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The main goal of language learning is communication. Cross-cultural communication sometimes breaks down in real-life conversations, and the problems that occur are not always due to the non-native speaker's errors in syntax, pronunciation, but also due to their pragmatic incompetence. When interlocutors lack pragmatic competence, it can often lead to pragmatic failure. In other words, they lack the necessary knowledge to conform to all rules and norms of the target language and to communicate effectively in that language.
The present paper deals with pragmatic failure, the phenomenon in pragmatics for which many different terms have been used by linguistics. Problematic talk, miscommunication, communication breakdown, troubled discourse, pragmatic errors - all these terms refer to critical moments of talk exchange.
Each conversation implies that there interlocutors who cooperate under a principle of cooperation and by the rules of conversational maxims. However, when interlocutors do not share the same cultural background and pragmatic ground rules, these differences between them may easily lead to a break-down in communication.
The present paper explores some possible causes of miscommunication within the frames of pragmatics. It deals primarily with communicative competence and pragmatic transfer in cross-cultural communication. Studies about communicative competence and language transfer are of great significance for the research and explanation of the occurrence of pragmatic failure. Linguists such as Thomas, Kasper, Dash, and many others have done important work in this field of linguistics and they have greatly contributed to the development of the scope of pragmatics on the whole.
Pragmatics is the study of language which deals with the meaning of linguistic utterances. It is the study of communicative action which includes not only speech acts but also participation in discourse and interaction.
2.1. Defining Pragmatics
Many conflicting definitions of pragmatics have arisen in the course of the study of that field of linguistics, and David Crystal notes that no coherent pragmatic theory has yet been achieved. Nevertheless, many useful and refined definitions of pragmatics have been provided, and one of it was produced by Crystal himself. In his Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, Crystals states that pragmatics is
[â€¦] the study of language from the point of view of users, especially of the choices they make, the constraints they encounter in using language in social interaction and the effects their use of language has on other participants in an act of communication. (Crystal 2005: 364)
With this definition Crystal proposes that pragmatics is the study of language use in the sociocultural context. Similar to that is one of the several definitions proposed by Steven Levinson, where he says that "[p]ragmatics is the study of the ability of language users to pair sentences with the contexts in which they would be appropriate" (Levinson, 1983: 24).
Kasper (1997) defines pragmatics as the field of knowledge which enables speakers to use language appropriately in order to achieve mutual comprehension.
One of the most important contributors in the field of linguistics, Geoffrey Leech, argues that semantics and pragmatics have one thing in common, namely, they are both concerned with meaning. However, the way they deal with meaning is different. Taking the user of the language into account is of great importance while trying to understand the difference between the two neighbouring fields of linguistics.
In his work on pragmatics, Levinson (1983) gives a number of definitions of pragmatics followed by his comments on the strengths and weaknesses of each of them. In connection to that, he tries to clarify the distinction between semantics and pragmatics, so he suggests a proposal which states that "[â€¦] semantics should be concerned with meaning out of context, or non-context-dependent meaning, and pragmatics with meaning in context" (Levinson 1983: 20).
Leech (1983) introduces his idea of complementarism between semantics and pragmatics. He distinguishes between three possible ways of describing the relationship: semanticism (pragmatics inside semantics), pragmaticism (semantics inside pragmatics) and complementarism (pragmatics and semantics complementing each other).
Sentence-meaning vs. Utterance-meaning
In the theory of linguistics, the distinction between sentence-meaning and utterance-meaning is very common. To distinguish between sentence-meaning and utterance-meaning, it is necessary to separate sentences from utterances.
A sentence is a grammatical unit of language, and its construction should agree with the rules of grammar. An utterance can be defined as a unit of communication which has certain communicative functions. During communication utterances have in most cases the same form as grammatically well-formed sentences. As far as meaning is concerned, the meaning of a sentence is isolated from the context, whereas utterance meaning is related to the context under which a communication takes place. Utterance meaning is in many situations based on the sentence meaning. However, it contains more information than the sentence meaning because the utterance meaning is considered to be the pairing of the sentence meaning and the context.
In relation to this, Levinson (1983: 21) refers to pragmatics as "the study of relations between language and context that are basic to an account of language understanding". He explains that in order to understand an utterance it is not enough to know the meaning of the words uttered. Understanding an utterance also involves making inferences which is important for linking of what is said to what is mutually assumed or what has been mentioned before.
