Acquiring Communicative Competence In Reading Classroom English Language Essay

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The notion of social acceptability and the correct use of language depends on what we understand of the norms of behavior in the target language. If the goals of language teaching are to enable the learner to communicate with both native and non-native speakers in English, then it is important that the norms of language behavior of interlocutors from a range of different cultures are also taught in the English language classroom. This means that the learners must not only be linguistically competent but also communicatively competent, having "the knowledge of linguistic and related communicative conventions that speakers must have to create and sustain conversational cooperation" (Gumperz 1982, p. 209). The differences in accepted norms of behavior are generally reflected in speech acts. The analysis of speech acts by Searle (1969) is of great interest in this connection because explicit criteria for the functions of speech acts are proposed. In a speech act the relationship between grammatical form and communicative function is accounted for by saying that each utterance is associated with a certain illocutionary force indicating device or illocutionary act potential (Searle, 1969). However, speech acts are not comparable across cultures (Schmidt and Richards, 1980). Culture-specific speech acts necessitate a familiarity with value systems. Only then can the illocutionary force behind the speech act be understood. Learners of English must be made consciously aware of the differences in certain speech acts when used by a native speaker of English and by a second language learner of the language because the values and cultural norms underlying the English language which a non-native speaker uses are not necessarily the same as those of a native speaker.

Kachru (1996, p.97) states that the new cultures in which English has been or is in the process of being nativised have their own necessities for politeness, apology, persuasive strategies, and so on. Consequently, there are many norms of speaking. Reading teachers must not only be aware of cultural and socio-linguistic differences underlying the communicative behavior of native and non-native users of English, but also transmit such awareness to their learners. This paper argues that a higher proficiency reader can be made aware of the values and cultural norms of a specific community through studying illustrations of speech acts in literary texts. It is further argued that the learner of English can make use of such texts to become aware of the way people speak in different cultures, even when the language used is the same, i.e. English. The reading teacher's role can and should include making language learners aware of such pragmatic differences in speech act realizations. To demonstrate how this can be done, examples of the speech act of giving and responding to compliments are given using excerpts from a literary text. A text about the experiences of an American traveling in Japan provides examples of differences in the way Japanese and Americans respond to compliments. These examples are analyzed to highlight the cultural differences that underlie them, and suggestions are given for raising students' awareness of these cultural differences to improve their communicative competence.

Compliments are primarily aimed at "maintaining, enhancing, or supporting the addressee's face" (Goffman, 1967). Compliment-giving and responding behaviour are used to negotiate social identities and relations. Consequently, inappropriate choice of responses can lead to a loss of face. Manes and Wolfson (1981) research the infinite number of indirect realizations of a compliment and Chick (1991) investigates the many realizations of the responses to compliments. Chick's (1996) study shows significant differences in the frequency and use of response strategies by different ethnic groups in the University of Natal, Durban campus. For instance, the Indian sample tended to give priority to the principle "avoid self-praise" over the principle of "agreeing with the speaker." In another study, Olshtain and Weinbach (1988) looked at 330 Israeli and 330 American responses to compliments and concluded that Israelis accepted a compliment with greater difficulty than Americans. The American subjects were likely to say "thank you" while the Israelis tended to apologise or to be surprised. Thus it can be seen that in some cultures an acceptance of the compliment is the norm, while in other cultures an acceptance would signify some derogatory connotations about the interlocutor who accepts the compliment.

Specifically regarding the Japanese, there is prototypical agreement among researchers that common responses to compliments are denial and avoidance. Saito and Beecan's (1977) study shows Japanese normative response to compliments is a mixture of mainly negative ways manifested by denial and avoidance, but may also at times use positive responses manifested by gratitude.

There has been much interest in the teaching of pragmatic transfer of speech acts across cultures. Olshtain and Cohen's (1991) article on the teaching of speech behaviour to non-native speakers of English defines a compliment as a speech act to express solidarity between speaker and hearer and to maintain social harmony. This goal will not be achieved if speakers/learners are not aware or made aware of the variations in response patterns across cultures. For example, Saito and Beecan's (1977) study showed that when responding to compliments, American learners of Japanese did not use avoidance as much as native speakers of Japanese. This minimal use of the avoidance strategy as compared to the common use of it by native speakers of Japanese could lead to misunderstanding, undermining the intended goal of maintaining social harmony. Findings like these demonstrate the need for teaching target language learners to recognize culturally-based differences in complimenting behavior.

Materials and Methods

Dunham (1992) describes a series of techniques for teaching complimenting behaviour, comparing how it is done in different cultures. The techniques include phrase lists and role play. However, one unmentioned technique is using selected target-language reading texts which contain extensive dialogue between members of different speech communities as a source for consciousness-raising of the many manifestations of the response patterns to compliments. Teachers can compile extracts of such dialogues for comparison and discussion.

