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What is Pragmatics in an EFL context? -by Natalie Close and Darrell Wilkinson

Summary : Recently, there has been a growing interest in pragmatic competence in EFL. However, what this means and how to teach it is still somewhat unclear. This paper hopes to address these issues.


There has been a growing interest within language teaching in the area of pragmatics for many years, and this has been reflected in the increasing body of academic research, publications and special interest groups devoted to the area. This interestseems to have grown largely from a belief that the mastering of vocabulary and grammar is not enough to enable learners to become competent, naturalistic users of English. Many of the ‘natural’ or ‘native’ utterances and discourse patterns produced by both native and non-native speakers of English can be seemingly grammatically incorrect or ‘wrong’ according to many prescriptive grammatical rules. Therefore, what enables some learners to be able to produce pragmatically correct language in the correct context or situation seems to be of great importance to language teaching professionals. However, after doing a preliminary literature review on a number of areas related to the role of pragmatics in the ESL/EFL classroom, an easily available, clear and concise body of information relating to pragmatics teaching/learning for front-line ESL/EFL teachers appears to be unavailableAlthough the search cannot necessarily be seen as exhaustive or complete, it involved a large number of hours,and yielded very little practical advice or guidance, especially when compared to the amount of practical information that could be generated within a similar time frame when looking into the pedagogy of areas such as vocabulary, writing, reading listening or speaking. Therefore, it is currently very difficult for educators to start tackling the area of pragmatics in the classroomat least in an informed, logical and confident pedagogical manner.


Further research has been carried out in order to answer a number of questions, and provide some clear and concise information on the area of pragmatics for front-line teachers of English as a foreign or second language. The paper is based not only on a review of some key literature and research from the field of pragmatics, but also includes a summary of the results of a reasonably extensive search for commercially available pragmatics-based textbooks, as well as online materials.

 The main questions that this paper is concerned with are as follows:

1. What is pragmatics and how is it defined within a language context?

2. Is pragmatic competence practically teachable and if so, what approach should be adopted?

3. What teaching materials and resources are available to teachers at the moment?   

The information addressed within the above three questions aims to help teachers, understand the basic concepts of pragmatics, evaluate if pragmatic instruction is effective and justifiable with regard to classroom hours, and understand the teachers role with regard to presentation of  pragmatically appropriate language. Additionally, it is hoped that teachers will be given a list of useful resources and materials to be used when addressing pragmatic competence in the classroom.


What is pragmatics in an EFl/ESL context?

Before continuing, it is necessary to begin with a brief exploration of what is actually meant by pragmatics in a foreign language learning context.  Firstly, Aitchison, J (2003) defined pragmatics as dealing with “ how speakers use language in ways which cannot be predicted from linguistic knowledge alone.” (pp. 9).  In this, she seems to be referring to the fact that much of what native speakers say or write, and which is perceived as natural, appropriate or native-like, can be ungrammatical according to traditional prescriptive grammarians. In addition, natural language in use, also seems to be governed much more by a language feeling than a grammatical or linguistic knowledge. This is an area which was also highlighted by Kasper and Rose (2001). Pragmatics has also been defined similarly as “using socially appropriate language in a variety of informal and formal situations” Bardovi-Harlig, K. and Mahan-Taylor, R. (2003). Here, the focus is on language which is viewed as socially appropriate, and again concern is not with grammatical correctness but appropriateness and naturalness within a given context. A more detailed definition, used by the JALT special interest group in pragmatics, and sited by authors such as Kasper, states that “Pragmatics is the study of language from the point of view of users, especially of the choices they make, the constraints they encounter in using language in social interaction and the effects their use of language has on other participants in the act of communication.” (Crystal, D. 1997, p. 301). Here the focus again is on language used for social interaction, but this definition brings forward a point which I feel is of key importance; the effects language choices have on social interactions. This seems to deal with what many teachers find a very challenging and complex area; how do we help our students understand what the effects of inappropriate language use will be, how do we equip our students to know when and how to be polite, to be casual, to be direct or authoritative.  How do we explicitly teach language learners a host of language strategies, nuances and subtleties that native speakers seem to take for granted, use effectively without thought, and can constantly adapt and change to suit a wide variety of situations and contexts. A further definition which is useful here is provided by Childs, M., (2005) who refers to pragmatics as “the study of how people create and interpret meaning in real situations.” In this context, 'meaning' is understood as being related to language as a means of achieving a range of purposes, and expressing a variety of messages, feelings and emotions, which the user conveys using more than just strings of words. Language users utilize not only language, but also a  large arsenal of signals, sounds, expressions and gestures in order to help convey real meaning in real interpersonal, communicative situations.

The above definitions, although carrying slightly different focuses, and using different terms, all have a number of things in common. The authors all seem to deal with the issue of pragmatics in terms of language 'use' in a real and meaningful context, and seem to be concerned with language users' choices and decisions when trying to convey meaning. It can be concluded then, that pragmatics and therefore pragmatic competence is concerned with language conveying real meaning and being used for real-life communication, in a variety of interpersonal contexts or situations. For communication to be truly successful, the language used must be appropriate for the particular situation. None of these viewpoints seem to define communication or communicative competence as being based on rules of grammar or other purely linguistics ideas.

