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Some problems with functions and speech acts
and some solutions through pragmatics to help
upper intermediate learners
by Greg Gobel
- 3

Pragmatic problems learners face with functional language

Dealing with politeness

In my experience teaching in the Czech Republic and Spain, learners have difficulties expressing politeness appropriately, tending to be either too abrupt and brusque or overly polite and too formal. Perhaps we can help our learners by explicitly showing them the theory behind politeness and how this affects using indirect functional language. Lakoff proposes three maxims of politeness:

  • Don’t impose

  • Give options

  • Make your receiver feel good . (Cook, 1989: 33; Carter et al., 1997: 278)

Learners could do consciousness-raising tasks to decide which, and when, these maxims are applied by speakers. This would help with both reception/interpretation and producing more appropriate language. Attention should also be devoted to how indirectness can help achieve politeness, and when being direct may not be impolite. Dörnyei and Thurrell present a useful type of activity addressing this (see Activity #32 from Dornyei/Thurell, 1992: 121-4).


I have noticed that learners sometimes have problems understanding implicatures that speakers make, either when I speak to them, when they listen to a cassette or view a video, or when they listen to their peers.

What exactly is ‘implicature?’ Yule says, ‘…“implicature” is one of the central concepts of pragmatics … certainly a prime example of more being communicated than is said’ (Yule, 1996: 46). Hatch explains: ‘Grice (1975) claimed that what is conveyed by an utterance falls into two parts: what is said and what is implied . He uses the term “implicature” to cover what is implied (i.e., what is conveyed minus what is said).’ (Hatch, 1992: 260). Of course, where a speaker may imply meaning, a listener thus can infer meaning. As Yule says, ‘It is important to note that it is speakers who communicate meaning via implicatures and it is listeners who recognize those communicative meanings via inference. The inferences selected are those which will preserve the assumption of cooperation’ (Yule, 1996: 40).

Again, it is the indirectness that my upper intermediate learners seem to have problems coping with. I think we can help our learners by training and guiding them to notice implicature, concept checking with questions such as:

  • ‘Could the speaker mean something different than what you first think the phrase means?’

  • ‘Is there a more indirect/direct way to say this?’

Another way to help learners with implicature is to have tasks in which they imply something by using what is not the most immediately obvious speech act. For example, a learner’s task is to get a peer to open the window. The learner cannot say, ‘Open the window, Juan?’ Instead, the learner says something such as, ‘It’s a bit warm in here, isn’t it, Juan?’ This would help learners to understand both the difficulty of dealing with implicature and how they can use speech acts in more creative ways to achieve something. This would also help show learners the importance of both the speaker and the listener in successfully communicating with implicature. Dörnyei and Thurrell suggest two activities to help learners deal with the indirectness of implicature through dispreferred responses and echoes expressing hidden meaning (see Activity #27 from Dornyei/Thurell, 1992: 100-3 and Activity #28 from Dornyei/Thurell, 1992: 104-6).


Upper intermediate learners do not seem to be very aware that conversation tends to be cooperative, and if they do, they find it difficult at times to avoid unintentionally flouting cooperativeness, e.g., through inappropriate responses or through non-responses. They are often able to take a rather long turn, but find difficulty interacting effectively when dealing with shorter functional utterances, going back and forth.

Grice’s Cooperative Principle is: ‘Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged’ (Grice in Yule, 1996: 37). He suggests four maxims:

  1. quality (being true)

  2. quantity (being brief)

  3. relation (being relevant)

  4. manner (being clear)

(summarized from Grice in Carter,, 1997: 279).

These are ‘unstated assumptions we have in conversations’ that help people cooperate with each other (Yule, 1996: 37). For learners, we could state them by the more accessible name, ‘four important conversational rules’ (Dörnyei and Thurrell, 1992: 107).

Cook points out, though, that ‘the politeness principle and the co-operative principle are often in conflict with each other. Politeness and truth are often mutually incompatible…and so are politeness and brevity.’ He adds, ‘the tension between them [reflects] a dual purpose in human intercourse: to act efficiently…and to create and maintain social relationships’ (Cook, 1989: 33-34). This may also help to explain why our learners sometimes have trouble knowing when to cooperate and when there is no need. (see appendix H, Cook vs. McCarthy)

To help deal with this tension and to raise awareness of these rules, Dörnyei and Thurrell suggest showing learners how and when to break the rules. They suggest teachers should explicitly teach these rules to learners and then focus on the impact on conversation of both preferred and dispreferred responses. (see Activity #29 from Dornyei/Thurell, 1992: 107-9)

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