Pragmatics: The Heart and Soul of Linguistic Proficiency

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Justin Charlebois, Nagoya Bunri University



This paper will examine the role of pragmatic transfer in L2 acquisition, and call for increased attention to pragmatics in L2 classrooms. Because native speakers are more likely to forgive a grammatical mistake than a pragmatic one (Wolfson, 1989), language learners need both instruction of pragmatic routines as well as pragmatics awareness raising to become proficient in a second language. Four studies concerning pragmatic transfer related to Japanese learners of English will first be examined followed by ways in which EFL teachers in Japan can include pragmatics in their curricula.

Review of the Literature

Looking at refusals in relation to proficiency level and learning context, Takahashi and Beebe (1987) had two main research questions in their study: (1) Will there be evidence of pragmatic transfer in both an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) and an English as a Second Language (ESL) learning context, and at both low and high proficiency levels? and (2) will there be a difference in the amount of transfer according to these different learning contexts and proficiency levels? The researchers distributed Discourse Completion Tests (DCTs) consisting of written role-play situations to Japanese ESL learners living in the United States and EFL learners in Japan. These results were then compared with native speakers of American English. To illustrate the type of situations created, an example will be provided below.

In one situation, the subjects had to refuse an invitation to a friend's house for dinner. Japanese speakers of English typically began their refusal with an apology— the same strategy that is utilized in Japanese. An American speaking English would not typically begin a refusal with an explicit "I am sorry." As Beebe (1995) stated, Americans tend to give excuses that showed the impossibility of accepting the invitation. An example is, "I have to go to my son's graduation" (p. 6). These preliminary findings suggest transfer.

The researchers' hypotheses regarding evidence of transfer in both the EFL and ESL contexts and at higher and lower proficiency levels were confirmed. The authors also found that transfer was more prevalent in the EFL group. Takahashi and Beebe contend, however, that this is not a function of proficiency because Japanese speaking English in Japan had more years of study than their counterparts living in the United States.

Takahashi and Beebe (1987) relates to cross-cultural realization of speech acts, but includes the issues of proficiency and learning context. Beebe and Takahashi (1989) had two main research questions in their study: (1) How do Japanese speakers of English perform the face-threatening acts of giving embarrassing information and expressing disagreement in English? and (2) How do Japanese ESL speakers perform these face-threatening acts with an interlocutor of a different status? Contrary to prevailing stereotypes about the behavior of Japanese versus Americans, Beebe and Takahashi found that the Japanese are not always indirect and Americans direct, and that the Japanese could be quite direct when speaking with status inferiors.

The participants were asked to respond to DCTs which involved the face-threatening speech acts of disagreeing and giving embarrassing information. An example will follow. In one situation where the boss (a status superior) needs to criticize his/her assistant's (status inferior) proposed plan, 85% of the Japanese subjects expressed a blunt criticism in English. An example is: "Frankly speaking, I don't think it is fine. I will submit my plan better than this" (Beebe and Takahashi, 1989, p. 110). This appears to be direct transfer of semantic formulas from Japanese where a superior status person often expresses blunt criticisms. For the same situation, however, the Americans tended to mitigate the face-threatening nature of their disagreements through statements such as, I don't think, or I believe. This can be seen in the response: "I think you've put a lot of thought in this plan and I appreciate that. I have a few ideas that I'd like to toss out as well, so let's set aside some time to go through this" (emphasis mine) (p. 111). This American English politeness strategy shows greater attention to positive face with status inferiors than the Japanese strategy.

While the authors acknowledged some methodological problems in using DCTs (such as that the responses tend to be briefer than in real life), they asserted that they had strong evidence showing that Japanese and Americans were different in the way they went about accomplishing face-threatening acts in English. For one thing, the Japanese ESL speakers do not always fit the American stereotype of the Japanese as being indirect. For another, while both the Americans and the Japanese style shifted according to the status of their interlocutor, the Japanese followed Japanese rather than American English pragmatics. In other words, they appeared to transfer the Japanese social rules of speaking. This could lead to pragmatic failure—the inability to understand what is meant by what is said (Thomas, 1983). If pragmatic failure occurs, it can damage a learner's motivation, and a positive attitude and motivation are related to success in second language learning (Lightbown and Spada, 1999). Moreover, if a learner is rejected, he/she also has less access to the input needed to acquire the language.

