Purposeful communication

Language teachers are constantly on the lookout for mistakes that may or may not impede communication. Nowadays, it’s common for us to read and hear that what matters most is communication, and that learners of a foreign language should not strive for perfection or flawless language production. What, however, is communication? And does this work for all levels? For instance, do we classify successful communication at the same standard for people who are applying for a position in a multi-national company to work as a spokesperson and for someone whose aim at learning a foreign language is travelling to a foreign country and be understood when ordering food? Most importantly, should we, teachers, be the ones to judge how accurate and, narrowing it further, how appropriate our learners will need to be in their language use?

This week’s blog posts at the iTDi blog are on error correction, and you may read what Scott, Barb, Chuck, Cecilia, Yitzha and Steven have to say on the matter. In addition to that, there will be a live webinar on March 3rd that will deal with the matter of error correction, and I highly encourage all those who can participate to do so. Therefore, I won’t spend much time discussing error correction in this post. Instead, I’d like to shift the focus to one of the things I felt, as a language learner, that teachers did not spend much time on, and one thing that I still feel teachers tend to overlook – in addition to pronunciation. If we’re talking about communication, the first thing we should do is look at language from a broader perspective, not forgetting that language should be seen from a discourse perspective. I’d like to reflect on something more closely related to language in use, namely the pragmatic features of discourse and the importance of explicitly teaching it to our learners.

Certain aspects of language in use are commonly referred to as the pragmatic features of discourse. Pragmatics is a branch of study related to, but separate from, linguistics, because it purports to explain aspects of language and communication that have not been – or cannot be – explained by linguistic studies. […] When we learn a language, we gradually learn to recognize and name a set of discourse events that are common in the social circles we move in. […] Part of our socialization is gaining familiarity with a range of discourse types or genres. Some of these we may acquire through exposure and others have to be taught.

(Bloor, M. & Bloor, T., 2007 in The Practice of Discourse Analysis – An Introduction, Hodder Arnold, p. 19)

Whenever we attend seminars, a lot of attention is given to vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation through the four skills, but rarely will you see someone speaking about the pragmatic use of the language at length. Is this less important than the other features? Or is this far too complicated for most teachers to touch as it is far more complex and there are not that many prescriptive rules? We do deal with communication, and many teachers nowadays claim to abide by the rules of the Communicative Approach. If that is the case, shouldn’t we also turn our attention to the interaction that takes place between the listener and the speaker? How easy is it for teachers to assume that what they have said is what their learners actually understood? Even worse, how easy is it for us to let learners get away with something they said that does not sound right to our ears? Are we able to understand the exact meaning that learners are trying to convey simply because, well, as language teachers we are trying as hard as we can to fully understand what our learners are trying to say? 

A speaker may utter a sentence which is, for example, a positive, active statement, expressing a particular content. The listener may, however, interpret the sentence as a threat, or warning, as advice or contradiction. These interpretations are pragmatic meanings. In addition to the content expressed, the listener interprets the speaker’s purpose in uttering the sentence.

(Lewis, M., 2002, in The Lexical Approach, Thomson Heinle, p. 82)

The problem becomes even more apparent when learners reach an advanced level, and mainly in interactions between native and non-native speakers of language. The point is, if we don’t teach and, from time to time, make sure our learners are capable of going beyond basic language use, we may actually be doing more harm than good. What happens is that we need to make our learners aware of how they say things, not only what they say. Vocabulary does take up a lot of our teaching when we reach advanced levels, say B2+ onwards, but vocabulary expansion by itself will do very little to help learners, as the passage below supports. 

However, in situations of contact between native and non-native speakers of a language, pragmatic errors are insidious in that they often lead proficient speakers of a language to misjudge the intentions of less proficient speakers. Particularly if the speakers are fluent and accurate, listeners do not realize that a pragmatic error has been committed, instead misconstruing what was intended by the speaker and sometimes judging the speaker harshly as a result.

(Larsen-Freeman, D., 2003, in Teaching Language: From Grammar to Grammaring, Thomson Heinle, p. 37)

But is it even possible to make our learners aware of pragmatic mistakes, or misuses of the language? I’ve always believed so, and, to be honest, once I was able to understand how serious this may be, I’ve always wondered why we don’t do this more often. Instead of writing on the matter with my own words, and as this has been a post filled with quotes and extracts from books, I’ll add one more extract. 

For a long time, it was assumed that second language classrooms could not provide appropriate input for learning how to realize many speech acts. This was particularly the case with structure-based approaches to teaching and in particular, in teacher-fronted classrooms where the dominant interaction pattern was ‘teacher initiation – learner response – teacher feedback’. In communicative, content-based, and task-based approaches to second language instruction, there are more opportunities not only for a greater variety of input but also for learners to engage in different roles and participant organization structures (for example, pair and group work). This enables learners to produce and respond to a wider range of communicative functions. Furthermore, research on the teaching of pragmatics has demonstrated that pragmatic features can be successfully learned in classroom settings and that explicit rather than implicit instructions is most effective (Kasper and Rose 2002). This is particularly good news for foreign language learners who do not have extensive exposure to conversational interaction outside the classroom. Thus, the question is no longer whether second language pragmatics should be taught but rather how it can be best integrated into classroom instruction.

