Some problems with functions and speech acts and some solutions
through pragmatics to help upper intermediate learners
by Greg Gobel
‘All learners of a foreign language are familiar with the disturbing sensation of understanding every word, and the literal meaning, but somehow missing the point.’ -Cook (1989: 41)
Functional language has been a focus in ELT over the past three decades with varying amounts of emphasis, from the Functional-Notional syllabus to a minor component in multi-layered syllabuses. However, in my experience learners often do not get the ‘whole picture’ regarding understanding and using functional language from coursebooks that teachers and learners are often expected to use and ‘work through’ in many language schools. I am currently teaching an upper intermediate course in which the learners have difficulties coping with appropriately interpreting and using functions. This paper investigates some problems that learners have with functions and suggests possible solutions for helping upper intermediate learners.Speech Acts/Functions
McCarthy says, ‘Speech acts refer to the communicative intention of what is said or written. In speech-act theory, all language is seen as doing things’ (McCarthy, 1998: 179). Dörnyei and Thurrell say they ‘carry out an action or language function’ (Dörnyei and Thurrell, 1992: 80).
‘No utterance is completely context free in terms of meaning and function. Nevertheless,…it is possible to classify utterances into a very small set of functions’ (Hatch, 1992: 121). Searle determined five general types of speech acts (summarized from Hatch, 1992: 121-131):
van Ek (1980) describes six self-explanatory main functions of language:
Sub- and micro- functions can be categorized, e.g., instructing, commanding, suggesting, and requesting are types of ‘directives’ or ‘getting things done’.
Although speech acts may be direct (e.g., Put that gun down!), ‘the majority in everyday conversation are indirect’ ( Dörnyei and Thurrell, 1992: 80). ‘Language learners can easily misunderstand indirect speech acts and take what has been said at its face value’ so ‘making learners aware that such structures have a “surface” and “real” meaning can therefore be very important’ ( ibid : 80-81). In other words, there is often a hidden meaning of utterances which can be problematic for learners to convey and interpret.
Consideration of the response that a speaker expects from her listener is necessary. There are two possible responses, ‘an expected, polite reaction (e.g., accepting an invitation or complying with a request), and an unexpected, less common or more “difficult” reaction (e.g., turning down an invitation, or refusing to comply with a request). These two types of reaction have been called preferred and dispreferred answers respectively’ ( ibid : 43). Yule says that preferred responses show less distance, ‘closeness and quick connection,’ while dispreferred responses show more ‘distance and a lack of connection’ (Yule, 1996: 82).
Some problems with speech act theory and implications for teaching functions
Some writers have noted several problems with such a simplification of possible utterances in a conversation. Here are some and what I think their teaching implications are:
When ‘we read or hear pieces of language, we normally try to understand not only what the words mean, but what the writer or speaker of those words intended to convey. The study of “intended speaker meaning” is called pragmatics.’ (Yule, 1985: 127). Additionally, ‘[p]ragmatics is the study of …
That is, pragmatics is ‘the study of “invisible” meaning’ (Yule, 1985: 127), or meaning that derives not only from the words and structures used (semantics and syntax), but also from the situation of the utterance and how that affects what the speaker means. As Hatch concisely writes, ‘…what speakers mean to convey when they use a particular structure in context…’ (Hatch, 1992: 260). This clearly links Dörnyei’s reference to ‘surface’ and ‘real’ meaning of speech acts as this is what pragmatics tries to explain.
‘Left to their own devices with respect to contact with the target language in and out of the classroom, the majority of learners apparently do not acquire pragmatics of the target language on their own’ (Bardovi-Harlig, 2003). This implies that teachers should attempt to include teaching and learning of some aspects of pragmatics in the classroom. Bardovi-Harlig also points out how lack of pragmatic awareness could affect people’s relationships: ‘[t]he consequences of pragmatic differences…are often interpreted on a social or personal level rather than as a result of the language learning process’ (ibid, 2003). Thus, we must try to raise our learner’s awareness of what they say and how it may be interpreted so that our learners reduce the chances of social and personal face-threatening interactions and utterances. White notes six possibilities: conflicting signals, creating tension, risking offence, creating confusion, public embarrassment, and interpersonal breakdown (White, 1993: 196-200). Boxer and Pickering conclude, unfortunately, that ‘important information on underlying social strategies of speech acts is often overlooked entirely’ in published ELT material (Boxer and Pickering, 1995: 44). Teachers must compensate for this; I think a long-term strategy for awareness raising could be to continually check learners’ understanding of the relationship between speakers when focusing on functional language.
