Your toddler's pragmatic development is a complicated process that is important to her communication skills.

Development of Pragmatics in Toddlers

by Tiffany Raiford

Half the fun in parenting toddlers is watching them develop their language, learning and other skills on a daily basis. From one day to the next, they learn something new, amaze you and make you smile. Of course, sometimes they’re downright obnoxious, such as that time you were running errands and your son pointed to a homeless man and said, “Ew! He’s so dirty!” at the top of his lungs. Despite all the new things he is learning every day, his pragmatic skills -- defined as the relationship between his understanding of words and his ability to express them -- might need a little more development.

1. Pragmatic Development in Learning to Use Language

The first step for toddlers in developing pragmatics -- the rules of social language -- is learning to use language for different purposes in the basic form. Throughout the development process of pragmatics, your toddler will learn to use language to greet, demand, inform, request and promise, according to the American Speech Language Hearing Association. Typically, toddlers will learn this stage of the process first while learning other stages of the process at different times. Your toddler very likely learned to demand or request items or greet people first. She may have learned the word “cup” as a way of demanding or requesting that you give her a cup of juice. She also likely learned to wave and say “hi” and “bye” to greet people. During your toddler's second year, these words should turn into full-on requests, demands and greetings, according to PBS Kids. However, all kids develop at a different rate, which is why it is important you talk to your child's pediatrician if you have concerns regarding her language skills at this age. Your daughter will learn to use her language skills to say, “I want a cookie,” rather than just using one word such as "cookie."

2. Pragmatic Development in Changing Languages

If you have two little ones, you might notice this form of pragmatic development faster than parents with only one child. When your son is first learning to talk, he will talk to his newborn sister the same way he talks to you. He will ask her in the same tone of voice he uses on you if she wants a toy or a bottle. As his language skills develop, he will learn to change his language based on the people to whom he is talking. He will talk to you in a normal voice but use a baby voice when talking to his baby sister. In addition, he will use a different, louder voice when he’s playing outside than he will when he’s inside playing with his friends or talking to his preschool teacher.

3. Pragmatic Development in Rule Following

It is beyond annoying when you’re having a conversation with your mother-in-law and your little one constantly interrupts, “Mommy. Mommy? Mommy!” It’s even more annoying when your mother-in-law gives you that look that you know says she’s silently judging you on your ability to teach her granddaughter proper manners. However, this is perfectly normal. As your toddler begins the phase of pragmatic learning that teaches the rules of language, she will learn to wait her turn to speak, look people in the eye when speaking and stand close to people in conversation.

4. Pragmatic Development Problems

Most toddlers have problems in the pragmatic development area, which is perfectly normal. You might notice that your son still interrupts people when he’s excited or that he uses his outside voice inside from time to time. There’s nothing to worry about in this aspect. However, if your toddler can't tell a story or communicate in an organized manner, does not use very many words or says things that don’t make sense in the middle of a conversation, he might have an issue with his pragmatic development. These issues could be anything from a simple speech problem to a learning disability to a semantic or pragmatic disorder, stemming from a child's inability to decipher and retain basic pragmatic information, such as fully comprehending language. When you say to a young toddler, "Can you open the box?" the toddler might simply nod or say yes. That's perfectly normal, because he hasn't learned to associate this question with the proper actions. However, if he never grows out of that stage to understand that the question is not about his abilty to open the box, but rather for him to actually get up and open it, he could suffer from a pragmatic disorder. If you suspect your toddler has a pragmatic disorder, contact his pediatrician immediately to discuss the problem. There is no specific age range you should start to worry; if you feel that your child has a language problem, seek confirmation immediately. The earlier a problem is caught, the better the chance of treatment.

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