Difficulties facing teachers; teachability of pragmatics

As mentioned, it has long been assumed that knowledge of grammar and vocabulary are able to be developed through explicit teaching in a classroom context. However, is it possible to teach pragmatics in the same way? How do we teach aspects of a language use that are not purely based on vocabulary and grammar? Language use which requires a higher understanding of the context, involves a wide range of language that does not involve words, and is closely related to interpersonal and cultural rules that seem to come naturally to native speakers. How to teach elements such as sounds, expressions and other non-grammatical tools is an area which provides a great challenge to language teachers.

With these questions in mind, is it actually possible to teach pragmatics? It would be assumed that the many teachers who hold pragmatics as a key or even central component of language ability would answer this question with a resounding yes. This however may not be the case as the issue of teaching pragmatics is not simple, and may not be able to be answered with a simple yes or no answer. Kasper, G. (1997) addresses this issue: 

Can Pragmatic Competence Be Taught?' The simple answer to the question as formulated is "no". Competence, whether linguistic or pragmatic, is not teachable. Competence is a type of knowledge that learners possess, develop, acquire, use or lose. The challenge for foreign or second language teaching is whether we can arrange learning opportunities in such a way that they benefit the development of pragmatic competence in L2.” (p. 22)

This challenge, combined with the fact that there is very little practical advice on the subject, and that it is an area largely ignored by textbook and curriculum designers, has resulted in pragmatics rarely being dealt with in language classrooms at present.


They key point to focus on is that teachers need to reassess what is meant by 'teaching'. If we wish to help our students with pragmatic knowledge and ability, we may need to be more creative and possibly less traditional in our approach. We cannot deal with pragmatics in the same way we have commonly dealt with vocabulary or grammar. Developing pragmatic ability (if not all language ability) should be seen as a process, and most likely a long and difficult one. However, it is also a vital and rewarding process with which we can help and guide our students. We can continually, and in a planned manner, provide comprehensible examples of natural language, offer advice and guidance, and provide ample opportunities for practice within realistic and meaningful communicative and interpersonal contexts.

There has been a considerable amount of research into the effects of pragmatics teaching, but not nearly as much as the research into other, more established areas such as vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation or skills-based teaching. For examples of some of the key, classroom-based research thathas been carried out, see; House & Kasper (1987),  Wildner-Bassett (1984) & (1986), Billmyer (1990), Olshtain & Cohen (1990), Bouton (1994), Kubota (1995), Morrow (1996), and Tateyama et al. (1997). Research carried out by those mentioned above was based on classroom studies, where students were explicitly taught areas relating to pragmatic ability or competence.  Kasper (1997) summarized many of these studies and comments on the fact that the teaching goals extended over a large range of pragmatic features and abilities. Some of the studies examined discourse markers and strategies used for getting in and out of conversations, introducing, sustaining, and changing topics. Other areas examined included organizing turn-taking, and keeping the conversation going by listener strategies such as ‘backchanneling’.

The overall results of these studies seemed to be that pragmatic awareness or knowledge, and pragmatic ability or competence can be taught. In most of the studies, the students, whether compared to control groups, or to their own pre-course performances, seemed to show some degree of improvement in the area of pragmatic ability. The improvements in some cases proved to be not only substantial, but also beneficial and long-lasting. What is more, some of the studies seemed to produce considerable improvements with regard to learners pragmatic ability with only limited (in some cases only a few hours) of instruction. Therefore, it seems that we can, in a relatively short time, equip and empower our students with a rich and effective language resource which enables them to function in a much more natural and meaningful way. 

Many of the studies concerned with improving pragmatic competence, not only the ones mentioned above, seem to utilize a range of approaches and tasks such as consciousness raising task, discourse analysis and other less 'tried and tested' activities. Such generally positive results as these should justify a focus on pragmatic competence in many a language course. If we also take into consideration the vast number of hours spent on teaching grammar, with often inconclusive results at best, it seems to strengthen the case for an increased focus on pragmatics. There should also be a definite move to help learners improve the non-verbal and strategic areas mentioned earlier in this paper. Although pragmatics teaching has, and is becoming, more and more widespread, most of the work seems to focus on the teaching of speech acts, which while important, only account for a small degree of pragmatic competence. Again, this is largely due to their 'teachability' in a practical sense. It is easier to focus on speech acts as they represent whole chunks of languages and often follow grammatical rules. Only through further research and a decided effort to produce, and make widely available, a comprehensive range of pragmatic teaching materials, will this situation be improved upon. 

