Language can be broken into four domains: phonology, grammar, semantics, and pragmatics. These four areas refer to the sounds of language (phonology), how the sounds are put together (phonology and grammar), the meaning/content (semantics), and the use of the language (pragmatics) (Bloom & Lahey, 1978). Each of these domains includes the expectation that the language users will produce, receive, and comprehend the language.
Phonology is the ability to distinguish and create the sounds of language (Bloom & Lahey, 1978). Phonemes are the smallest units of language, representing individual sounds. For example, the word “chip” has three phonemes: /ch/ /i/ /p/. Each of these three sounds is a phoneme. A phoneme focuses on the sound only, without regard for the letter or letter combinations. It is simply the components of sound that we hear in language. Children display phonemic awareness by attending to these sounds, demonstrating the ability to hear and isolate them. Phonics is the area of phonology that emerges last, as children match sounds to letters and groups of letters.
Grammar is the combination of how individual words and sounds are combined to express meaning (Bates et al, 1992). Grammar rules guide how words are combined to communicate information. Grammar includes morphology and syntax. Morphology focuses on the structure within the word, and allows for the creation of complex words and phrases. For example, many words can be made plural by adding “s” to the end of a word (e.g., bird and birds). Morphemes are the smallest units of language that contain meaning. Some prefixes and suffixes of words contain their own meaning, such as “un” or “ing” in the words, “undo,” “untie,” or “doing,” “tying.” Young children frequently make mistakes in this area by applying a morphological rule in all instances (Bates et al., 1992). For example, a child might say, “I saw the deers” (plural /s/) or “I wented there” (past-tense /ed/). These rules are complex and numerous and children apply these rules as best as they can given the constraints of what they have already learned. Syntax governs our grammatical structures such as word order and phrasing. The meaning of “Mommy feeds Brother” is different than “Brother feeds Mommy.” Infants show recognition of word order changes (Karmiloff & Karmiloff-Smith, 2001), and eventually learn to express word order differently to vary their message. A child may say, “Mommy phone” to simply indicate that the phone belongs to mom, or may say, “Phone Mommy” to indicate the phone is lighting up or ringing. A father volunteering in a room of four-year-olds will find that he is universally addressed by his child’s classmates as “Isaiah’s dad.” The use of the /s/ to indicate possession on the end of Isaiah is a morpheme. “The child’s understanding that the order of the two words is ‘Isaiah’s dad’ as opposed to “dad Isaiah’s” is a usage of syntax.
Semantics is the study of meaning, including vocabulary (Bates et al., 1992). Semantics may focus on the significance of an individual word or the meaning of particular words in the context of an entire sentence. As an illustration, the word “friend” may be a noun, as in “I have a friend.” Friend may also be a verb when speaking about social media, “I will friend you.” The meanings have some similarities, representing a connection to another person, but the usage creates a difference in whether we are speaking about the actual person or speaking about the connection to the person. Semantics also include nonverbal aspects of words such as intonation and gestures. For example, “whatever” can be an innocuous answer denoting many possibilities, “What can I eat from the snack table?” “Whatever.” In this case, it indicates that the child is welcome to eat anything from the table. With a change of pitch and emphasis and tone of voice, “whatever” can signal strong disapproval. “I didn’t know I was not allowed to have that.” “Whatever!” Vocabulary building is a crucial part of learning and understanding semantics. Infants will not comprehend everything that they hear in the early months and weeks, but they will notice the way that words are delivered and the corresponding content. Exposure to rich opportunities normalizes the use of the words introduced, which are of course, entirely contextual. For example, three-year-old Alyssa was given the choice between naptime with her bear and her blanket, or her book and her blanket. In response, she told her mother, “I want another ‘ternative.” Alyssa has learned that the vocabulary word, “alternative” is used to indicate a choice, and she can use the word “alternative” even when she cannot pronounce it. The variety of words that children are exposed to, and how they are drawn into conversations, influences individual differences in the rates at which children learn words (Karmiloff & Karmiloff-Smith, 2001). The quantity and quality of opportunities matter deeply. All children are exposed to the language the adults around them choose for them, which is why it is important that early learning settings provide rich and varied opportunities for children to be exposed to word meanings and word usage.
Pragmatics is the social or transactional use of language, including context of the conversation. It encompasses not just what we say, but how we say it and to whom (Bates et al, 1992). Pragmatics includes rules of courtesy, turn taking, and the practical aspect of communication. Knowing that you should answer a question when a question is asked, is an example of pragmatics. Another instance would be knowing that one should stay silent in particular situations or stay on topic during a conversation. Using different communicative styles that suit different language partners is a key component of pragmatics. One may greet a friend by saying, “Hey!” But, one greets a boss by saying, “Good morning.” Pragmatics can also be non-verbal, such as in the use of eye contact. Children may learn at an early age that an appropriate greeting would be to kiss someone once on each cheek or to nod politely. These expectations include an understanding of culture and of conversational role. For example, a child may recognize over time that family members or others with a shared heritage should be greeted with the cheek-kiss greeting, but that someone outside of this would be greeted differently. Essentially, pragmatics includes the ability to predict and notice cues from the other person, including words, gestures, and non-verbal cues, and to react accordingly.
Pause and Reflect: I no like it: go-fish.
Two and a half year old Imani wandered over to the table, where snack was being prepared. She noticed orange goldfish-shaped crackers being poured out onto a paper napkin. She wrinkled her nose, shook her head and emphatically said, “I no like it: go-fish.” She walked over to the teacher, put her hand on the teacher’s arm, and protested, “I no like it: go-fish!” The teacher acknowledged Imani and said, “You do not like goldfish. We have pretzels too.” Imani shouted, “Petzas! Petzas!” The teacher then replied, “I will give you pretzels.”
Imani’s manner of expression is dictated by her relationship with the teacher and the pragmatic conversational patterns that they have already established. When Imani placed her hand on the teacher’s arm, she was signaling the importance of her message. The meaning of “Petzas” denotes a semantic understanding about what Imani wants. As you consider Imani’s language exchange, how is phonology reflected in Imani’s pronunciation? How is her understanding of grammar evident in her word choice and order?