This is the last of three parts on Grice and Implicatures.
4. Implications for the Classroom
In Bouton’s experiment (1999), a total of 6 hours of explicit instruction was given over a 6-week period using teaching materials (see Appendix below) that focused students on implicature interpretation. On the basis of Bouton’s albeit tentative findings (3.3.1), English teachers should draw attention to how utterances take on different meanings in different contexts, discuss when different implicatures are appropriate, how they function, and how they compare to implicatures from the students’ native cultures (ibid:60-61). Alongside raising awareness of the native culture to help with relevance-based implicatures, I believe teachers can develop new materials, adapt old ones, highlight implicatures when they arise and expose students to examples through film, situation comedies, Twitter postings (As Twitter postings are limited to 140 characters, ‘tweets’ have to be short and succinct. Popular tweets often contain implicatures used to present an attitude or an innuendo, and in most cases, to be witty and humorous), and other aspects of pop culture, without wasting valuable class time.
There are also times when interlocutors fail to realise that learners are infringing a maxim or opting out. Students can avoid generating unintended implicatures or creating wrong impressions by using discourse markers:
‘forgive me if I’m wrong’ (non-observance of quality maxims),
‘by the way’ (non-observance of relevance maxim),
‘for want of a better word’ (non-observance of manner maxim),
‘to cut a long story short’ (when faced with a quantity-quality clash).
Few coursebooks (the book ‘Conversation Lessons’ (Martinez, 1997) comes closest to presenting such lexical items in context. Most coursebooks e.g. Cutting Edge, Inside Out, and Vocabulary in Use Upper Intermediate (McCarthy and O’Dell, 2001:56-57) touch on them briefly but tend to present them in a de-contextualised, isolated fashion) focus on teaching such adverbials, perhaps not understanding that they could be essential to successful communication and deserve more classroom time. Teachers could work with emergent language, providing and highlighting the use of such lexical items when the context arises.
As English becomes an international language and is learnt as a tool to communicate with NNS (Jenkins, 2003:4), it is undeniable that the cross-cultural interpretation of utterances faces a new challenge. Currently, most intermediate-level NNS would negotiate meaning while giving each other a wide berth when interpreting implicatures. However, as most countries are now insisting on the learning of English from a young age, we will soon have a new generation of proficient English speakers confronted with a new breed of potential misunderstandings when communicating cross-culturally. The awareness of implicature interpretation in different cultures will necessitate more attention in future EFL classrooms, and a new understanding of CP will be called for.
Grice’s principles have offered the linguistic world a way of looking at conversations beyond the words and opened up new areas of exploration in the area of pragmatics, but the implications of these studies have yet to be filtered through to the English language classroom. For learners who are immersed in an English/American culture, it is essential that we help them to adapt by raising awareness of implicature interpretation. As we move into a new age of English as an international language, the subject of implicatures would need further study and applications to teaching.
Do you deal with pragmatics and discourse in your classroom? How can we help learners become more effective interactants through understanding the Co-operative Principle better? Comments with any practical ideas you may have will much appreciated. Meanwhile, here’s one practical worksheet developed by Bouton (1999) to get us started, followed by a bibliography to all three parts of this series. Thanks for following. I hope it has helped somehow.
Sample materials developed as handouts for teaching implicature
Lesson 1: Introduction and Pope Q Formula
Introduction: In many languages, including English, people often do not say exactly what they intend to communicate. Sometimes in English we imply information and expect others to figure out what we really mean. One kind of indirect speech is called conversational implicature. Conversational implicature take different forms, but they are always a result of the interaction between language and context. The examples below illustrate one kind of conversational implicature.
Instructions: Read the following examples and answer the question following each example.
Example 1: Paul and Georgette are discussing a mutual acquaintance who is always running late.
Paul: Do you expect Sheila to be late for the party tonight?
Georgette: Is the pope Catholic?
What is the answer to Georgette’s question? What do you think she means?
Example 2: Celia and Ron are discussing their boss, who is very unpleasant.
Celia: So, do you think Mr. Stingy will give me a raise?
Ron: Do cows fly?
What does Ron mean?
Example 3: Larry and Charlene are talking about a test they recently took.
Charlene: Do you think you got an “A” on the test?
Larry: Do chickens have lips?
What does Larry mean?
Discussion: In each of the examples above, the second person answers the first person with another question, so we have the formula Question 1+Question 2 = Answer. In each case, the obvious answer to Question 2 becomes the answer to Question 1 also. For example, in the first case, Paul asks, “Do you expect Sheila to be late for the party tonight?” (Question 1). Georgette answers, “Is the pope Catholic?” (Question 2). Because the obvious answer to Question 2 is “yes” (the pope is the leader of the Catholics), Georgette’s answer to Paul is also “yes.”
Bouton, L.F. (1999:67-69) ‘Developing non-native speaker skills in interpreting conversational implicatures in English: Explicit teaching can ease the process’, in Hinkel, E. (ed.) (1999) Culture in Second Language Teaching and Learning. Cambridge: University of Cambridge.
