Pragmatically speaking – why don’t we study and teach Pragmatics more?

A friend of mine, who is also an English teacher, was taking Pragmatics at uni and admitted she was struggling to see the point of all that theory. I wanted to reply in neon and all caps: “All the point in the world!” Ironically, I don’t think I did convince her.

I say it was ironic because pragmatics is, among other things, the study of “how to do things with words”, as the seminal book title goes. While my intention was to persuade her to change her mind about pragmatics, I don’t think I managed to do it, which means I failed to fulfill my communicative goal. Pity party for me.

Communicative functions (e.g. persuading, apologizing, making a request) are the domain of pragmatics. One would expect, then, that communicative language teachers would really be into pragmatics. I honestly want to believe we are. On the other hand, there is an annoying voice inside my head that skeptically asks: do we even know how to do those things ourselves? Do we, teachers, perform those actions well in English or do we struggle when we have to ask a favor or to fess up?

If you want my personal answer, I feel I can be even worse at Pragmatics than I am with prepositions. Sadly, the consequences of pragmatic ‘mistakes’ are potentially much, much worse. If I write an “in” where it should have been “on”, my reader might not even notice or think much of it. Now if I sound rude to somebody, I doubt they will forget it any time soon.

You see, pragmatics also studies politeness. I’ve lost count of the number of times my British husband got cross with me because he thought I was bossing him around when I was simply making suggestions, and suggestions I didn’t even care much about either way. I was going for a communicative function; he understood a different one. By the way, on the subject of ‘making suggestions’, this great post maintains that using “should”  – the first thing we teach our students! – is not the best way to go about it.

Misunderstandings go both ways, of course: just the other day, I asked my husband if he was hungry and he said, “I’m getting there.” I went back to I was doing, waiting for him to tell me when he wanted to leave for a bite. He did the same, waited for me to be hungry. Almost two hours after our usual dining time, I decided to repeat the question. It so happened he was already starving when I asked him the first time, but used British understatement, and I took it at face value.

Brazilian woman awaiting the day her British husband will be direct

Brazilian woman awaiting the day her British husband will be direct


Believe it or not, that misunderstanding can also be explained by pragmatics. It depends on how “direct” you are expected to be in your culture. In fact, it is a running joke how misinterpreted the Brits can be for their indirectness (although sometimes they can be surprisingly direct, go figure!), as shown in the hilarious @SoVeryBritish twitter feed
which I’ve nicknamed “my husband’s manual”, and in the following table.

Source: kieranhealy.org

(Source: kieranhealy.org)

 

Are you laughing? Didn’t think it was so funny? Well, humor is also the object of pragmatics!

It should be clear by now that pragmatics covers a lot of essential aspects of language use. As a result, pragmatics is key, in my opinion, to anybody who teaches or learns a language communicatively*. However, I have a suspicion we teachers often neglect pragmatics, especially when giving students feedback about a performance, despite the fact that a ‘mistake’ in pragmatics can have more serious consequences. I have seen it happen way too often in real life: a pronunciation/grammar/vocabulary mistake** is chalked up to a slip of the tongue or lack of proficiency — and it’s all good. In contrast, make an unexpected pragmatic choice and it might just be attributed to the kind of person you are (“Did he say that to you? He’s an idiot!”). And I go, “no, no, no, he’s a great person, he just doesn’t have a way with words…”

That’s why I invite all of us teachers, myself included, to reflect on these two questions: much as you try to be non-judgmental, are you personally more likely to criticize a person for a pronunciation/grammar/vocabulary error** or for sounding aggressive/impatient/too submissive/authoritarian? And if you chose the latter, how much of your classroom practice reflects that answer?

 

Subtly asking for people to leave

Subtly asking for people to leave

 

 

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*What if you’re teaching a lingua franca? I’m no expert, but I’d guess that, just like pronunciation, pragmatics is still important (perhaps even more so) in a lingua franca context; however, you’ll need to drop any native standard as the be all and end all in favor of strategies to navigate the environment.

**Of course pragmatic failure can (and often will) have its roots on pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. The pragmatic ‘problem’ could lie in a misuse of intonation, a poor choice of modals, a strong rather than a euphemized word…  The question is, though, how often we actually focus on those aspects of pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary in the contexts where they could be misinterpreted.

 

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Interesting links:

A definition of Pragmatics with an example on how it can impact second language learners: https://coerll.utexas.edu/methods/modules/pragmatics/01/

Learners’ pragmatic competence: https://www.indiana.edu/~spanport/events/Workshop1PragmaticPerformance.pdf

More about communicative functions: https://www.educ.ualberta.ca/staff/olenka.bilash/best%20of%20bilash/functionsof%20lang.html

A list of communicative functions: https://carla.umn.edu/articulation/polia/pdf_files/communicative_functions.pdf

How to make suggestions sound nicer: https://dictionaryblog.cambridge.org/2016/03/23/you-could-always-email-him-making-suggestions-sound-nicer/

Source of the mummy pic: https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/08/pictures/120813-mummies-chinchorro-proceedings-desert-driest-chile/  (Hat tip: Rômulo Andrade)

Academic feedback table: https://kieranhealy.org/blog/archives/2013/08/16/academic-feedback/ 

Natália Guerreiro

Natália Guerreiro has been a teacher since the year 2000 and currently works in Aviation English assessment and teaching for the Brazilian Air Force. She holds a CELTA, a B.A. in English & Portuguese from UFRJ, and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics from the University of Melbourne. She's been elected BRAZ-TESOL's Second Vice President for the 2019-2020 term.

7 Comments
  • Cintia Rodrigues
    Posted at 21:43h, 05 abril Responder

    I agree with every single word of this article!!
    Fun fact, some learners do not seem to understand/accept its relevance. I mean, i always emphasize pragmatics in classroom and some students only ask if they had made a grammar/vocab mistake, then I have to explain them that correct grammar doesnot always lead us to correct understanding (I don’t know if I expressed myself correctly here). Anyway, some of them get really suspicious because they are not aware of it.in their own L1.

    Loved this article! You rock.

    • Natália Guerreiro
      Natália Guerreiro
      Posted at 14:47h, 16 abril Responder

      Sorry, Cintia, only seen your comment now. I agree with you: students have no idea pragmatics exists in their L1. What do you do, then, to help raise awareness that pragmatics is a thing?

      • Cary Wasserman
        Posted at 21:36h, 01 novembro Responder

        It can be on a case by case basis, where one explains the consequences or differences in meaning between one usage another – e.g. how it will be received, whether ignored or as an insult.

  • Elaine Hodgson
    Elaine Hodgson
    Posted at 07:05h, 06 abril Responder

    Excellent! I love the topic and I think it’s a real shame pragmatics sometimes gets far too theoretical in graduation courses… I particularly like the photo of the Brazilian wife 😉

    • Natalia Guerreiro
      Natalia Guerreiro
      Posted at 11:15h, 06 abril Responder

      True, pragmatics can sound too abstract depending on how it is taught, but it’s in fact so real life and down-to-earth. I believe the book “That’s Not What I Meant!” by Deborah Tannen is a good example of how to make pragmatics palatable to a general public — and it’s a relationship-saver!

      We need to start a club of Brazilian wives to British husbands. Oh, so much I could learn from you!

  • Juliana Alves Mota
    Posted at 12:19h, 08 abril Responder

    You are on your way to convince me after this brilliant article, Ná ! 🙂
    I learned a lot from every word you said, as well as the links you suggested.
    Thank you very much!

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