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Can Pragmatic Competence be Taught?

Info: 2836 words (11 pages) Essay
Published: 27th Oct 2021 in Languages

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Pragmatic Competence and Implicit and Explicit Teaching

It is a common occurrence to hear about English learners not being able to get their point across in conversations, and subsequently being misunderstood as rude. This breakdown in communication between a new speaker of English and a native can be traced to a lack of pragmatic competence on the side of the learner. Academic discourse in this field has mentioned various thoughts on what pragmatic competence is, with Garcia (2004, p. 1) noting it as the 'ability to use language appropriately according to the communicative situation'. Furthermore, Garcia (2004) goes on to cite distinct differences between the skills needed by a L2 learner in the form of linguistic competence and pragmatic competence, with the former being the knowledge of grammar and structure, while the latter concerns itself with the speakers' ability to understand social conventions and thus choose their words to suit appropriate contexts. Moreover, Crystal (1985) mentions how pragmatics is the study of language from the point of view of the users, looking with particular interest at the choices and effects their use of language has on their communicational counterparts. Likewise, Kasper (1993) notes pragmatics is the study of a person's comprehension and use of words in context (Kasper, 1993). Aitchison (2003) defined pragmatics as dealing with 'how speakers use language in ways which cannot be predicted from linguistic knowledge' (p 9), suggesting that there are ways of understanding someone outside the realm of grammar and syntax alone.

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There are differences in thought as to whether the teaching of pragmatic competence should be based on either an implicit or explicit learning style. Implicit teaching is based on students learning without conscious attention or awareness (Brown, 2007). In this process, learners are exposed to various input and they deduce underlying content. In other words, they are not told specifically about certain points. Explicit instruction on the other hand involves formalised content where like grammar learning, there is specific emphasis on students being told about learning this content in class (Kaburise, 2014). Therefore, the difference lies in the belief of whether a language learner can naturally absorb the skills of understanding social contexts and using appropriate language, without it being part of the linguistic focus of the classroom, which would otherwise be the case with explicit teaching.

This essay will argue using the definition of Kasper & Rose (1999), that learners of English must be able to use their linguistic resources (pragmalinguistics), alongside the ability to do this in a contextually appropriate fashion (sociopragmatics). Therefore, this essay will use case study evidence and demonstrate that indeed the sociopragmatic understanding for language learners is imperative and should be supplemented alongside their linguistic learning.

The importance of pragmatic competence in the classroom

Kasper & Schmidt (1996) explain that learners show significant variation from native speakers in how they understand and use language in meeting people, ending conversations and managing how long answers should be. Being able to maintain a conversation in English, whilst being socially appropriate cannot simply be accomplished by being grammatically correct and simply having the linguistic ability to talk. Rather, it is a hurdle jumping activity which requires newly qualified speakers to understand the underlying rules governing conversations, such as when to use the correct form of address, when to use specific prompts to elicit further information or to simply know when the conversation has 'come to an end'.

The following examples illustrate the point above and the overall importance and distinction between being linguistically competent (pragmalinguistics) and pragmatically competent (sociopragmatics).

A Ladies and gentlemen, I'm delighted to introduce to you a very pretty girl, Miss Brown. She is a very good teacher from the USA…

B I can't do it very good.

(He, 1997, p. 202-203)

Sentence A is grammatically accurate and linguistically appropriate, whereby the user is adhering to the syntax and tense rules of the language. However, there is significant social inappropriateness, which arises when he subjectively describes his opinion of the lady, which in this case is highly irrelevant, and rude. There is no underlying malice intended, however, the principle has shown an inept grasp on being pragmatically competent. Sentence B on the other hand, shows that the speaker does not surpass any social boundaries and adheres to sociopragmatics, but not as tightly to pragmalinguistics. Furthermore, even though the grammar is inaccurate, the meaning would not be lost and the listener would understand what is being meant. This example demonstrates the vital importance of pragmatic competence, similar to what Lamb and Reinders (2005) note as the process of developing conversational skills by being able to decodify, infer and behave according to the respective societies rules. This demonstrates that a learner of English must not only ensure linguistic success in a conversation, but also success in being socially appropriate and simply, the appreciation of when specific words can and cannot be used.

Implicit or explicit teaching?

This idea of L2 learners being able to decodify and infer specific societal ideals and norms is a difficult task, as languages are not homogenous and can be made even harder as learners have been seen to be socialised into the knowledge associated with their own language (Lamb and Reinders, 2005). Rasekh, Rasekh and Fatahi (2004) therefore note that there is a pedagogical right for language learners to have pragmatically appropriate input from teachers, especially as they do not have a chance to encounter 'real life' conversations outside of the classroom. The essay will now look at studies which will demonstrate the success of explicit and implicit teaching strategies in the classroom in two specific speech acts; giving and receiving compliments and the act of requesting.

Giving and receiving compliments

Falasi (2007) conducted a study where the pragmatic transfer of giving and responding to compliments were explored between Arabic learners of English and native speakers of American English. Results showed that Arabic learners did not produce target like responses to compliments, suggesting that teachers need to build their sociocultural and sociopragmatic understanding through explicit teaching methods, subsequently developing their understanding of the appropriateness of interactions and rules. This study highlighted the need for explicit instruction in the classroom, whereby, authentic materials using real life examples of conversations which could help students appreciate different communication styles. Role plays and team-teaching were other potential explicit instruction strategies that could help students become immersed in the type of conversations they might face and help to further cement it in their daily communication (Falasi, 2007). This study demonstrates the potential success of explicit instruction and the importance of making students consciously aware of what they need to understand and learn, further demonstrating that via this method, they will become familiar with the social appropriateness of giving and responding to compliments.

