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Language Philosophy and Language Teaching
by Mark Lowe
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These sessions provided the seedbed where his important work on language philosophy grew. His most significant original contribution to language philosophy was the notion of ‘performatives’, or expressions which do things rather than describing things. Performatives are analysed in detail in the posthumously published How to Do Things with Words, which was based on his notes for a series of lectures given by Austin at Harvard University in 1955. Here are three examples of performatives. ‘I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth’ (naming); ‘I do’, said in answer to the wedding ceremony question ‘do you take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife?’ (marrying); and ‘I bequeath my second best bed to my wife’ (leaving things to others in a will). The generic term ‘performative’ stands for all such functional expressions. Austin’s term ‘illocutionary force’ refers to the various kinds of performance, eg promising, warning, obeying, threatening etc. His term ‘perlocutionary force’ refers to the effect of the performance on other people. Thus, when I say ‘I do’ in the wedding ceremony, the illocutionary force is ‘promising to marry’, and the perlocutionary force is the effect of my words on the woman I marry.

Austin divided performatives into five categories, as follows (with examples):

  1. Verdictives: judging, pronouncing, estimating, convicting, acquitting, diagnosing
  2. Exercitives: I appoint, dismiss, excommunicate, order, urge, recommend, demand
  3. Commissives: I promise, intend, plan, agree, disagree, oppose, swear, undertake
  4. Behabatives: I apologise, thank, compliment, commiserate, bless, challenge, vote
  5. Expositives: I mean, affirm, deny, state, identify, tell, ensure, object to, repudiate

How to Do Things with Words was a seminal influence in the development of functional/notional language teaching theory and practice. It is also a rich source of excellent recipes for functional language lessons, containing many dishes not included in our normal fare. This little book can help us to teach not only how to request, apologise, thank and offer (common fare), but also how to convict and acquit, condemn and release, appoint and dismiss, oppose and undertake, to compliment and to complement, to ensure and insure, and to interpret and to query (less common fare). It is not only a major work of philosophy, but it is also full of imaginative and practical ideas which can enrich our classroom practice.

Let is now turn to Paul Grice. Grice was a Fellow and Tutor at St John’s College, Oxford from 1938 to 1967. He them moved to the USA, where he was Professor of Philosophy at Berkeley, University of California, until his death in 1988 at the age of 75. He made many important contributions to philosophy, including a new approach to ethics based on a reinterpretation of the notion of ‘justice’ in Plato’s Republic, and his famous analysis of what he called ‘the logic of conversation’. Grice’s writings have a magisterial, fastidious clarity.

Logic and Conversation, originally a talk delivered as one of the William James lectures at Harvard in 1967, is a key text for language teaching. When we take part in a conversation, Grice maintained, we follow certain principles. The over-arching one is the

Cooperative Principle. We agree to make such conversational contributions as are required by the accepted purpose of the talk exchange in which we are engaged. This cooperative principle may be subdivided into four sub-categories: quantity, quality, relation and manner.

The category of Quantity generates the following maxims:

  • Make your contribution as informative as required
  • Do not make your contribution more informative than is required

The category of Quality generates the following maxims:

  • Say only what you believe to be true
  • Do not way that for which you lack evidence

The category of Relation generates simply ‘be relevant’

The category of Manner generates:

  1. Avoid obscurity
  2. Avoid ambiguity
  3. Be brief
  4. Be orderly

These principles and maxims were designed to explain how human conversation works. Some people found the explanation clear and enlightening, but others criticised it on the grounds that the maxims did not correspond with reality. Few people, they pointed out, conduct conversations in this admirably organized manner – perhaps they should, but they don’t. Critics pointed to the plays of Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett, with their so-realistic dialogues full of non-sequiturs. These plays, they claimed, are a more accurate reflection of real conversation than Grice’s elegant model. Grice replied to these criticisms in an Epilogue written in 1986. The principles, he wrote, applied to ideal conversations, not to most conversations as they are actually conducted. They are intended to supply a framework for understanding how conversation works and how it is linked to its context. The principles of conversation are also an example of Grice’s view of language as embedded in the flow of human life. They can help language teachers, because they provide a principled framework for teaching our students how to converse – not only in ordinary conversation, but also in business meetings and formal encounters like diplomatic negotiations. Grice’s theory of logic and conversation has also been influential in the development of the speaking examinations of the University of Cambridge examinations in English – a further point of intersection between language philosophy and language teaching.

Grice is best known today for this one article. However, like most Oxford philosophers, he was a master at drawing distinctions between related words, and his work in this area is also of value to language teachers. For instance, how exactly does ‘I know’ differ from ‘I believe’? We can say ‘I firmly believe’, but we cannot say ‘I firmly know’. ‘I try’ differs from ‘I intend’: ‘trying’ implies difficulty or failure, while ‘intending’ has no such implication. Grice traced the concepts underlying these words in the great detail, thereby increasing our understanding of how language works, and how it influences our thinking.

Grice’s work is highly relevant to language teaching. He gives us a framework for teaching the language of conversations and professional meetings – we can modify the framework to reflect messy and Pinterian reality, but Grice gives us a starting point. He shows in detail how language links into the flow of life, and how to interpret the implications of what people say, as well as their surface meanings. He gives us a powerful analysis of shades of meaning. And he writes in a wonderfully lucid and elegant style which can serve as a model for all who wish to improve their written English style.

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