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Cognitive Pragmatics: The Mental Processes of Communication

reviewed by Fred Tsutagawa - January 26, 2011

coverTitle: Cognitive Pragmatics: The Mental Processes of Communication
Author(s): Bruno G. Bara; John Douthwaite (trans.)
Publisher: MIT Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0262014114, Pages: 296, Year: 2010
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Scholars and academics have traditionally examined the phenomenon of human communication from the perspective of an outside observer, thus often viewing language and communication as a finished product and defining it with constructs and metaphors that do not reflect the actual underlying cognitive processes at work during language production. With this in mind, Cognitive Pragmatics: The Mental Processes of Communication makes an extremely valuable contribution to our understanding of language, with this excellent English translation from the original Italian long overdue. The book analyzes communication from the perspective of socio-cognitive processes and shared mental states, taking on the highly emic vantage point of language producers and explaining communicative processes from their inception in the brain to their physical realization, and then back into the minds of the other interlocutors as they receive and decipher these various signals to arrive at meaning and comprehension. In short, “Cognitive pragmatics is the study of the mental states of people who are engaged in communication” (Bara, 2010, p. 1).

Chapter 1 begins with a description of how conventional conceptions of “language” are inadequate in explaining the uniqueness of human communication. Reviewing a taxonomy of communication, human communication is shown to be clearly unique from all other forms of animal communication in that it is able to employ linguistic, extralinguistic, as well as paralinguistic modes, it can utilize signs and symbols, it is highly intentional, and it is co-constructed between participants. Communication is therefore a co-constructed social activity that mandates the conscious and intentional participation of more than one individual in order for it to be realized. Finally, eight general principles and features of communication are identified: cooperation, common attention, communicative intentionality, communication as symbolic, sharedness, conversation, cultural dependency, and linguistic and extralinguistic functional systems.

The second chapter establishes that the essential tools for communication proper are cooperation, shared belief, and communicative intention. In presenting a theory to explain how communication is a cognitive phenomenon between the mind and the brain, communication is first described as a series of mental states that must first be behaviorally and conversationally cooperated with between interlocutors. These mental states are common attention, shared beliefs and knowledge, and consciousness. Communicative intentionality is then explained “as the intention to communicate something, plus the intention that that intention to communicate that particular something be recognized as such” (p. 82). From this, five possible types of communication acts are identified and elaborated, with one identified as an impossible case. Finally, communication is shown to consist of shared action plans amongst interlocutors, where these action plans act in conjunction with cooperation to help “define who a person is in relation to others, thereby establishing the agents’ reciprocal range of action” (p. 90). Communication is therefore always a shared, intentional, co-constructed endeavor.

Chapter 3 formally introduces the concept of a “behavior game,” describing it as “the means by which interaction is regulated” (p. 93). Games are recognized as both a means for children to learn how to become independent and productive members of society and as a means for recreation and entertainment. In summary, “A behavior game is that structure which enables actors to coordinate their interpersonal actions, and which actors employ to select the real meaning of an utterance among the many meanings that utterance might in theory convey” (p. 96). Key structures of the behavior game include the nature of the relationship between the players, the validity conditions of the game (e.g., time and place), and the various moves associated with any particular game. In the context of a conversation, the correlate is called a “conversation game.” Three main types of behavior games are specified: cultural games, group games, and couple games. Various examples of how several types of behavior games are played, terminated, and defined by the relationships of the individuals involved, and exceptions to the norm, i.e., “free interactions,” are also briefly discussed. The chapter concludes with a brief account of evolutionary and developmental origins of behavior games, and a quick overview of the conversation game from a conversation analytic perspective.

With a basic understanding of cognitive pragmatics now established, Chapter 4 describes the mental processes involved in generating and comprehending communication acts in primarily standard situations. Five stages, each linked together by the conversation game, are identified. First, there is the recognition of the expression act. Next, there is the comprehending of the speaker’s meaning. Third, the communicative effect is processed in terms of individual and private mental states. Fourth, a reaction, or communicative intention, is generated and planned. And finally, a linguistic and/or extralinguistic response is generated and planned. The chapter discusses each of these stages in great detail and with a wide range of examples and exceptions, and concludes with an important discussion of motivation as a threshold structure that helps generate intentions in the communicative process.

