The Language Teacher
August 2001

Requests by Young Japanese: A Longitudinal study

Simon Cole & Aaron Anderson

Ritsumeikan Uji High School

[Editor's note: Simon Cole's name was misspelled as "Simon Code" in the print version of this article. We apologise for the error]

A number of studies have examined the realization of requests by Japanese learners of English. Tanaka & Kawade (1982) used card matching and questionnaires to examine their perception of the relative politeness of various English request strategies. Schmidt (1983) used notebook data to study the requests made by one adult learner. Tanaka (1988) videotaped role-plays of Japanese ESL students interacting with native speaker friends. Takahashi & DuFon (1989) also used role-plays, but supplemented them with interviews. Fukushima (1990) used a discourse completion test/task (DCT). Iyanaga, Matusmura, & Sakikawa (2000) also used a DCT plus a perception questionnaire to measure participant perception of the level of imposition involved in the request situations on the DCT. Of these, Takahashi & DuFon (1989) and Iyanaga et al. (2000) were cross sectional studies, comparing subjects at different proficiency levels.

Most of the others were single moment studies examining Japanese learners' sensitivity to situational factors, often with native speaker (NS) baseline data. However, with the exception of Schmidt's case study of the progress of a single learner, none of these was a longitudinal study tracing students' pragmatic development over time. Not surprisingly therefore, researchers say that more longitudinal studies are "sorely needed in order to tease out stable developmental patterns and variation" (Kasper & Schmidt 1996, p.153) (See also Rose 2000). In particular, Churchill (2001 p.9) notes, "research on the pragmatic competence of younger or less generally proficient learners has been neglected."

The present study, in contrast to earlier ones, is a longitudinal one examining the pragmatic development of 35 young Japanese. Prior to leaving for a ten-month homestay, and again upon their return, students completed a DCT that presented ten situations students would be likely to encounter, or already had encountered. Data that was extracted in a preliminary comparison of DCTs completed pre and post-homestay found a significant drop in direct requests. Request making clearly moved from a direct style to conventionally indirect in all ten situations on the DCT.

Figure 1. The DCT outlined

Nature of requestAddresseeRequest perspective
1. Unlock the classroom doorTeacher Hearer dominant
2. Lend a CDClassmateEqual
3. Repeat an answerTeacherHearer dominant
4. Buy a cokeClassmateEqual
5. Let use the phoneHomestay motherHearer dominant
6. Return borrowed gameClassmateEqual
7. Give a lift to the stationHomestay fatherHearer
8. Lend an eraserClassmateEqual

This essay reports on the pragmatic development of Japanese high school students in request realization. It begins with an overview of the participants, followed by an explanation of the data collection and coding method. The results section addresses the degree of directness found in the requests in terms of downgrader, upgrader, and supportive move usage. It concludes with a brief discussion encouraging more pragmatic awareness in teaching low level students.

The Participants

The participants in this study were 35 2nd year students (11 females and 24 males) at a private high school in Osaka. The students were enrolled on a school sponsored program specializing in English, with more English classes than general students, including conversation classes taught by native speakers. In their second year, the students spent ten months in either New Zealand or Canada, staying with native speaker families, and attending schools where tuition was in English.

After living abroad for ten months the students could reasonably be expected to demonstrate a higher level of pragmatic competence. "Because pragmatic knowledge by definition is highly sensitive to social and cultural features of context, one would expect input that is richer in qualitative and quantitative terms to result in better learning outcomes. A second language environment is more likely to provide learners with the diverse frequent input they need for pragmatic development than a foreign language learning context, especially if the instruction is pre-communicative or non-communicative." (Kasper and Schmidt 1996 p. 160). Examination of the data shows this to have been the case.


Students completed a Discourse Completion Task consisting of ten situations written in the students L1. Students were asked to write the English request that they would make in the situations described. Students received instructions to write, "I wouldn't ask," in situations where they would choose not to make a request.

Their L1 was used for two reasons. Firstly, to avoid the possibility of skewing the results by an incorrect interpretation of the situation. Secondly, it would be much quicker for the students to complete a DCT written in Japanese. Care was taken to create scenarios where the students could actually envisage themselves making requests in English. Situations were chosen either that students had already experienced or were likely to experience in their ten months of foreign study.

Of the ten situations, five assumed the hearer to be socially dominant; three of these with teachers and two with homestay parents. The five other situations assumed equal status; all involved interactions with English speaking classmates. No situations were included where the speaker was socially dominant.

