If your child suddenly loses the plot during a conversation, this could be the reason

Having a conversation with a five-year-old can be an adventure. One minute you’re sharing opinions about favorite breakfast cereal, the next they’ve switched to something vague about a cartoon octopus.

What seems like a limited vocabulary or difficulty staying focused may actually be an inability to reconcile inferences with another person’s perspective.

Researchers are finding that these two crucial cognitive skills make it virtually impossible for children about five years old or younger to read between the lines of what appears to be a simple conversation — one that involves something one knows and the other doesn’t.

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

“Sometimes the context of a conversation is too complex and children struggle to draw the conclusions 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 person’s eyes.

Think of something as simple as asking the question, “What do you eat?” If 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 stated.

This skill of ad hoc implicature allows us to freely share information, without having to build elaborate context frameworks every time. Although it may seem simple, there is a lot of psychology in this basic unit of communication.

To begin with, it is based on the understanding that the person answering the question provides the maximum amount of relevant information. The missing details are just as important as the spoken ones.

This pragmatic language skill supports interpersonal communication. Conditions such as: autism spectrum disorder can greatly hinder these skillsmaking it more difficult to see exactly how much detail should be provided in any given context.

Implicature also assumes a level of shared knowledge about what both individuals can see or have experienced. For example, a bowl of cereal on the table is clearly the subject of the question and not a list of items in the fridge.

As adults, we integrate these two skills of pragmatic and epistemic reasoning with ease. But it raises an intriguing question: do these two-pronged components of research develop in tandem, or do they emerge clearly to become intertwined over time?

come some models, children can develop pragmatic communication strategies to provide relevant information while still being limited to an egocentric view of their world. In other words, they don’t have to consider another person’s perspective to give a relevant answer.

Other models suggest that there is a limited species: theory of mind going on, with the little human trying to read the wording of your request even if they don’t really have an understanding of your unique experience of the world.

To test these two conflicting hypotheses, researchers gathered 33 children, ages five and six, and engaged them in conversation using a doll.

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

For example, the doll 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. But from the child’s perspective, in addition to the two cards that the doll sees, there is also a card with bananas and nothing else.

Out of the entire group, only four children understood that the doll was referring to the map they could both see – with bananas and apples. Done with 36 adults, only nine didn’t understand that the doll implied the map they both could see.

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

Other tests the researchers conducted with slightly older children, ages 5 to 7, show that there is some pragmatic and epistemic reasoning out there that can be practiced on its own. Children only need time to combine them into one act.

For children just starting primary school, this can be an important developmental barrier that teachers need to consider. Not all new students will be able to reconcile both the correct response from their perspective with a relevant response from another.

It’s a good thing you know what that octopus cartoon is about, right?

This research was published in Language learning and development

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