The study of how the interpretation of meaning in communication is influenced by social context is called pragmatics. It doesn’t look at the form or mechanics of language, but at how it is actually used in different social situations. For example, language can be used to ask questions, to give an instruction, to congratulate someone, to comfort them or to swear a testimony. Each of these aspects of linguistic performance also plays their part in communication but must be learnt and applied in the appropriate way.
Watch this clip on language and social relations:
RSA Animate - Language as a Window into Human Nature
Can you think of other examples that would be commonly used in the classroom?
Euphemisms, or polite use of language, also come into the area of pragmatics. Learners need to learn that the way they speak to their best friend is probably not appropriate when speaking to an adult they haven’t met before. They also come to realise that communication doesn’t always mean reacting to the surface meaning of words, but interpreting the underlying intent. ‘Can you pass the bread?’ is not enquiring as to someone’s physical capability, but a polite way of requesting that an action is carried out.
Idioms are expressions that convey a different meaning to what might be predicted from the individual words. They can be one of the most difficult parts of a language for all learners to understand, including those who are learning the language as an adult.
Consider the following idioms and the confusion they may cause to someone who doesn’t understand the underlying meaning:
- to lose weight
- your ears are burning
- put your mind at rest.
. . . it is now widely believed that children learn interactional skills first, and then begin to master other aspects of the language. […] Children learn key aspects of interaction, such as turn-taking, gaining the floor, and negotiating meaning very early.
Nunan, D. (1989) Understanding Language Classrooms. Prentice Hall.
In order to successfully communicate in a conversation, the art of taking turns also has to be learnt. It involves knowing the subtle cues that indicate that another person is reaching a point in their speech that allows you to start talking without being seen as interrupting. A learner needs to learn how to ‘follow a conversation’ adding comments that are ‘on topic’ or relevant, only changing the topic when appropriate, and being able to detect when the other person is not understanding and rephrase what they are saying to make the meaning clearer. They also need to learn to detect when the other person is becoming bored with the conversation and to know how to exit gracefully.
The following website includes information on teaching turn-taking to learners learning English as a second language:
How could you adapt some of the activities to be used in a classroom with younger learners?