In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Acquisition of Pragmatics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Linguistics Acquisition of Pragmatics
Myrto Grigoroglou, Anna Papafragou
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0240


How do children learn to bridge the gap between the literal, semantic meaning of words and the intended, pragmatic meaning of an utterance? The acquisition of pragmatics is the topic of an experimental field of study that investigates this question. According to an influential pragmatic theory proposed by the philosopher Paul Grice, communication is a collaborative effort governed by specific rules (or “maxims”). A collaborative speaker is expected to be as informative as required by the purpose of the communicative exchange (maxim of Quantity), truthful (maxim of Quality), relevant (maxim of Relation), and unambiguous (maxim of Manner). A collaborative listener makes inferences about the speaker’s intentions based on the assumption that the speaker is being cooperative and following the conversational rules. Later pragmatic theories such as Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson’s relevance theory have offered important alternatives to the Gricean framework but share several foundational assumptions with Grice’s approach, including the idea that human communication involves representing the speaker’s beliefs and goals. Whether young children are capable of making such inferences about the speaker’s mental states and how aspects of this ability might develop are the most important questions in the study of children’s pragmatic development. For many years, it was believed that children before the age of five or six were not able to entertain pragmatic inferences about the speaker’s intentions or knowledge state. However, more recent theoretical advancements in the semantics-pragmatics interface and the development of new methodological tools have led to a reconsideration of older findings. It appears increasingly likely that the skills required for pragmatic reasoning are in place from a very young age, but the process of applying those skills in communication is effortful and highly task dependent, and continues to develop until late childhood. This article focuses on prominent work on the acquisition of children’s pragmatic abilities in three areas that have generated a considerable body of data: Reference, Implicature, and Figurative Language.

General Overviews

Grice 1975 and Sperber and Wilson 1995 are seminal pieces of work introducing two different pragmatic theories that nevertheless converge on the idea that human communication involves a species of intention recognition. This key idea is further explored and contrasted to findings from animal cognition in Tomasello, et al. 2005. The theoretical foundations introduced in these publications have inspired much current research on the acquisition of pragmatics, as the remaining papers in this section show. Grigoroglou and Papafragou 2017 provides a cohesive review of the acquisition of pragmatics that can serve as a first introduction to the topic. For the more invested reader, Matthews 2014 provides a comprehensive collection of chapters on many different areas of developmental pragmatics written by prominent researchers in each field. Zufferey 2015 is a textbook on pragmatic development covering both theoretical background on different pragmatic phenomena and recent experimental findings.

  • Grice, H. Paul. 1975. Logic and conversation. In Speech acts. Vol. 3 of Syntax and semantics. Edited by Peter Cole and Jerry L. Morgan, 41–58. New York: Academic Press.

    Highly influential philosophical paper on the foundational principles of human communication. This work has inspired the bulk of research on the acquisition of pragmatics.

  • Grigoroglou, Myrto, and Anna Papafragou. 2017. Acquisition of pragmatics. In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Edited by Mark Aronoff. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Recent review of the literature on developmental pragmatics, with special emphasis on reference, implicature, and figurative language. It corresponds closely to research covered in the present article.

  • Matthews, Danielle, ed. 2014. Pragmatic development in first language acquisition. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

    A recent volume featuring a comprehensive list of topics on children’s pragmatic development, also including less standard topics such as the development of humor and cross-cultural perspectives.

  • Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson. 1995. Relevance: Communication and cognition. 2d ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Highly impactful book introducing relevance theory, a major alternative to the Gricean pragmatic framework.

  • Tomasello, Michael, Malinda Carpenter, Josep Call, Tanya Behne, and Henrike Moll. 2005. Understanding and sharing intentions: The origins of cultural cognition. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28:675–691.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X05000129

    Overview of a framework that views human language and culture as grounded in the ability to interpret and share intentions. Very useful background for researchers interested in pragmatic development.

  • Zufferey, Sandrine. 2015. Acquiring pragmatics: Social and cognitive perspectives. New York: Routledge.

    Textbook on the acquisition of pragmatics covering different aspects of social and cognitive pragmatic abilities, as well as atypical development.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.