This discussion shows how excerpts from a literary text, Bicycle Days by John Burnham Schwartz, were used in the classroom with the aim of showing different speech realizations for responses to compliments by English and Japanese speakers. Of course, different books can be used according to content and teaching goals. Regardless of which book is used, the role of the teacher is to alert and sensitize students to the differences in the communication styles and expectations of interlocutors from different cultures. As shown below, the selections from the text can be used as a springboard for further discussion and analysis. Links between such realizations and cultural norms can be made explicitly by the teacher or through awareness-raising activities by students. Analysis can help learners learn to adapt their responses to a compliment in such a way that it aligns with the value systems of the interlocutor.

Analysis of Text

Examples (presented below) from Bicycle Days, a record of a young American's sojourn in the social and business worlds of Japan, show many responses to compliments both by Japanese and American interlocutors which demonstrate cultural differences in responding to compliments.

Example 1

Alec (the American) to Mrs. Hasegawa (his Japanese hostess) (p. 42)

Alec: The sukiyaki is delicious

Mrs. Hasegawa: No, it is terrible.

Example 2

Alec to a Japanese woman (p. 166)

Alec: Your blouse is beautiful.

Japanese woman: No, it is nothing.

In examples 1 and 2 the Japanese disagrees with and denies the compliment. Humility and modesty, part of Japanese cultural norms, are reflected in such a denial. Negating a compliment is a deferential act aligned with cultural norms and value systems (Saito and Beecken, 1997). The reading teacher can then use these examples as a trigger to ask the following questions: "How would you react to such a compliment in L1? In L2?" and "Is the Japanese hostess rude in not responding to the response in example 3?".

Example 3

Alec to Mrs. Hasegawa (p. 248)

Alec: Your dress is very pretty, mother.

Mrs. Hasegawa: Eat.

Alec: The shrimp is delicious.

Mrs. Hasegawa: Eat the rice, too.

Example 4

Alec to a Japanese girl (p. 51)

Alec: Nice to meet you. Your English is terrific.

Japanese girl: Not true, but thanks anyway.

Example 5

Alec to a Japanese girl (p. 98)

Alec: You have a good voice.

Japanese: Thank you but I do not practice enough

Example 4 shows that with the young Japanese interlocutor Alec receives a negation of the compliment followed quickly by thanks, whereas in example 5, although the Japanese speaker initially begins by thanking, this response is quickly followed in the same turn by a demeaning of self ("I do not practice enough"). The compliment is downgraded in the response. However, in sharp contrast, Alec's American friend immediately responds to a compliment by thanking Alec in Example 6 (below).

Example 6

Alec to American friend (p. 176)

Alec: You look good, too.

American friend: Thanks.

Instead of doing the analysis for the students, the teacher could ask leading questions or a broader question like, "Is there any difference you see in the way the Japanese and the American respond to compliments? Compare examples 3-6."

Example 7

Alec with Japanese grandparents of his hostess (p. 152)

Grandfather: Grandmother makes the best nabe in Japan. The best.

Grandmother: It is not true Alec. My husband is only teasing me. Besides, Alec is helping me. He is a very good cook

Alec: (silent)

In example 7, the Japanese grandmother not only rejects her husband's compliment but in turn uses this as an opportunity to pay a compliment to Eric. Eric, the American, who would normally accept a compliment by thanking the speaker, ignores this compliment and does not respond to it. Perhaps he does not perceive it as a compliment but as a means used by the Japanese grandmother to reduce the compliment by deflecting the compliment to Alec.

The teacher could at this juncture also use this opportunity to discuss the different functions of compliments. What appears to be on the surface a compliment could be meant as a sarcastic comment, or a joke, or in this case perhaps a saving of Alec's face, if this was the intent of the Japanese host. The teacher could also use such dialogues to discuss the realisations of not only the responses but also the form and nature of the compliments themselves: the number of times people compliment, the kinds of things people compliment, the words used and how they differ from culture to culture.

Thus, it can be seen that in such an analysis, the teacher can use the text to make the language learner not only aware of cross-cultural differences in responses to compliments but also of the nature of a given compliment itself.


This paper advocates an additional dimension to the role of the reading teacher. The teacher has to make advanced language learners aware of cross-cultural differences in communication. Responses to compliments and other speech acts vary across cultures. Responses to compliments include acceptance of the compliment, deflecting and even ignoring it. The language teacher in the reading classroom can make use of appropriate reading texts as a starting point to such cultural awareness. While this paper provides examples of the responses to only one speech act, compliments, literary texts can be used to sensitize the more proficient language learner to socio-cultural ramifications of a range of speech acts.