Alice Savage

Pragmatics as the Art of Conversation


Why do English learners still travel to physical classrooms? After all, they can get plenty of information, practice grammar drills and even listen to graded lectures online. Perhaps the answer lies in something that computers cannot provide: a safe space to learn and practice conversation.

Conversation is actually quite challenging. It is a dynamic experience that requires at least two people who use several senses to pick up and send signals to each other. Some people are very good at it and can achieve conversational goals easily. Here are some examples: putting a guest at ease, entertaining a group with amusing stories, extracting information from a professional acquaintance, calming a stranger in distress, encouraging a classmate who needs a confidence boost, or perhaps using a friend’s attention to process an experience and come to a new understanding.

According to Sherry Turkle, an MIT sociologistwho has studied conversation in the age of screens, conversations are organic, and often difficult but necessary. When we take the time to engage with someone face to face, we relinquish the control we might have if we were texting or emailing. We can’t edit what we say or control the topic. We might be put in an awkward position or even be rejected, or we may find ourselves submitting to something we don’t agree with just to be polite. However, there is a benefit to conversation. What we get in return is empathy, and in the modern world, empathy is the thing we are most in danger of losing, says Turkle.

Turkle’s analysis is interesting for us as language teachers because it is not clear whether the lessons we teach in physical classrooms include the art of conversation. We can check the boxes marked grammar, vocabulary, and many academic skills, but available materials would suggest that it’s harder to check the boxes marked negotiate costs with a contractor, start a conversation at a social event, or say the right thing to someone who is agitated about a test score. These are pragmatic skills. To be good at pragmatics is to know what to say, when, and how in order to achieve goals in a way that preserves the relationship.

Pragmatics is little tricky because the skill set intersects with culture, and there are many, many sub cultures within a language group. Also, we have to recognize that most of the world’s users of English are not native English speakers. Still, teachers and leaners can examine conversations that people have within these subgroups and compare them to first language pragmatics. They can identify conversational chunks that are useful for specific discourse situations, practice them, and prepare to take them out into the real world.

In fact, the word comfortable offers a good example. The traditional meaning of comfortable brings to mind physical comfort such as a comfortable chair or a comfortable bed. However, many people in the U.S. use it in awkward situations when they have to disagree with someone’s suggestion or plan. We say, “I’m not comfortable with that.” It’s a polite wayto say no. When we teach this piece of language to students, we give them a way to say no that can be more acceptable than just saying the word or worse having to agree to something because they do not have the available language for the situation.

Another example is I can’t help it. This expression is not really an idiom in the traditional sense, but native speakers use it all the time to explain very human impulses. “I can’t help it. When I get stressed, I eat junk food.” Or “I can’t help it. When she starts complaining about her boyfriend, I have to leave the room.” Or “I know he’s always late, but he can’t help it. He has to drop off his little brother at school.”  I can’t help it can be especially useful for English learners struggling to communicate. “I can’t help it. When I have to speak English, I get nervous, and I can’t think of the words.” Or “I can’t help it, pronunciation is difficult for me.”

The message could certainly come across without I can’t help it, but the effect of the expression would be formal. Using I can’t help it supports the speaker in coming across as confiding, and when a person comes across as confiding, it can help people feel closer. The fact that someone is acknowledging a human vulnerability is a move towards trust, and trust gets people to Turkle’s notion of empathy.

Pragmatics expressions such as I’m not comfortable with that and I can’t help it are chunks of language that students can’t come up with on their own no matter how many grammar rules they internalize. Yet without them English learners are helpless in situations where people are bantering or communicating meaning that is too delicate to say explicitly. We can help students by using the classroom for more extended conversational and interactive activies. We can examine conversations, identify useful pragmatics expressions and practice them in theatre scripts, debates, panel presentations, guided roleplays, and other face to face activities.

When we allow ourselves to step away from the discrete item practice of gap fills, matching, and other decontextualized exercises that can just as easily be done with a screen, we can use the classroom experience to focus on conversational language and skills. And in doing so, we may ensure that the classroom (and teachers) will remain relevant in the 21st century.


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