August 2008. Volume 3 Issue 2
Pragmatic Conventions and Intercultural Competence
Caroline C. Hwang
National Taipei University of Technology, Taiwan
Caroline C. Hwang received her Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin. She has lived for over twenty years in English-speaking countries, teaching at the University of Texas at Austin, University of Houston, and Rice University in the U.S. and working in the U.K. as the editor-in-chief of a bilingual periodical. Dr. Hwang is currently a full-time associate professor at National Taipei University of Technology. Since 2000, she has been on the Editorial Board of CNN Bilingual Interactive Magazine and The CAVE English Teaching Journal Magazine. She has also coached translators in the Chinese cities of Shanghai and Tianjin.
A number of years ago a Japanese student in the U.S. was killed because he was unable to understand the meaning of the exclamation “Freeze!” This tragedy is an extreme example that demonstrates the unfortunate consequences that can result when EFL speakers fail to grasp the full meaning behind real-world English expressions. Such misinterpretation commonly yields the gap between real-world English and textbook English. For these reasons, it is imperative that EFL classrooms expose learners to English as it is used in the real world and by real speakers, i.e. English pragmatics. Several types of pragmatic conventions that are commonly used in socio-cultural contexts (e. g. politeness, metaphors/idioms, euphemisms/hyperbole, lateral thinking, etc.) are discussed in an attempt to raise awareness of the linguistic intuition of native English-speakers. Most importantly, it is argued that authentic texts are needed in the EFL classroom to make students more aware of the realities of language use.
Key words: authentic, schema, pragmatics, communication, intercultural competence
Many people still remember the tragedy that took place in the U.S. in 1992 when Hattori Yoshihiro, a Japanese exchange student, went to a Halloween party at a friend’s house. Yoshihiro, who was wearing a Halloween costume, did not exactly remember his friend’s address and approached a neighboring house. Rodney Peairs, the owner of this house, was alarmed when Yoshishiro appeared on his doorstep, and the homeowner pulled out a gun. He yelled “Freeze!” several times. Unfortunately, Mr. Peairs was completely unaware that behind the mask was somebody who would only have understood “Stop!” as a command to cease all motion; “Freeze!” was incomprehensible to Yoshihiro. The exchange student kept walking, and Peairs fired. Yoshihiro, who had gone through years of English studies, was killed because he was familiar only with textbook English.
Each language comes with a variety of culturally specific concepts and expressions as well as contextually motivated usages. Its native speakers share a common internal capacity to conceptualize the world in a similar manner. On the other hand, its learners, even advanced ones who are capable of producing complex combinations of grammatical forms and lexical items, can fail to comprehend or convey messages because of pragmatic incompetence. Misconceptions and communication breakdowns are often brought about by cross-cultural discourse differences (Tyler 1995; Bardovi-Harlig & Dörnyei 1998; Boxer 2002; Pohl 2004) because the pragmatic conventions of native speakers and L2 learners may differ substantially (Walters 1979; Fraser, Rintell, & Walters 1980; Blum-Kulka, House, & Kasper 1989; Cohen 1996).
Over the years I have observed innumerable incidents related to pragmatic mismatch between English speakers and Chinese/Taiwanese EFL learners. Since the examples to follow could easily escape native-speaking English teachers who are unfamiliar with the learners’ L1, these insights prove informative for EFL teachers, especially those teaching in Asian countries. By bringing English pragmatics to learners’ attention, we can raise their awareness of how the language is used in actual socio-cultural contexts (Schmidt 1993; Kasper & Schmidt 1996).
II. The Importance of Pragmatics in EFL Pedagogy
Within the field of linguistics in the past twenty years, a rapidly growing interest has developed in pragmatics, the study of how language is used in the real world. The number of works that address pragmatics is now vast, and the issues discussed by these works are multifarious. Such issues include contexts, connotations, references, functions, implicatures, inferences, etc.; the bearing that these linguistic aspects have on the relationship between words/expressions and their meanings is developed and conventionalized. The socio-culturally conditioned meanings are highly predictable to native speakers, who intuitively know how discourse should flow in a given situation. However, it is difficult for people from different cultures, who are unfamiliar with these referential meanings, to acquire this type of intuition (Bouton 1992). As a result, interaction across cultures can be problematic. The grammatically-correct but pragmatically-problematic expressions produced by non-native speakers can be misleading or even offensive.
