Colin Ward

Pragmatics as a roadmap for English learners

What is pragmatics?

Like the highways, roads, and trails that guide our travel, language-oriented patterns  scaffold our conversations. The existence of patterns does not mean there is not variation. Every time we get on a freeway literally or figuratively, it’s a new experience because we bring a different mood or understanding to the situation. Even when we drive to work, we think different thoughts each time. However, there is an element of comfort in understanding the way a conversation flows. We know what to say because we’ve been in that pattern before.

Pragmatics offers us a way to step back and look at these larger patterns of discourse. By providing a map to the ways in which native speakers talk, it helps raise awareness of what native speakers would consider familiar and appropriate and where those native speakers might feel uncomfortable or even offended. At the same time pragmatics should not be seen as a set of prescriptive directions. Culture is far too fluid, and leaners must be given agency to make decisions about how they want to come across in the L2. What pragmatics lessons can do is inform those decisions.

Without a roadmap, Language learners are at a  disadvantage. For example, let’s say there’s a group of three people, two native speakers and one nonnative, all standing together at a reception. Not only will it take more cognitive energy for the L2 learner to understand the conversation, but it will also take energy to figure out what the other speakers are doing with the language, how they are using talk to bond, to acquire or provide information, to entertain or respond to a joking reference to sports or pop culture. Unless the language learner has pragmatic awareness and skills, it will be difficult for him to make the connections that are the goal of the reception in the first place.

From a pragmatics perspective, a conversation has moves. For example, an initial encounter often involves small talk to establish the relationship and gauge the other person’s mood or availability for conversation. In the first move, let’s say speaker one, Amos, wants to introduce a topic that requires some implicit acceptance from the second speaker, Brandon. Language will go with that. If Brandon, says “I’m glad you brought that up. I’ve been thinking about it,” that’s a yes. On the other hand, if Brandon sighs and says, “Yeah, I don’t know,” in a wan voice, Amos understands that the topic is not welcome, and he should let it go.

img_2420In a healthy conversation, listeners spend much energy giving feedback to the speaker or backchanneling. There is often much turn taking as each person voices an interpretation of what the other person has said before adding a new piece. This back and forth can take several forms. In a conversation at the gym, Claire might repeat something Dorothy said, and add an example or opinion that acknowledges Dorothy’s point of view. Or she might get so excited about a topic that she might interrupt and say, “I know, right! That happened to me just last week!” Then Claire might continue with a story, and only later realize she may have cut Dorothy off. At this point, Claire might attempt a move to shift the focus back to Dorothy by saying, “I’m sorry, I jumped in, and I didn’t give you a chance to finish. You go ahead.” Here Claire is making a deliberate move to give Claire a turn to speak. She uses an apology to acknowledge that the interruption goes against what she believes is strictly appropriate, and she invites Claire to speak, implicitly promising to pay attention.

Pragmatics awareness may be most useful for difficult conversations. There is language we can use to prepare the other person for discomfort. When delivered in a serious voice, the sentence, “I have to talk to you about something,” can trigger alarm. Or consider how you feel when someone says, “Something has been bothering me lately, and I think we need to talk about it.” The language suggests you should probably brace yourself to hear a grievance.

Sometimes the discomfort is mild but frequent. For example, say you are late, and you are in a conversation with an acquaintance. What language do you use to gracefully bring the conversation to a close? “Well, I’d better let you go,” is common these days. It used to be, “I don’t want to take up any more of your time.” These statements bring the conversation back to a ritualistic sequence. Your pragmatic skill in selecting this statement allows you to close the conversation without sounding abrupt or harsh.

The more ritualistic language that we use to achieve conversational goals and make moves is tied to function. We request information, apologize for being late or complain about service. The language involved in this type of interaction is called a speech act. Speech acts contain neat little bundles of vocabulary and grammar that can be called upon in a given context. They fill the silence while giving speakers the opportunity to orient themselves and decide how to respond.

So pragmatics involves several elements: the ability to sense the relationships of the speakers and the direction and flow of a conversation, the ability to recognize functions and the intention that is conveyed in speech acts; and the ability to select and use language intentionally so that it meets the expectations of the community as well as achieves the intentions of the speaker.

