Monday, 2 May 2011
Pragmatic Failure - The Test for Language Learners
In the globalised world where English is regarded as a lingua franca (at least by most native English speakers), it can be easy to spot the native from the non-native speaker. Sometimes the accent is the give-away because it is often the hardest thing to achieve - as most of us who have learnt another language will appreciate.
However, even the most accomplished language learner will experience what is known as pragmatic failure and that’s a serious fault because it can have dramatic consequences.
Pragmatic failure takes place “whenever two speakers fail to understand each other’s intentions” (Blum- Kulka and Olhstain, 1986). Thomas (1983) described it as “...the inability to understand ´what is meant by what is said´”. It does not spring from a lack of knowledge about how to handle the ‘technical aspects’ of language such as grammar, syntax of phonology but from failing to understand how language may be used in a social or societal context.
In other words, we might see an error in grammatical structure, word order or pronunciation as part-and-parcel of the language learning process, and let the error pass because “we know what you mean”. With pragmatic failure what is said may be grammatically correct but come across as harsh, rude or inappropriate - not because that is the intention - but because the learner is unaware of how a native speaker uses the language.
Examples of pragmatic failure would be asking someone about a taboo subject or failing to understand the meaning of a colloquial metaphor. In some cultures it is inappropriate to ask someone how much money they earn, so raising this topic may be perceived as vulgar in some cultures while completely acceptable in others.
For the language learner, it is essential to have more than a purely linguistic knowledge of the languages you speak - a deep cultural knowledge of the countries where those languages are spoken is important, which is why it's good to spend time visiting the countries themselves. Thomas (1983) proposed that “linguistic competence” must be composed of both “grammatical competence” (i.e. knowing the syntax, phonology and semantics of the language) and “pragmatic competence” (knowing how and when to use language correctly.)
This “linguistic competence” equips the learner to convey the correct meaning and sense of the language so as to avoid giving the wrong impression. So pay attention to the way language is used, put things into context, watch native speakers and observe how they use language. Become culturally aware and this will help you to avoid pragmatic failure.
Blum- Kulka, S and Olshtain , E. (1986): “Too Many Words: Length of Utterance and Pragmatic Failure”, SSLA 8: 165-180.
Thomas, J. (1983). Cross-cultural Pragmatic Failure, Applied Linguistics, 4(2), 91-112