Does Your Child Have a Pragmatic Language Disorder?

CME WebsitesChild Development, Special Needs Diagnoses

Example of a Pragmatic Language Disorder

Mrs. Smith always greets her students as they enter her classroom each morning.  Most of the children wave and say “hi” back to her.  Alex, however, does not.  He walks right past her, never waving, greeting, or even looking at her.  This is an example of a child who may have a pragmatic language disorder.

Pragmatics refers to the appropriate use of language in social situations. For example, knowing what to say, how to say it, when to say it and generally how to “act” around other people during conversation. There are many children who have large vocabularies and are able to speak in full sentences that are clearly articulated, however, they may still have difficulty using language in various social situations. These are the kids who frequently embarrass their parents (albeit unintentionally because they lack social language skills) by making what others view as rude comments. For example, 7 year old Olivia sees her aunt take a second piece of cake at the birthday party and remarks “You better not eat that or you’ll get even fatter”, much to the dismay of all her relatives.

There are three communication skill sets needed for functional pragmatic language.

Using language includes greeting, informing, demanding, and requesting.  Changing language refers to the way we use language depending on the situation and the listener.  For example, talking one way to a family member versus talking to a stranger.  The third skill involves following conversational rules.  This looks at using eye contact and facial expressions, introducing appropriate topics and sticking with that topic, taking turns, using verbal and nonverbal cues, and understanding an acceptable distance between speaking partners.  Children who have pragmatic difficulties may display behaviors that are viewed as rude or inappropriate.  Other language problems may exist as well.

Keep in mind that many of these social nuances vary from culture to culture as to what may be acceptable or unacceptable.

Children with pragmatic language difficulties may be unable to vary their language use, may relate information or stories in a disorganized way or say inappropriate or off topic things during conversation. Pragmatic speech disorder can also be related to difficulties with grammar and vocabulary development. As children get older and more social skills are demanded peers may avoid conversation with children with pragmatic speech issues and therefore these children have less friends and are less accepted in social situations.

If you think your child may have a pragmatic speech disorder you should contact a local licensed speech pathologist for an evaluation.

Practice Skills to Help a Child with a Pragmatic Language Disorder

Children with pragmatic speech disorders can be helped by practicing the following skills at home and school:

  1.  Use role play to help your child understand appropriate language use in various social situations such as school, church, the library, a party, etc. Create scenarios for your child and help them learn how to respond in a socially appropriate manner.
  2.  Discuss with your child various ways of requesting, such as polite (May I have a drink?) versus impolite (Give me a drink NOW) and direct (Shut up) versus indirect (Would you mind talking in a quieter voice?). Discuss with your child why some ways of asking or requesting something might be more persuasive and appropriate than others.
  3. Work on general conversation and story telling with your child. Work on commenting on a particular topic that was introduced before changing to a new topic. Use pictures, objects or a story outline to enhance visual cues for story telling. Demonstrate how facial expressions should match the language being used as well as the social situation, such as smiling when hearing about a friend’s birthday party versus not smiling or laughing when hearing a friend has been in an accident.

For more information on Pragmatic Language Disorder, as well as Semantic-Pragmatic Language Disorder (which may accompany other diagnoses such as Asperger’s, Autism or ADHD) see the following link:

Social Language Use (Pragmatics). Retrieved from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (09.09.09)
Bowen, C. (2001). Sematic and Pragmatic Difficulties and Semantic Pragmatic Language Disorder. Retrieved from on (09.15.09).