ABSTRACT: Developmental psychology has so far studied pragmatic acquisition with a number of methods, highlighting
typical developmental patterns.
Quite recently, pragmatic impairments in clinical samples with language disturbances (Developmental
Language Disorders, acquired aphasias, early focal lesions, Eisele et al., 1998, Bates, 2004), have gained much
attention, similarly to the well known linguistic difficulties affecting those samples. In fact, clinicians sense that
pragmatic difficulties, differently from syntactical, morphological, lexical and phonological difficulties, escape
routine neuro-linguistic assessment. They report clinical observations attesting to the impact that, in those
clinical populations, subtle linguistic impairments have on social and interpersonal functioning well after that
grammatical skills have been reliably acquired. Clinical neuropsychologists and speech therapists are therefore
concerned that pragmatic skills be overlooked in linguistic rehabilitation programs. At the same time, they
pinpoint that validated tests to appreciate systematically pragmatics are still lacking. So, standardisation and
validation of clinical tests reveal to be essential.
Aim. This contribution, aiming to meet such clinical needs, presents with the preliminary results of a
validation study on a new pragmatics test, formed by 6 subscales. The focus will be on verbal, visual metaphor
and idiom understanding, and prosodic comprehension. Firstly, the results will be discussed with regard to the
typical developmental trends. It is still in progress the analysis of the performances by a clinical sample of 8
children with ACC, which is a rare pathology affecting the communication between the hemispheres and liable
to linguistic and pragmatic difficulties.
Participants and Procedure. 143 children from 6 to 14, were administered 10 verbal and 10 visual
metaphors (a verbal metaphor represented in a line drawing alongside with 3 drawings, one being the literal
meaning and two incorrect answers), and 10 idioms. Children were asked to explain the metaphors in their
words. Answers were classified as correct or not, by two judges agreeing on the criterions and going through
discussion to settle possible discordant judgments. Then, 12 sentences pronounced with different emotional
prosodies (happy, neutral, sad) were listened and classified by the participants.
Results. Results show that understanding of metaphors, either verbal or visual, and idioms increases
with age. In detail, there is a continuous, linear increase in verbal metaphor, with a fast rate from 1st to 4rth
degree, and then a slightly shallower increase. In visual metaphors, increase is shallower than verbal metaphors,
but the task results to be easier than verbal one, in that performances are higher since the first degree. Finally,
idiom understanding is quite shallow and always at lower levels than metaphors. As to emotional prosody
understanding, increase appears again to be linear and earlier than in all the other subscales, in that at the first
degree children already pass half the items.
Overall, it appears that sensitivity to emotional prosody is already acquired by the beginning of
elementary schools, while implicit and somehow conventional meaning conveyed in metaphor is grasped later in
childhood, and only then the ability to understand idioms emerges.
To resume, although there is need to encompass in systematic assessment of pragmatics lexical
references, implications and presuppositions as the core features of pragmatics, it is worth noting that the
subscales used in the study appears to be a promising tool for clinical applications. Also, non literal, mentalistic
and linguistic reasoning in children should be assessed in all clinical populations alongside with the well known
syntactic and morphological skills, in that the ability to get beyond literal meaning of linguistic statements is
essential in interpersonal, linguistically mediated, life.
9th Conference of International Pragmatics, Riva del Garda, TN, Italy; 01/2005