This paper will now look into how teachers could exploit some areas of pragmatics to help learners cope with functional language because, according to Bardovi-Harlig, ‘Teaching pragmatics empowers students to experience and experiment with the language at a deeper level, and thereby participate in the purpose of language – communication, rather than just words’ (Bardovi-Harlig, et al., 1991: 13).
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:
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:
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:
(summarized from Grice in Carter, et.al., 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)
A simple way to incorporate more pragmatic awareness
Teachers could helpfully include more metapragmatic explanation and guidance. Vellenga observes: ‘There is, in most books, a lack of metapragmatic discussion related to speech acts. Speech acts may be mentioned or modeled without any commentary on usage or contextual reference’ (Vellenga, 2004: 10). It seems that when coursebooks include useful functional language they miss opportunities for helping learners gain more awareness of the implications they say or hear.
Bardovi-Harlig suggests four steps for ‘integrating pragmatically appropriate language into the English classroom:
Regarding steps three and four, in addition to teaching lessons specifically designed for pragmatics work with functional language, such as the types by Dornyei and Thurrell mentioned above, I think teachers could use a lot of existing material and add a pragmatic focus – much like Jenner and Bradford (MET v10/4) advocate incorporating intonation practice into existing listening activities, saying that ‘[almost] any material can be exploited’ for intonation work, we could do the same by analyzing our coursebooks and then integrating pragmatics into functionally focused activities. For me, this has several practical day-to-day advantages:
1. saving time,
2. adding a deeper dimension to tasks and language already part of a course, and
3. teachers having familiarity with the tasks if they have used the particular coursebook already.
This may not be as thorough as our learners need, though. As Vellenga shows, New Headway Intermediate, one of the most popularly used coursebooks, has less than 20% of its pages dealing with pragmatic information (Vellenga, 2004: 6). In the long run we would need to develop new activities altogether (see appendix B); but adapting what we have is a useful departure point for busy teachers.
Looking at Cutting Edge Upper Intermediate
In the upper intermediate class that I teach, we use Cutting Edge Upper Intermediate, containing several sections called ‘Real Life.’ The aim of ‘Real Life’ is to ‘provide opportunities for roleplay of practical, everyday situations’ (Cunningham/Moor, 1999: 6). Based on this aim, it is not surprising that functions and speech acts are often the focus in ‘Real Life’ sections (although, they are also elsewhere in the book). I include my analysis of four ‘Real Life’ sections in appendix G.1, briefly stating the functional focus, assessing the book’s treatment, and proposing possible additions/adaptations to give more thorough pragmatic help to our learners. (See the original coursebook pages: Cutting Edge Upper-Intermediate, 1999: pages 15-16; 27; 47; 105.)
Increasing the amount of time spent helping learners with pragmatic meaning of speech acts/functions and presenting functional language through a discoursal approach with heavy emphasis on the context will help learners to gain a better understanding and ability to use it. Teachers should play a very important role in continually concept checking and guiding learners to deeper pragmatic understanding of speech acts and their ability to use them by taking a few minutes to consider what useful changes would enhance their coursebook’s tasks and thus their learners’ communicative competence.
Published material used or mentioned in the appendices
List of Appendices
Appendix A: Cook vs. McCarthy
In the readings, I found a curious disagreement. About the Cooperative Principle, McCarthy asserts that, ‘In a decade of English language teaching since they first came to my notice, I have never met an occasion where the maxims could be usefully applied…’ (McCarthy, 1991: 2). However, Cook seems to contradict this. He says that pragmatic theories, including the Cooperative Principle ‘provide essential insights both into the nature of coherence, and into the problems of communicating in a foreign language and culture. They are essential tools for discourse analysis and thus for the teacher and learner’ (Cook, 1989: 29).
It is not surprising to me that two writers that I find very helpful to my own teacher development disagree. I side more with Cook, who, it must be said, does criticize the pragmatics theories (1989: 43), because in my experience saying ‘never’ about any theory, method, or technique may consequently limit the teacher’s ability to help his or her learners make sense of English and their ability to communicate. I think it is more important ‘how’ we make use of these, rather than becoming dogmatic about always or never using them.
Appendix B: Free functional language/pragmatic activities from Bardovi-Harlig
In Teaching Pragmatics, Bardovi-Harlig provides a series of activities focusing on functional language with more pragmatic integration than typical coursebooks tend to present. These activities are free for any busy teacher at http://exchanges.state.gov/education/engteaching/pragmatics/htm .
Although the activities do not exhaust areas covered in this paper or the extremely broad area of functional language, it is a start and gives busy teachers a chance to integrate some of these ideas into their courses.
The activities cover these five general areas:
Appendix C: This article’s assessment of four ‘Real Life’ sections in Cutting Edge Upper Intermediate
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