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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Preverbal Pragmatic Development in a First Language
  • Postverbal Pragmatic Development in a First Language
  • First Language Acquisition of Deixis
  • First Language Pragmatic Development of Turn-Taking
  • First Language Development of Pragmatic Awareness
  • Second Language Pragmatic Development
  • Second Language Development of Pragmatic Routines
  • Second Language Development of Pragmatic Markers
  • Second Language Development of Address Forms
  • Second Language Development of Interactional Competence
  • Second Language Development of Pragmatic Awareness
  • Second Language Development of Implicature Comprehension
  • Contextual Effects on Second Language Pragmatic Development

Linguistics Developmental Pragmatics
Weihua Zhu
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0314


Developmental pragmatics can be understood as growing the skills of using a language appropriately in context. In other words, it concerns the evolution of abilities to cope with the interplay between language, language users, and context. To become pragmatically competent, language users need to have linguistic resources, understand the context of interaction, and employ the resources in the context appropriately. This competence takes time to develop, which is the focus of developmental pragmatics research. Researchers in this field study how language users improve pragmatic competence over time or what contextual factors affect the development of pragmatic competence. Different points of time are the key to revealing the development of pragmatic competence and distinguishing developmental pragmatics from other subfields of pragmatics. These different points of time can be indicated by language users’ ages or language proficiency levels. Language users can develop their pragmatic competence in a first language or a second language. This article is organized around two broad topics—first language pragmatic development and second language pragmatic development. Under these two general topics are more specific subtopics about preverbal pragmatic development, development of conversation organization, communicative acts, pragmatic awareness, among others.

General Overviews

In developmental pragmatics, first language pragmatic development seems to have attracted scholarly attention earlier than second language pragmatic development. The first article about first language pragmatic development, Bates, et al. 1975, was published in the 1970s. Following that, more researchers have focused on first language users’ pragmatic development in terms of how to communicate intents, participate in conversation, and produce extended discourse, or the development of turn-taking, joint attention, deixis, communicative acts, among other things. It is important to note that pragmatic development in a first language begins before children learn how to use the language. In the preverbal stage, young children learn to engage in intersubjective interactions through nonlinguistic forms such as sounds, smiles, turn-taking, and pointing. In the postverbal stage, children take advantage of the linguistic repertoire that they have acquired to contribute to the flow of conversational interactions by making inferences, realizing communicative acts, employing politeness strategies, and so on. Approximately eight years after the first publication about first language pragmatic development, the groundbreaking research article about second language pragmatic development was published in the form of Schmidt 1983. Afterwards, many other researchers have continued to investigate second language users’ development, on both sentence and discourse levels, of pragmatic production, awareness, comprehension, and interaction in a variety of contexts. They have revealed language users’ development of various pragmatic targets such as communicative acts, pragmatic routines, pragmatic markers, address forms, interactional competence, pragmatic awareness, implicature comprehension, and their potential associations with contextual factors.

  • Bates, Elizabeth, Luigia Camaioni, and Virginia Volterra. 1975. The acquisition of performatives prior to speech. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly of Behavior and Development 21.3: 205–226.

    Explores the cognitive and social developments needed for children to learn to communicate. Examines the communication of three young children from different age groups and interventions by researchers through home visits and mothers’ diaries. Reveals the children’s intentionality toward both social and non-social goals.

  • Schmidt, Richard. 1983. Interaction, acculturation, and the acquisition of communicative competence: A case study of an adult. In Sociolinguistics and language acquisition. Edited by Nessa Wolfson and Elliot Judd, 137–174. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

    Focuses on how a Japanese immigrant acquired English over three years. The learner improved his skill of making requests from contextual cues, unanalyzed request forms, requestive markers, or adding verb morpheme -ing, to productive use of reanalyzed, elaborated requests. Indicates transfer from Japanese sociopragmatic and pragmalinguistic norms in the earlier stages.

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