Context plays an important role in the study of meanings in pragmatics. Without context, it is almost impossible to determine the meaning that the speaker intends to convey.
There are various interpretations of context by different linguists. John Lyons discusses context in relation to knowledge, so he states that in order for a person to able to judge the appropriateness of an utterance, she/he must possess certain knowledge. Lyons (1979) lists six types of knowledge:
Each of the participants must know his role and status.
The participants must know where they are in space and time.
The participants must be able to categorize the situation in terms of its degree of formality.
The participants must know what medium is appropriate to the situation.
The participants must know how to make their utterances appropriate to the subject-matter and the importance of subject-matter as a determinant in the selection of one dialect or one language rather than another.
The participants must know how to make their utterance appropriate to the province or domain to which the situation belongs.
Thomas and Leech (1990: 101) give the following definition of context:
[â€¦] the domain of pragmatics is to be identified with a SPEECH SITUATION including not only the utterance (what is said), the utterer (speaker) and utteree (addressee), but the shared knowledge of these interactants both particular (about the immediate situation) and general. This shared knowledge is often referred to as the CONTEXT of the utterance.
Within pragmatics meaning is described with relation to the speech acts made by the speaker and thus in relation to the hearer. This point of view is represented by John Austin and John Searle. The following chapter in this paper illustrates some of Austin's ideas on the topic.
2.4. John Austin
J.L.Austin, J.R.Searle and H.P.Grice are three philosophers whose work has greatly contributed to the development of linguistic pragmatics. They were interested in the use of words in communication and in the way language conveys meaning. Austin's series of lectures delivered at Harward University, which were later published in a book How to Do Things with Words (1962), had a significant influence on the study of language and meaning. He was the first one to study speech acts, dealing with the distinction between constatives and performatives, and making a classification of locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary acts.
Austin had pointed out that not all sentences could be true or false. Such sentences for which truth conditions are not relevant are a special class of utterances, and he called them performatives. To distinguish them from the constatives, he explains that performatives do not describe actions but have to do with performing them. To illustrate his point, Austin gives the following example of a performative:
'I do.' (uttered during the wedding ceremony)
For the given utterance it cannot be said whether it is true or false, and neither that it describes what someone is doing. The meaning of such a sentence has to be identified with the performance of an action (here 'marrying').
Taking his ideas of speech acts further, Austin introduces another important distinction. He claimed that an utterance could at the same time be associated with three kinds of action:
(1) locutionary act (or locution): the act of uttering some expression with a particular sense and reference.
(E.g. He said to me 'Shoot her!' meaning by 'shoot' shoot and by 'her' her.)
(2) illocutionary act (or illocution): the act performed in, or by virtue of, the performance of the locution,
(E.g. he urged, or requested, or invited me to shoot her.) - such that we may say that what was said had the force of that illocution (e.g. of a request, or an invitation).
(3) perlocutionary act (or perlocution); the act performed by means of what is said:
(E.g. He persuaded me to shoot her).
(Thomas and Leech, 1990: 95)
The locutionary act is the act of saying something and meaning it, so it belongs to the field of semantics. The perlocutionary act does not deal with the meaning of an utterance but with the effect it has. Moreover, its force depends not only on the uttered words but also on factors such as social, physical and psychological (Thomas and Leech, 1990). Austin was concerned with the illocutionary act. He describes it as something that is done with the act of producing an utterance. In other words, it is the question of how an utterance should be understood, whether as a suggestion or a warning. So, Austin referred to speech acts as having illocutionary force.
Besides J. Austin, H. P. Grice was another great philosopher who contributed a lot to the explanation of communicative activities by means of language. He advanced the theory of cooperative principle about which there will be more words in the chapter that follows.
3. Cooperative Principle - H. P. Grice
Communication requires speakers to cooperate, and thus in a mutually determined and accepted context. When speakers communicate, they are expected to obey a set of norms and principles. The Cooperative Principle has been developed by the works of the philosopher H. Paul Grice (1975). Grice is concerned with the processes of generating meaning and understanding intended meaning. The principle states: "Make your 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." The Cooperative Principle can be expanded into four maxims:
The maxim of Quality:
Try to make your contribution one that is true, specifically:
do not say what you believe to be false;
do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.
