Myrto Grigoroglou and Anna Papafragou
To become competent communicators, children need to learn that what a speaker means often goes beyond the literal meaning of what the speaker says. The acquisition of pragmatics as a field is the study of how children learn to bridge the gap between the semantic meaning of words and structures and the intended meaning of an utterance. Of interest is whether young children are capable of reasoning about others’ intentions and how this ability develops over time.
For a long period, estimates of children’s pragmatic sophistication were mostly pessimistic: early work on a number of phenomena showed that very young communicators were egocentric, oblivious to other interlocutors’ intentions, and overall insensitive to subtle pragmatic aspects of interpretation. Recent years have seen major shifts in the study of children’s pragmatic development. Novel methods and more fine-grained theoretical approaches have led to a reconsideration of older findings on how children acquire pragmatics across a number of phenomena and have produced a wealth of new evidence and theories.
Three areas that have generated a considerable body of developmental work on pragmatics include reference (the relation between words or phrases and entities in the world), implicature (a type of inferred meaning that arises when a speaker violates conversational rules), and metaphor (a case of figurative language). Findings from these three domains suggest that children actively use pragmatic reasoning to delimit potential referents for newly encountered words, can take into account the perspective of a communicative partner, and are sensitive to some aspects of implicated and metaphorical meaning. Nevertheless, children’s success with pragmatic communication is fragile and task-dependent.
While both pragmatic theory and experimental investigations of language using psycholinguistic methods have been well-established subfields in the language sciences for a long time, the field of Experimental Pragmatics, where such methods are applied to pragmatic phenomena, has only fully taken shape since the early 2000s. By now, however, it has become a major and lively area of ongoing research, with dedicated conferences, workshops, and collaborative grant projects, bringing together researchers with linguistic, psychological, and computational approaches across disciplines. Its scope includes virtually all meaning-related phenomena in natural language comprehension and production, with a particular focus on what inferences utterances give rise to that go beyond what is literally expressed by the linguistic material.
One general area that has been explored in great depth consists of investigations of various ‘ingredients’ of meaning. A major aim has been to develop experimental methodologies to help classify various aspects of meaning, such as implicatures and presuppositions as compared to basic truth-conditional meaning, and to capture their properties more thoroughly using more extensive empirical data. The study of scalar implicatures (e.g., the inference that some but not all students left based on the sentence Some students left) has served as a catalyst of sorts in this area, and they constitute one of the most well-studied phenomena in Experimental Pragmatics to date. But much recent work has expanded the general approach to other aspects of meaning, including presuppositions and conventional implicatures, but also other aspects of nonliteral meaning, such as irony, metonymy, and metaphors.
The study of reference constitutes another core area of research in Experimental Pragmatics, and has a more extensive history of precursors in psycholinguistics proper. Reference resolution commonly requires drawing inferences beyond what is conventionally conveyed by the linguistic material at issue as well; the key concern is how comprehenders grasp the referential intentions of a speaker based on the referential expressions used in a given context, as well as how the speaker chooses an appropriate expression in the first place. Pronouns, demonstratives, and definite descriptions are crucial expressions of interest, with special attention to their relation to both intra- and extralinguistic context. Furthermore, one key line of research is concerned with speakers’ and listeners’ capacity to keep track of both their own private perspective and the shared perspective of the interlocutors in actual interaction.
Given the rapid ongoing growth in the field, there is a large number of additional topical areas that cannot all be mentioned here, but the final section of the article briefly mentions further current and future areas of research.