The situations involved varying levels of imposition, from returning an electronic game belonging to the speaker, to buying a drink from a machine. The list below gives details of the nature of the request, the addressee, and request perspective (the dominance relation). For the complete DCT see the English translation in Appendix 1.

Students completed the DCT approximately three months prior to departure and then again approximately one month after returning to Japan. After completing the questionnaire the second time, students were asked to write what they would have said in each of the situations if the addressee were fluent in Japanese and they were speaking Japanese. In other words, they completed the DCT post homestay in both English and Japanese for the purpose of later analyses.

The students completed the same questionnaire both times, so there is a possibility of a testing effect. However, no feedback was given after the first administration, and a fourteen-month gap between tests suggests that any effect would likely be small.

Coding of the Data

DCT responses were coded using the categories in the CCSARP coding manual (Blum-Kulka, House, & Kasper 1989). Following Rose & Ono (1995), the nine categories of request were grouped into three major categories:

direct requests (e.g., Teacher, please open the classroom door.)

conventionally indirect requests (e.g., Can you open the classroom door?)

hints (e.g., I left my wallet in the classroom, sir.).

Details were also recorded of opt outs, blank, completely inappropriate responses, use of downgraders, upgraders, and supportive moves.(Coding Adapted from Blum Kulka et al. 1989.)


Lexical -- optional additions to soften the force of the request by modifying it though lexical and phrasal choices. Eg., Adding, "please", or down-toning it: "could you possibly give me . . ."

Syntactic -- mitigating the force of the request by changing the syntax. Eg., Using a past form like "could" instead of "can." Or the negative "you couldn't lend me . . ."


Elements whose function it is to increase the impact of the request. Eg., "You had better give me my game back, right now."

Supportive moves

Sentences or clauses external to the main request that either mitigate or aggravate it. Getting a pre-commitment, promising a reward, threatening, "Give me my game or I'll tell the teacher" or a reason, "Could you open the classroom door? I left my wallet there."


This is only a preliminary report of the results and therefore some caution is in order. The data have not yet been subjected to statistical analysis, and the Japanese baseline data is still in the process of being coded. However, the study did provide some interesting findings that appear fairly robust.

Requests (direct, conventionally indirect, or hint)

The major difference between students before and after the homestay was the dramatic reduction in the use of direct requests, and a corresponding increase in the number of conventionally indirect requests. There was only one example in the whole data set of a student making a more direct request after the homestay than before. The total number of direct requests fell from 181 to 33.

Prior to the homestay, only situations 2, 5, and 7 produced a percentage of conventionally indirect requests of 50% or over. In contrast, the post-homestay results show that over 50% of the requests for every question were conventionally indirect. All of the students used conventionally indirect requests in questions 2, 5, and 8.

The use of hints both before and after the homestay was negligible. This was true despite the fact that some of the situations would likely produce hints from native speakers. For example, the hint, "Sir, I've left my wallet in the English classroom," would seem a likely response to situation 1.

Downgraders and Upgraders

The data on the use of downgraders show that the students used slightly fewer post-homestay. Prior to the homestay, the students had a tendency to use downgraders such as the politeness marker "please", somewhat indiscriminately. This may reflect a strategy of playing it safe and attaching a politeness marker on everything.

Interestingly, those situations where a request was made to a teacher (questions 1, 3 and 9) went against the general trend and showed an increase in the number of downgraders used. The only other situation that showed an increase was situation 4.

Other changes in the use of downgraders included more students post-homestay using two or more downgraders per request. There were 42 examples of students using more than one downgrader in the second year, compared to only 16 in the first year. Furthermore, there was greater variety of downgraders the second time the test was administered. Most of the downgraders used by the students prior to homestay were the politeness marker "please". In their second year students used more syntactic downgraders such as past tense forms.

A preliminary examination of the Japanese data revealed that students widely used the negative as a syntactic downgrader (E.g., ". . . dekimasen ka?") An interesting finding of the study was that there was not a single example of transfer, of students attempting to downgrade with the negative in their English requests. There was only one situation that elicited upgrader usage. In situation 6, requesting the return of an electronic game to a classmate a few students, mainly male, used upgraders. E.g., "Give me my gameboy, now!"

Supportive moves

Only in situation 4, buying a cola, did the number of supportive moves actually decrease. The overwhelming majority of supportive moves used by students were grounders, moves in which a reason is provided for the request (e.g., In the request, "Can you open the class room door, I left my wallet inside." "I left my wallet inside" is a grounder). However, a few imposition minimizers, promises of reward and attempts to get a pre-commitment were made by students post-homestay.


