Gabriela Kasper


Gabriela Kasper: My name is Gabriela Kasper. I’m a professor at the University of Havaiamanure ? and work in the Department of Second Language Studies where I teach in the Masters Program in ESL and the Doctoral Program in Second Language Acquisition and also in an Advanced Graduate Certificate Program for Second Language Studies.

Well, what is pragmatics? Um, that is not a very easy question to answer and if we look at the literature, we will see that um, different scholars have different answers to this question. Um, I’d like to answer the question in a very literist fashion. ‘Pragma’ is a Greek word, which means ‘action or act.’ So pragmatics is really the study of how to act or how to perform action and in our context, it would mean doing things with words as John Austin says, “The study of using language for action” or language as action you might even want to say.

Yeah, in interlanguage pragmatics, we are putting together um notions coming from different disciplines. I have just explained what pragmatics is, the study of using language for action, interlanguage is a term that comes out of second language acquisition theory and it refers to the way in which language learners, second language learners uh typically, develop their uh target language abilities, the ways in which they use the target language in uh speaking, uh writing, and listening, and reading. And putting this together with pragmatics we can then say that interlanguage pragmatics um comprises the ways in which non-Native speakers understand and produce linguistic action in a target language and the ways in which they um develop the ability over time um to become competent in the pragmatics of the target language.

Um, pragmatic universals have been um addressed uh from a number of perspectives and a by a number of scholars. First of all, we can certainly say that um the overall speech act categories uh, such as um declarations or commissives or um directives, are universal to the world’s—uh, within the world’s languages and the world’s speakers. Moreover we can also say that specific speech acts are very clearly universal. In other words, it would be impossible to think of communities where members would not request somebody else to do something or where they would not accept or reject what somebody else has said or done and so forth. So there are—there is a whole range of individual speech acts, which as far as we know at this point are universal. Um, there are also strategies by which speech acts can be performed or realized. Uh, which again, I always have to say according to what we know now um very clearly suggests a universal state. So for example, taking the crests which probably the best researched speech act that we uh can look at this at this time, um very roughly we can distinguish between the very direct way of performing a request, saying something like, “Do this, “um, and then a very indirect way by hinting at something. And then there’s something in the middle, which we call conventionally indirect. And in English that would um, um, uh encompass such uh realizations as can you do this—could you do this? How about doing this? Why don’t you do this? Why don’t you do that? So you might say form your leg. Conventionalized usages, which um indicate to the recipient that uh what, is—is being said is a request. And these three um, broad groups of request strategies are certainly universal. So it is not the linguistic um implementations that are universal but the strategies are such.

Well, there has been quite a bit of research um addressing this very important question, how learners um acquire pragmatic ability in a second language. And um this has been done from mainly two different research perspectives which are uh are very common in second language acquisition studies and uh that would be conducting other cross-sectional or longitudinal studies. Um, the um, longitudinal studies in particular have inspired by longitudinal work both in first language acquisition and also second language acquisition. In other words, uh one would observe a learner or a small group of learners over a longer period of time um, very often a year or even longer. And what we see in these studies um is that there are distinct patterns of pragmatic development. Um, pretty much learners would start out by using whatever elementary linguistic knowledge they already have um, but would be in particular words that they can use in order to perform speech acts and uh other pragmatic functions in—in a very elementary way and uh the next stadium would be to use frozen forms or prefabricated patterns which uh may function quite well in the context, but the learner would not be able to um break them up to analyze them and use the elements productively. So that then would be the third stage that the learner um has um a repatra of rule and elements that can be used um according to um what the speaker wants to do in any particular situation.