Beebe and Takahashi (1989) looked at status and the giving of embarrassing information and expressing disagreement. Takahashi (1996), on the other hand, was interested in examining if the transfer of Japanese request strategies was influenced both by proficiency level and by the perceived degree of imposition involved in a request. The participants were Japanese college students. Takahashi divided the subjects into a low and a high proficiency group who were instructed to respond to situations involving differing degrees of imposition. Also, the participants were asked to judge the appropriateness of certain requests.

Based on the participants' responses to these situations, Takahashi identified five Japanese request strategies transferred to English: (1) The would/could you please plus a verb phrase or the would you please strategy which she called the 'polite preparatory question'; (2) The I would like to plus verb phrase or the would like strategy which she also termed the 'polite want statement'; (3) The I want you to plus a verb phrase or the want strategy which she termed the 'less polite want statement'; and (4) The nonconventional or "NC" strategy when equivalent forms do not exist in English.

The strategy would you please was most transferable, followed by would you, would you like, want, and NC. Takahashi believed the higher transferability rates of would you please and would you were due to the fact that these two forms had a high degree of politeness and conventionality in Japanese, and were perceived to be equivalent in English. Therefore, the subjects perceived them as unmarked (for a discussion on markedness, see Lightbown and Spada, 1999).

In terms of degree of imposition, as a whole, Japanese strategies were perceived as more transferable in a high-imposition context than a low one. This could be due to the nature of these types of situations. High imposition situations usually require the requestor to use more polite and mitigated forms because they are more face threatening. Conversely, would like and want might have been seen as more appropriate for low-imposition situations.

On the whole, however, Takahashi found little proficiency effect operative in the learners' transferability perception of English request strategies. Due to this, Takahashi suggests that a learner's lack of familiarity with English context may be a more crucial factor in pragmatic transfer than their proficiency. Therefore, a low proficiency learner has the same chance of mastering requesting strategies as a high one. What is important, according to Takahashi, is the knowledge of the situation, and how to vary one's language to encode status differences and degrees of imposition in culturally relevant ways than knowing what linguistic forms to use.

Whereas Takahashi was looking at if proficiency and degree of imposition effect the amount of transfer, Maeshiba, Yoshinaga, Kasper, and Ross (1996) set out to test Takahashi and Beebe's (1987) hypothesis, that pragmatic transfer was related to contextual factors and proficiency levels. They did this by studying the speech act of apologies.

The participants were given something similar to a Discourse Completion Test, called a Dialog Construction Questionnaire; the difference being that a Dialog Construction Questionnaire requires the subjects to fill in more than one turn while a DCT only requires one turn. The questionnaire was prepared in both English and Japanese. Twenty different situations were given that elicited apologies. An example is:

At a friend's home

Ann and Bill are both 35 years old and are good friends. Ann borrowed a computer magazine from Bill. Unfortunately, Ann spilled coffee on the magazine and damaged it. She is now returning it to Bill.

  • Bill: What happened to my magazine?
  • Ann:
  • Bill:
    (Maeshiba, Yoshinaga, Kasper, and Ross, 1996, p. 182).

In order to examine the contextual factors, the authors took one more step by creating an Assessment Questionnaire. The same offense contexts as the Dialog Construction Questionnaire were used. Each context was rated based on a five-point scale for context internal factors (severity of offense, offender's obligation to apologize, likelihood for the apology to be accepted, offender's face loss, offended party's face loss) and for two context external factors (social distance and dominance). The Japanese version was created by translating it into Japanese and then back into English. The participants in this study were four groups of subjects: (1) Japanese learners of English (Intermediate) (JEI); (2) Japanese learners of English (Advanced) (JEA); (3) Native speakers of English (E); and (4) Native speakers of Japanese (J). A comparison between the contextual assessments of the native speakers of English and the Japanese showed strong agreement around perceptions of status, obligation to apologize, and likelihood of apology acceptance, and the greatest variation between the Japanese and Americans was given to offender's face loss, offended party's face loss, and social distance.

