What is Pragmatics in an EFL context? Why is it Important? How Teachable is it?
After attending a number of language teaching seminars or courses, and reading various articles, I have developed an interest in the area of pragmatics within a foreign language teaching context. This interest largely grew from a belief that the teaching of vocabulary and grammar is not enough to enable learners to become competent, naturalistic users of English. Now, through a series of lectures, classroom discussions and various readings related to pragmatics, my interest came to be further strengthened. However, after doing a preliminary literature review on a number of areas related to the role of pragmatics in the ESL/EFL classroom, I have been unable to find an easily available, clear and concise body of information relating to pragmatics teaching for front-line ESL/EFL teachers. The search has not been exhaustive, but it has taken a large number of hours, and I do not feel that the information gathered provides enough information or clear guidelines for teachers such as myself to start tackling the area of pragmatics in the classroom; at least not in an informed, logical and confident pedagogical manner.
Therefore, I have tried to carry out a further research in order to answer a number of questions, and provide some clear and concise information on the area of pragmatics. This paper aims to provide some basic or essential information on pragmatics, and to be of practical use to teachers who are interested in, but have little knowledge of, pragmatics in a foreign language context. 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 internet search for pragmatics-based materials, along with my own thoughts and comments along the way. The main questions that this paper is concerned with are as follows:
1. What is pragmatics? How is pragmatics within a first or second language context defined?
2. Is pragmatic competence teachable?
· Can we determine the effect of pragmatic instruction and awareness raising activities?
· Do the results justify the amount of instruction?
3. How subjective is pragmatics?
· To what extent does the teacher influence the learners’ concept of what is pragmatically correct?
· Does the teachers’ individual background, culture and language use lead to inappropriate or conflicting advice to learners?
4. How practical is pragmatics teaching at the moment?
· What teaching materials and resources are available to the average teacher at the moment?
The information addressed within the above four questions aims to help teachers, understand the basic concepts of pragmatics, evaluate if pragmatic instruction is effective and justifiable with regard to classroom hours, understand the teachers role with regard to presentation of, and advice about, pragmatically appropriate language. Additionally, through investigation relating to question 4, it is hoped that teachers will be given a list of useful resources and materials to be used when teaching pragmatics in the classroom.
Before continuing, it is necessary to begin with a brief exploration of what is actually meant by 'pragmatics' in a foreign language learning context. To do this a few key definitions supplied by a number of authors will be discussed. 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 we equip our students to know when and how to be polite, to be casual, to be direct or authoritative etc. 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 I understand 'meaning' 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 use not only language, but also a large armory 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.
This raises a very difficult question; '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. This challenge, combined with the fact that there is very little empirical evidence or 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.
Having briefly defined pragmatics in a language context, and with the belief that pragmatic competence is an essential, and most likely, central part of using a language, the issue of 'teachability' will be addressed. It has long been assumed that knowledge of grammar and vocabulary are able to be developed through explicit teaching in a classroom context. Whether this is true or not is of little concern to this paper. However, what is of concern is the question of whether it is 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 such a simple one 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.”. This would seem to be a somewhat negative response, especially to those holding true to the belief that pragmatics is of primary concern, and something which should be given more attention in classrooms. However, I feel this is not actually the case. What I feel is being said is that teachers need reassess what is meant by 'teaching', that 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 can not deal with pragmatics in the same way we have commonly deal 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. Some of the key, classroom-based research has been carried out by the following authors; House & Kasper (1981), Wildner-Bassett (1984) & (1986), Billmyer (1990), Olshtain & Cohen (1990), Wildner-Bassett (1994), Bouton (1994), Kubota (1995), House (1996), Morrow (1996), and Tateyama et al. (1997). There is not enough time here to go into all the different research projects in detail, but it should be pointed out that the research carried out by the authors above was all 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 in these studies 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. However, as mentioned previously in this paper, it seems that in many cases a less traditional and more creative and flexible approach is called for. 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, in my opinion, be enough to justify focusing on pragmatics as central part of classroom language teaching. 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. This issue of teaching materials that deal with pragmatics will be the next point of focus in this paper.
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Bacelar de Silva, A. J. (2006?) The Effects of Instruction on pragmatic development: Teaching Polite Refusals in English. University of Hawaii
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