Why is the learning of pragmatics important to second language learners? Well, the answer is that um many studies and actually also a lot of um uh observation, especially on the part of language teachers shows that second language learners can be quite good at using the grammar, the words, the vocabulary of a second language but without really having a good sense of how this linguistic material can be put to pragmatic use in different uh context and in order to perform different speech acts, discourse functions, engaging in conversation and so forth. And this has to do with the fact that um—we just talked about universal but—pragmatic universals and, of course, adult language learners in particular um will have pragmatic universals as part of their overall pragmatic knowledge. But as we know from um many uh other studies within second language acquisition um having universal knowledge does not necessarily mean the activation of that knowledge when it is uh called upon or would come in handily. So we find that um, for example, understanding indirect speech acts, which is something that any adults—um a person ca do in their native language and culture, we find that as language learners, very often learners interpret utterances which might be meant as indirect utterances, um in a literal way. So um getting it—the—the surface meaning of—or the semantic meaning you might say of the utterances, but not at their pragmatic intent in the given situation. So uh this—this would be um one—one area that shows quite clearly that as far as the grammar and um the lexis is concerned, learners might be quite advanced that interpreting pragmatic intent in a target-like way is often something that is difficult for language learners.

The—the question of politeness as a learning goal for second language learners’ um one thing comes—that comes to mind is um there is a very famous politeness theory. Um Brown Levinson um proposed this theory in 1978 and then it was um—he issued as a book in 1987. Everybody who works in politeness has to, you know, know the—the theory. And um, what has been found is that whereas the theory um claims to be universal and there is a debate in the literature whether it is or not, um it is certainly the case that politeness means different things for members of different communities. And what has been found is that um learners tend to transfer uh their uh politeness perceptions, what they uh perceive as the right politeness style from their own community to another community. And um this transfer of politeness style can really encompass the whole approach to a particular encounter. So for instance we found that um, um learners coming from a so-called positive politeness culture, which um would manifest it—itself in such things as having a high involvement style, following very closely what the other person is saying, producing a lot of back channels, and—and so forth. Emphasizing solidarity with—with the other person that such speakers might transfer this style to situations where the speakers um another community would rather use um a more distant style, a more differential style. So um—and this could work both ways, actually. So um even though the whole notion of pragmatic transfers, a very complex one, and it’s certainly not the case that um we could just perform the contrast of analysis in order to predict whether there’s transfer or not, nevertheless, there is very often something like uh a stylistic uh transfer from the first language or another language that the learner knows well and um—which uh has an impact on—on the politeness by which um learners act by means of the target language.

The role transfer in uh, pragmatic development um has been addressed in a number of studies and it is quite interesting to see that um there are two opposing hypotheses. One hypothesis which would be more um in line with what has generally been found in second language acquisition studies would say that the more advanced learners are the less they would transfer from one. And by transfer now, I mean negative transfer. In other words, transferring um, pragmatic material or assessments of situations, which are not consistent with what target language speakers do. And uh if we look at syntax for example, or vocabulary, or mythology, we would find that uh with increasing proficiency there’s less negative transfer and there are some data showing exactly that, that the more experienced learners have in the target language, the more they figure out the pragmatics of the target language, the less negative pragmatic transfer do we see. But we also find data um showing us an—a reverse possibility and that is um learners who are more advanced might actually produce more negative transfer. And that has to do with the um perhaps um uh a simple fact that they transfer because now they can. In other words, uh why learners are still quiet um at the beginning stages, they may not have the necessary linguistic repatra to transfer perhaps more complex strategies from their L1to L2. So involuntary you might say, they don’t produce negative pragmatic transferring because we don’t—they—they—they cannot. They—they don’t have the linguistic a repatra to do this. When they’re more advanced and um have more complex linguistic material in the L2 at their disposal, they may then also transfer more complex uh; pragmatic strategies from their L1 and this may not work out in the context of L2. This has been called the negative correlation hypothesis and uh there’s evidence of both hypotheses.

