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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.


References

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.


4 Comments

Learning and teaching pragmatics | Anna Krulatz

Successful communication entails much more than following the rules of grammar, having a large lexicon, and speaking in a way that is intelligible to the listeners. What language learners also have to attend to is how meaning is constructed in context. They have to select appropriate language forms depending on the situation and the person they are speaking with. Pragmatic competence (sometimes also called pragmatic ability) refers to using language effectively in a contextually appropriate way. People who interact with each other work jointly to co-construct and negotiate meaning depending on factors such as their respective social status, the social distance between them, the place of interaction, and their mutual rights and obligations.

Cross-cultural and cross-linguistic differences in pragmatics

Pragmatic norms vary across languages, cultures and individuals. They are so deeply intertwined with our cultural and linguistic identities that learning pragmatics norms of another speech community, especially in adulthood, can be quite challenging. This is because culturally appropriate linguistic behaviours in the target language may differ in many ways from those in the first language (or languages). Think about the language and culture you identify with most closely (it can be your first language or another language that you use extensively in your daily life). If your language is like Russian, German or French, and makes a distinction between formal and informal ways of addressing another person (i.e., ты/вы, du/sie, tu/vous), it may be difficult for you to use informal ways of addressing people of higher status such as your boss, supervisor or professor. Conversely, if your language makes no such distinction and you are learning a language that does, it may be unnatural for you to differentiate the forms of address you use depending on whether you speak to a friend or to someone of a higher social status. Languages also differ in regards to speech acts, or utterances that are intended to perform an action, such as apologies, requests, invitations, refusals, compliments and complaints. Think about compliments. How would you respond in your first or strongest language if a good friend complimented you in the following way?

Friend: “Your hair looks great! Did you just get a haircut?”

You: “…?”

A native speaker of American English is likely to say something along these lines, “Oh thanks, I just styled it differently today. I’m glad you like it.” On the other hand, a Russian may say something like, “Oh really? It’s a mess. I spent a whole hour this morning trying to style it, and that’s the best that came out of it.” It is all good if these speakers are interacting with someone of the same language background or someone who is well versed in the pragmatic norms of the same language. But put an American and a Russian together, and the interaction may end in an awkward silence because the compliment was turned down (if it’s the Russian responding to the compliment), or a bewilderment at the other person’s immodesty (if it’s the American who is responding). This and other instances of pragmatic failure can cause much more misunderstanding than grammatical or lexical errors.

 Why teach pragmatics?

I first started to realise the importance of focusing on pragmatics in language teaching when I worked with international students at the University of Utah. Email use on campus was just beginning to gain in popularity as a medium of communication, and I would get emails from international students that came across as very informal. In fact, I started wondering if these students thought there was no difference between emailing a friend and emailing a professor. Here is a typical example:

Clearly, the goal of this message is to make a request for an extension on a deadline and a meeting during office hours. Although the email is mostly grammatically correct, it contains want- and need-statements, both of which are very direct ways of making requests. The student is also not using any hedges such as “please,” “thank you” or “would you.” Because of the context of the interaction (university campus in the United States), and the social distance between the two parties involved (student – professor), the message comes across as overly direct, bordering on impolite. As I received similar emails very frequently, I decided I had to do something to help my students develop their pragmatic competence. If your own students also struggle with the rules of netiquette, you may find this lesson plan by Thomas Mach and Shelly Ridder useful.

Unfortunately, few language courses and fewer textbooks focus explicitly on the development of pragmatic competence. Research shows, however, that language learners may not be able to notice that target language pragmatic norms are different from those in their first language, and can, therefore, benefit from pragmatics-focused activities. We looked at several examples of those in my webinar! Click here to watch the recording.

Do you have any examples of embarrassing or funny moments caused by pragmatic failure? Or ideas on how to teach pragmatics? If yes, please share your thoughts in the comments! 


Anna Krulatz is Associate Professor of English at the Faculty of Teacher Education at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway, where she works with pre- and in-service EFL teachers. Her research focuses on multilingualism with English, pragmatic development in adult language learners, content-based instruction, and language teacher education.


References

Bardovi-Harlig, K., & Mahan-Taylor, R. (2003, July). Introduction to teaching pragmatics. English Teaching Forum, 41(3), 37-39.

Rose, K. R., & Kasper, G. (2001). Pragmatics in language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ishihara, N., & Cohen, A. (2010). Teaching and learning pragmatics. Where language and culture meet. Harlow, UK: Pearson Education Limited.