Cultural MappingPragmatics is a topic of English language learning that has been called "the secret rules of English." The purpose of studying pragmatics is to try to improve language learners' abilities to match their utterances (and understand others') with appropriate contexts. It should be noted that at times, in addition to speech acts, gestures, facial expressions and intonation will be included as ways in which pragmatic behavior can be expressed. Everyone is vulnerable to violating culturally normative behavior, especially when we are communicating in a personal manner. By being mindful of the appropriateness of certain speech acts at certain times many potential misunderstandings can be avoided.

These potential misunderstandings can be serious and may not be as easily corrected as grammatical constructions for example. If a participant in a discourse reacts inappropriately when invited to an outing or a party due to ignorance of generally accepted pragmatic rules, that participant could be seen as rude or worse. A grammatical error is more easily detected and corrected than an error in pragmatics, which being contextual in nature, can go undetected or, if noticed, can be misinterpreted. This type of social lapse might be seen as brusqueness or even uncaring or malicious behavior on the part of the respondent . Over time such ignorance of cultural norms could result in the language learner being branded as an antisocial person with whom no one wishes to associate. The nature of the misunderstanding is such that offering constructive criticism can itself be misconstrued. Simple ignorance of unspoken pragmatic rules, no matter how innocent, can result in very negative and inaccurate impressions.

We teach pragmatics in the classroom simply because a need for it has been shown to exist. Language learners use the English language in significantly different ways than do native speakers. This is not to say that native speakers' use of English is infallible, only that differences occur and can be noticed. Grammatical proficiency and pragmatic development are not equivalent. "As a result, learners at the higher levels of grammatical proficiency often show a wide range of pragmatic competence. Thus, we find that even advanced nonnative speakers are neither uniformly successful, nor uniformly unsuccessful, but the range is quite wide." (Bardovi-Harlig & Mahan-Taylor, 2003)

The teaching of Pragmatics does not need to wait until the learner has advanced to an intermediate or advanced stage of development. Pragmatics can begin to be taught at even the lowest level of instruction. It is helpful in fact, to incorporate the learner's first language into the instruction so as to reinforce the contextual nature of why and how the pragmatic approach is needed. It is also important to remember that when teaching Pragmatics, authentic English is used. Relying on samples produced intuitively by native speakers is inadequate and misleading.

The fact is that Pragmatics is no secret. It is a topic that is often overlooked and because of this, it is not taught. It is an important aspect of appropriate English use and it is critical that the language learner be aware of its role. Activities such as talking on the telephone, giving and receiving invitations & complements, interrupting, offering corrections, greeting people & taking leave (saying hello & good-bye) are all a few of the times when a pragmatic use of the language will go a long way towards promoting accurate communications.

Generally, consideration paid to pragmatics is associated with speech although pragmatic behavior can also be critical in non-speech acts. E-mails are a good example since this form of written communication contains characteristics similar in many ways to speech. E-mails are personal (rather than intended for a general audience). They often contain a request and frequently require a response. Because of these features, e-mails are especially sensitive to pragmatic conventions. Even the non-speech act of standing in line can be a vulnerable activity. There are many more instances when unspoken normative behavior is required but can be ignored. It is important to note the the English-speaking community is not homogeneous and many racial, regional and national cultural norms play a role in establishing pragmatics. Again, when we ignore pragmatic conventions, we are all susceptible to accusations of being insensitive or even rude.

Historically there has been a dearth of instruction in pragmatics and consequently many language learners develop their communicative competency without an equivalent pragmatic awareness. There are reasons for this and the lack of pragmatic instruction can be addressed.

Many speech acts which commonly employ pragmatics are not generally observable by third parties. Invitations, refusals and apologies, what goes on during professors' office hours and closed, private sessions with one's doctor are all examples of times when a third party cannot be present. The privacy inherent in these encounters precludes an instructor's presence. While we are not able to authentically duplicate these situations, the classroom setting can be used to provide an introduction to the language learner's experience. This initiation to private discourse is a first step that has too often been ignored.

Another aspect of providing instruction in pragmatics is the salience of the subject. Some features of language use are simply too subtle and difficult to be noticed by learners. This can also account for these features 'slipping by' native speakers without their even being aware of their existence. Turn-taking and back channeling are critical parts of communication that send messages and can be interpreted unconsciously. "Differences in making requests, such as by saying "Can I?" (speaker-oriented) instead of "Can you?" (hearer-oriented) might not be immediately salient to learners." (Bardovi-Harlig & Mahan-Taylor, 2003) An awareness of these pragmatic elements by the English instructor can be passed on to the language learner in the classroom.

Finally, interpreting these uses of language can be facilitated in the classroom. A deeper comprehension of why these language uses are common is possible. "Why does this happen?" and "What does the speaker hope to accomplish by this?" are questions that can be explored by way of classroom discussion. Earlier impressions acquired by language learners can also be examined. Is it wholly accurate for example, to characterize English speakers as direct to the point of rudeness or are there other, underlying conventions at work? It is hoped that by becoming aware of pragmatic approaches to communication, language learners can recognize and be able to choose their routes through the language maze intelligently .

There are many pragmatic devices available for language learners to use in their interactions with others. Rather than insist on a certain conformity to norms, the instruction in pragmatics can open doors to options that the student can employ while retaining his or her individual identity.


Last Updated: March 1, 2013