The relationship between linguistic and social skills in judgments of communicative competence. Well, the first thing that I have to ask you is, whose judgment? Is it the learner’s judgment or is it the way the learner is judged by, for example native speakers or teachers? (interruption) Um, if I can sort of translate the question uh a little to um pragmatics terminology, then um what it reminds me of is the distinction that was suggested um in the beginning 80’s um by Leach and uh by his then colleague, Jenny Thomas, and that is the distinction between sociopragmatics and pragmatic linguistics where pragmatic linguistics refers to the interface of pragmatics with language structure and uh sociopragmatics to the interface of pragmatics with social structure. And um what there is, we certainly have to say that in um ongoing conversation or ongoing language use of any sorts, it might be difficult to distinguish um between the two because as analysts we would look at the linguistic product. For example, how do children or adults um perform uh conversations, um speech act. And—and uh so forth and um figuring out from performance data alone whether, in the cases where they perhaps um do things with words in a way that is different from the way that speakers of the target language do this, what is at the basis of this? Is—is—is it pragmatically linguistic? In other words, there’s something in their pragmatic linguistic knowledge, the way that they exploit target language structures from pragmatic users. That would be a pragmatic linguistic. Or does the difference that we see between learners, pragmatic action, and native speakers action perhaps have something to do with different social perspect—uh, perceptions. So what is appropriate to do in these particular situations? What is the relationship between interlocutrices in this situation? Um, is it more target like to um be more polite or more differential to this person or is it OK to um be um perhaps more straightforward, etc, etc. From uh the linguistic data themselves, this is very often uh difficult to say and yet it is important to maintain this distinction because pretty much uh like you said, depending on the analysis that we perform whether we say, “Well, the learner here has trouble with the language.” Or whether we say, “The learner here has trouble um understanding the way um that the community is organized socially and cultural—socially and culturally.” This will uh result in very different teaching options.

That is a difficult one and probably because it is a difficult one um the language testing community has shied away from um actually testing pragmatics specifically. Um, that is changing and um perhaps I should just back track a little bit and say that um already in 1980 when Merrill Swayne and Michael Cannali proposed their model of commutative competence, this was um a proposal, a frame work, for a second language teaching and testing. So already at that time, they um viewed the testing of pragmatic ability of—of commutative competence and all its different components, which of course includes pragmatics as very important. But this didn’t really catch on that much um at that point—at that time. Um, commutative competence did uh catch on as a leading construct in teaching, but much less as a leading construct in testing. Ten years later, LaBeckman um modified the Cannali and Swayne model now in a—in a distinct testing context. And um in more recent years, the last um—over the last decade there have been um very specific efforts to develop tests specifically for pragmatics. Um, at the University of Havaier at Manure where I work, my colleagues uh J.D. Brown and Tom Hudson um developed um a set of instruments for testing pragmatic ability and uh these instruments include such things as um, uh discourse completion, tests which are written questionnaires that um have to be filled in a little like a discourse closure you might say, both in an oral and a written format, uh multiple choice, role plays, and uh self assessments, including role plays self assessment. Well, the role play self assessments would be things such as first, candidates would perform a role play and then afterwards they would assist themselves how well they did in that role play. So it’s a battery of six different tests uh which um in a matter—trade matter method format are all uh designed to shed light on candidates’ pragmatic ability.

The target audience would be um (interruption) the—the target audience for the tests that my colleagues have developed um would be um adults or young adults um the—um the populations that have been tested so far, all college students, um either in a second language or foreign language environment. Um, so the tests have been used on such languages as EFL, ESL, Japanese, and uh Japanese as a target language. And um it is certainly uh difficult to imagine that they could be used for really beginning learners, whether these really beginning learners are children or adults because it does require some amount of um linguistic ability in order to understand the context and, for example, to write in the written mode, so there are certainly limitations there and I—I would say at this point we don’t really have test instruments which um would be suitable for really beginning learners.