With regard to the issue of teaching materials that deal with pragmatics, unfortunately there is very little currently available. Only a few textbooks seem to be designed with pragmatics in mind, and even those which are seem to be little more than a different form of prescriptive grammar.  This is largely due to the fact that by nature, pragmatic language use is not fixed or set, cannot always be described or easily explained.  In addition, textbooks are fixed in time and context, and based around limited conversations and functions that only apply to one particular speaker or group of speakers at best. Therefore, rather than just looking for textbooks, teacher should be aiming at providing learners with a rich variety, and extensive amount of natural or naturalistic input from areas such as newspapers, websites, television shows, magazines, graded readers and actual excerpts of conversations between native speakers. With the growing body of free resources online, such as news websites, including ones which are designed for language learners, YouTube, discussion forums, and social networking sites, it is becoming easier for teachers to repeatedly expose learners to rich and natural linguistic input in order for them to be pick up natural language in real situations.

Below is a list of some of the more useful resources that teachers can use to aid learners in improving pragmatic competence. The first three in the list are websites that provide a wealth of pragmatically suitable language in different formats including articles and videos.  The others provide further information on pragmatics in and EFL context, practical ideas and even lesson plans to build pragmatic competence.



Pragmatic awareness and competence is essential if we are aiming at developing naturalistic users of a second language. The ability to quickly choose language which is appropriate to the situation and context is often what differentiates between a good speaker and a native-like speaker. It is not only essential, but also very teachable if educators adopt a more flexible approach and utilize other forms of resources and sources input other than standard textbooks.  However, there still needs to be much more materials and resources made available to teachers if we are to move forward in this area of language teaching and learning. Although the amount of available natural language input is growing, it is still very time consuming and difficult to introduce in a planned and efficient way compared to areas such as vocabulary and grammar.  There is currently not nearly enough practical assistance available to front-line language teachers in the area of pragmatics.  In addition, research may be needed to assess how subjective pragmatics is. The extent to which the teacher influences learners’ concepts of what is pragmatically correct, and whether the teachers’ individual background, culture, and language use leads to inappropriate or conflicting advice to learners needs to be examined.


Aitchison, J. (2003). Teach Yourself Linguistics (6th Edition). London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Bacelar de Silva, A. J. (2006?) The Effects of Instruction on pragmatic development:  Teaching Polite Refusals in English. University of Hawaii.

Bardovi-Harlig, K. (1996). Pragmatics and Language Teaching: Bringing Pragmatics and Pedagogy Together. In Bouton Lawrence, F. Ed. (1996) Pragmatics and language Learning. Monograph Series Volume 7, p21-39. 

Bardovi-Harlig, K. and Mahan-Taylor, R. (2003). Teaching Pragmatics. Washington DC: US Department of State, Office of English Language Programs. Retrieved October 20th2011 from

Billmyer, K. (1990). "I really like your lifestyle": ESL learners learning how to compliment. Penn Working Papers in Educational Linguistics, 6:2, 31-48.

Bouton, L. F. (1994). Conversational implicature in the second language: Learned slowly when not deliberately taught. Journal of Pragmatics, 22, 157-67.

Cohen, A. D. and Ishihara, N. (2005).  A Web-based Approach to Strategic Learning of Speech Acts. Center for Advanced Research on Language AcquisitionRetrievedOctober 16th 2011 from

House, J. and Kasper, G. (1987). Interlanguage pragmatics: Requesting in a foreign language. In W. Lörscher & R. Schulze (Eds.), Perspectives on language in performance. Festschrift for Werner Hüllen (pp. 1250-1288). Tübingen: Narr.

House, J. (1996). Developing pragmatic fluency in English as a foreign language: Routines and metapragmatic awareness. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 18, 225-252.

Kasper, G. (1997). Can pragmatic competence be taught?Honolulu: University of Hawai'i, Second Language Teaching & Curriculum Center. Retrieved October 18th 2011from

King, K. A., & Silver, R. E. (1993). "Sticking points": Effects of instruction on NNS. Refusal strategies. Working Papers in Education.

Kubota, M. (1995). Teachability of conversational implicature to Japanese EFL learners.IRLT Bulletin, 9. Tokyo: The Institute for Research in Language Teaching, 35-67.

Morrow, C.K. (1996). The pragmatic effects of instruction on ESL learners' production of complaint and refusal speech acts. Unpublished PhD dissertation, State University of New York at Buffal

Olshtain, E., & Cohen, A.D. (1990). The learning of complex speech act behavior. TESL Canada Journal, 7, 45-65.

Tateyama, Y., Kasper, G., Mui, L., Tay, H., & Thananart, O. (1997). Explicit and implicit teaching of pragmatics routines. In L. Bouton (Ed.), Pragmatics and language learning, Vol. 8. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Wildner-Bassett, M. (1984). Improving pragmatic aspects of learners' interlanguage. Tübingen: Narr.

Wildner-Bassett, M. (1986). Teaching 'polite noises': Improving advanced adult learners' repertoire of gambits. In G. Kasper (Ed.), Learning, teaching and communication in the foreign language classroom (pp. 163-178). Århus: Aarhus University Press.

About Author
Natalie Close is a university EFL and Anthropology lecturer in Tokyo. Darrell Wilkinson is a university EFL lecturer in Tokyo.

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