Despite the enormous amount of attention given to pragmatics, EFL students in East Asia are still entrenched in pragmatic inadequacy (Austin 1998; Spencer-Oatey & Xing 2000). There are essentially two reasons for this: 1) their culture and frame of conceptualization is vastly different from Western culture(s); and 2) they have too much trust in their generic EFL coursebooks, which are produced for the “international” mass market. Once the students have to deal with authentic L2 materials or milieus that inevitably employ culture-specific references, they fall back on their own locally conditioned schemata for inferring meaning and thus arrive at a distorted interpretation.
Breakdown in communication often results from this type of incomprehension or misunderstanding. A Chinese delegation’s visit to the U.K. that resulted in a “face” problem (Spencer-Oatey & Xing 2000) is a case in point. This visit was initially a regular international business coalition meeting, but almost every step of the meeting, including the accommodation, the seating arrangement, the greeting protocol, as well as the services of the interpreter and the receiving manager, creates a fissure between the Chinese delegation and the British host company. (The details can be seen in http://188.8.131.52/ic.org.uk/publications/IACCP.pdf).
Incomprehension, although frustrating, is relatively obvious and usually not dangerous. Misunderstanding, on the other hand, is a covert error. I encountered an amusing example years ago while viewing the film “A Cry in the Night” with Chinese subtitles. The entire court scene in the movie was “re-created” in Chinese with little regard for the original English script. As the characters in the scene were laughing, totally irrelevant, though humorous, Chinese subtitles appeared, making the uninformed audience laugh as well. “How clever!,” I thought. But in real world (mis)communication, cross-cultural pragmatic mismatch can result in irritation or even danger, and language that is grammatically correct but pragmatically ignorant can lead to serious offense. Familiarity with the patterns of the target language can only be obtained through endeavors to decrease the L1 to L2 social distance by increasing pragmatic awareness. A continually increasing awareness of the pragmatic conventions in the target language can eventually lead to near-native proficiency. By not focusing on pragmatic usage of the language, students’ comprehension of even basic words may be insufficient and even treacherous–the Japanese student’s tragedy being an extreme example. As such, it is imperative that EFL instruction expose learners to authentic English usage and thus provide them with the opportunity to eventually acquire the intuitive command of native speakers.
111. Various Types of Pragmatic Conventions
Cross-cultural differences appear in everyday speech acts such as greetings, requests, apologies, etc. All of these linguistic acts contain embedded cultural information. Observing the differences between rhetorical manners across cultures can reveal varying expectations from one society to the next. The cross-cultural pragmatic differences in the following areas all need to be considered by the EFL learner.
The norms of politeness in different societies vary considerably, and these differences can cause misunderstandings in intercultural communication. Amy Tan (1999) presented a good example in her thought-provoking article “The Language of Discretion”:
My mother thinks like…an expatriate, temporarily away from China since 1949, no longer patient with ritual courtesies.
As if to prove her point, she reached across the table to offer my elderly aunt the last scallop from the Happy Family seafood dish.
Sau-sau scowled. “B’yao, zhen b’yao” (I don’t want it, really I don’t) she cried, patting her plump stomach.
“Take it! Take it!” scolded my mother in Chinese.
“Full, I’m already full,” Sau-sau protested weakly, eyeing the beloved scallop.
“Ai!” exclaimed my mother, completely exasperated. “Nobody else wants it. If you don’t take it, it will only rot!”
At this point, Sau-sau sighed, acting as if she were doing my mother a big favor by taking the wretched scrap off her hands.
My mother turned to her brother, a high-ranking communist official who was visiting her in California for the first time: “In America a Chinese person could starve to death. If you say you don’t want it, they won’t ask you again forever.”
My uncle nodded and said he understood fully: Americans take things quickly because they have no time to be polite. (p. 292)
What this uncle does not realize is that American politeness—which considers asking repeatedly to be pushy—is not the same as Chinese politeness.