OK, perspectives on pragmatic development. What would be different theoretical approaches, which might account for—for pragmatic development? Um, we’re fortunate to be able to draw on theories that have been developed elsewhere in the social sciences and that we can um apply to understanding how pragmatic development of second language learners um evolves. Um, one such approach would be information-processing theory, which of course comes in different varieties and um is a very influential approach in uh second language acquisition studies generally. Um, from an information processing perspective, we can examine such things as “What does it take for learners to uh perceive input, relative pragmatic input, in the environment whether this is in a classroom or whether it is out there um in uh—in an out-of-classroom context?” And um in this regard my colleague, Richard Schmidt, from my department at the University of Havaier um has proposed a hypothesis of input processing which um is known as the noticing hypothesis and it holds that in order for input um to be made available for further processing, thus be useful for learning, the learner has to notice this—this input. The input has to be registered. So exposure alone um may not be sufficient. There has to be exposure because without exposure, no input. But is exposure alone does not guarantee that learners notice the pragmatic features that are important for their pragmatic development. So that would be um one aspect of um looking at pragmatic development from an information processing perspective. Another would be um the whole question about um in a teaching situation, how can pragmatics best be taught? And here perhaps one of the most important questions that have been addressed in recent years, not only with respective pragmatics is um what kind of teaching works best? Is it implicit or explicit teaching? Implicit in the sense the learner um is provided with lots of input, maybe input that is enhancing in particular ways, but no explicit explanation uh about um speech or accent, the realization possibilities and social context factors, and that kind of thing. Um, so that the—the learner has to figure it out um inductively um, uh by attending to input or does it work better or conversely if the learner receives such explanations, such um occasions to reflect um on the pragmatics of the target language to develop their metapragmatic awareness. What works better? Well, there’s quite a few studies that have been done on this issue uh with respective pragmatics and also um in the second language acquisition field more generally. And um what has been very interesting is that um last year a meta-analysis was published um Thotus Ortega and John Norris, actually it’s Norris and Ortega in “Language learning,” one of our leading journals in the field and they conducted this met-analysis where they examined I think it was as many as 77 studies comparing explicit an implicit teaching mostly on grammar but some of them also on pragmatics and uh the result of this very careful meta-analysis is that explicit works better. So um there are—there are significant differences between um results obtained through explicit and implicit teaching and the explicitly taught learners um come out ahead. Now this result is entirely consistent with what we know from the teaching of pragmatics and comparisons that have been done on the teaching of pragmatics using explicit and implicit approaches because here too we find that explicit works better. Now I have to say immediately, by this we don’t mean that learners only perceive um information about uh the opportunity to reflect on the pragmatics on the language. There has to be a practice component because after all, using a language is a skill and one cannot develop skills uh unless the language is used. So they have to—there has to be both.