Chapter 5 extends the theory of cognitive pragmatics to nonstandard communication acts. Four categories of nonstandard communication are discussed at length: 1) nonexpressive interaction, 2) exploitation, 3) deception, and 4) failure. Nonexpressive interaction is “the use of an utterance without there being any intention to express the mental state associated with that utterance” (p. 171), such as when a person is performing theatre on stage. Exploitation makes special usage of communication rules to create a different communicative effect than the one normally expected, such as in irony. Deception entails conveying a mental state that is not actually possessed. Lastly, failure is the complete inability to transmit the intended communicative effect. Specifically, failure can either be communicative failure or the failure of the agent in achieving his or her internal goal in the communication act. Aspects of failure recovery (i.e., repair) and developmental approaches to failures are also briefly discussed.

Chapter 6 focuses on the theme of communicative competence, with the theory of cognitive pragmatics applied towards a communicative competence by presenting evidence along a tripartite argumentation scheme. The author first provides extensive argumentation from the perspective of evolutionary psychology. One interesting yet potentially controversial highlight is the introduction of a new equation to calculate and compare the brain capacities and abilities of modern-day humans with protohuman ancestors. Final arguments from evolutionary psychology compare various language evolution hypotheses, showing how human communication evolved into behavior games. The second line of argumentation presents a developmental explanation for the emergence of communicative competence. From various child communication development studies, the author convincingly demonstrates that several of the principles of communication that were theorized in Chapter 1 are generally supported. His final line of argumentation provides fascinating validation evidence from neuropragmatics and clinical pragmatics research to support his theory of cognitive pragmatics.

An aspect of the book that I would like to have seen further developed involves the discussion of communicative competence. Surprisingly, the author does not mention Hymes (1964; 1972) or Canale and Swain (1980) in describing “communicative competence” despite the fact that Chapter 6 is entitled “Communicative Competence.” However, the cognitive notion of communicative competence that is presented in this book is truly different from the longstanding metaphorical construct of grammatical, sociolinguistic, strategic, and discourse competencies as formulated by Canale and Swain (1980) and Canale (1983). But given the prevalence of the latter construct’s usage, I believe it should have at least been briefly acknowledged to avoid potential confusion. Additionally, in Chapter 3 I feel the author’s discussion of the important socialization role of games lacked some depth without mention of Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory of child cognitive development (Vygotsky, 1978; 1986). Lastly, in Chapter 5, one more area that could be given greater attention as a nonstandard form of communication is humor. While interrelated notions of irony and exploitation are flirted with, humor is not broached at all. No doubt, such a discussion would have made the present volume too long and complicated, so hopefully such a potentially intriguing topic will be tackled in a subsequent volume.

From the perspective of an applied linguist researching the notion of pragmatic competence and ways to effectively assess pragmatic ability, Cognitive Pragmatics has the potential to make an especially profound impact. The author’s theoretical model provides a concrete framework for how real cognitive communicative processes actually unfold in the brain. Such mappings may potentially help second language researchers and practitioners to operationalize communicative language ability and isolate features of communication that are the most salient for various language tasks. For example, intention recognition, intention attribution, and the distinguishing of individual versus social aims are identified as keys to pragmatic competence. These insights can provide valuable guidance in designing novel pragmatic tasks that more accurately depict concrete linguistic processes and cognitive events rather than relying on intuition to do the same. But applied linguists aside, no matter one’s primary field of study, this book is a must read for anyone interested in studying the complex phenomena of human communication.


Canale, M. (1983). On some dimensions of language proficiency. In J. W. Oller, Jr. (Ed.), Issues in language testing research (pp. 333-342). Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Canale, M., & Swain, M. (1980). Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing. Applied Linguistics, 1(1), 1-47.

Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge, MA: The M.I.T. Press.

Hymes, D. (1964). Introduction: Towards ethnographies of communication. American Anthropologist, 66(6, part 2), 1-34.

Hymes, D. (1972). On communicative competence. In J. Pride & J. Holmes (Eds.), Sociolinguistics: Selected readings (pp. 269-293). Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. (M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman, Eds.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky. L. S. (1986). Thought and language (A. Kozulin, Ed.). (E. Hanfmann & G. Vakar, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. (Original work published 1934).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 26, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16311, Date Accessed: 10/20/2021 2:53:26 AM

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About the Author
  • Fred Tsutagawa
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    FRED TSUTAGAWA is an Ed.M. student in the Applied Linguistics department at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is currently completing his Ed.M. research project in the area of pragmatics assessment.
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