The maxim of Quantity:
Make your contribution as informative as is required for the current purposes of the exchange;
Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.
The maxim of Relation:
Make your contribution relevant.
The maxim of Manner:
Be perspicuous, and specifically:
We use these maxims in everyday conversation, and we need them in order to communicate and avoid communication breakdown. When we say an utterance, or hear it, we assume that it is true and relevant, following the rules of cooperation. However, not always do utterances conform to these maxims. Sometimes the speaker produces an utterance which, on the surface, does not seem to be appropriate, but it still contains a meaning that has to be inferred. In Grice's terms, the speaker has 'flouted' a maxim, and what is created as a result is called a conversational implicature.
Grice's Cooperative Principle is just a description of the way people construct and convey meanings. However, he does not assume that people are inevitably relevant, truthful and informative in what they say. In addition, Grice explains in what ways speakers do not follow the maxims and the principle. Hence, a participant in a conversation may "quietly violate" a maxim, he may "opt out from the operation both of the maxim and the Cooperative Principle", or he may deliberately "flout" a maxim (Grice, 1991: 30). The last instance of not conforming to the maxims allows Grice to introduce the concept of a conversational implicature.
4. Communicative Competence
Canale and Swain (1980) define communicative competence as consisting of at least three competencies: grammatical, sociolinguistic, and strategic competence.
Grammatical competence includes knowledge of lexical items and of rules of morphology, syntax, sentence-grammar semantics, and phonology. Sociolinguistic competence consists of two sets of rules - sociocultural rules and discourse rules. The first of the two refer to the appropriateness of an utterance in a specific social context, and the latter rules refer to the knowledge of rules governing cohesion and coherence. Strategic competence consists of verbal and non-verbal communication strategies that may be used by a speaker or hearer in order to compensate a lack in knowledge.
More recent research on communicative competence was done by Bachman (1990) who suggested the division of language knowledge into organizational and pragmatic competence. He argues that pragmatic competence is comprised of illocutionary competence and sociolinguistic competence, and gives the following definitions:
While illocutionary competence enables us to use language to express a wide range of functions, and to interpret the illocutionary force of utterances or discourse, the appropriateness of these functions and how they are performed varies from one language use context to the next [â€¦].
Sociolinguistic competence is the sensitivity to, or control of the conventions of language use that are determined by the features of the specific language use context; it enables us to perform language functions in ways that are appropriate to that context. (Bachman 1990: 94)
Figure 1 illustrates the components of language competence from Bachman's point of view. However, he points out that this diagram should be seen only as a visual metaphor and not as a theoretical model.
organizational competence pragmatic competence
grammatical textual illocutionary sociolinguistic
competence competence competence competence
Voc. Morph. Synt. Phon/Graph. Cohes. Rhet.Org. Ideat. Manip. Heur. Imag. Sensit. Sensit. Sensit. Cult.Refs.&
Funcs. Funcs. Funcs. Funcs. toDial. toReg. toNat. Fig.ofSpeech
Figure 1 Components of Language Competence
The components appear as separate and independent but it is the actual interaction between them that characterizes communicative language use.
5. Pragmatic Failure
In their work on miscommunication, Coupland, Wieman and Giles (1991: 3) give an observation about communication in which they state that "[â€¦] language use and communication are [â€¦] pervasively and even intrinsically flawed, partial, and problematic. [â€¦] communication is itself miscommunicative [â€¦]".
The concept of pragmatic failure was first introduced by Jenny Thomas who defined the term as "the inability to understand what is meant by what is said" (Thomas in Bolton & Kachru 2006: 22).
Pragmatic failure does not have to do with performance errors in terms of morphology, phonology, syntax or semantics, but it deals with mistakes which fail to fulfil communication because of incompatible expressions or inappropriate style. Although uttered sentences are grammatically correct, they may be considered as violating the social norms and appropriateness.
In her work on cross-cultural pragmatic failure, Thomas considers not only nativeÂ-non-native communication, but any communication between two people who do not share a common linguistic or cultural background. Even though pragmatics has very little to do with grammar, Thomas suggests that pragmatic failure is easy to overcome by teaching pragmatic competence as part of the grammar.
