The Language Fix

A blog for sharing language and learning information


November 2014

Explaining Language – Installment 1:1

Installment 1:1

Many of our confusions and disagreements are complex versions of this simplified example: Let’s pretend that I have a job sorting paper with colored swatches into two piles – blue and red. All papers must go into one pile or the other. This job is simple and mundane for awhile. Soon, though, I come across a color sample with a blend of red and blue, something like this:

red blue swath

Some of our most subversive problems with language occur when we are incapable of creating new piles. If I must be confined to either of only two choices, when we come across new examples of something, it will be impossible to come to a consensus. I could ask hundreds or thousands of people if this color sample would be best in the blue or the red, but I will never get 100% agreement if I must keep the options to the two original ones.

If I ask a question such as, “Is there free will?” I am doing something similar. I am ignoring the possibility of creating new ways of describing that may be more accurate than the old. You can say, “Yes there is free will,” or you can say, “No there isn’t free will,” but you are ignoring that there are other ways of describing reality. This is critically important. Language is a tool that belongs to people. There are no words or concepts that themselves exist independently of people, and a frequent failure to realize this too often becomes a pause on the potential progress of human thought. These are more than just fallacies of false choice; they are linguistic shackles on human intellect.

Pragmatic Judgment

argument talkers yell 2
The result of …inappropriate pragmatic judgment

The skill of pragmatic judgment, as it is commonly known, involves forming appropriate social language responses. In other words it’s saying the right thing at the right time. This is not always easy to measure or even verify. Pragmatic judgment also involves prior knowledge, and knowledge of a conversational partner’s prior knowledge. Sometimes social language involves initiation (e.g. “Hello), while other times the reaction is a response (e.g. “You’re Welcome). At times it is appropriate to not respond in an expected manner. This occurs when conversational maxims are deliberately flouted for reasons such as sarcasm, intentional overstatement or understatement (e.g. Grice, 1975).

Frequency and effectiveness of social response has been shown to significantly affect aspects of life as diverse as interpersonal relationship and occupation (e.g. Swann and Rentfrow, 2001). Pragmatic competency is assessed through such activities as requiring recognition of appropriate topics for conversation; selection of relevant information for directions or requests; initiation of conversation or turn-taking; adjusting communication to situational factors such as age or relationship; using language for expression of gratitude, sorrow, and other feelings; and judgment of the pragmatic appropriateness of the language behavior of others who are engaged in these activities (Carrow-Woolfolk, 1999).

Commonly used assessments with pragmatic judgment include the TOPL and the CASL tests. Informal assessment in natural settings may provide more reliable information regarding pragmatic judgment than formal assessment. Assisting teachers complete pragmatic checklists, such as that provided with the CELF-5, provides information regarding skills specific to the classroom.  Read on for a very shortened hierarchy of possible pragmatic judgment goals.

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Verb Tense

Chances are that if you have a kid with a language disorder, you have a kid with verb tense problems.  Verb tense overlaps with many language skills, such as subject-verb agreement, production of infinitive verbs, irregular past tense, question formation, and helping verbs. Research suggests that omission of tense marker (“zero marking”) is the most prevalent kind of tense error in children with SLI (Marchman, Wulfeck, Weimer, 1999). Tests that assess for verb tense include the OWLS, CASL, CELF, PLS, and SPELT tests.

Elicitation Ideas

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