Here are some specific speech acts involving politeness in which intercultural mismatch is obvious and frequent:
In English, a clerk or receptionist greets his customer or client with “Can I help you?” while the Chinese equivalent “You shenme shi ma?” (Have any matter?) sounds much like “What’s your problem?” By the same token, the American greeting “How are you doing?” often confounds Chinese learners, who do not realize it is not a real question but instead an example of phatic communication. Once they sense the questioner is not carefully listening to their litany, they easily jump to the conclusion that Americans are hypocritical. The following anecdote about a British tourist in Hawaii illustrates the function of the “how are you?” question in America (Mey 1993):
The waitress…said brightly, “How are you this evening, sir?” “Oh, bearing up,” said Bernard, wondering if the stress of the day’s events had marked him so obviously that even total strangers were concerned for his well-being. But he inferred from [her] puzzled expression that her enquiry had been entirely phatic. “Fine, thank you,” he said, and her countenance cleared. (p. 220)
Fortunately, the British man was aware of the discrepancy between his and the American waitress’s styles of communication.
English speakers habitually use interrogatives to make requests. For example, questions such as “Can you pass the salt?” “What time is it?” “Do you have the time?” and “Are you doing anything tonight?” are all requests masked as questions. The questioner would be taken aback by a “Yes” reply to the last question without any further action done or information offered. Blum-Kulka (1987) focused on indirectness and politeness in requests, and concluded that in response to another person’s question, an English speaker normally gives a constructive answer or indicates where to look for information–“I don’t know” (period) is socially unacceptable. This type of response is often heard in Chinese societies, though.
In contrast, certain English expressions that are phrased as requests are actually just phatic sayings. Take the sentence “Have a nice trip” for example: On the surface it is a request but it actually functions as a closing/greeting. Its Chinese equivalent, “zhu (wish) ni (you) yilu (the whole trip) pingan (safe),” however, belongs to the category of direct speech acts, and has resulted in interesting “reverse translations” from Chinese into English. The sentence “Wish you a safe trip” often appears in greeting cards in China as well as on the streets in Taiwan. It is grammatically correct in English but pragmatically awkward.
English speakers use apologies (“sorry” and “excuse me”) profusely as compared to other cultures. “Sorry” can be a mere expression of sympathy, without suggesting any responsibility on the part of the speaker. However, this interpretation is not a universal notion and use or “sorry” can cause serious misunderstanding in international business and dealings. For instance, in recent years exorbitant lawsuits following traffic accidents have made American and British insurance companies advise their clients to refrain from saying “sorry” at the scene of an accident. Other common events, such as sneezing or burping, are automatically tagged by “excuse me” in English-speaking culture. This sounds strange to Chinese people, who consider these things natural and by no means an occasion for apology. Bisshop (1996) observed and describedAsian speakers of English using “sorry” in Australia. Japanese utter Sumimasen (“Excuse me”) on many different occasions, including the offering of a gift or an invitation. Under the influence of Japanese culture, Taiwanese use Bu hao yisi (similar to Sumimasen) frequently. Japanese and Taiwanese speakers both understand “I’m sorry” to be the English equivalent of Sumimasen and Bu hao yisi and may use the English expression out of context as a result. This may have been the cause of one intercultural faux pas that I witnessed: An American friend of mine felt very uncomfortable in Taiwan when a waiter kept saying “I’m sorry” each time he brought food to the table, as if he had been imposing on the customer. This example illustrates how EFL students in East Asia often use “Excuse me” and “I’m sorry” inappropriately—the English terms are not perfect equivalents for the similar forms in their native languages.
4. Telephone Conversations
To begin a telephone conversation, there are different conventions in different cultures:
Americans verify the number they reach; French people make an apologetic statement first; Germans identify themselves without being asked to do so; Egyptians seem to be unwilling to be the first to be identified… Westerners living in Egypt found this behavior strange, and even offensive. (Wolfson 1989: 96)
Chinese callers and receivers also tend to delay identifying themselves, and this has become the source of many a joke: Both parties keep exchanging “wei” (an equivalent but less polite form of “Hello”) before one party finally “gives in” to the other by reluctantly identifying himself—as if the two parties were engaged in a wrestling game. As a result of these pragmatic differences, phone calls between cultures may leave a negative impression on both sides if one party is not aware of the telephone call conventions of the other culture.