There were problems with situation 4 on the DCT. 22% of the students decided to opt out and not to make a request in situation 4 (buying a cola). Although the number of opt outs fell dramatically in the second year, this indicates that responses to this item may be problematic. A possible problem with this situation is that it is ambiguous because it is not clear who is expected to pay for the drink. It may be the case that a much lower level of opting out would result if it was explicitly stated that the classmate was given the money and not expected to pay. However, the response to this question does indicate that where they are given specific instructions to opt out, students will use this option, even on a DCT.


This study provides fairly strong evidence of a developmental trend from direct requests accompanied by politeness markers to conventionally indirect requests using modal auxiliaries. It confirms the findings of previous studies like Ellis (1992), that have shown that learners follow a developmental pattern from direct to conventionally indirect request strategies. It is also consistent with the findings of Tanaka (1988) and Tanaka and Kawade (1982) that Japanese learners request strategies were more direct than those of native speakers.

Two explanations are commonly given for the directness of Japanese learners' requests. Firstly, learners are believed to lack the linguistic resources to produce the more complex indirect requests. As their linguistic resources expand, their requests become correspondingly more indirect. While this may be a plausible explanation of why elementary level students don't use complex requests such as, "Would you be so kind as to open the door for me? My hands are full," it does not seem to be a convincing explanation of why learners at lower levels seem to prefer, "Open the door please." to, "Can you open the door please?" In the DCT completed prior to the homestay, most students did in fact produce both direct and conventionally indirect requests. Only six out of 35 students showed no variation whatsoever. Interestingly enough, in situation 5 (asking permission to use the phone) over 50% of requests were conventionally indirect, confirm ng the finding of Churchill (1999) that Japanese learners are more likely to use conventionally indirect forms for permissive requests.

A second explanation often given for Japanese learners' directness is that it reflects their exaggerated view of the "egalitarian" and "direct" nature of social intercourse in Western societies. Although there may be an element of truth in this explanation, a preliminary examination of our Japanese language data indicates that direct requests mirror similarly direct strategies in Japanese. The most likely explanation is that they reflect transfer from the learners' native language.

Social dominance appeared to have little effect on the directness of requests in this study. Instead, the degree and nature of the imposition appeared to have a much greater influence. For example, one of the highest number of direct requests involved those made to teachers. In situation 1 when asking the teacher to unlock the classroom because a wallet/purse had been left there, 23 of the 35 students responded with a direct request. This compares to only 3 out of the 35 students post-homestay.

This study found very little evidence of hinting but this could be due to the type of questions used. After all, the DCT in this study was designed to avoid situations where subjects would not make requests. Rose and Ono (1995) in a study comparing results obtained from a DCT and a Multiple Choice Questionnaire found that the DCT had a tendency to produce fewer hints. It may well be that DCTs have a tendency to produce fewer hints than would actually occur in face to face language use.

Native English speaker baseline data is needed for confirmation, but it is feasible that Japanese learners use direct requests in many circumstances that English speakers would use conventionally indirect requests. The question that really should be answered is not whether Japanese are more direct that "Westerners," but in what circumstances Japanese are direct and what forms their indirectness takes.


The present study adds to the weight of evidence that lower level Japanese learners tend to use more direct requests and that as their pragmatic competence develops, these are gradually replaced by more conventionally indirect forms. It appears that L1 transfer plays a major role in this process. An analysis of the Japanese data may well provide insights into how this takes place.

Although this study did not obtain native English speaker baseline data, it is apparent that the participants both before and after the homestay are using direct requests in situations where native speakers would find them inappropriate. Kasper (1997) has argued that if pragmatic competence cannot be taught, at least learning opportunities can be arranged in such a way as to promote pragmatic development. An implication for teachers, therefore, is that lower level learners can benefit from widespread exposure to conventionally indirect requests. Because they make frequent use of translation strategies, it makes sense to stress translating phrases with their real functional equivalents, rather than similar grammatical forms. For example, doa o akete kureru, in Japanese is more accurately translated as, "Can you open the door, please?" than the direct request, "Open the door please." Pragmatic consciousness raising activities that aim to increase learner awareness of the pragmatic systems of both L1 and L2 are recommended.


Blum-Kulka, S., House, J., & Kasper, G. (1989). The CCSARP coding manual. In S. Blum-Kulka, J. House & G. Kasper (Eds.). Cross-cultural pragmatics: Requests and apologies (pp. 273-294). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Churchill, E. (1999, September). Pragmatic development in L2 request strategies by lower level students. Paper presented at SLRF 1999, Minneapolis Minnesota.