5.1. Pragmalinguistic and Sociopragmatic Failure
According to Thomas (in Bolton & Kachru 2006: 32), there are two types of pragmatic failure, namely pragmalinguistic failure and sociolinguistic failure. She gives the following definitions:
Pragmalinguistic failure [â€¦] occurs when the pragmatic force mapped by S onto a given utterance is systematically different from the force most frequently assigned to it by native speakers of the target language, or when speech act strategies are inappropriately transferred from L1 to L2.
Sociopragmatic failure [â€¦] refers to the social conditions placed on language in use [â€¦] while pragmalinguistic failure is basically a linguistic problem, caused by differences in the linguistic encoding of pragmatic force, sociopragmatic failure stems from cross-culturally different perceptions of what constitutes appropriate linguistic behaviour.
The distinction between these two types of errors is important in order to show the opposition between the norms and beliefs related to the language and those related to the society. According to Thomas, pragmalinguistic failures are likely to occur when speakers inappropriately transfer speech act strategies from their mother tongue to the target language. In this way they create a different pragmatic force then in their first language, which can often lead to an error. In addition, pragmalinguistic failures may occur when speakers inappropriately transfer structures which are semantically/syntactically equivalent. As an illustration of such language use, Thomas gives an example of the transference of Russian term 'koneÅ¡no' ('of course') instead of 'da' ('yes') to express an affirmative:
A: Is it a good restaurant?
B: Of course. [Gloss (for Russian S): Yes, (indeed) it is. (For English H): What a stupid question!]
(Thomas in Bolton & Kachru 2006: 36)
In English 'of course' often implies that something is obvious, so in this kind of situation it can sound impolite and insulting since it is used as an answer to a 'genuine' question.
Sociopragmatic failure, on the other hand, originates from different cross-cultural evaluations of what is appropriate language use. It is the result of lack of awareness of the norms and socio-cultural conventions of the target language. Thomas (Bolton & Kachru 2006: 38) explains that "[s]ociopragmatic decisions are social before they are linguistic", and that is where the main distinction between pragmalinguistic and sociopragmatic failure is.
Given that taboos are culture-specific, typical sociopragmatic failure is made when a foreign speaker talks about something which is taboo in that country and allowed in his own country. Further example of such an error is asking a stranger in Great Britain about his income, religion, or political beliefs.
Thomas (in Bolton and Kachru 2006: 41) argues that a pragmatic failure may occur if pragmatic principles such as politeness are in conflict with other values, such as truthfulness or sincerity. Those conflicts occur if speakers are unaware that
In different cultures, different pragmatic 'ground rules' may be invoked.
Relative values such as 'politeness', 'perspicuousness', may be ranked in a different order by different cultures.
It is important to point out that what Thomas calls 'pragmatic ground rules' are not the same in every country and every culture, and people need to be taught that these rules do not operate in the same way in all languages. She illustrates this with the expression 'We really must get together sometime', which is considered only a polite and meaningless expression by Americans, whereas non-Americans often understand it as a real invitation having its literal meaning.
On the whole, it must be stated that the absolute distinction between pragmalinguistic and sociopragmatic failure cannot be drawn because they both belong to the field of pragmatic failure, and they certainly overlap to some degree.
Apart from these two categories of pragmatic failure, Philip Riley (in Oleksy ed. 1989: 235-237) recognizes another two categories which he labels 'inchoative' and 'non-verbal'. He argues that even though these categories have received attention from linguists, they have not been accepted as separate categories of pragmatic failure.
5.2. Pragmatic Transfer
One of the reasons for miscommunication to take place is negative pragmatic transfer in cross-cultural communication. By transfer pragmaticians mean difference of language use due to native language influence.
In their work on pragmatic transfer, Å½egarac and Pennington (in Spencer-Oatey, 2004: 166) offer a definition which says that "[p]ragmatic transfer is the transfer of pragmatic knowledge in situations of intercultural communication". They point to the notion of mental sets, which are largely determined by culture-specific knowledge. Therefore, when in a communication interactants from different cultural backgrounds are unaware of the differences in their respective mental sets, misunderstandings are likely to occur.
There are two suggested levels at which negative pragmatic transfer can occur. Kasper (1992) proposes these two aspects on the basis of Leech's distinction between pragmalinguistics and sociopragmatics. Therefore, negative pragmatic transfer can take place at the pragmalinguistic level. Typical examples of pragmalinguistic transfer are literal translations of expressions that do not exist in the target language, or the use of too direct or indirect strategies which are common in the mother tongue but can be perceived as inappropriate in the target language. When negative pragmatic transfer occurs on the sociopragmatic level, this means that the pragmatic rules of the target language are violated because the speaker's and listener's expectations of the sociocultural context are different.
