Pragmatics is child’s play
Recent developmental research on social cognition indicates that pragmatics play a grounding role in the development of children's communicative skills even before they utter their first words. Much evidence in language acquisition also suggests that young children could not learn to speak without impressive pragmatic abilities. In stark contrast with this picture, linguistic pragmatic inferences (e.g., reference assignment, implicatures, metaphors, presuppositions and irony) appear to develop later than other linguistic abilities.
Pragmatic inferences, such as those involved in understanding implicit and non-literal meaning, require the ability to recognise communicative intentions, as well as to take into account common ground (or mutual knowledge). Empirical findings suggest that prelinguistic children already master these skills. Words and syntax, it seems, are all there is left to learn for children to become perfect little ‘Gricean’ comprehenders. What, then, makes linguistic pragmatic phenomena so difficult to grasp for preschoolers?
This talk tries to reconcile the development of pre-linguistic and linguistic pragmatic abilities by presenting data on three phenomena: scalar implicatures, presupposition and metaphor. I will discuss evidence showing these phenomena might be understood much earlier than prior results suggest, and that several factors – independently of children’s pragmatic abilities per se – may explain children’s apparent struggle with pragmatic inferences.