Furthermore, telephone conversation starters in English include both: A: “May I speak to…?” and B: “This is he/she” or “Speaking.” However, Chinese expressions include: A: “qing zhao (Please look for)…” and B: “wo shi (I am)….” Because of this, Chinese EFL learners tend to mistakenly say: “Please look for…” and “I am…,” when they make phone calls in English, thereby confusing the native speakers who answer the phone.
Compliments as expressions of approval contain information concerning the underlying cultural assumptions (Wolfson 1989:113). In this way, compliments provide insights into what is considered desirable in a society. For example, in American society compliments are frequently given to an acquaintance who has something new—a new haircut, a new dress, or a pair of new earrings—which reflects that newness is highly valued in the society. American compliments can also serve as greetings or expressions of gratitude, e.g. “You look nice today,” when seeing somebody in the morning, or “It was a great meal” to a host. However, Billmyer (1990) found that ESL learners’ only partial understanding of the prevalent American custom of complimenting could lead to hilarious utterances, such as “I really like your lifestyle.”
On some occasions, less-than-sincere compliments with no great significance are a part of social life. Their institutionalized role is an important element in maintaining relationships. At Chinese banquets, for instance, a considerable amount of fawning is taken for granted as a way of greeting. As for reactions to compliments, there is a difference between American and Chinese patterns, which could be a possible area for miscommunication, such as:
(in traditional Chinese–denying)
A: “You’ve got a very nice apartment.”
A: “You’ve got a very nice apartment.”
B: “Thank you. I just wish it was less expensive.”
B: “Not really.”
The Chinese reaction, as if suggesting the compliment were insincere, could cause unpleasant feelings if said to an English-speaker.
“In certain cultures, the mere expression of admiration of another person’s property may be construed as a precursor to the obligatory offering of that property as a gift, followed by the equally obligatory acceptance of the property by the other party” (Mey 1993: 221). This practice, probably quite peculiar from a Western point of view, was in fact common in traditional Chinese culture. My mother, for example, would buy an identical item for a friend if that friend complimented her on something. When being offered a gift, elderly Chinese still behave in a “modest” way, i.e. pretending to reject/ignore the gift or to say something like “Excuse me” or “Sorry.” This type of “modesty” often baffles a Westerner. However, it is being phased out. Younger generations in China give compliments and gifts freely without fear of being misunderstood and often receive them with responses such as “Thank you, it’s great.”
B. Metaphors and Idiomatic Expressions
Metaphors and idiomatic expressions are a vital part of social communication. However, because different lifestyles and different environments spawn different metaphors, “not all metaphors mean the same to all cultures” (Kukulska-Hulme 1999: 75). In other words, the metaphors of one language are not necessarily recognized in another. For instance, the metaphor “life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get” (from the film Forrest Gump, 1994) would conjure only the image of “sweetness” to a Chinese person, since most Chinese are not familiar with chocolate samplers.
Idiomatic and colloquial expressions can also be based on metaphorical language, e.g. “blow one’s cork” (anger compared to heated fluid in a container); “Freeze!” (human movement compared to a liquid’s physical change); “couch potato,” “vegetable” (human inactivity compared to the inactivity of plants); “Baby, you’ve come a long way” (a Virginia Slims slogan comparing success to forward movement). These expressions may not be readily familiar to EFL learners, but they can be easily taught. Interestingly, the learner may find target language idioms fresh and vivid, since they may have never encountered the same usages in their native languages before. As all human beings share a general analogous competence regardless of the differences in their conceptual systems, metaphors are perfectly teachable in EFL instruction. Once fully understood, they may constitute an essential part of the learners’ schemata of the target culture.
