, if you were to ask the same question to your boss, your three-year-old daughter, and your best friend, you would change the way you speak for each person. You also may have to change the way you speak based on the situation (e.g., think about how you might change your communication style with a stranger in line at the grocery store, compared to a stranger you met at a professional conference). Another aspect of pragmatics is the ability to understand and use basic social rules of language. This includes turn-taking, maintaining a topic, using eye contact, and understanding your listener’s non-verbal signals like facial expressions and body language.
Pragmatic skills are often over looked because they come naturally to most people; chances are you don’t consciously think about how close to stand to someone during a conversation or how to tailor your language to a specific person. However, for some people, it’s not as simple. Some children have difficulty developing pragmatic skills. Sometimes this is because of a disorder, such as Aspergers Syndrome, and other times, the cause is unknown. Adults can also develop pragmatic difficulties, for example, after a traumatic brain injury or a stroke. If a person is having difficulty with pragmatic skills, speech-language pathologist can help. A speech-therapist can identify what aspects of social language a person is having the most difficulty with, and help increase the person’s awareness of the issue. During therapy, the speech pathologist can design exercises to explicitly teach aspects of social communication, and use activities like role-playing or social games to put these skills into use.
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