Will You Pass Me The Salt?

As an ESL teacher we are constantly asking ourselves the purpose of our job, searching for answers such as ‘why do I teach English’, ‘will my students actually remember to conjugate properly’, ‘are my activities engaging enough’,  etc. We tend to focus on linguistic form, we worry about making our students understand the meaning of certain words, but then we forget to teach them the consequences that some sentences generate. Pragmatics is constantly neglected by most ESL teachers.

In a brief manner, pragmatics is the influence of what a spoken sentence (or utterance) has over the interlocutor, i.e. the power it exerts over the listener. For the functions that the English language has there are many linguistic combinations that can trigger different understandings and feelings in those who are engaged in a conversation.

(1) Salt.

(2) Give me the salt.

(3) Please, pass me the salt.

(4) Will you pass me the salt?

In sentences (1)-(4) there are examples of constructions that fulfill the conversational purpose of the function ‘request’. However, spoken sentences (1) and (2) are considered impolite. The understanding listeners have is that the speaker is either rude or there is something bothering the person and such assumptions are formed beyond the combination of words and sounds, even though it is plausible that a novice learner produce those constructions in case they do not have the same effect in his/her native language. On the other hand, in (3) and (4) are instances of polite requests even though the word ‘please’ is not used in (4), supporting the pragmatic effect of spoken language that transcends syntax and morphology because all examples are in accordance with the English language rules and norms that are taught in many schools (sometimes exhaustively). Pragmatics plays an important role in ESL classes not only for politeness, but also to sustain a conversation while sharing the knowledge that will generate understanding from the parts involved in it.

(5) O cara tem uma loja de.. marca no centro.

[The guy has a store that sells.. bra::nd clothes downtown.]

In a spoken conversation, the speaker makes use of all linguistic tools available such as intonation, gestures, pauses, etc, to convey the message properly thus minimizing the chances for misunderstanding – disrupting the conversation. In (5) the speaker wants to sarcastically state that the store sells original brand clothes, meaning that its products may not be original. For that information to be properly conveyed, the speaker used a short pause after the verb ‘sells’ that already indicates a difference in the trivial meaning of the following word, used a high pitch intonation for the word ‘brand’ which is an indicator that the originality of the clothes are suspicious. A gesture that was also used when producing that sentence was the air quotes, deliberately conveying that the use of the word ‘brand’ is being used sarcastically and that, in fact, the products are a counterfeit.

These resources play an important conversational role that cannot be neglected by us, ESL teachers. Pragmatics, mainly when teaching a second language (like English in this case), will put our students in the same conversational universe of the speaker that will be able to produce without any concern of possible misunderstanding nor any chance of broken communication. Therefore, it is part of a holistic English language teaching that some lesson plans include this issue for students, specially young learners for they do not yet possess the cultural knowledge of politeness and if they do, then it is our job to show them the similarities and differences in pragmatics. For such exercise we can use role play activities.

A very common role play activity is that where Student A plays a salesperson and Student B a customer. The student who plays the customer will have a chance to actually produce and exercise polite requests while Student A (the salesperson) practices polite offers, e.g. ‘how can I help you’, ‘may I help you’. In order to vary activities and still practice the pragmatics of the language, debates can be included in the lesson plan for they will give learners opportunity to agree, disagree, question using constructions that are not only appropriate for the setting, but will also exert some function just by saying something (speech act). However, this is an issue for another article.

The focus of our plannings, what has been taking our sleep, syntax and morphology (alongside idioms) have to be accompanied by the effect that such combination causes. The effects that spoken language exerts over an interlocutor need to be part of the content so that English can be actually used and not just a combination of words resulting in a sentence that is not profound enough to sustain a conversation.

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