Pragmatic Language Skills: African-American College Students

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Vanessa Raynor

Decreased enrollment and retention of students has been a significant issue for most historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Once a student enters the school, the university must find ways to keep them interested. Several students report they leave because of lack of support from university professors and advisors. If the university advisor is the initial point of connection to the student’s education, it is imperative that communicative exchanges are concise, relatable, and entertaining.

I have personally believed that most students are not taught to adequately communicate in varied social situations. They become comfortable in their own communicative group and are unable to approach people in different social groups. They are not willing to make themselves uncomfortable for fear of others’ negative responses. Pragmatic language is an aspect of communication that impacts a person’s ability to appropriately use language socially across varied situations).

Pragmatic language refers to varied linguistic skills including the initiation and termination of conversations; topic introduction, maintenance, and change; code switching; appropriate turn-taking skills; courteousness; and comprehension and demonstration of nonverbal aspects of language such as appropriate tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions). Research on pragmatic language skills of African-American children has determined that those identified and displayed delayed aspects of pragmatic language are viewed as being problematic and decrease fitting interpersonal communication skills.

There is little to no research available on the pragmatic language skills of the African-American college students attending HBCUs. The African-American college student displays particular delayed aspects of pragmatic language including the lack of topic maintenance, inadequate turn-taking during conversations, abrupt disruptions, and inappropriate tone of voice, which is viewed as inappropriate classroom decorum and impedes the learning experience for themselves as well as their peers. Without pragmatic language competence, there is difficulty integrating into peer groups, which affects their degree of self-confidence and happiness, in their environment.

Inadequate pragmatic language skills are linked to poor student engagement and success. It is difficult to manage success if students are inactively engaged academically and interpersonally. If an individual is unable to have a conversation, he or she will be incapable of establishing a relationship with peers in the community and experience difficulty initiating and maintaining those relationships, which in effect decreases student retention rates. Ineffective communication builds ineffective communicative partnerships in all social settings. If an individual does not exhibit a vast vocabulary, he or she may not converse with people of varied cultural backgrounds; demonstrate difficulty comprehending words; exhibit decreased word retrieval skills; and display problems in writing sentences that are grammatically and semantically correct with varied lengths.

Students with language impairments require supports that help them increase their conversational skills, which may include developing one’s opinion on topics, determining when to respond, and establishing a set number of comments during a dialogue. Lacking those skills decreases interpersonal success, which decreases retention rates of African-American college students. The student with decreased pragmatic language skills will experience decreased success at the university level because they will avoid social circumstances that necessitate practical communication. Those social circumstances include meetings with academic advisors and professors, group projects with peers, oral presentations, and major admittance interviews. If the student is unable to demonstrate appropriate, effective, and precise communication that conveys pertinent information to their communicative partner, their interpersonal life at the university level is limited to social isolation. A student that has not been exposed to a variety of literacy in a vocabulary rich environment will experience difficulty writing and speaking during oral presentations using a complex words, synonyms, and antonyms.

There are several factors that influence retention rates including life events experienced prior to college and academic abilities demonstrated in high school. However, a student’s pragmatic language skills affect their ability to function academically (e.g., faculty meetings, group projects, advising, campus resources), socially (e.g., service learning, informal contact with faculty), organizationally (e.g., orientation programs, financial aid, registration, service and social organizations), and environmentally (e.g., parental support, transfers, off campus jobs). Establishing a link between pragmatic language and student success is vital to student engagement, retention, and success, as it will increase African-American college students’ ability to effectively convey messages with meaning without displaying avoidance tactics when communicating in new social groups.

Vanessa Raynor has been a professor at Shaw University for 5 years and holds the position of Program Coordinator for the Communication Sciences and Disorders Program in the Department of Allied Health Professions.

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