October 30, 2012 Features

Parsing Pragmatics

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Third-grader Nikkyta loves to be a part of class discussions. She talks loudly and comments constantly on what others are saying with a show of affirmation ("Now you talkin'") or disagreement ("Girl, nah you oughta quit"). At times during interactions with her peers and teacher, she will turn away while speaking and make a noise that sounds like she's sucking her teeth. When the teacher asks Nikkyta to write or tell a story, Nikkyta goes on tangents: "John chill wit his girlfrien[d]. Dey talk all da time. John mother nice, but she [d]on't like the girl. Dey go out all da time an[d] his mother be like, 'When y'all comin back?' She aks him all kinda questions. His mother cook good and know how to throw down. She know she be stylin' too. We was /æ / ( at ) dey house and had a good time eatin'. John be on his cell phone wit his girlfrien[d] whenever dey not together. Dey really a good couple. I like 'em bof an[d] I hope dey marry."

The teacher has asked Belita Fripes, the speech-language pathologist, to provide intervention to Nikkyta. Fripes shared with the teacher that Nikkyta is demonstrating features of African American English (AAE), a rule-governed variety of English, in her use of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation (Green, 2002; Seymour, Bland-Stewart, & Green, 1998; Seymour & Pearson, 2004; Wolfram & Schilling-Estes, 2006; Wyatt, 1995). However, the teacher presses Fripes to explain the "problems" with narrative construction (for instance, not staying on topic) and the "other" behaviors that seem inappropriate, disruptive, and even discourteous (for example, commenting when others are talking and sucking her teeth).

Fripes works in an urban school setting heavily populated by African Americans. As in the case of Nikkyta, she consults frequently with teachers about children who speak AAE who are suspected of having a speech or language impairment. School administrators applaud her efforts to decrease the system's over-identification of African American children for special education services, and she spends a considerable amount of her professional development focusing on ecological assessment and treatment that better serve the needs of the children in her school system.

Fripes has been successful in identifying differences versus disorders when it comes to lexical/semantic, phonological, morphological, and syntactical areas of language. However, the style of interaction used by African American children—the pragmatic aspect of language—is frequently identified by teachers as problematic for classroom discourse, an impediment to the children's development of narrative and literacy skills, and detrimental to interpersonal communication with the teacher and peers.

Understanding these fundamental AAE pragmatic behaviors, however, can help SLPs make decisions and avoid over- or underidentification of children in need of speech-language intervention. This skill is particularly important given demographic shifts: in 2012, 50.4% of U.S. children under the age of 1 year are children of color (U.S. Census, 2012); in 100 of U.S. large urban areas, children of color make up 55.1% of the school classrooms (McArdle, Osypuk, & Acevedo-Garcia, 2010). By the year 2050, experts predict that 62% of U.S. children will be children of color (U.S. Census, 2008).

Pragmatics: The Heart of Communication

Pragmatic language skills can facilitate the development and maintenance of interpersonal relationships, as well as communication with a variety of people across multiple contexts (Hyter, 2007). Typically defined as the "use of language in social contexts" (Bates, 1976a), pragmatics includes three primary domains: speech acts or communication functions, discourse skills, and presupposition (Bates, 1976b), which requires social cognition—for example, reading intention and taking perspective (Epley & Caruso, 2009).

Pragmatic language skills are the outward expression of the underlying social and cultural practices resulting from a group's collective and historical experiences (Holzman, 1996; Hyter, 2007). Hyter (2007), extending Bates's definition, defined pragmatics as the "daily interactions among groups of people with diverse worldviews, each influenced by a history of social practices"). In this definition, pragmatics is both relational (between groups of people) and contextual (bound to current and macro milieu).

There is little published research on the pragmatic language development of African American children. In a review of the literature published between 1970 and 2010, Hyter, Rivers, and DeJarnette (2010a, 2010b) found that of the 82 published articles and dissertations on pragmatic language of African Americans, the majority (45%) examined participants' narrative discourse. Only 9% of those 82 articles—most from the late 1980s and early 1990s—focused on communication functions (or speech acts). The remaining 46% primarily addressed conversational discourse, expository text, or the use of AAE syntactical structure during narrative production.