C. Euphemism and Hyperbole
In recent decades euphemism has become a salient pragmatic trend in most Anglophone cultures. Revell and Norman (1998), who promote euphemism as a type of “power language,” define the pragmatic concept as follows:
…to rename or re-label things in order to alter our perception of them. This process is known as reforming. We can give otherwise negative things a positive connotation. (p. 28)
English-speaking societies have become increasingly attracted to euphemistic “emollient words,” so “sacrifice” is replaced by “contribution,” “difficulty” by “challenge,” “poor” by “underprivileged,” “retarded” by “mentally challenged,” “shy/awkward” by “socially challenged,” and—bordering on ludicrousness— “short” by “vertically challenged.” When considering EFL education, it is clear that a classroom that relies solely on EFL textbooks without recourse to authentic materials deprives learners of the opportunity to understand the current happenings and language of the Western World. Take political correctness, for example. A learner who was not aware that “Black” had been replaced by “African American” could easily commit a serious faux-pas or worse, as the former term has become almost taboo in the U.S. Such latent speech codes in English-speaking societies are bound to cause difficulties for textbook-focused EFL learners. In fact, even the term “speech code” can be mystifying to learners. When euphemisms are used in an excessive manner, they have the effect of hyperbole. Brown (1986) observes such euphemism and exaggeration in claims made by American advertisements:
[T]he advertising world…tend[s] to glorify very ordinary products into those that are “sparkling,” “refreshing”… [I]n the case of food, these products are now “enriched” and “fortified”…. [I]n the U.S. there are no “small” eggs, only “medium,” “large,” “extra large,” and “jumbo.” (p. 43)
In stark contrast to English-language advertising, formal writing in English is expected to be meticulously accurate and free from exaggeration. This distinction, can pose problems for EFL learners who are not aware of the two different sets of conventions in English. As You (1990) points out:
[A]pplication letters written by Chinese students read as rather arrogant and unconvincing because of the frequent use of superlatives when they evaluated themselves. This came as a surprise to American college admission officers, since actually Chinese society advocates modesty. (p. 84)
It seems that when Chinese students write to U.S. colleges, they think overindulgent praise, like the blurbs on the back of a book-cover, is “the American way.” Their letters mistakenly take inspiration from the idea of American self-promotion, an idea taught by their teachers or culture books. Even handbooks (in Chinese) for applying to the U.S. colleges are of this misleading nature. Both applicants and their Chinese/Taiwanese advisors are hardly aware of the pragmatic errors within these guides.
D. Lateral Thinking
Lateral thinking, by which the speaker implies alternatives to the literal meaning of their words, plays a great part in American humor. It is prevalent in everyday American speech, and non-native speakers have to be “on guard” to comprehend the actual message when such language is used. For example, once I asked a repairman whether I should pay him or his company for the service he had provided. He replied: “Just donate it to my favorite charity.” Seeing my perplexity, he pointed to himself and said “me!” with a mischievous smile.
The following is a closer look at various situations involving humor, which all require lateral thinking:
Teasing, Superstition, and Irony/Sarcas
Teasing, which is based on expressions that contradict the actual situation or the speaker’s actual feelings, is, strangely enough, a common way of showing affection in American communication. For example, upon seeing a colleague working overtime, an American may say, “You’ve been slacking off at work, haven’t you?” Non-native speakers of English, if not keen to this linguistic play, would take it literally and may feel strongly offended. Another real-life case in point typical of Anglophone teasing occurred when NBC’s former veteran anchor Tom Brokaw was interviewed by Today’s Katie Couric on his retirement day (12/02/2004). Couric greeted Brokaw in a teasing manner, asking “Are you still here?!” with feigned exasperation. Such language could cause serious misunderstanding if used on a similar occasion in an Asian country.
Examples of other negative expressions for positive situations include “That’s bad!” (actual meaning: “That’s great!”) or “Break a leg!” (actual meaning: “Good Luck!” between stage performers). The latter expression originated due to the belief that wishing an actor “good luck” would instead bring bad luck. Such superstition has Asian counterparts, for instance, in the old Chinese tradition of fending off evil spirits by nicknaming children “dog” or by giving a female name to a male child (because the Chinese used to believe that the male child was more precious than the female one and thus more likely to be snatched by ghosts). On the other hand, there are conventions that involve positive expressions used for negative situations, namely irony and sarcasm. Examples include: “There’s a fat chance…” (Impossible!); or, “Oh, Great!” (disappointment, such as missing a bus). Although such forms of expression are very common in English-speaking societies, these utterances often cause misunderstanding among my students; the misunderstanding is clearly reflected in their translations of this type of language into Chinese.
2. Jokes, Puns, and Riddles
Another category of lateral thinking includes jokes, puns, riddles, etc. The United States is a country of stand-up comedy; Americans are constantly employing tongue-in-cheek language to lower psychological defense among their collocutors and to strengthen emotional bonds. To Americans, making puns within jokes is a common technique used to achieve a quick-fire, easily-understood effect on the listener, and jokes, puns, and riddles are often intertwined. Here are some examples illustrating how these linguistic devices work together:
* Girlfriend: I wish you’d pay a little attention to me.