How do we teach pragmatics?

A possible sequence for creating a pragmatics lesson begins with a conversation. Textbooks are full of dialogs, but due to the small amount of space that can be devoted to it, scripted dialogs are usually nothing like a real interaction, and this is especially the case when they are used to present grammar.

Instead of relying on the course book, try gathering conversation samples from an authentic source. Take some time to listen to conversations around you, or plan some moves and have a friend role play with you.

For example, try the tricky relationship building of a contractor and a homeowner. You are meeting for the first time to arrange an estimate. Move one: exchange pleasantries. Move two: negotiate the details of the job so the homeowner feels confident that the contractor understands exactly what’s wanted. Move three: The contractor details what s/he will do and when the homeowner will receive the estimate.

Some people recommend gathering dialog from a television show, movie, or Internet video that illustrates a target speech act. However, scripted dialogs generally have far less backchanneling than real life conversations. The benefit of a video, however, is that you have visual cues and emotional resonance.

Ideally, learners first watch/listen to the text for general meaning. It may be helpful to start with the sound off if using a video, or guess about the situation if using an audio. Ask learners to guess from context. What is the relationship between the  people? What do you think they are talking about? Then you can listen and check your guesses.

Next, learners can listen for the intentions of the speakers. What do they want? Do they get it? In a third listening, consider providing a script and letting them compare what they hear and see. If an audio/visual experience is not feasible, the teacher can still read a script out loud, voicing both roles to convey intonation and possibly gestures.

The next step is to examine the script and identify the moves in the text. Where does it shift from one speech act to another? The teacher can scaffold the analysis by asking questions and having students discuss answers in pairs before sharing with the class. Where does the conversation move from small talk to a request? Where does it move from complaint to apology or suggestion to acceptance? How do you know?

At higher levels, learners can also be trained to identify attempted moves that are then rejected by the other speaker. For example, if the homeowner says, “I’ll pay you when the job is finished,” The contractor might not accept that offer. S/he would need to counter the homeowner’s offer while keeping a positive relationship. The response, “I’m not really comfortable with that,” might come in handy. Then the contractor can follow up with a suggestion, “How about we meet halfway? You pay half now and half when the job is finished.”

Among close friends, other language is possible. When one friend brings up a grievance from the past, the other can toss back the casual statement, “I don’t want to go there,” In the hopes of turning the conversation in a different direction. This rejection of a conversation about a grievance can be conveyed in different registers with different language, but it’s important to bear in mind that the politer the language gets, the harder it is to identify the intended message.

After moves have been identified, learners can examine the text more intensively to see what language triggered the shift, and how the other speaker responded by allowing and supporting the move or obstructing it in some way. Phrases and collocations that suit a particular purpose can be mined from the text and practiced. A useful way to practice functional language is to extract a stem and have learners substitute other language to complete a statement. For example, the following constructions might typically be heard in a work meeting.

  • I wanted to reach out to you about…
  • We shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves. We can…
  • I can see your point but…
  • Okay, I get it. You want to…
  • Thanks for letting me know. Next time, I’ll…

Learners can then be given a related context in which to develop their own scripts. This can be prefaced with a discussion about how suggestions are made and accepted or rejected in the L1, and whether there are similarities or differences with L2. By raising awareness of the culturally relative nature of what is appropriate or polite, you can help learners make deliberate decisions about how they want to present themselves in English.

You can also scaffold moves for role plays or give learners an assortment to choose from. For example, you can game it by having friend A ask B for a ride to the airport. Tell friend A S/he must use different strategies to get B to agree. Then give friend B the direction, Do not say yes until your friend offers you something in exchange.” These instructions keep them focused on pragmatics, and when the dialogs are written and performed, they can discuss the implications of their choices.img_2153

In this general introduction to pragmatics, we’ve tried to outline the approach as a map that gives learners tools and agency for navigating conversations. In future posts, we will share more specific lessons that can be used or adapted for specific contexts.

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