(Spada, N., and Lightbown, P.M., 2006, in How Languages are Learned, 3rd edition, Oxford University Press, p. 103-104)

Next time you’re walking around the classroom, or if you’re collecting samples of students’ language, make sure you focus on something that goes beyond form. Go further. It simply makes sense, to me, to focus on emergent language and on a conversation-driven approach to language teaching – as long as you’re doing it right. The problem lies in trying to do something before you really know how to do it.

16 thoughts on “Purposeful communication

  1. I’ve always believed we should not detach language learning from the sociocultural context in which it lies in. First and foremost, we should teach pragmatics since there’s an obvious huge discrepancy between native pragramatic competence and that of non-native. One of the reasons being due to the fact that language learners and teachers (Brazilians included), place greater importance on grammar and have issues when it comes to relating the language to its sociocultural aspects. Mostly because of the traditional tendency of the learners to heavily rely on bottom-up processing rather than using ‘frames’ for social interpretation.

    It is our duty to help our students become to use language appropriately in social situations by doing activities that require them to:
    * use language for a variety of purposes,
    * shift language for different listeners or occasions,
    * engage into discussions about different topics,
    * use conversation and storytelling skills

    I’ve recently read this and I guess you migth be interested. It shows a very nice way of introducing pragmatics into language teaching, suggestions and ideas for activities and some videos. http://coerll.utexas.edu/methods/modules/pragmatics/03/

    Great post!

    1. Hi Bruno,

      No, we should not teach language as if it were isolated from any kind of context. Yet, we cannot teach language alone, and it’s paramount that all teachers also think likewise. This seems to be the major source of difficulty in many language schools – teachers who barely speak the same language when it comes to them making their own choices.

      One other issue, in addition to the one you mentioned, has to do with the kind of teacher training we have in our profession. Many teachers also lack the necessary knowledge to go beyond what the text book offers. I hope no one gets me wrong – I don’t mean to say that teachers don’t do this because they don’t want to; au contraire, many teachers have got nowhere to go to for this kind of information. Unfortunately, in Brazil, there are many English teachers whose sole exposure to the language was a song or two in English. We’re still a long way to go.

      I agree with what you’ve described, Bruno! And many thanks for sharing the link. 🙂

  2. I’ve seen so little correction in the classroom of any form in my classroom observations. It is terrible to say but there is little training given on any form of correction never mind ‘correction of form’. Generally, if you know language, which a teacher is supposed to, then you are expected to know what to correct. It is the difference between being and English teacher and a, English language teacher.

    It is for this reason that teachers don’t develop to the type of correction you are describing here. I might also say this is the reason why teachers correct form. Why?
    a) because it is easier
    b) they teach form and so must make sure it is correct
    c) students expect it as this (form) is what they feel is important to them

    The lexical approach, in which you quote calls for this higher level of correction, and is an example of what is nigh on impossible to implement in the classroom unless you are an teacher who has studied the language to a higher and larger degree.

    A further difficulty I noticed in the Freeman quote is that they expect the teacher to slip into the shoes of a native speaker who is not as languge teachers and judge the language from this perspective. Not an easy or pragmatic thing to do for a non-native (NEST) to do to another. It takes discipline and effort – a hell of alot of it.

    1. Hi Shaun,

      Error correction, or any kind of correction is something that’s rather delicate. Unfortunately, what you’ve described in the first paragraph of your comment is also what I’ve noticed from talking to students from many different schools, as well as in lesson observations. But I also tend to look at it from a broader cultural perspective – Brazilians in general have difficulties giving feedback in any area. It’s just something we haven’t been trained to do.

      As far as the higher degree of studies and understanding of the language go, I guess this should be the number one thing any teacher should aim at. It’s quite obvious that a Non-NEST would find it a lot harder to learn the subtleties of the language, but it’s not something that can’t be done. I remember we were both attending the same lecture by Jack Richards in which he talked about what English teachers should look for in terms of development. You stood up and asked him which one item, out of the 9 items on his list, would be the most important. He hesitated a little bit but then conceded that it was knowing the language very well.

      Perhaps the large number of language schools without any kind of quality control contributes for many people to just start teaching without even being able to pass a B2-level certificate. This certainly makes it a lot harder, huh?!

      Finally, I agree with you that it takes a hell a lot of discipline and effort for non-natives to put themselves in the shoes of native speakers. But then again, doesn’t teaching take a lot of discipline and effort as well?

      Many thanks for the thoughtful comment, Shaun! 🙂

  3. For me, in a classroom setting, or while correcting students’ journals, I have to choose the level I’m going to correct at. If a student says, “Therese occupation is an English teacher,” I can respond by correcting the grammar, “Therese’s occupation is an English teacher,” or I can say, “It sounds more natural if you say Therese is an English teacher.” It gets confusing if you do both, especially in written form. Sometimes, if I want to encourage them for using their new words (such as ‘occupation’), I’ll tolerate a little weirdness in usage. And then maybe do some circling with the target word, as it sounds right to me: “Right, that’s Therese’s occupation. You need to add an apostrophe S at the end of her name. Her occupation is teaching English. So you can say Therese is an English teacher.”