Boyfriend: I’m paying as little as I can.
* Knock, knock.
Lettuce get married. (Brigandi 1994: 50, 61)
* Why did the vampire take a vacation?
He was under too much blood pressure. (Kowitt 1996: 44)
* Funeral home — “We deal with grave issues.”
* Airline — “We never leave our customers up in the air.” (Bolton 1991: 60-61)
Although these types of expressions cannot be directly translated into a second language since they are linguistically bound, EFL learners’ interest in English could be triggered by such common wordplay. Indeed, I tried the expressions above on my students and was able to elicit a “quick-fire effect” (itself a metaphor-based idiom) on them. Teaching English with authentic humor is a good way to lead students into its pragmatics and to capture their attention in the subject.
IV. Context and Intention
We do not experience language in a vacuum; language comes to life only when it takes place in a context in which speakers are able to shape their communication patterns. How discourse flows in concrete settings is a matter of pragmatics. The complex relationship between meaning and form is mostly arbitrary, determined by conventions but subject to change depending on the various parameters at work in different contexts (Spencer-Oatey & Žegarac 2002). Communicative intention is often interpreted through cultural references. Poole (1999) has given an interesting example to illustrate how culture-based schemata affect comprehension:
We are likely to interpret in two very different ways notices on the door of a butcher’s shop which say Sorry, no rabbits and Sorry, no dogs. As we do not eat dogs we assume that the second of these two notices is telling us that…we are not allowed to take a dog into the shop. Somebody from a very different cultural background might, however, assume that the butcher was apologizing for having run out of dog meat. (p.35)
Such opacity of meaning can pose significant comprehension problems for EFL students, especially those living in cultures quite removed from English-speaking countries. As Hollett (1998: 19) says, “good communication involves recognizing intentions, and our students need…to know what people really mean.” How misleading can a literal interpretation be? The following are recent examples of Chinese translations and/or Taiwanese’ interpretations of popular English expressions:
*“At KFC, we do chicken right.”: translated into “*women zuo ji shi dui de” (“*it is correct for us to do chicken”).
*A TV commercial for a Saab Automobile that starts with “at the end of the day …”: translated into “*dang ni lei le yi tian, zai hui jia de tu zhong…” (*When you’re tired from working all day long, on your way back home…,” which is followed by the picture of a head-on collision.
*“Sustainable development”: understood as “successful business operation that has lasted for a long time.”
*“Politically correct”: understood as “having bet on the candidate who gets elected.”
These miscomprehensions corroborate what is mentioned in section II of this article: Once EFL learners have to deal with authentic materials or milieus, they fall back on dictionary definitions and on their L1 schemata for inference, and this leads them to wrongly interpret the expressions. When the context of an utterance is not kept in mind, the speaker or writer’s intention may be completely blurred. To avoid misinterpretation, learners have no option but to keep up-to-date on the current and authentic use of English.
V. Awareness of Authentic Language Use
In Alan Pulverness’s paper given at “the Culture in ELT” Seminar (2004), the deficiency of EFL coursebooks was eloquently summarized:
Much published language teaching material seems designed to promote “cosmopolitan English,” partly as a consequence of idealised notions of English as a lingua franca, and partly to ensure maximum worldwide sales by avoiding any taint of cultural specificity. I feel very strongly that this attempt to separate language from its cultural roots is likely at best to prove inadequate, because it aims at developing the foreign language as a neutral code, free of its history, free of its social moorings – in short free of culture. It is lack of awareness of such contextual and pragmatic constraints that is often responsible for pragmatic failure.
