Context Matters: Examining Differences in Pragmatic Language in Relation to Executive Functions and Context

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University of Alabama Libraries

Pragmatic rule understanding requires selective attention and inhibition of irrelevant stimuli in favor of the desired outcome, suggesting a potential role for executive functions (EF) in flexibly applying pragmatics skills (PS) differentially by social contexts. To specify the relationship between EF and PS, the current work examines whether preschooler's identification of pragmatic requirements varies by their EF level, or by group membership, age, or authority level of the speaker. Ninety-five 4- to 6-year-olds completed an EF battery, language battery, false belief task, and pragmatics violations task. For the pragmatics violation task, children saw members of different social groups commit various types of pragmatic violations. They then judged whether a pragmatic violation had occurred and, if applicable, the seriousness of the pragmatic violation. Results indicate that EF contributes indirectly to PS scores when age is controlled for, moderated by language and theory of mind (ToM) skills. Overall, children with higher EF better identified pragmatic violations compared to children with lower EF, with some differences for specific maxims. Additionally, the results suggest differences in leniency offered to group members based on not just what type of pragmatic violation they committed but who committed it. Conversely, children's seriousness judgments varied by maxim, but not EF. Collectively, this study provides evidence of the role of EF in PS during preschool, evidencing that EF may support interpretation of increasingly complex social scenarios. Second, this study demonstrates how these judgments differ by the pragmatic rule violated and characteristics of the individual committing violation. These findings will inform how EF may assist children in everyday social interactions and may provide insight into how children's use of EF differs by context.

Electronic Thesis or Dissertation
development, executive functions, pragmatic language, social context