Understanding pragmatic meaning : a study of secondary school students with specific developmental language disorder
This study explores the hypothesis that there are particular difficulties for secondary school students with specific developmental language disorder (SDLD) in understanding contextual, pragmatic meaning in relation to non pragmatic (semantic) meaning. It compares sixty-four SDLD students, aged between twelve and fourteen years, with chronolgical-age-matched and language-age-matched non-language impaired students. Language age is measured by a test of non-pragmatic meaning comprehension. Incorporating the development of new procedures, the study examines the students' comprehension of two types of ambiguity where the context determines the speaker's intention: inconsistent messages of emotion and multiple meanings in context. These types of ambiguity are evident in a range of communicative intent, for example, to express sarcasm, idiomatic expression, deceipt and humour. Preliminary study into adolescent language suggests that, at this age, there is a particular expectation for students to be able to understand these kinds of communication, both in the classroom and socially. The study provides much evidence to support its central hypothesis: SDLD students made significantly fewer pragmatic responses than both comparison groups. The way students responded suggested two types of pragmatic analysis, one concerning plausibility judgment and a second concerning awareness of multiple reference and detection of miscomprehension. Nonlanguage- impaired children were significantly more able to use these types of analysis, for example, to rule out literal interpretations when they did not know the contextually implied meaning. Some evidence is provided to suggest that these analyses are underpinned by skills in both the metacommunicative and linguistic domains. The study's findings have several implcations for research and practice. The are serious implications, for example, for diagnostic assessment, in the light of the literature survey revealing that those currently available do not assess pragmatic meaning comprehension. The findings further provide a basis to challenge a view that disorders in the semantic and pragmatic domains necessarily co-occur, as reflected in the diagnostic category semanti-pragmatic disorder.