Pragmatics in Language Learning and Development


Pragmatics is the study of how meaning varies in context. It is a subfield of linguistics, along with semantics (the study of the rules that determine literal linguistic meaning), syntax (the study of how words combine to form sentences) and semiotics (the study of signs and symbols). Pragmatics investigates not only what people mean by their expressions but also how the physical or social context affects their use of those expressions.

For example, if someone asks you “How are you?” a typical response would be something like “Fine, thanks” rather than a long description of all the medical and personal details that might affect one’s wellbeing on a given day. This pragmatic presupposition is a consequence of the fact that in a conversation, speakers and listeners rely on other participants’ prior communicative acts to manage the flow of reference. Pragmatics is thus concerned with implicatures, suppositions and inferences, and is informed by theories such as Grice’s notion of implicature and Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson’s relevance theory.

Developmental research in pragmatics addresses a wide range of phenomena, from children’s sensitivity to pragmatic principles and their growing ability to apply them, to how they acquire the skills needed to communicate successfully with others. This special issue of Language Learning and Development brings together papers that showcase classic and more recent findings and theorizing in this rapidly-expanding field, reflecting a variety of empirical topics, methods and perspectives.