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FINNUT-Forskning og innovasjon i utdanningssektoren

Better attention, better communication? How ADHD and multilingualism influence children’s pragmatic development

Alternative title: Bedre oppmerksomhet, bedre kommunikasjon? Hvordan ADHD og flerspråklighet påvirker barns pragmatiske utvikling

Awarded: NOK 8.0 mill.

Imagine you and your friend attend a boring talk and your friend turns over to you and whispers with rolling eyes: “What a clever remark!”. To understand what she means, it is not sufficient to know the sentence’s grammar or vocabulary. It crucially requires so-called pragmatic competence to bridge the gap between what the speaker says (“What a clever remark!”) and what she intends to communicate (˜ 'What a banal remark'). Even in the school years, children tend to struggle with sophisticated pragmatic aspects of communication such as irony and metaphor. However, it is still unclear what causes these difficulties. We explore the novel hypothesis that immature attention abilities could be at the heart of children’s persistent pragmatic difficulties. Initial evidence for a tight link between attention and pragmatic development comes from two different groups: Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) have attention impairments and are also at higher risk for language and communication disorders. Multilingual children, on the other hand, seem to have benefits in both attention and pragmatics. Our project investigates the link between attentional abilities and pragmatic competence in 6- to 12-year-old children, using a combination of eye-tracking experiments, tests, and questionnaires. We will test people from a wide spectrum of attention and language profiles, including children with ADHD, neuro-typical children, multilingual and monolingual speakers. Importantly, the project will be one of the first to explore the cognitive and communicative skills of multilingual children with ADHD. A better understanding of the interplay between attention and pragmatic development could advance knowledge in several disciplines such as linguistics, psychology and philosophy. The project also aims to have a significant societal impact, contributing to better diagnostic tools to detect language and communication disorders in multilingual children.

In order to understand what others intend to communicate, it is not sufficient to know a language’s grammar or vocabulary. It crucially requires pragmatic competence to bridge the gap between what the speaker says (“It’s late”) and what she intends to communicate ('I need to leave'). While many pragmatic abilities develop early in life, children still struggle with sophisticated pragmatic tasks such as the understanding of figurative language (e.g. irony, metaphor) in the school years. The current project explores the novel hypothesis that immature attention abilities could be the key for understanding the pragmatic challenges school-age children face. Initial evidence for a tight developmental link between attention and pragmatic skills comes from two very different populations: children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and multilingual children. Children with ADHD do not only suffer from attention deficits, they also tend to have communication problems. Multilingual children, on the other hand, seem to have enhanced executive attention abilities and possibly advantages in pragmatics. Studying these two groups together for the first time provides a unique opportunity to gain new insights into the cognitive underpinnings of children’s language and communication development. The current project provides a systematic research program which links children’s development of different attentional abilities (visual attention, executive attention) with pragmatic competence in school-age children (ages 6-10), using a unique combination of psycholinguistic and cognitive methods, and drawing on an interdisciplinary team of leading national and international experts in linguistics, psychology and philosophy. In addition, the project will directly contribute to a more inclusive healthcare and education system by developing valid diagnostic tools for detecting Developmental Language Disorder in multilingual children.

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FINNUT-Forskning og innovasjon i utdanningssektoren