According to Thomas (Thomas in Bolton and Kachru 2006: 26) pragmatic failure occurs if:
H perceives the force of S's utterance as stronger or weaker than S intended s/he should perceive it;
H perceives as an order an utterance which S intended s/he should perceive as a request;
H perceives S's utterance as ambivalent where S intended no ambivalence;
S expects H to be able to infer the force of his/her utterance, but is relying on a system of knowledge or beliefs which S and H do not, in fact, share.
Fillmore (in Fisiak 1984: 129-130) gives examples of two anecdotes dealing with the expression "I thought you'd never ask" which he refers to as 'the American English formula'. The expression is just a routine formula which, if not perceived that way, may be taken as an insult by the hearer who does not share the same cultural background as the speaker. The first example is the anecdote when a European man asked an American woman to dance, to what she replied in a playful manner "I thought you'd never ask". The man was irritated by such an answer and he withdrew his invitation. The other anecdote is about a European hostess who offered an American guest something to drink, to what he playfully replied "I thought you'd never ask". The hostess perceived his reply as an insult and the guest was asked to leave the party. What happened in these two examples is the wrong understanding of the force of the speakers' utterances on part of the hearers.
Teaching Pragmatic Competence
As has already been pointed out, inappropriate speech may cause a non-native speaker to appear unintentionally rude and uncultured, even if she/he is very fluent in the second language. Hymes (1964) argues that even most advanced foreign language speakers often lack the necessary knowledge to correctly use the sociocultural rules and norms of the target language. Since the rules and norms differ from culture to culture, language learners have to acquire pragmatic competence in order to communicate effectively in their target language.
According to many linguists, pragmatics has long been a neglected area in second language acquisition (SLA) research. Thomas (in Bolton and Kachru 2006) argues that leaving pragmatics aside in second language teaching is mainly because pragmatic description has still not obtained the precision level of grammar, describing linguistic competence, and because pragmatics is a delicate area and it is not still very clear how it can be taught.
Jung (2001) proposes the following five abilities as an answer to the question what learners have to acquire in order to be pragmatically competent:
the ability to perform speech acts
the ability to convey and interpret non-literal meanings
the ability to perform politeness functions
the ability to perform discourse functions
the ability to use cultural knowledge
According to Judd (1999), techniques for developing second language pragmatic competence can be divided into three following categories:
cognitive-awareness raising activities, such as presentation, discussion, and pragmatic-consciousness-raising techniques;
receptive-skills development by using teacher generated materials or natural data;
productive-skills teaching through role playing.
Arguing in favour of teaching students to understand the way pragmatic principles operate in other cultures, Thomas (in Bolton and Kachru, 2006: 29) states that
[i]t is not the responsibility of the language teacher qua linguist to enforce Anglo-Saxon standards of behaviour, linguistic or otherwise. Rather, it is the teacher's job to equip the student to express her/himself in exactly the way s/he chooses to do - rudely, tactfully, or in an elaborately polite manner. What we want to prevent is her/his being unintentionally rude or subservient.
Pragmatic failures can be produced either intentionally or unintentionally. This paper has looked into some instances of unintentional communication breakdown and their possible causes. Cross-cultural communication is often marked by pragmatically inappropriate expressions which result from the speaker's lack of communicative competence. The term cross-cultural communication is used here to refer to any verbal interaction between two people who do not share the same cultural or linguistic background.
Lack of pragmatic competence, as well as negative pragmatic transfer, has been considered the primary source of miscommunication in interactions. Different cultures have different sets of linguistic and social rules and norms, and if the speaker does not possess the necessary knowledge of them, he may not be able to express himself appropriately, and may misinterpret the intended pragmatic force of an utterance.
In order to avoid unpleasant situations and unintended rude behaviour, many linguists argue that it is important to raise the pragmatic awareness of students. Kasper and Thomas believe that the language teacher has the responsibility to point out to possible consequences of certain linguistic behaviour. Moreover, they stress the importance of making foreign language speakers able to express themselves in the way they want to, and that is why pragmatic competence is so significant factor in intercultural communication.