The Role of Speech Acts

Speech acts are the speaker's use of utterances with certain intentions in mind and the effect of the utterance on a listener in a given context. For example, a speaker may be direct ("Pick up the book") or indirect ("That book shouldn't be on the floor"). In reference to speech acts, Duchan, Hewitt, and Sonnenmeier (1994) say that "children acquire language in order to have an effect on the world—to express their own intentions and get others to listen and respond to those intentions." According to Müller, Guendoui, and Wilson (2008), "...the development of intentions and their expression is a cornerstone of cognitive and linguistic maturation..." and classification schemes vary in trying to capture speech act development (both typical and impaired). Pence and Justice (2008) refer to speech acts/communicative functions as pragmatic building blocks.

Given the crucial role of speech acts in pragmatic behavior, it is important to consider that African American children, particularly children who speak AAE, may express communicative intentions in ways that differ from the styles expected in a school classroom, increasing the likelihood of being over-identified (or under-identified) as having communication difficulties (Hwa-Froelich, Kasambira, & Molesky, 2007). Therefore, it is imperative for SLPs to understand typical pragmatic language produced by African American children.

Literature on the sociocultural, sociolinguistic, and historical bases of African American speech community language use has identified several speech acts (e.g., call/response, dozen, signifying, dissin', rap, cap, and snap) that serve specific communicative functions for speakers (Bridgeforth, 1987; Garrett, 1996; Hwa-Froelich et al., 2007; Kasambira, 2008; Wyatt, 1995). It would be helpful for SLPs working with children from AAE-speaking backgrounds to know these pragmatic cues.

In Nikkyta's case, the tendency to be "loud" is not uncharacteristic of African American interaction style, particularly in the presence of dissin', rappin, cappin, and snappin (verbal jousts). The constant interjection of affirmation or disagreement illustrate call/response patterns (back-and-forth acknowledgement of attention and interest in the topic), while her "suck teeth" is an aversion response (Green, 2002; Rickford & Rickford, 2000). Nikkyta's narrative style reflects a topic associative pattern characteristic of the African American oral tradition (Burns, 2004) when generating stories.

An important connection not significantly explored for African American children is the link between speech acts and perspective taking, which requires the social cognitive skill known as theory of mind. This skill includes the ability to understand why people do what they do, see the world from others' points of view, and intuit or simulate others' internal mental states (Epley & Caruso, 2009).

Perspective taking requires one to think actively about another's point of view—which may be different from one's own psychological disposition—and inhibit one's own perspectives, while also attending to and interpreting contextual cues (facial expression, tone of voice, or even macro-level cues such as the political context in which a statement was made).

Speech acts and perspective taking are illustrated in the following interaction between Kayla, an African American preschooler who uses AAE, and Yasime, an African American adult who had observed the classroom once before:

1. Kayla (K): [Approaches the African American visitor, who is sitting in a small chair in the preschool classroom. She stands in front of the adult and performs neck roll].

2. Yasime (Y): Hi. What's your name?

3. K: Kay:::la [stated while performing a neck roll. Then Kayla stands and looks at the adult for a number of seconds.]

4. Y: Hmmm… what are you doing? Did you get new glasses? I don't remember you having them on the last time I was here.

5. K: Your glasses look like mine.

6. Y: They sure do. They look alike, don't they?

7. K: My glasses make me look pretty [While emphasizing "me" and performing a neck roll. Then K walks away from Y.] (Hyter, 2005)

In this interaction, there was a coordination of intentions or perspectives by both Kayla and Yasime, allowing for speech act recognition and the use of cultural knowledge (Holtgraves, 2002). In lines 1 and 3, Kayla performed the nonverbal speech act of moving her head and neck (rolling the neck), which can signal "telling someone off" or "giving a person a piece of their mind" (Green, 2002).

In line 7, Kayla used what could be categorized as an early version of the AAE speech act called "signifying," which is an indirect verbal insult (Green, 2002; Smitherman, 1999). In Kayla's interactions with other communication partners (e.g., her classroom teacher, a teacher's aide, and a graduate student in speech-language pathology, all of whom were Caucasian), she did not use the same communication patterns demonstrated with Yasime. Kayla, a typically developing child and speaker of AAE, seemed to demonstrate an appropriate ability to code-switch—requiring perspective taking—and the effective use of AAE interaction rules.

A child with a pragmatic language disorder may not have been able to code-switch, which requires the ability to infer the mental states (or world/linguistic knowledge) of others. In addition, a child with a pragmatic impairment also may not have been as artistic in her use of the subtle insult. A referral to an SLP would be warranted for the child who exhibits both of these communication events—limited ability to code-switch and inappropriate use of speech acts.

