If Your Kid Suddenly Loses The Plot Mid-Conversation

Having a discussion with a five-year-old may be an experience. The next thing you know, you're discussing favorite breakfast cereals and they've moved on to something hazy about a cartoon octopus.

What appears to be a restricted vocabulary or trouble staying focused may really be an inability to reconcile inferences with another person's point of view.

Researchers are discovering that these two crucial cognitive abilities make it very hard for children aged five and under to read between the lines of what appears to be a straightforward discussion involving information one person knows and the other does not.

"As parents or teachers, we need to remember that when children fail to get what adults mean, that may not just be because they don't understand the words," says University of Cambridge linguist Elspeth Wilson.

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

What we take for granted in a discussion might be largely reliant on a range of talents that enable us to see the world through the eyes of another.

Consider something as easy as asking, "What are you eating?" If the reply responds 'cereal,' the questioner may safely presume they aren't also having bananas, toast, and a blueberry muffin. Even if not mentioned explicitly, it is assumed.

This ability of ad hoc implicature allows us to freely communicate knowledge without the need to construct large frameworks of context each time. While it may appear simple, there is a lot of psychology packed into this fundamental unit of communication.

For one reason, it assumes that the individual answering the question is providing the most relevant information possible. The unsaid details are just as significant as the ones that are.

This pragmatic language competence is the foundation of interpersonal communication. Autism spectrum disorder, for example, can severely impair these abilities, making it difficult to determine how much detail to supply in any particular setting.

Implicature also presumes a shared understanding of what both persons can see or have experienced. A bowl of cereal on the table, for example, is plainly the subject of the inquiry, not a list of objects in the fridge.

As adults, we easily blend pragmatic and epistemic thinking skills. But it poses an important question: do these two components of inquiry evolve concurrently, or do they emerge separately only to be knitted together over time?

According to some theories, while they are still constrained to an egocentric perspective of their environment, infants can acquire pragmatic communication skills for conveying meaningful information. In other words, they do not need to consider another's point of view in order to respond appropriately.

Other versions propose a restricted type of theory of mind at work, in which the little person attempts to read into the words of your request even if they don't completely understand your unique experience of the world.

To put these two contradictory theories to the test, researchers collected 33 youngsters aged five and six and engaged them in conversation with the help of a puppet.

The puppet instructed the youngster to choose cards based on what they showed. The card was obvious to both the puppet and the youngster in certain circumstances. In others, there was a reasonably relevant card visible to the puppet, as well as a more significant card seen just to the kid.

For example, the puppet sees two cards, one with bananas and an apple on it and the other with apples and oranges; it requests the card with bananas. However, from the child's point of view, in addition to the two cards seen by the puppet, there is also a card with only bananas on it.

Only four students knew the puppet was referring to the card they both saw, which had bananas and apples on it. Only nine of the 36 adults failed to recognize that the puppet was referencing the card they could both see.

While it's difficult to tell with confidence what's going on in any of the participants' heads, the results appear to show that most youngsters aren't efficiently combining the various abilities into ad hoc implicature.

Other tests undertaken by the researchers with somewhat older youngsters aged 5 to 7 years old show that pragmatic and epistemic thinking are present and may be exercised independently. It merely takes time for youngsters to put them all together.

This might be a significant developmental challenge for children just entering primary school, which instructors must consider. Not all new students will be able to reconcile the correct response from their point of view with a relevant response from someone else's.

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

This research was published in Language Learning and Development.