Well, maybe I—I can um, uh comment on what you just said about um Zonar Proximal Development and sociocultural as—sociocultural approaches because in fact, a sociocultural approach I prefer calling a Vagodskian—a Vagodskian theory, sociocognitive rather than sociocultural um sociocognitive approaches, two pragmatic development um have been inducted um to—uh to some extent and um studies of ongoing classrooms—these are typically not experimental studies, but these are observational studies looking at what goes on in ordinary classrooms that are not specifically designed to promote um learners uh pragmatic ability, what opportunities do these classrooms offer for students to develop pragmatic ability, conversational ability, and so forth. And these studies are typically done over a long period of time, one year would—would be quite—quite typical, and then looking into what do different arrangements of interaction in these classrooms offer learners in terms of pragmatic development. So for example, what do learners get out of um the famous teacher fronted IRF. Right? The Initiation Response Feedback um as opposed to smaller group learner centered work. And um it’s very interesting that uh with respect to Japanese as a foreign, for example, in the order from the University of Welshing, which has published a wonderful book on the acquisition of Japanese as a foreign language um in uh university classrooms. What she can show is two things. One is that yes, in the small group interactions over time, learners both learn such things as how to request appropriately, they learn how to structure their interaction in a cooperative way, and very uh interestingly, doing this in the way that they shift novice expert roles. That is very important because what Vagodski said way—way back was the Zonar Proximal Development (pause) has to be established in such a way that the learner is the novice um is—is guided um by an expert. What others data show is that expert novice roles can switch in the same interaction. So—and that’s very important a theoretically and also for the practice of second language learning because very often teachers and others are concerned about what learners can actually learn from each other. Would they not just pick up each other’s errors, that’s—that’s a very real concern, but others show through very careful analysis this is actually not the case. They help each other. And even the weaker partner can help the stronger. They—they shift. So this is very exciting. And another thing that is very interesting is that depending on what it is that we look at, the—the teacher guided exchange in the IR—uh IRF routine may not be as useless as—at least I use to think in uh—in—in—in my own research because um, for example, there’s uh a discourse practice in Japanese which is giving listener responses. And listener responses would typically occur in the third term in the IRF. So a teacher initiation, student provides a response and then the teacher acts. And that is something that occurs extremely frequently in Japanese conversation, also in the classroom. And the recip—the receipt tokens that are used by the teacher are basically the same tokens that speakers would use in ordinary conversation outside the classroom. So the students get tons of input here, relevant input. They get great models about how to use these listener responses and as uh it show what—what they first perceive in this modeling done by the teacher, they would later use in interaction uh with other students in small group work.

OK. Well, I think I—I have something that I—I really like to say. We—we just um talked about classroom research that has been done on pragmatic development and um what I have observed by looking at the literature on—uh classroom research on pragmatic development and the learning opportunities offered by different activities in language classrooms is that the studies pretty much fall into two groups which aren’t related to each other very well. On the one hand we have studies, which you might call observational. These are studies that look into what’s going on in the classrooms without any kind of intervention. And these studies are process studies in the sense that they focus on classroom processes. Very often they’re longitudinal studies of an extended period uh of time and recording carefully um interaction between teacher and students and between students and students then um making detailed transcripts and analyzing these transcripts, which is very good and very insightful. On the other had we have classroom experiments which um are typically conducted in a pretest, posttest—if we’re lucky delayed post test, not always—um, designs so pretests—let me repeat this. It would be a pretest treatment, posttest, and even sometimes a delayed posttest. This, of course, is something we need because we—we do need to submit to um experimental testing, what kinds of teaching approaches work better than other teaching approaches. And very often such experiments um are theoretically informed um drawing on uh, different theories of pragmatic development or on uh different theories that have been developed in the second language acquisition mod—uh, literature more generally. So both these types of studies are very important, they’re very useful. They have had very exciting results. But what I want to see is a combination of both. I want to see what um in the educational world um way back and for decades, I guess, has been known as product process research. So looking at what happens when a particular treatment is implemented. How does this work? Um, how do learners respond to it? Do they respond to all aspects of the treatment in the same way or perhaps differentially? How do teachers implement the treatment because probably not every teacher implements it in the same way? So um putting together both of these very useful components, the—the observational and the uh, interventional component in studies uh on pragmatics development in the classroom, that is something that I would like to see more of.

My hunch would be that from a research perspective, it should be possible to make predictions about what kinds of learners—learners with—with what kinds of characteristics would respond best to um what kind of pragmatic teaching. I don’t have any doubts about that, what I see is a huge practical problem and that is, that of course there—there’s a lot of individual difference in—in any class and how teachers can attend to each student’s um particular um strengths and weaknesses and preferences of learning styles and so forth, that is certainly a huge challenge and um I—I would think that um the uh perhaps very pragmatic and—the um—in its ordinary sense uh solution that teachers everywhere um have to this problem would be that um very variable approach is a good thing so that students with different characteristics always find something that appeals to themselves. It may not appeal to everybody but um variety in the—in the teaching offers that are made in—in the way that the material is presented and the activities that students um, uh are encouraged to engage in, I think this—this would probably have to be the answer.