Some problems with functions and speech acts and some solutions through pragmatics to help upper intermediate learners by Greg Gobel - 2

Some problems with speech act theory and implications for teaching functions

Some writers have noted several problems with such a simplification of possible utterances in a conversation. Here are some and what I think their teaching implications are:

  • Brown and Yule say that focusing on speech acts in the classroom may unnaturally limit learners from speaking beyond the sentence, even when the focus shifts from form to function (Brown and Yule, 1983: 20). If a learner is looking at an utterance out of context, ‘it is difficult to impute the function speakers intend’ (Hatch, 1992: 135). The clear implication of these worries is for teachers to make sure there is suitable and clear context for the learners and to focus not only on sentence level, or utterance level, functions, but how these sentences/utterances fit into the context and conversation as a whole. This discoursal view is supported by McCarthy, who says, ‘we must have our speech acts fully contextualized both in terms of the surrounding text and of the key features of the situation’ (McCarthy, 1991: 10).
  • Similarly, Cohen (1996) says, ‘an act such as “apology” may be comprised of a number of phases’ (Cohen in McCarthy, 1998: 19). The implication here is that teachers should not always limit their learners to one-step functions, opting to teach phased functions as well.
  • Another problem is that authentic spoken language has not always necessarily been the basis for the functional language taught. McCarthy says, ‘we can only appreciate the delicacy and subtlety of how speech acts are realized in spoken interaction by examining real data, and the early advocates of functional syllabuses and early investigations of learners’ performances of speech acts signally failed to do so’ (McCarthy, 1998: 20). Boxer and Pickering support this, saying that ‘intuition about speech act realization often differs greatly from the way in which naturalistic speech patterns out’ (Boxer and Pickering, 1995: 44). McCarthy also notes that ‘[r]eal data usually show speech acts to be…indirect and subtle in their unfolding’ (McCarthy, 1998: 19). Therefore, teachers should focus their learners’ attention on the subtlety and indirectness of utterances and use authentic spoken language, when possible drawing on language from corpora work or their own observations. An example of a coursebook that draws on the British National Corpus (Spoken) is the Choice series (Mohamed and Acklam, 1995: 11; and for an example see The Intermediate Choice Student’s Book , 1995: 45 ).
  • An overall, yet often overlooked, implication is that teachers could take a closer look at pragmatics to help teach functional language.


When ‘we read or hear pieces of language, we normally try to understand not only what the words mean, but what the writer or speaker of those words intended to convey. The study of “intended speaker meaning” is called pragmatics.’ (Yule, 1985: 127). Additionally, ‘[p]ragmatics is the study of …

  • contextual meaning,
  • how more gets communicated than is said, and
  • the expression of relative distance .’ (Yule, 1996: 3).

That is, pragmatics is ‘the study of “invisible” meaning’ (Yule, 1985: 127), or meaning that derives not only from the words and structures used (semantics and syntax), but also from the situation of the utterance and how that affects what the speaker means. As Hatch concisely writes, ‘…what speakers mean to convey when they use a particular structure in context…’ (Hatch, 1992: 260). This clearly links Dörnyei’s reference to ‘surface’ and ‘real’ meaning of speech acts as this is what pragmatics tries to explain.

‘Left to their own devices with respect to contact with the target language in and out of the classroom, the majority of learners apparently do not acquire pragmatics of the target language on their own’ (Bardovi-Harlig, 2003). This implies that teachers should attempt to include teaching and learning of some aspects of pragmatics in the classroom. Bardovi-Harlig also points out how lack of pragmatic awareness could affect people’s relationships: ‘[t]he consequences of pragmatic differences…are often interpreted on a social or personal level rather than as a result of the language learning process’ (ibid, 2003). Thus, we must try to raise our learner’s awareness of what they say and how it may be interpreted so that our learners reduce the chances of social and personal face-threatening interactions and utterances. White notes six possibilities: conflicting signals, creating tension, risking offence, creating confusion, public embarrassment, and interpersonal breakdown (White, 1993: 196-200). Boxer and Pickering conclude, unfortunately, that ‘important information on underlying social strategies of speech acts is often overlooked entirely’ in published ELT material (Boxer and Pickering, 1995: 44). Teachers must compensate for this; I think a long-term strategy for awareness raising could be to continually check learners’ understanding of the relationship between speakers when focusing on functional language.

This paper will now look into how teachers could exploit some areas of pragmatics to help learners cope with functional language because, according to Bardovi-Harlig, ‘Teaching pragmatics empowers students to experience and experiment with the language at a deeper level, and thereby participate in the purpose of language – communication, rather than just words’ (Bardovi-Harlig, et al., 1991: 13).

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