If your child suddenly loses the plot in the middle of a conversation, this could be the reason

Having a conversation with a five-year-old can be an adventure. One second you’re sharing opinions about favorite breakfast cereals, the next they’ve jumped on something vague about a cartoon octopus.

What appears to be a limited vocabulary or difficulty staying focused could actually be an inability to reconcile inferences with another person’s point of view.

Researchers find that these two essential cognitive skills make it virtually impossible for children around five years old or younger to read between the lines of what appears to be a simple conversation – one that involves something a person knows and the other not.

“As parents or teachers, we need to remember that when children don’t understand what adults mean, it might not just be because they don’t understand the words,” says Elspeth Wilson, linguist from the University of Cambridge.

“Sometimes the context of a conversation is too complex and children struggle to make the inferences they need.”

What we take for granted in conversation can rely heavily on a variety of skills that allow us to see the world through another’s eyes.

Think of something as simple as asking the question, “What are you eating?” In the case where the respondent says “cereals”, the questioner can reasonably assume that he is not also eating bananas, toast and a blueberry muffin. It is implied, even if it is not said.

This skill of ad hoc implicature allows us to freely share information, without the need to build vast frameworks of context each time. Although it sounds simple, there is a lot of psychology in this basic unit of communication.

On the one hand, it is based on the understanding that the person answering the question provides the maximum amount of relevant information. The missing details are as important as the spoken ones.

This pragmatic linguistic competence underpins interpersonal communication. Conditions such as autism spectrum disorders can greatly impede these skills, making it harder to see exactly how much detail to provide in a given context.

The implicature also supposes a level of shared knowledge about what the two individuals can see or have experienced. A bowl of cereal on the table is clearly the subject of the question, for example, not a list of items in the refrigerator.

As adults, we easily integrate these two skills of pragmatic and epistemic reasoning. But this raises an intriguing question: do these two components of inquiry develop together, or do they emerge distinctly to be woven together over time?

According to some models, children can develop pragmatic communication strategies of providing relevant information while they are still limited to an egocentric view of their world. In other words, they don’t need to take into account the point of view of others to provide a relevant answer.

Other models suggest that there is a limited type of theory of mind, where the little human tries to read the wording of your request even though they don’t really have an understanding of your unique experience of the world.

To test these two conflicting hypotheses, the researchers brought together 33 children aged five and six and engaged them in a conversation using a puppet.

The puppet asked the child to choose cards based on what they displayed. In some cases, the map was clear to both puppet and child. In others, there was a relatively relevant card that the puppet could see, as well as a more relevant card that was only obvious to the child.

For example, the puppet can see two cards – one with bananas and an apple, the other with apples and oranges; he asks for the card with bananas on it. However, from the child’s point of view, in addition to the two cards seen by the puppet, there is also a card with bananas and nothing else.

Out of the whole group, only four children understood that the puppet was referring to the card they could both see – with bananas and apples. Done with 36 adults, only nine did not understand that the puppet involved the map that they both could see.

Although it is difficult to know exactly what is going on in the minds of participants with certainty, the results seem to imply that most children do not effectively integrate the different skills together in an ad hoc implicature.

Other tests conducted by the researchers with slightly older children aged 5 to 7 show that pragmatic and epistemic reasoning is there somewhere, which can be practiced on its own. It just takes time for kids to combine them into one act.

For children just starting elementary school, this could be a significant developmental barrier that teachers need to consider. Not all new students will be able to reconcile the correct answer from their perspective with a relevant answer from another.

Good thing you know what that octopus cartoon is then, right?

This research was published in Language learning and development.

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