Pragmatics: Language Acquisition and Pragmatic Competence

Topics: Language acquisition, Second language acquisition, Language education Pages: 12 (3597 words) Published: May 11, 2013
TESL Reporter 38, 1 (2005), pp. 17-26


Teaching Pragmatics in the EFL Classroom? SURE You Can!
Mark N. Brock
Carson-Newman College, Tennessee, USA

Yoshie Nagasaka
Kobe, Japan
There are a number of language competencies which English language learners must develop, in tandem, in order to communicate successfully in English. Any successful communicative event, at least one that extends beyond expressions of simple, immediate need, will require that L2 speakers have developed some mastery of the syntax, morphology, phonology and lexis of the English language. Yet, as many English teachers recognize, and as many language learners have experienced first-hand, speech acts that are grammatically and phonologically correct sometimes fail because the learner’s pragmatic competence—his or her ability to express or interpret communicative functions in particular communicative contexts—is undeveloped or faulty. Pragmatic incompetence in the L2, resulting in the use of inappropriate expressions or inaccurate interpretations resulting in unsuccessful communicative events, can lead to misunderstanding and miscommunication and can even leave the native-speaking interlocutor with the perception that the L2 speaker is either ignorant or impolite. The following simple scenario illustrates the importance of pragmatic competence. Two learners of English ask a native speaker, with whom they are unacquainted, to lend them a pen. One learner uses the phrase, “Borrow your pen,” while the other asks, “Could I borrow your pen?” Both requests are easy to understand. Both result in the desired response. Yet in this context native speakers would likely respond more favorably to the request of the second learner over that of the first, simply because it is more appropriate. Parents know that pragmatic competence or contextual appropriateness does not always develop as quickly in their children as they might wish. Some years ago the first author and his wife would often visit friends who had a 4-year-old daughter. After visiting in their home for about 30 minutes or so, their daughter would invariably ask her mother, “Mommy, when are they are going to go home.” Similarly, the first author’s young son once blurted out at the beginning of a meal at his grandmother’s house, after tasting the main course, “I tried it. I don’t like it. I don’t want anymore.”


TESL Reporter

In theories of language acquisition, pragmatics has often been de-emphasized and shuffled aside under the rubric of syntactic knowledge and has gone unrecognized as a significant knowledge component in language learning. That tendency has begun to change significantly, however. In recent theories of communicative competence in L2 teaching, pragmatics features prominently (Kasper, 1996). Dessalles’ (1998) theory is a good example of this growing emphasis, as it highlights the importance of pragmatic competence in equipping L2 learners to use language appropriate to particular communicative events, to use the relevant utterances necessary for being considered a competent conversant, and to interpret meaning contextually. A substantial and growing body of second language research has also focused on the importance of pragmatics. Much of that research has shown the need for specific and explicit classroom instruction in pragmatics. Tanaka (1997), for example, found that communicative effects of L2 learners’ speech acts resulted from more than L2 grammatical, phonological and lexical usage and concluded that L2 learners need to acquire pragmatic competence in the social rules of speaking in order to achieve communicative competence. Similarly, in a study of adult L2 learners, Koike (1997) found that despite an excellent command of the L2 grammar and lexicon, adult learners often fail to use pragmatically appropriate expressions. If pragmatic competence is vital to successful communication, then it is also vital that English teachers help their learners acquire or at...
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