What Did You Just Say?! The Perils of Pragmatics, Spring 2012

Accessible Version

By Nadine LeGros, Language & Communciation Instructor, Teaching Support Centre

Misunderstandings between what a speaker intends to communicate and what a listener understands can be humorous. Sitcoms such as Two and a Half Men employ this type of misunderstanding to great comedic effect. For example, Alan warns his son, "Hey you better hurry up or you’re going to be late for school." Jake responds, "That’s okay, I don’t mind." The exchange is funny because it encapsulates their entire relationship: Alan is ineffectual, and Jake is notoriously underachieving.  Unfortunately, this type of misunderstanding isn’t always funny; poor pragmatics can have a very negative impact on relationships between native speakers and non-native speakers of a language. This impact is especially critical for graduate students who are non-native speakers of English and those who are speakers of World English--the varieties of English that are spoken in countries such as India or Ghana. Poor pragmatics can imperil the relationships international graduate students have in their many roles on campus.

The study of pragmatics focuses on the aspects of meaning and language use that are dependent on the intentions of the person speaking, the context of any given situation (including the relationship between the speaker and the listener), and the understanding of the person listening.  Pragmatics examines what a person means by the use of certain words and what their choice of words communicates given the situation (Cargill, 1998). The above example occurs in the morning when Jake is getting ready to go to school. Alan’s choice of words, "You had better hurry" indicates that he intends to warn his son. By not recognizing the intended warning in his father’s words, Jake is demonstrating a lack of awareness of pragmatic meaning.

International graduate students may not have a well developed awareness of pragmatics in English for multiple reasons. First of all, most international students have been taught by instructors whose first language was not English. Non-native instructors of English tend not to recognize pragmatic error as often as native-speaker instructors do, and they also tend to underestimate its significance (Kasper & Rose, 1999). Secondly, the English as a second language classroom is not a conducive environment for learning about pragmatics as the situations for pragmatic miscommunication do not arise often (Kasper & Rose, 1999). The relationships in a language class are clear, and the topics of discussion are more contained than they are in ‘real life’ situations. In addition, pragmatic missteps occur more frequently between non-native speakers of a language and native speakers of a language than they do between individuals who share the same language background.

How pragmatic competence correlates with language proficiency is unknown; what is known is the impact that pragmatic error has on a listener. When somebody speaks very little of our language, we tend to consider them to be ‘outsiders’ and judge their behaviour depending on how we generally feel about their culture (Platt 1989). However, when an international graduate student speaks English very well, we tend to consider the person to be part of our group and interpret their behaviour according to our rules--we assume shared agreement about what our words actually mean (Platt, 1989). In the face of pragmatic missteps by highly fluent speakers of a language, the tendency is to consider the comment to have been deliberate rather than an error, and a subsequent tendency is then to assign attributions to the person who has made the pragmatic error. Returning to our sitcom example, Jake’s comment might be viewed as belligerence rather than genuine misunderstanding, especially given the fact that he is a native speaker.

Ways Pragmatics Imperil Communication
Lack of pragmatic awareness on the part of international graduate students has implications both in terms of how they receive and deliver messages. It can result in their sometimes being unable to understand messages accurately, because they need to "decod[e] what is said ... and understand ...  what is meant" (Balconi & Amenta, 2010, p.96). For example, a supervisor may use the words, ‘You might want to reconsider your entire theoretical approach’ within the context of a meeting about the impasse her graduate student has encountered in his research. The supervisor may intend the use of the word ‘might’ to be diplomatic and gentle given the difficult news she is delivering. If the student is solely focused on the language used, he may hear the word ‘might’ and think he has some choice in the matter, which in fact he does not.

Pragmatic misunderstanding can be a result of interference from the students’ first language--they will translate something directly from their language into English.  For example, a common way to phrase a question for Persian speakers when they are teaching in English is ‘Do you have any idea what ...’ In English, we tend to use this phrase at the beginning of sentences which have some accusation in them or which imply a lack of knowledge or of demonstrated thought. For example, a parent might say to a teenager when they have come home late, ‘Do you have any idea what time it is!?’ In a classroom, an undergraduate student might hear this phrase and misinterpret it to be an insult to their intelligence when it was an invitation to participate.

