Pragmatics and Its Implications in English Language Teaching

Post date: Mar 26, 2018 12:45:42 AM



We use language for meanings. As it is normal for us to crave for understanding, to let others know how we feel, there are times we hide our emotions for the purpose of protecting our egos and those of others. Many times we try to establish rapport yet we don’t succeed because we are misunderstood or we do misinterpret others.

This is due to pragmatics--- the study of how language is used to communicate within its situational context. Lee Flamand defined pragmatics as the field of language concerned with how context is involved in producing meaning in linguistics utterances. It is very clear in these two definitions that meaning of utterances in pragmatics depends on context or situation. Furthermore, as elaborated, context can mean inclusion of information drawn from the environment, the function of language in a speech community or the ways situations alter the ways the language functions. This last fact that I have just mentioned is related to speech acts--- consisting of locutionary act, illocutionary act and perlocutionary act where the first means the exact or literal utterances, the second means the purpose or intention of saying the language, and the third is the effect of the utterances to the person addressed. In speech acts, the situations have something to do with language functions. An example is the statement “the door is open.” Although everyone familiar with the language that the sentence is stating a fact, this sentence can have other meaning aside from linguistic meaning. What is said about the door is direct utterances called the locutionary act. But if the speaker said that with another purpose, then it is considered illocutionary act and illocutionary act depends on context or situations. If the teacher upon feeling the strong winds and rain said, “The door is open” and looked at a specific person, the teacher is not merely stating a fact. What does the teacher expect? Is she expecting that the student respond to her by saying “yes, the door is indeed open.” Of course the teacher wants the student to close the door because of the strong winds. If the student would close the door, he got the message and his act of closing the door is the perlocutionary act, the effect of the utterance.

Taken in another situation, “the door is open” can have a different speech act or purpose. For example, there is a group of students mapping out a plan for the election of student council election. They are in the room when one of the students whispers, “the door is open.” What does the student mean or what is the illocutionary act? Well, he is warning the other members to soften their voices for they will be heard by others and copy their idea concerning the election campaign. They want their plans to be a secret.

How does this theory of language apply to classroom teaching/learning? Both teachers and students must be smart in getting each other’s illocutionary act, the real intention of the spoken words. There are times teachers are misinterpreted of their real intentions because of using implicatures, as in the following example: teacher: upon seeing his student who was absent for weeks utter, “Oh Peter you’re alive, I thought you were dead.” Some students take this negatively, thinking that the teacher lacks concern and he was being embarrassed. But the truth is the teacher is really concerned but was just acting that way for the fear of being abused if he would use other utterances showing kindness. If the teacher is misunderstood, conflict arises.

To be able to make the two persons conversing understand one another, speakers should abide by what is called COOPERATIVE PRINCIPLE. This principle can be broken down into four maxims which enable the speaker to be cooperative in conversation. If one does not conform/ cooperate there would be communication breakdown. These are the maxim of quantity—providing enough information, not more than what is required, next is the maxim of quality—do not say what you believe is false and those which you lack evidences; the third is the maxim of relation or relevance--- be relevant in responding to a message and the fourth is the maxim of manner--- avoid obscurity of expressions, ambiguity (multiple meanings) and be brief and orderly.

The examples I have presented are clear manifestations of the violations of these maxims. We do that for the sake of politeness. We do not want to hurt other’s feelings so we ignore, answer a different thought of what is asked. This is a violation of maxim of relevance. For these cases implicatures is applied. Example: “Is my boyfriend good-looking?” RESPONSE: “Ah, he looks like a professional.” Another example, “Is my gown becoming to me?” Response: “The party starts at seven, let’s go.” This violation is called flouting a maxim. Your responses are not relevant to the questions but they are implicating or suggesting something.

For purposes like this, it’s good to flout a maxim but in many situations it is best to practice maxim of quality, quantity, and manner. Example of negative results of flouting a maxim is this: When your boyfriend keeps on nagging you about wedding and you replied, “Give me space” that means different to him. You might be accused of desiring to let go off the relationship. However, situational context is again considered. In my case, I had a boyfriend who was objected by most family members. He knew that and when I told him, “wag muna tayo pakasal, that was the go signal for him to let me go and he didn’t fight for our relationship. Because he knew that he was not favored that’s why he was easily discouraged. If stated the other way around, my words “wag muna tayo pakasal” would not be discouraging.

Aside from context or situation, sociolinguistics is also one of the concerns of researches as far as pragmatics is concerned. How language interacts with social norms, institutions, structures, how language varies between social groups such as between dialects, social classes genders and races, or in different institutional setting such as home vs. workplace. The example about the breakup of lovers because the man had other interpretations is an example of gender factor. Different institutional setting might give the example of a teacher form the University of the Philippines and a teacher from the province like Bataan Peninsula State University. There might be languages that a UP professor is allowed to use because the students are exposed to their kind of language but at BPSU, teachers here are very conservative especially the oldies. For social groups such as between dialects there might be words in one region that are not normally accepted in another region because they might mean foul or bad. In other words, culture has something to do with pragmatics, either cross- cultural (that of other races) and that of your own country but differ in dialects.

According to Hudson (in Huffar and Greyson, 1986) there is an important link between culture and speech acts theory. As she mentions, one needs to consider different cultures and specific cultural system and categories at times in describing or examining certain speech acts. An example was presented by Gee (1999). A western unmarried woman is addressed as an “old maid” by a senior male of non- western culture. That senior male might thought he was just being mildly critical because in their culture, saying those comments from a man his age shows gestures of sympathy /concern for her being single but the woman took fairly strong offense. The woman might fully understand the message but because of strong differences in cultural beliefs, she might not like what the man said for she thought of being insulted. The purpose of the man was not met and that is called cross- cultural pragmatic failure. Now if the purpose of the man is really to insult, this case is not called pragmatic failure but interference or cultural clash.

Now, how can a teacher deal with pragmatics to ensure effective and pleasant classroom scenario? First, make judgments on what is practically acceptable to them. You should know their culture. According to Thomas 1993,”openness to different pragmatic interpretations consistent to sensitivities of various cultures and social groups would be something to keep in mind.” Students should be exposed and be made to appreciate pragmatic strategies of relevance, manner, quality, quantity and politeness through implicatures which can be best determined by the situation or context. The teacher should not forget to emphasize that some terms in foreign countries might bring other meanings from other nationalities like the terms can/could vs. would which the latter sounds more imperative than request. In our very own setting it’s just like using “please and the imperative form which is less respectful.

Armed with all this knowledge, a teacher can connect and reach out his students and expect better motivation and outcomes in the teaching of the second language.