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Teaching the “secret” language of social interaction | Anna Krulatz

Language pragmatics

Successful communication in English entails, among other skills, the ability to use language in socially appropriate ways, also known as pragmatic competence. For example, when making a complaint about the quality of food, language learners need to consider their relationship with the other person (are they friends, or are they co-workers?), the social distance (how well you know them), and the setting of the interaction (is it at home or at a restaurant?). The answers to these questions are crucial for contextualising communication, and they help people determine the linguistic resources they select to communicate.

In a less formal context and when interacting with someone we know well, we may say, “Does the soup seem too cold to you? How about if we stick it back in the microwave for a minute?” whereas in a restaurant, when making a complaint to a server, we may instead opt for, “Excuse me, my soup is cold. Would you be able to warm it up for me?” In recent years, pragmatic competence has received increasing recognition as an important component of language instruction.

The why and the how of pragmatics instruction

Research suggests that because pragmatics is closely related to cultural norms and to individuals’ beliefs and identities, it is one of the most difficult areas for language learners to grasp (Kasper & Rose, 2002). Pragmatic nuances are also difficult to notice in the input because many of them are so salient. For instance, there is a subtle difference between “Can I sneak by?” and “Can you move?” yet the situations in which these utterances are appropriately used are quite different. Other speech events, such as interactions between doctors and patients which usually take place behind closed doors, may simply not be available in the input at all. At the same time, we now know that unlike grammatical errors, pragmatic errors tend to be interpreted on a social or personal level, and therefore “may hinder good communication between speakers, may make the speaker appear abrupt or brusque in social interactions, or may make the speaker appear rude or uncaring” (Bardovi-Harlig & Mahan-Taylor, 2003, p. 38).  For these reasons, it is particularly important for language teachers to help learners develop their pragmatic skills.

However, while there is now a consensus among second language researchers and practitioners that “most aspects of pragmatics are amenable to instruction, [and that] instruction is better than non-instruction for pragmatic development” (Taguchi, 2011, p. 291), the debate on how teachers can best promote pragmatic development in the classroom is still ongoing. To date, the strongest rationale for the existing approaches to teaching pragmatics comes from Schmidt’s Noticing Hypothesis (1993, 2001), which states that in order to acquire certain linguistic features, language learners need to first notice them in the input. Consequently, the teaching of pragmatics often focuses on raising learners’ awareness of the linguistic forms that perform various pragmatic functions (for instance that a request can be performed using imperatives such as “Open the window!” or hints “It’s hot in here.”). However, pragmatics instruction should not be prescriptive in nature. Rather, its goal is to make learners familiar with various target language pragmatic choices and practices and to enable them to make informed decisions when interacting with different people and in different settings (Bardovi-Harlig & Mahan-Taylor, 2003).

Teaching pragmatics with Wide Angle

Wide Angle, a new series for adults from Oxford University Press spanning CEFR levels A1 to C1, helps English language learners discover the “secret” rules of English and learn to say the right thing at the right time. The activities in each lesson follow the activation-presentation-production approach, with activities moving from controlled to freer. The design of the activities fulfills two important criteria for sound pragmatics teaching practices as specified by Bardovi-Harlig and Mahan-Taylor (2003):

  1. They provide models of authentic language use;
  2. Learners are exposed to input before they are expected to reflect on language use and participate in interactions.

Activity types (Activate, Notice, Analyse, and Interact) are loosely based on Bloom’s Taxonomy, with the level of linguistic and cognitive challenge increasing.

Anna Krulatz is Associate Professor of English at the Department of Teacher Education at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway. She holds a PhD in linguistics from the University of Utah. Her research focuses on pragmatic development in adult language learners, multilingualism with English, content based instruction, and language teacher education. She has published (and has forthcoming) articles, teaching tips, and book chapters on topics related to teaching and learning pragmatics.


Bardovi-Harlig, K., & Mahan-Taylor, R. (2003, July). Introduction to teaching pragmatics. English Teaching Forum, 37-39.

Kasper, G., & Rose, K. (2002). Pragmatic Development in a Second language. Oxford, Malden: Blackwell Publishing.

Taguchi, N. (2011). Teaching pragmatics: Trends and issues. Annual Review of Applied    Linguistics, 31, 289-310.