    What gets more confusing is when a non-native speaker who’s really fluent is constantly using a phrase in English with a specific meaning that they’ve borrowed from the mother language. For example, I was talking out a conflict with a Taiwanese college professor, and commented that we had to show grace to each other. He vehemently disagreed, because to him “grace” meant kindness shown by a superior, and I was not his superior. In another case, I was talking with a very fluent college student, who told me that when dealing with emotions I needed to “read between the lines.” For some reason, I didn’t understand his exact meaning, which was embarrassing because his tone was emotionally intense, implying I should get it simply from the force of his psyche, but I didn’t. So, then I might ask him to rephrase it in Chinese. Or give an example. I don’t want to be obtuse, but sometimes the meaning isn’t as clear as the speaker thinks.

    1. Hi Nathan,

      As teachers, we should always bear in mind our students’ level when we choose to correct anything, I suppose. I thank you for the description of what you do – it’s certainly something that teachers have to be aware of, and it clearly shows how we can start teaching them about language use from a very early stage.

      As for the second paragraph, well, if we use language to communicate, it’s only fair to assume that meaning may be lost somewhere in the middle of the conversation and we’re all entitled to clarification of meaning. What surprises me is seeing that this happened with people who were supposed to be teaching the language and preparing other teachers. There’s nothing obtuse in your behaviour, if you ask me. If I don’t understand something, it’s up to me to ask, and up to the interlocutor to clarify his point. Otherwise, there’s no communication and having a conversation becomes absolutely meaningless.

      Many thanks for the comment! 🙂

    1. Hi Ann,

      I’m grateful for your sharing on the Facebook page! There are just so many interesting things going on there that it’s hard to self-promote a post there unless others also think it’s worthwhile! But I’ll keep the invitation in mind and perhaps share a couple of other posts if they’re also useful! 🙂



  4. Thanks to all of you for sharing! It’s been a very enlightening post! Teachers here in Argentina face the same problem when it comes to correction.



  5. Hi Rick

    I liked reading your post (and not only because you’ve included Lewis’s quote 🙂 . Pragmatics is certainly an area which merits attention in the classroom, especially if we claim to be teaching English for communication (aka Communicative Approach). It is indeed often neglected at teachers conferences but Peter Grundy gave a plenary talk at IATEFL 2011. I unfortunately missed it but thanks to IATEFL online you can see it here:

    I am not sure I understood your comment about vocabulary taking up a lot of our teaching after B2 levels. Surely pre B2 students need vocabulary too, if not more of it! Perhaps post-intermediate (post B2) students should hone in more on subtleties of different utterances. For example, today we focused on

    Do you think you could have a word with her

    with my upper-int students. Have a word may sound like having a brief informal chat but in fact it can imply a very serious conversation – something which was not immediately obvious to my students and had to be clarified.

    On the point that Nathan raised, I must agree that it’s a delicate balance. On the one hand teachers should relate to what a student is trying to say, the meaning of the whole utterance and not only correct grammar. On the other hand I sometimes have to tolerate a little weirdness in expression if students are trying to use new lexis. It’s important to let them experiment with new language and actually encourage it.

    I’ll be definitely coming back to your blog, Rick.


    P.S. Thanks, Ann, for pointing me in the direction of this blog

    1. Hi Leo,

      First of all, many thanks for the comment, and I’m flattered to hear you enjoyed the post and will be coming back to the blog for more. I hope you find the other posts as good as this one!

      Pragmatics seems to be forgotten by most teachers, I guess. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that teachers really need to be comfortable with using the language (in the case of NNESTs, for example), and also to understand the culture of the student (in the case of NESTs). I’ll definitely have a look at Peter Grundy’s talk! Thanks for the link.

      I see your point regarding what I said about vocabulary for B2+ levels. What I meant was that, at this level, students are likely to have already seen pretty much all grammar they’re supposed to be able to use, and they should have already learned about segmental and supra-segmental features of the language so that their pronunciation doesn’t get in the way of the message they’re trying to convey. I guess it’s somewhat close to Lewis’s plateau and how to overcome this plateau. This doesn’t mean students should make do with as little lexis as possible before this level, but this is the time for us to actually work on lexis harder. But I’d say I was trying to say the same thing you said when you mentioned honing in on the subtleties of the language. this is why I believe it should be more about learning more about the words they already know than teaching them new words over and over again.

      And, finally, yes, it’s quite delicate to know when to accept awkwardness and when to point out to students that their utterances sound weird. But, hey, that’s the beauty of teaching, and the reason why teachers should constantly be reflecting on what they do, right?! 🙂

      Many thanks for the comment, once again! Looking forward to hearing more from you, and I’ll definitely be paying your blog some visits as well! 🙂

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