Events

Human communication – pragmatic theories tell us – requires impressive inferential abilities and mind-reading skills (such as recognising communicative intentions and taking into account common ground). To learn how to speak and become competent communicators children need both. Yet, theories are divided concerning the breadth of mindreading skills in young communicators. Research is also divided on how good young children’s pragmatic abilities are. On the one hand, much evidence suggests pragmatics play a grounding role in the development of communication and language acquisition. On the other hand, linguistic pragmatic inferences such as metaphors and implicatures seem to develop later than other linguistic abilities. Indeed, some maintain that there are two separate systems for belief reasoning: a simpler one and a more sophisticated one that develops later (Apperly & Butterfill, 2009); along this line of reasoning we should also expect there to be two separate kinds of pragmatic abilities: an early set using (amongst other things) the simpler theory of mind system and a second set of pragmatic skills appearing later in childhood and using full-blown theory of mind abilities. I will argue that there is no need to divide pragmatic abilities in such a way to bridge the gap between pragmatic inferential skills found in toddlers and the difficulties with pragmatic phenomena observed in preschoolers. I will discuss evidence showing that phenomena such as metaphor and implicatures can be understood by much younger children than previously established and suggest that several factors – independently of children’s pragmatic abilities per se – may explain children’s apparent struggle with pragmatic inferences. There is an exception, nonetheless: irony. Irony comprehension is consistently found only after school age. I will finish by presenting an account explaining this discrepancy.