As learners do not participate in the tacit agreements that create meanings among native speakers, the actual target language environment is very different from a traditional L2 classroom. While native speakers accommodate language concepts to new experiences, L2 learners rely on prescribed rules to be followed. Furthermore, test-driven education in East Asian countries has an overwhelming influence on how English is learned and taught; this is the root cause of the ineptness of Asian EFL instruction. Awareness of L2 pragmatics needs to be seriously addressed in the classroom. Just as students need to be taught how English functions in authentic contexts, EFL educators need to be more alert as to the artificiality of textbook language and more focused on the complexities and subtleties in real-world English. Kakiuchi (2005) notes the discrepancy between natural English speech versus English textbook speech, which had been earlier pointed out by Littlejohn (1998):
[I]t is time we…put more emphasis on choosing language points that actually facilitate communication. If uttered by one native speaker to another, much of the language taught to students would probably get the response ‘Blimp’ if not something stronger! (p. 12)
Along the same lines, Mey (1993) and Bolitho (1998) both address the misguided attempt of L2 textbooks to reduce a language to steadfast rules:
One should resist the temptation to believe that anything in linguistics, and especially in pragmatics, can be explained by ‘laws’. (Mey, p. 105) [P]ublishers and writers have a vested interest in making English seem as simple and accessible as possible, and in reducing the grammar of the language to an apparently formulaic system, with rules for learners to hold on to….however, many of these rules are based on half-truths rather than on how real language works…As teachers, we have to decide whether to enter into this conspiracy of convenient half-truths or whether to expose our learners at an early stage to the reality of authentic language. (Bolitho, p. 4).
Consider Kukulska-Hulme’s (1999: 32) example taken from an authentic context: “Stop pedaling if you feel pain, dizzy, or faint,” where “pain” is a noun, “dizzy” is an adjective, and “faint” could be a verb. EFL students that have only textbook-based knowledge are likely to conclude that native speakers use ungrammatical sentences. What they do not understand is that the actual use of a language often goes beyond its limited prescriptive grammar. Accordingly, true understanding does not come from contemplation or analysis, but from practical and active exposure to authentic resources. A far cry from the aridity of textbook exercises, the richness of authentic materials brings us closer to the living reality of language use.
At this point, one may argue: which variety of English can be “ordained” as “authentic”? I use the concept of authenticity in a broad sense. As a matter of fact, a “merger English” is gradually taking shape thanks to widespread Internet use and massive exchange of popular cultural items among both the core English-speaking countries, i.e. the U.K., the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, as well as the so-called outer-circle countries, e.g. South Africa, India, Singapore, Malaysia, etc., in which English is widely or officially used. A new, more inclusive global standard for English authenticity, flavored with culture-based variations, has made EFL teaching easier and more rewarding than before.
Danesi (1992: 495) suggests that metaphorical competence, even at the level of comprehension, is inadequate in typical classroom learners. The reason is not that students are incapable of learning metaphors, but more likely that they have never been exposed in formal ways to the conceptual system of the target language. He points out that non-native speakers hardly even recognize the metaphorical use of language and rely on the literal meaning, which often leads to misunderstandings. Many real-world English expressions, even classified as “idiom” or “slang,” actually tend to share a common base with their original meanings and are in fact products of underlying polysemous extensions. However, figurative expressions and polysemous words have mostly been either taught separately or treated as peripheral in the East Asian EFL classroom. For example, my students, if not reminded, even consider “to present” (to give in a formal way) and “present” (a gift) as totally unrelated and plug them in as separate entries into their EFL memory. This disjuncted instruction of surface meanings, neglecting probable root semantic connections, is customary in East Asian EFL education and has consequently caused decades of deficient L2 schematic structures.
Since native speakers are incorporating new experiences and new realities into their language every day, L2 learners cannot be so naive as to consider L2 expressions decipherable by linguistic codes that exist in a social vacuum. Enabling students to strive for an intuitive sense with which to interpret real-world language should be a critical part of EFL instruction. The ability to relate to people from other cultures is achieved through understanding the functions and symbolic values of their ways of speaking. Familiarity with L2 pragmatics expands learners’ schemata and raises their awareness of the ever-changing international scene. However, it is highly unlikely for learners to learn pragmatics from textbooks (Vellenga 2004), and residence in the target community is no panacea (Kasper & Rose 2003). Instead, the EFL classroom can be made a realistic English-learning environment through the use of current authentic materials. A successful EFL learner is one who has attained near-native mastery of English pragmatics, at least at the level of comprehension, and who can therefore communicate on an equal footing with native speakers. A student who has received such training in English will most likely understand the interpretation of “freeze” in any of the following sentences: “I’m freezing,” “Hiring freeze,” “When I face a large audience, I freeze” as well as the notorious “Freeze!” Understanding pragmatic conventions is the gateway to intercultural communicative competence.
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