Alice Savage

Let’s agree to disagree: a lesson in pragmatics

img_4557.jpgLast spring, Maissa and Bushra were discussing fall courses, and Bushra casually mentioned that she was not planning to take grammar. “It’s all online.” She said, “I don’t need it.”

Bushra has a point. Youtube has made it possible for anyone with a cell phone to post a grammar lesson, and some of them are very good. They can be watched multiple times and at the point of need. In addition, many publishers and entrepreneurs are putting out apps, games and activities that offer meaningful practice with the fixed patterns we call grammar rules.

Fortunately, however, learning to speak a language entails far more than grammar lessons. Corpus linguistics has taught us the value of looking at the way words partner to create new meanings, and pragmatics studies acknowledge the social knowledge and skills that are necessary for initiating, managing and sustaining interpersonal relationships.

In order to keep the classroom relevant, hang onto our jobs, and, most importantly, support students in developing their ability to participate in discourse, we might look to the functional language that communities rely on when they have certain types of conversations.

For example, let’s disagree. Consider that disagreement can be hard in one’s native language. It is true that some people love disagreement as a way to keep conversations lively. They enjoy playing “the devil’s advocate.” However, there are many situations in which speakers are very uncomfortable taking an opposing side.

In addition, there are different types of disagreement. There’s the kind of disagreement around existential issues such as whether aliens exist. Then there’s the kind of nuts-and-bolts disagreement about how to move forward with a group project. The former is fairly low stakes, but the latter is going to have a direct impact on grades or careers as well as feelings about classmates or colleagues.

English learners can benefit from learning to disagree effectively. Effectively means they can achieve their goals in terms of their relationship with other speakers as well as their immediate objective. Maybe they enjoy exploring the future of space travel, or perhaps they are heavily invested in their plan for the group project.

This is pragmatics, and in other posts we’ve talked about the importance of providing students with opportunities to observe people engaging in delicate conversations, identify useful language and strategies, and employ their awareness in roleplays and simulations. Plays, podcasts and videos, even movie clips are a good source of material, and the ensuing lesson plans involve practice that pretty much requires humans to gather together.

Because disagreement can be emotional, a cautious teacher might introduce it around a topic that is not going to incite strong feelings. We can disagree without getting our blood boiling when we talk about something a little more abstract, such as robots. For example, is Siri a robot?

Another potential topic is explored in the play, Only the Best Intentions. The book includes background material on esports and a play that explores the role of screens in family life. There is conflict in the fact that the family supports a son who plays soccer, but when a computer gamer starts to achieve success, they reject him. This controversy around whether gaming is a sport or even worthy of pursuing may be personally relevant to many students, and it can lead to discussions with both agreement and disagreement.

Students can begin by reading about the issue or watching a video. Then they can form yes/no groups and develop their reasons. This stage helps them prepare ready-to-use statements that they can retrieve when they practice the skill of disagreeing.

Next, a language lesson can provide chunks that people use when they want to take an opposing view. This language can come from deliberate observation and attention to conversations among peers or, if native speakers are not available, published materials from theatre, television shows, radio interviews or movie clips. Here are a few examples.

  • Uh huh, I see your point, but . . .
  • Okay, so you want to know what I think?
  • Really? I have a different take on that . . .
  • So I know that’s what a lot of people think. Still, I feel like . . .

Notice that in many expressions, people acknowledge the other person’s comment or point of view. They might even investigate. In a mutually satisfying conversation, the acknowledgement of the alternative perspective may lead the other person to invite a response by saying, “Yeah, so what do you think?” Or, “Does that make sense?”

This pragmatics exploration works well in the relative safety of the classroom, and it gives students a chance to get feedback on their efforts. The teacher gets a refreshing opportunity to explore the language of real relationships while playing a supportive role that is more like a coach than a judge.

In a recent oral communication class, a disagreement lesson helped prepare students for a debate about the future. Students prepared arguments for two topics: Are robots a threat? And “Should humans explore space?” Then, as pre-debate practice, they stood in two lines face to face and disagreed politely.  One side presented a position, and the other side used disagreement language to strategically raise counter-arguments.

Joandy, a young Cuban man, frequently used “Huh, I have a different take on that.” While Saida from Morocco seemed most comfortable with “Do you want to know what I think?” After practicing with several partners, they began to smile and even laugh, suggesting that they were experiencing the pleasure of emotional connection as well as articulating an opinion.

This emotionally safe disagreement practice could be followed by a more challenging one that might variously address more difficult conversations. Students could practice in simulations that arise during collaborative projects, conflicts among coworkers or defending themselves or others in a misunderstanding. Again, plays and videos can be a great source of models and language.

Grammar can certainly be a component of a lesson like this. In Teaching Unplugged, Scott Thornbury suggests a model where the teacher listens to the language the students produce during the activity and takes notes. Then the teacher addresses salient issues in a follow up feedback session or as an element in a future lesson. In this approach, grammar is not the objective of the lesson. Instead, it is a layer in a larger module or unit that supports students in engaging with other humans in specific and practical ways.

For more activities and materials on pragmatics and theatre check out our ELT Drama tab and The Integrated Skills through Theatre series.

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