Last Modified: February 16, 2023 | Published: September 13, 2022

What is Social Language in Childhood?

Social language in childhood, also known as pragmatic language, is the language children use to communicate with their peers. Social language includes skills like polite greetings, sharing information, asking questions of others, and engaging with them in conversation. 

Many children struggle to use their language skills in social language. They may have an adequate vocabulary but still have pragmatic deficits. In that case, it will be extremely important to get intervention early and often.

What Does Social Language Require?

The following skills are required for social language.

  • Thinking of relevant stories to share
  • Drawing on experiences
  • Making connections to the experiences of others
  • Paying attention
  • Taking turns
  • Formulating questions
  • Knowing how to start up and finish conversations

Social Language as Your Child Grows

Children’s pragmatic language can change as your child grows. If you are the parent of a very young child, it can be hard to know whether your child is on track. However, even in infants and toddlers, there are social-communication milestones to consider. As your child gets older, these skills are expected to become more sophisticated and begin to lead to lasting friendships.

In terms of pragmatic language development, it is important to ensure that your child’s skills are on track with peers their age.

A typical trajectory for pragmatic development would look as follows (Linder & Peterson-Smith, 2008, p.264-269) [1]:

Pragmatic skill progression in infants, toddlers, and preschool children

  • 2 months: uses eye contact
  • 3 months: has a social smile
  • 4 months: vocalizes to initiate socializing, social laugh
  • 5 months: shows a preference for familiar faces
  • 6 months: refuses objects or toys they don’t want
  • 7 months: plays simple games like peek-a-boo
  • 8 months: follows the pointing and eye gaze of caregiver
  • 9 months: makes requests and initiates interactions
  • 10 months: initiates games, points to desired objects
  • 11 months: uses gestures and simple words to get another’s attention
  • 12 months: displays shared enjoyment, takes turns
  • 15 months: demonstrates shared joint attention, follows directions to look at something
  • 18 months: responds to simple requests for clarification such as, ‘what?’ or ‘huh’?
  • 24 months: takes one or two turns in a conversation
  • 36 months: uses words to communicate in play, engages in some parallel play but may also interact with peers by sharing toys or commenting on their play

If your baby, toddler, or preschooler’s skills are not developing as shown in the list above, there may be concerns about pragmatic language skills. Language therapy may be appropriate. Keep in mind that pragmatic language skills build on each other over time. As you will see below, communication gets more complex as the child matures.

As you will see below, communication gets more complex as the child matures.

Pragmatic skill progression in older children

  • Kindergarten: Once children reach elementary school, the skills should evolve. You would want your kindergarten child to play games with peers, such as a card game like Uno or a board game like Jenga. You would expect them to play tag on the playground using some back-and-forth social language to establish the rules. Children this age read one another’s emotions on faces and know when and how to enter games and join other children.
  • 1st grade-2nd grade: As children advance in elementary school, we expect them to understand jokes and sarcasm and to be able to discern whether or not they should take statements literally. For example, we would expect a 2nd grader to know that ‘button your lip’ means being quiet, not actually buttoning your lip.
  • 3rd-5th grade: In the later years of elementary school, kids have established deeper and longer-lasting friendships; those relationships require lots of social communication. These conversations include inside jokes, gentle teasing, sharing and keeping secrets, and telling stories.
  • Middle school and high school: Teens and pre-teens have even higher expectations in terms of pragmatic social skills. They need to learn how to ‘read the room’ to know if their voice should be loud or soft. Teens are expected to understand how different people like to talk; some friends joke around while others might be more serious. They also need to pick up on non-verbal communication skills, such as another child in their midst suddenly becoming quiet. This behavior in the other child might mean that their feelings have been hurt or they don’t understand the conversation. A teenager with good social communication skills can pick up and respond to subtle social cues in conversations.

These pragmatic language skills build on each other throughout childhood. As a parent, you want to watch to see if your child’s skills are coming along typically. If there are concerns, resources are provided below. 

Your Next Step

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[1] Linder Ed.D., Toni & Petersen-Smith Ph.D., Ann (2008) Administration Guide for TPBA2 & TPBI2 (Play-Based Tpba, Tpbi, Tpbc).