Ellis, R. (1992). Learning to communicate in the classroom. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 14,1-23.

Fukushima, S. (1990). Offers and requests: Performance by Japanese learners of English. World Englishes, 9(3), 317-325.

Iyanaga, K., Sakikawa, Y., & Matsumura, Y. (2000). Request realization patterns of Japanese EFL learners: The effects of degree of imposition on the request patterns of intermediate and pre-intermediate learners. Temple University Japan Working Papers in Applied Linguistics, 19, 81-104.

Kasper, G. (1998). Interlanguage pragmatics. In H. Byrnes (Ed.), Learning foreign and second languages (pp. 183-208). New York: The Modern Language Association of America.

Kasper, G., & Schmidt, R. (1996). Developmental issues in interlanguage pragmatics. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 18, 149-169.

Kasper, G. (1997). Can pragmatic competence be taught? (Net Work #6) [HTML document]. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i, Second Language Teaching & Curriculum Center. [access: July 1, 2001]

Rose, K. (2000). An exploratory cross-sectional study of interlanguage pragmatic development. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 22, 27-67.

Rose, K., & Ono, R. (1995). Eliciting speech act data in Japanese: The effect of questionnaire type. Language and Learning, 45, 191-223.

Rose, K. (1996). American English, Japanese and directness: More than stereotypes. JALT Journal, 18,67-80.

Takahashi, S., & Du Fon, P. (1989). Cross-linguistic influence in indirectness: The case of English directives performed by native Japanese speakers. Un U Unpublished manuscript, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu.

Tanaka, N. (1988). Politeness: Some problems for Japanese speakers of English. JALT Journal, 9, 81-102.

Tanaka, S., & Kawade, S. (1982). Politeness strategies and second language acquisition. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 5, 18-23.

Simon Code is a graduate of the London School of Economics, where he earned an economics degree specializing in government and history. He has been teaching English in Japan for over ten years. Since he began teaching, he has gained an RSA Certificate, and an M.Ed. in TESOL from Temple University. His interests include CALL and vocabulary teaching. He is currently employed by Ritsumeikan Uji High School.

Aaron Anderson began his teaching career while studying TESL as an undergraduate at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. After earning a BA, he moved to Japan where he has been teaching for 8 years. Currently Aaron is employed by Ritsumeikan Uji High School and is studying for an M.Ed. in TESOL at Temple University. Interests include CALL, and SCUBA diving whenever he can find the time and money to escape back to the sunny islands.

Appendix 1:

English translation of DCT

originally in Japanese


Directions: Read the explanation of the ten situations below. Write what you would say to the other person, in English, in the quotation marks. If you wouldn't ask the other person in this kind of situation, please write, "I wouldn't ask."

1.You left your wallet/purse in the English conversation classroom. When you go to get it, the classroom is locked. The English conversation teacher has the key and they do not speak Japanese. If you ask the teacher to open the door for you, what would you say?

2. You are on a homestay in Canada or New Zealand. A Canadian/New Zealand classmate has a CD of the rock group Oasis. You too like Oasis, and you want them to lend it to you. If you asked your classmate to lend it to you, what would you say?

3. In an English conversation class, you are checking the answers to an exercise, but you didn't hear the answer the teacher gave for the last question. The person next to you didn't hear either. If you asked the teacher to repeat it, what would you say?

4. At school on your homestay, a Canadian/New Zealand classmate is going to the vending machine to buy a cola. You want one too. If you asked the classmate to buy one for you what would you say?

5. You are on a homestay in Canada/New Zealand. You have to call your family in Japan urgently. If you asked your homestay mother to let you call Japan, what would you say?

6. Yesterday, while at school on your homestay, you lent your tamagochi to one of your Canadian/New Zealand classmates. You want them to give it back. If you asked them to return it, what would you say?

7. Your homestay father is going to the town in his car. You have arranged to meet one of your friends in town. If you asked him to give you a lift, what would you say?

8. At your homestay school in class, you lost your eraser. Your Canadian/New Zealand classmate has an eraser. If you asked them to lend it to you, what would you say?

9. You have to write a letter to the family you will be staying with in Canada/New Zealand. Your English conversation teacher is a foreigner and doesn't speak Japanese. If you asked your teacher to look at your letter, what would you say?

10. During your homestay you caught a cold and missed Math class and don't know what the homework is. If you asked a classmate to tell you what the homework was, what would you say?

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