Maeshiba, Yoshinaga, Kasper, and Ross (1996) mention that previous studies have shown that context assessment affects the selection of apology strategies; therefore, they contended, similar native speaker ratings should predict positive transfer. According to the authors, the high degree of similarity they found between the perceptions of the native English speakers and the Japanese speakers of English suggested a higher frequency of positive transfer over negative.

These researchers found that in most of the contexts where positive transfer had been predicted, the converging social perceptions of the Japanese and American subjects showed the same use of apology strategies by both proficiency learner groups, but the advanced learners did outperform the intermediate learners in several contexts. The researchers attributed this to the advanced learners being more acculturated and having the linguistic facility to transfer those strategies that they felt were target like. Additionally, due to the converging social perceptions between the Japanese and American subjects, positive pragmatic transfer did occur even in contexts where it was not predicted by the contextual assessment.

In the actual completion of the Dialogue Construction Questionnaire, each strategy was transferred negatively at least once. This can be seen in the example where the subject was a customer at a restaurant who while getting up causes the waiter to spill food all over him. The American subjects had the customer apologize to the same degree whether he/she was in the position of customer or waiter. Some examples included:

  • J: Gomenasai. "I'm sorry."
  • JEI & JEA: I'm sorry. Are you okay?
  • A: Oh, my God! I'm terribly sorry. I'm such a klutz.

This would seem to be clear evidence of the importance of status for Japanese speakers of English that Beebe and Takahashi (1989) found. However, twice as many of the advanced learners as the intermediate ones upgraded the apologetic force, suggesting that they were abandoning the Japanese strategy and converging with the Americans.

Most of the negative transfer occurred in contexts where there was a substantial difference in power between the interlocutors. According to Maeshiba, Yoshinaga, Kasper, and Ross (1996), what is telling is that the Japanese and Americans did not differ in their perception of the status differences; however, they did vary their Illocutionary Force Indicating Devices (IFIDs) (e.g. an apology) based on the direction of the status difference. Americans used IFIDs equally, no matter if the offender was in the status high or low position. In contrast, the Japanese used fewer explicit formulas and less intensified apologetic force when apologizing from high to low. The researchers predicted that the Japanese would offer more repair than the American native speakers. In actuality, they provided less, and intermediate learners were more likely to underplay repair than advanced learners. Another telling finding was that the frequency of repair by advanced ESL learners was very similar to native speakers of English. In highly marked and unfamiliar contexts where they did not have the pragmatic competence to accomplish the speech act, the advanced ESL learners did not tend to fall back on Japanese strategies.

Maeshiba, Yoshinaga, Kasper, and Ross (1996) showed that negative transfer was at work in learners' apology performance. In only two instances did the advanced learners transfer their apology behavior from Japanese to English when Japanese and American patterns differed, whereas the intermediate learners did so in six instances.

Pedagogical Implications

Language learners need to be taught pragmatic routines to help them avoid negative transfer when speaking English. The results of the studies reviewed suggest that learners in an EFL context could benefit from pragmatic input. Although learners benefit from both implicit and explicit instruction, explicit instruction has been shown to be more effective (Rose and Ng Kwai-fun, 2001). I prefer to explicitly teach my students speech acts: compliments, refusals, apologies, and requests. When I teach a speech act such as a compliment, I first introduce the speech act and provide the Japanese translation. I then give them a handout that consists of a role-play. For example, two people meet each other for the first time and one comments on the other's sweater. A typical compliment formula I introduce is, "I like/love your sweater." The other person responds with a statement such as, "Thank you" or "It was a gift from my friend." I introduce them to a couple of different compliment formulas and their responses. I first demonstrate this with another student or English teacher, and then have them practice it in pairs for a few minutes. My experience has been it is better to focus on a couple of formulas and responses for retention purposes. Students are then directed to form groups of three. Within these groups, they are instructed to appoint a recorder, timekeeper, and reporter. They have a few minutes to discuss and prepare answers to the following questions: How do compliments function differently in American English and Japanese? Did the American English speech act seem unnatural to you? Following this, groups report to the class. Before the lesson ends, I make some concluding remarks about the functions of compliments in American English.

