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What is pragmatic language? 


Pragmatic language is the use of appropriate communication in social situations (knowing what to say, how to say it, and when to say it).


Pragmatic language involves three major skills: 


Using language for different purposes such as: 

  • Greeting (Hello. Goodbye. How are you?) 

  • Informing (I am leaving.) 

  • Demanding (Say “Good-bye.” Pick up the toy.)

  • Stating (I am going to the playground.) 

  • Requesting (Do you want to go along?) 


Changing language according to the listener or the situation, such as: 

  • Talking to a teacher, coworker or spouse versus talking to a baby 

  • Talking in a classroom versus talking in the cafeteria 

  • Talking about family to another family member versus a stranger 


Following rules for conversation, such as: 


  • Taking turns while talking 

  • Introducing new topics 

  • Staying on topic 

  • Continuing the same topic as the other speaker 

  • Re-wording when misunderstood 

  • Using and understanding nonverbal signals and body language (facial expression, eye contact, etc.) 

  • Respecting personal space


What causes a pragmatic language disorder?


Although the specific cause of a pragmatic language disorder is not known, the problem is related to dysfunction of the language centers of the brain. Difficulty with pragmatic language can exist on its own, in combination with other language problems, or as part of another diagnosis such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or traumatic brain injury (TBI). 


What are the characteristics of a pragmatic language disorder? 


The individual may have trouble understanding the meaning of what others are saying. They may also have difficulty using language appropriately to get their needs met and difficulty using language to interact with others. Individuals with a pragmatic language disorder have trouble using language socially. As a result, they have difficulty joining in on social play, working with others at school and/or work, or interacting appropriately with peers. Because of these difficulties, they may have difficulty establishing and/or maintaining relationships.


The individual with a pragmatic disorder may: 

  • not understand that we take turns when we talk.

  • not be able to read the nonverbal cues that the listener sends. 

  • not realize that the listener has no background knowledge of his/her topic. 

  • not stay on topic. Therefore, the individual may say inappropriate or unrelated things during a conversation. 

  • not understand the importance of giving enough background information. Therefore, the individual may say something like “He did it the other day” without any reference to whom or what he/she is talking about. 

  • not understand abstract language. Therefore, the individual may not understand riddles, jokes or figures of speech. 

  • not be able to understand the main idea in a conversation or story. 

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What is the treatment for a pragmatic language disorder? 


Speech therapy is often needed for the treatment of a pragmatic language disorder. The speech language pathologist can be a great coach for pragmatic language skills. They will assess the individual, and then formulate goals that are individualized to meet the patient’s specific needs. Because social communication skills may be the primary concern, group therapy is often recommended so that therapy may mimic real world communication situations. 


How Can Parents help? 


There are several ways that parents, family members and caregivers can help individuals use language appropriately in social situations. These suggestions can be adapted for an individual of any age. 

  • Practice greeting before starting a conversation and ending a conversation appropriately. 

  • Help the individual to identify the topics of conversations and stories that he/she tells and that he/she hears or reads. 

  • Tell the individual a story using pronoun (he, she, it) without letting the child know who they refer to. Tell a story but don’t give enough information. Have the individual tell you what is missing for him/her to understand. 

  • Have the individual tell a story or talk about something that happened. Ask questions when not enough information is given. Help the individual understand why you needed more information. 

  • Role-play a situation where an individual has to explain the same thing to different people, such as a younger child, his/her grandmother, or a teacher.

  • Talk about things that are appropriate to say and those that are inappropriate to say for each listener or situation. For example, “May I…” versus “You have to let me…”  

  • Practice nonverbal cues, such as smiling, frowning, looking away and/or rolling the eyes and have the child tell what that cue means. 

  • Show how nonverbal signs are important. Talk about what message is sent when someone crosses his arms, rolls his eyes, or frowns while listening or speaking.

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