Dabbling in the Murky Waters of Pragmatics

Let’s have some fun! Today we’re going to go beyond the topics of feedbackmetalinguistic knowledge, and effective group work to talk about pragmatics.

Taguchi (2011) defines pragmatic competence as “the ability to communicate and interpret meaning in social interactions” (p. 289). According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, the study of pragmatics is concerned with contextual  language use in social contexts, and pragmatic competence is achieved when one can appropriately use language for different social purposes, use different speech registers (such as formal or informal) in appropriate contexts, and follow unspoken rules concerning non-verbal communication and conversational flow. The latter would include knowing when to interject comments (such as uh-huh) or questions to maintain (and not hinder) conversational flow. Pragmatic language use goes beyond the simple sum of words and grammatical forms used and “involves the ability to manage a complex interplay of language, language users, and context of interaction” (Taguchi, 2011, p. 291).

Suppose two people are getting ready for a party. One comes out, and the other says, “That’s what you’re wearing?” Dependent on the context and intonation used by the speaker, this question could express his opinion that the outfit is not suitable, or simply that there were several options and he wasn’t sure which would be chosen. However, the nature of the relationship between the speakers also affects the meaning; from a mother to child, that utterance could be a command.

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It is impossible to attain communicative competence in a language without pragmatic understandings. They dictate how different speech acts, or words spoken to achieve a particular purpose, such as making a direct or indirect request, refusing an invitation, giving a compliment, apologizing, or complaining (Cohen, 2008) should be accomplished, including aspects such as how direct one should be in different contexts (with a friend versus with an employer). Pragmatic competence is also needed to use and interpret paralinguistic cues such as body language and spacial distance (Lightbown & Spada, 2013).

Consider the use of sarcasm, in which the speaker intends her words mockingly (as comically demonstrated in the video below), sometimes with only very subtle cues in intonation or body language. The utterance “Wow, nice shoes” takes on a whole new meaning if accompanied with a raised eyebrow or particular intonation. Besides the cues learners need to understand in order to recognize sarcasm, they must also be able to discern which contexts are or are not appropriate times to use it (Taguchi, 2011). Now, consider the myriad other types of speech acts, each with its own intricacies. These complexities make pragmatic competence difficult for learners to develop and certainly a challenge to teach (Taguchi, 2011).

How can we teach something so complex? Should we teach it?

Taguchi (2011) examines multiple studies on the matter which conclude that, yes, pragmatic instruction (implicit or explicit) is helpful. Furthermore, explicit instruction about pragmatic uses of language seems to be more effective than implicit methods (Taguchi, 2011). Furthermore, the study suggests that learners’ retention and ability to use pragmatic features further increases if teachers provide opportunities for meaningful practice. Practice can either be comprehension-based, with students watching video conversations and observing pragmatic features, or it may involve productive tasks, such as role play activities and structured conversations.

For example, you might show a video in which speakers make various indirect requests, such as “Don’t you think it’s chilly in here?” with the intended meaning of “Please turn up the heat.” Following the video, you can ask students to identify and reflect on the enactment of different pragmatic features, from body language to word choice, and their purposes. For a productive task, you might have one student be an employer and another an employee requesting something. As Taguchi notes, it is important to provide learners with social context and the ability to interact.

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Beyond the complexities of pragmatic functions, there are additional challenges in teaching pragmatics. Pragmatic features strongly reflect the sociocultural values and norms of the target language community, which means that while some pragmatic aspects may be as obvious to some learners as to a first language speaker, others may be surprisingly difficult, dependent on where sociocultural values overlap or differ (Taguchi, 2011). This means that teachers’ role isn’t just to teach stock rules, but also to assess the pragmatic needs of each particular group of students. For example, students who value directness may choose to disregard the indirectness typically considered more polite in English (Taguchi, 2011).

Finally, Taguchi notes that modern technology has created new contexts for pragmatics practice. She comments on avenues for practice through multi-media websites, virtual dialogues with L1 speakers via Skype and e-mail, and even social media platforms dedicated to the topic. If you teach, perhaps you could arrange projects like online language exchanges between classes of different backgrounds, in which pragmatic language use is a focus. You might have students focus on sharing about even two or three different speech acts with their counterparts, or you might consider using an app such as the Practicing Pragmatics Fun Deck app, which offers different contexts for role play activities.

Pragmatic competence, although challenging to teach, is a necessary part of language education. Do you give pragmatic instruction as need arises, or have you intentionally incorporated it into your lessons? Do teaching materials you use include pragmatic aspects? What ideas do you have for pragmatics-based activities and instructional approaches after reading this post?


Please note that the Ramblings of a Linguaphile site is currently being used for thesis research. Between June 14, 2017, and December 31, 2017, any comments made on posts to this site may be used for research purposes. The identity of the person who posted the comment will be kept anonymous. For more information about the study, please see the About page. By commenting, you consent to participate.



Cohen, A. (2008). Teaching and assessing L2 pragmatics: What can we expect from learners? Language Teaching, 41, 213-235. DOI: 10.1017/S0261444807004880.

Lightbown, P. M. & Spada, N. (2013). How Languages are Learned. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Taguchi, N. (2011). Teaching pragmatics: Trends and issues. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 31, 289-310. DOI: 10.1017/S0267190511000018.

(2017). Social language use. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Retrieved from https://www.asha.org/public/speech/development/Pragmatics/.

One thought on “Dabbling in the Murky Waters of Pragmatics

  1. Pingback: Using Blogs in the Language Classroom – Ramblings of a Linguaphile

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