For teachers who are unfamiliar with research related to speech acts or prefer to adopt a textbook, an excellent title is Heart to Heart (Yoshida, Kamiya, Kondo, and Tokiwa, 2000). The chapters of this book focus on specific speech acts and also highlight cross-cultural differences in the realization of speech acts between Japanese and American English. Another type of awareness raising that has proven effective for my students is the use of clips from DVDs. I have shown clips from both films and popular TV series that provide examples of the speech acts that they learn in class. One specific lesson I have done to illustrate how members of a speech community may negatively view someone who lacks pragmatic knowledge is through a scene from the film The Joy Luck Club (Stone and Yang, 1993). This movie focuses on both the generational and cultural gap between Chinese-born mothers and their American-born daughters. In one scene, a daughter brings home her American fiancé to meet her parents. Although she had taught him some basic aspects of Chinese customs and etiquette, it proved not to be enough as "Rich" makes several mistakes during dinner due to gaps in his pragmatic knowledge of Chinese. The worst mistake occurs when Rich inappropriately interprets the implicature of the mother's utterance. The mother brings out the dish she is most proud of and says, "This dish not salty enough, no flavor, it's too bad to eat, but please." Rich then eats some and replies, "You know Linda all this needs is a little soy sauce." He proceeds to pour soy sauce all over the dish while the others at the table look horrified. Rich did not realize that he was supposed to provide a compliment to the woman's downgrading remark.

To activate students' schema, I have them in small groups write down some examples of what would be considered rude table etiquette during a meal in Japan. I then collect their lists and write some of the examples they generated on the board. I then give a brief oral summary of the movie and distribute a transcript of the scene. They are instructed to pay particular attention to mistakes that Rich makes due to lack of appropriate pragmatic knowledge as they watch the movie.

In small groups, students answer a few questions. For example:

  1. Provide one or two examples of an error that Rich made due to his lack of pragmatic knowledge.
  2. Are there any similarities between Japanese and Chinese mealtime etiquette?
  3. How would Rich's mistakes be evaluated by typical Japanese people? Finally, this is followed by a class discussion.

I believe that along with explicitly teaching pragmatic routines, awareness raising is an essential component to aid students in their pragmatic development. The response from students has been very positive, especially when I show clips from current films in class. The films enable students to see these speech acts in what might not be a truly authentic context, but at least they are seeing these speech acts performed in some type of context outside the classroom.


These four studies have important implications for language teachers in Japan. Since the studies do seem to agree that transfer is much higher in the EFL than the ESL context, language teachers need to both teach pragmatic routines and raise their students' awareness in the classroom. Without pragmatically rich input through instruction and awareness raising, classrooms can become what has been referred to as "impoverished learning environments" (Kasper, 1997). It has been said that native speakers will forgive an error in pronunciation or grammar, but are unlikely to forgive a pragmatic one (Wolfson, 1989). Native speakers are often unconscious of the social rules of speaking of their language, and when others do not follow them it can lead to the nonnative speaker's speech being viewed as marked or unnatural. The acquisition of pragmatics is as essential as other aspects of second language acquisition (syntax, phonology, morphology, semantics) in order to attain linguistic proficiency. This is an aspect of language that needs to be taught from the beginning of language learning. Pragmatic development is not an aspect of language that is taught at the advanced stages of language learning as an extra—it is one of the building blocks of attaining second language proficiency.


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Justin Charlebois received his M.A. in Applied Linguistics from Teachers College, Columbia University. Currently, he teaches English at Nagoya Bunri University in Inazawa. His research interests include: sociolinguistics, pragmatics, and discourse analysis. .