Ebadi and Pourzanndi (2015) analysed L2 learners giving and responding to compliments, by splitting 56 intermediate EFL learners into three groups; control, explicit and implicit group. They were all given a test in which they had respond to compliments as well as evaluate their own knowledge of appropriate responses, and were tested at the end of the three week study, and results showed that both implicit and explicit instruction developed the learners ability in terms of compliments. The study noted that irrelevant of the type of instruction, both explicit and implicit instruction helped develop pragmatic competence in language learners. Overall, this essay contends that explicit instruction can be a better development strategy in the EFL classroom and that students would really engage and benefit from more authentic input into the classroom; be that from a native speaker in person or even 'real life' materials, both of which will undoubtedly enrich their learning experiences.

Request strategies

Data from Ariana et al (2017) was based on the ability of students' awareness and production of request strategies. Thirty students with the same level of proficiency were divided into explicit and implicit groups. Students listened to excerpts from the book Tactics for Listening, with the focus on request making strategies. In comparison, the explicit group were given written metapragmatic explanations and direct awareness-raising tasks, whereas, the implicit group were only provided with implicit awareness-raising tasks and no explanations. Results found that both groups did improve their understanding of making requests, however, the explicit group did outperform the other in terms of the students ability to make requests. Likewise, a study by Maeda (2011) examined the implicit and explicit teaching to using 'please' in the area of request strategies. The purpose of this study was to investigate the extent to which the respective teaching method used, affected the students' understanding of the use of please. Amongst the 146 second year high school students, the post-test scores showed that the explicit teaching groups' scores were statistically significant over the implicit teaching groups.

Iraji et al (2018) explored the potential facilitative impact of explicit and implicit instruction on Iranian EFL students' use of the request speech act in daily conversations. In this study, fourty upper-intermediate Iranian EFL learners were randomly divided into one experimental and one control group. Like the studies above, the experimental group were given explicit instructions and the control group were given the same instructions and materials through the implicit method. Following this, all the students received the same validated academic Multiple-Choice Discourse Completion Test (MDCT). The results indicated that teaching pragma linguistic features explicitly could improve the interlanguage pragmatic knowledge of the participants in the experimental group.

This study wanted to highlight the teachers' role in aiding their students in becoming more pragmatically aware through providing more explicit instruction and practice in class. This explicit instruction will help students become more able and independent in their ability to understand how they are using their language in various social situations. Without doubt, further study is required, and the study above implores further research to be conducted which analyse either only males or females to see whether there are any significant variations between which approach is better, dependent on the students' sex. They also suggest that future studies could collect qualitative data, for example, interviews, to find out, how students themselves feel in regards to the different approaches.

These studies do not represent a unanimous result about the appropriateness or success of either an implicit or explicit mode of teaching. Rather, it shows that some aspects of pragmatics are easier to grasp than others. For example, both implicitly and explicitly taught students improved in their understanding and grasp of giving and receiving compliments, which shows that perhaps students found this type of pragmatic speech act easier to follow and understand. On the other hand, students struggled with just an implicitly taught approach in being pragmatically competent with making requests. Overall, this evidence does suggest that pragmatic competence can indeed be taught, however, the difficulty of pragmatic skills and speech acts is not all the same and can vary, which suggests that students would benefit significantly more from an explicit taught route in the class.

Pragmatic competence cannot be absorbed naturally

Case study evidence in relation to requests and compliments have shown that explicit teaching can help to significantly increase a students' awareness and ability in relation to some speech acts. Falasi (2007) demonstrated that explicit instruction can benefit student learners greatly, especially if resources like textbooks are improved to expose students to more real life examples of daily conversations as well as being given the chance to cement their knowledge by 'teaching' others. Being pragmatically competent is undoubtedly a vital part of a students' language learning experience, as they will experience difficulty with sociopragmatics, even though they might be proficient with pragmalinguistics. Evidence from He (1997) demonstrated that language users can be unaware of the social boundaries that exist in society and showed that English learners need to narrow this gulf that often exists between sociopragmatics and pragmalinguistics.It is difficult to categorically choose between either an implicit or explicit approach, because as shown by the compliment case studies, the approach chosen was irrelevant and students were seen to improve their understanding of the speech act. Nevertheless, there exists a more broader issues, which relates to the overall importance that is held for pragmatic competence. This essay has shown that being pragmatically competent is an indispensable skill that English learners need have, alongside their linguistic competence and ability. As such, if teachers are simply using an implicit method, it is difficult to imagine students being able to absorb it naturally. If the importance of pragmatic competence is to remain at the forefront of language learning, it needs to be taught in the same way as other linguistic content, because only then will students gain the broader nuanced knowledge they need when using the language in the real world.


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Ariana, N., Ahmadi Shirazi, M., & Mousavi Nadoushani, S. M. (2017). An explicit/implicit lead to producing requests: Eliciting learners' awareness or soliciting metapragmatic knowledge.

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