Caution and Guidance

This illustration is just a snippet of pragmatic behavior cues used by some African American children that SLPs need to note in identifying difference versus disorder and in treating impairments. Our ongoing efforts aim to evaluate what we know and further develop our knowledge base through applied research. In the meantime, we offer some practical applications for clinicians who work with African American children who are speakers of AAE:

Become aware of speech acts that may be used by children who are speakers of AAE (Bridgeforth, 1987; Garrett, 1996; Hwa-Froelich et al., 2007; Kasambira, 2008; Wyatt, 1995).

Learn how several factors influence the use of AAE in children:

  • Sociocultural factors, including "sex, age, socioeconomic status, geographical area in which one spent formative years, the speaker's purpose, setting, topic, and audience" (Alexander, 1985).
  • Adult-child interactions within the culture (Campbell, 1996).
  • Amount of exposure to other cognitive, language, and communication systems (Campbell, 1996) that influence the use of AAE in children (McGregor, Williams, Hearst, & Johnson, 1997; Stockman, 2010; Taylor, 1986). The execution of speech acts, in particular, tends to differ in children from all cultural backgrounds and is highly dependent on the situation and condition in which the children are involved (Kayser, 1989; Wolfram, 1986).

View speech acts (such as call/response, dozen, signifying, dissin', rap, cap, and snap) cautiously, rather than assume they reflect a disorder. As research reveals pragmatic skills in AAE child speakers that are noncontrastive (shared) and contrastive (unshared) with Standard American English, SLPs should apply Seymour, Bland-Stewart, and Green's (1998) strategy of categorizing noncontrastive and contrastive syntax between AAE and Standard American English to categorize speech acts and perspective taking. This process will help distinguish children who have disorders in those pragmatic language areas from those children who do not.

Focus intervention primarily on shared pragmatic language features that most limit successful communication, followed by those that interfere the least (Bliss, Covington, & McCabe, 1999).

Teach Standard American English features, including speech acts and perspective taking, as a second dialect to those children whose primary dialect is AAE (Stockman, 2010). Seymour (1986) suggested techniques such as imitation, sentence completion, cloze procedure, multiple choice, modeling tasks, and communication games (e.g., barrier game); Alexander (1985) suggested "discussing and role-playing different situations in which black English dialect and standard English dialect would be used."

Use storytelling or retelling books as a technique for teaching children how to take multiple perspectives or see things from others' viewpoints (Hyter & Westby, 1996). Activities include retelling familiar children's stories, such as Little Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks and The Three Little Bears, from the perspective of the different characters (Paul & Norbury, 2012) and "reading and talking about 'trickster tales,' stories that involve deception and the need to distinguish between what is intended and what is said" (Paul & Norbury, 2012).

Pragmatic behavior in AAE speakers must be a serious consideration as SLPs distinguish difference versus disorder in assessment and intervention processes. Although there is a paucity of empirical research pertaining to AAE pragmatic behavior, available ethnographic research should be used to inform us about these behaviors. As research better informs us of typical and atypical AAE pragmatic behavior, SLPs must be ready to read and understand the pragmatic cues of AAE-speaking children, apply this information to assessment and intervention practices, share information with teachers and others, and advance the concept that pragmatic language produced by many African American children frequently reflects the complexities and sophistication of the language system they use, not a language learning disability.

Kenyatta O. Rivers, PhD, CCC-SLP, is associate professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. His research focuses on cultural and linguistic diversity, language development, and spoken and written language disorders in children and adolescents. Contact him at kenyatta.rivers@ucf.edu.

Yvette D. Hyter, PhD, CCC-SLP, is a professor in the Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Her research interests include assessment of social communication and pragmatic language skills of preschool children, and children with histories of maltreatment and prenatal alcohol exposure. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Groups 14, Communication Disorders and Sciences in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Populations; 16, School-Based Issues; and 17, Global Issues in Communication Sciences and Related Disorders, and serves on the SIG 17 Coordinating Committee. Contact her at yvette.hyter@wmich.edu.

Glenda DeJarnette, PhD, CCC-SLP, is professor in the Department of Communication Disorders at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. Her research interests include multicultural considerations in communication disorders, language development and disorders, and neuromotor speech control and development. She is an affiliate of SIG 14. Contact her at dejarnetteg1@southernct.edu.

cite as: Rivers, K. O. , Hyter, Y. D.  & DeJarnette, G. (2012, October 30). Parsing Pragmatics. The ASHA Leader.

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