Another reason for pragmatic missteps is that while native speakers of a language are privileged by access to a range of linguistic devices from which they can draw, non-native speakers are less so. For example, during an academic advising session with a supervisor, an international student asked, "Can I waive this course?" (Bardovi-Harlig & Hartford, 1993, p. 297). The student might have appeared not to have been deferential enough to the professor’s authority by asking whether the student himself could waive the course, as the waiving of courses is the sole domain of the supervisor. However, the situation could have arisen simply due to a paucity of vocabulary--perhaps the student did not know the phrase ‘to get credit for previous work.’

One of the riskiest components of language for non-native speakers is that they do not always understand the connotations of phrases. For example, imagine you give the following feedback to a student: ‘Your argument would be more convincing if you supported it with some facts and figures from empirical research.’ Your student, believing herself to be showing deference, responds with, ‘If you say so.’ She might intend the comment to convey, ‘Professor, you know better than I do.’ However, ‘if you say so’ has very negative connotations in English. The meaning of this phrase is closer to, ‘Well, I don’t really agree with what you have said, but I’m going to pretend that I agree just so that you stop talking.’ Another such example is the phrase, ‘Of course.’ Many students will use this phrase intending to say, ‘Yes, I agree,’ without realizing that the response connotes, ‘I’m not an idiot, you know.’

Developing Pragmatics
Unfortunately pragmatic errors are like Kierkegaard’s view of life--only understood backwards. It seems to be only after hackles are raised that we pause for that whatjust- happened moment. Dictionaries with examples of pragmatic effectiveness do not exist as pragmatics are too contextually bound for such resources to be created. So, what can native speakers who are engaged in communication with international graduate students do to assist them?

The overarching theme of pragmatic errors is that the comments are inappropriate, but informing an adult that something that they have said was inappropriate is delicate business. If the person speaks English very fluently, some may experience a high degree of defensiveness. When possible, a potential debrief to inappropriate comments would consist of: 1) informing the student, ‘In English (or in Canada or in my understanding), the words (for example) if you say so have a negative meaning. They can communicate that you are not accepting what has been said to you;’ 2) asking the student if that was what they wished to communicate. In addition, an entire chapter about pragmatics (Meanings in Context) is available in my book, Communication Strategies for International Graduate Students: Surviving and Thriving in Canadian Academia. (Note: this free book is available online to the Western community.)

International graduate students have many different roles within the university--student, research assistant, teaching assistant, supervisee--and each role requires the development of many aspects of language.  The pragmatic dimension lies at the intersection between language, the culture of an individual’s department, and the context of Canadian academia. Students need to develop the "cultural capital" (Siegal, 1996, p. 376) that is specific to each of their roles to negotiate this intersection. The best thing to do is to be aware of the potential for pragmatic miscommunication, to delay responses to inappropriate remarks, and to explore intended meaning. Of critical importance is also encouraging international graduate students to develop relationships that will expand their communication skills.

Balconi, M., & Amenta, S. (2010). From pragmatics to neuropragmatics. In M. Balconi (Ed.) Neuropsychology of Communication. Milano: Springer-Verlag Milan.

Bardovi-Harlig K. & Hartford, B.S. (1990). Congruence in native and nonnative conversations: status balance in the academic advising session. Language Learning, 40(4), 467-501.

Bardovi-Harlig, K. & Hartford, B. (1993). Learning the rules of academic talk: A longitudinal study of pragmatic change. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 15(3), 279-304.

Cargill, M. (1998). Cross-cultural postgraduate supervision meetings as intercultural communication. In M. Kiley & G. Mullins (Eds.) Quality in Postgraduate Research: Managing the new agenda. The University of Adelaide, Adelaide.

Kasper, G., & Rose, K.R. (1999). Pragmatics and SLA. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 19, 81-104.

Platt, J. (1989). Some types of communicative strategies across cultures: Sense and sensitivity. In O.  Garcia. & R. Otheguy (Eds). English across cultures, cultures across English: a reader in cross-cultural communication. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Siegal, M. (1996). The role of learner subjectivity in second language sociolinguistic competency: Western women learning Japanese. Applied Linguistics, 17, 356-382.