Austin J.L. (1962) How to do things with words. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Bouton, L.F. (1988) ‘A cross-cultural study of ability to interpret implicatures in English’. World Englishes 7/2: 183-196.
Bouton, L.F. (1994) ‘Can NNS Skill in Interpreting Implicature in American English Be Improved Through Explicit Instruction?: A Pilot Study’. Pragmatics and Language Learning Monograph Series 5: 89-109.
Bouton, L.F. (1999) ‘Developing non-native speaker skills in interpreting conversational Implicatures in English: Explicit teaching can ease the process’. In Hinkel, E. (ed.) (1999) Culture in Second Language Teaching and Learning. Cambridge: University of Cambridge.
Brown, G. and G. Yule (1983) Discourse Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Cameron, D. (2001) Working with Spoken Discourse. London: Sage.
Carston, R. (2004) A review of Stephen Levinson Presumptive Meanings. Journal of Linguistics 40/1: 181-186.
Clyne, M.G. (1994) Inter-cultural communication at work: cultural values in discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Cohen, A.D. (1996) Speech Acts. In McKay S.L. and N.H. Hornberger (eds.) Sociolinguistics and Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Cook, G. (1989) Discourse. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Davis, W.A. (1998) Implicature: Intention, convention, and principle in the failure of Gricean theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Fox, K. (2004) Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. London: Hodder.
Gazdar, G. (1979) Pragmatics: Implicature, Presupposition and Logical form. New York: Academic Press, Inc.
Grice, H.P. (1975) ‘Logic and conversation’. In P. Cole and J. Morgan (eds.) Syntax and Semantics 3: Speech Acts.New York: Academic Press.
Grice, H.P (1978) ‘Further Notes on Logic and Conversation’. In Kasher, A. (ed.) (1998) Pragmatics vol. IV: 162-178. London: Routledge.
Hatim, B. (1997) Communication Across Cultures: Translation Theory and Contrastive Text Linguistics. Exeter: University of Exeter Press.
Jenkins, J. (2003) World Englishes: A resource book for students. London:Routledge.
Keenan, E.O. (1976) ‘The Universality of Conversational Postulates’. In Kasher, A. (ed.) (1998) Pragmatics vol. IV: 215-229. London: Routledge.
Leech, G. (1983) Principles of Pragmatics. London: Longman
Levinson, S. (1983) Pragmatics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Levinson, S. (2000) Presumptive Meanings. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Martinez, R. (1997) Conversation Lessons: The Natural Language of Conversation. Hove England: Language Teaching Publications.
McCarthy, M. and F. O’Dell (2001) English Vocabulary in Use: Upper Intermediate. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Spencer-Oatey, H. and W. Jiang (2003) ‘Explaining Cross-Cultural Pragmatic Findings: moving from politeness maxims to sociopragmatic interactional principles (SIPs)’. Journal of Pragmatics 35:1633-1650.
Sperber, D. and D. Wilson (1986) Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Sperber, D. and D. Wilson (1987) ‘Précis of Relevance’, in Kasher, A. (ed.) (1998), Pragmaticsvol. V: 82-115. London: Routledge.
Sperber, D. and D. Wilson (2004) ‘Relevance Theory’, in Horn, L. and G. Ward (eds.) Handbook of Pragmatics. Oxford: Blackwell.
Thomas, J. (1995) Meaning in Interaction: an Introduction to Pragmatics. London: Longman.
Wierzbicka, A. (1985) A semantic metalanguage for a cross-cultural comparison of speech acts and speech genres. Language in Society 14: 491-514.
Yule, G. (1996) Pragmatics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
In my last post, I looked at Grice’s Co-operative Principle (CP) and how the observance or flouting of the maxims creates meaning and implicatures in interaction.
In this post, I will look at the criticisms of Grice’s theories and the alternatives to CP that were proposed. I will also examine the universality of CP and how they might or might not be applicable across cultures, with a special section dedicated to the use of irony and British humour.
3. Criticisms of Grice
Critics say that Grice’s maxims are not only inapplicable ubiquitously, but that he had not used the terms in 2.2.4 consistently. CP has also been criticised on a number of counts: lack of distinctions between the maxims and between types of non-observance when calculating implicature, and the inability to withstand evidence of real language use (Thomas 1995, Gazdar 1979, Leech 1983). However, the most substantial criticisms are as follows.
3.1 Relevance Theory
Sperber and Wilson (2004) questioned the need for CP’s maxims, saying that expectations of relevance alone are enough to guide the hearer towards speaker meaning. They suggest that the search for relevance is basic to human cognitive systems (Cognitive Principle), and when utterances are made, interlocutors combine the input with available background information, while using the least processing effort required, to derive meaning. Consider:
(xiv) I’ll google it.
Using the input plus the background knowledge (which can also be described as one’s schema of the internet) that ‘Google’ is an online search engine, one understands that the speaker intends to search online for the information. Grice was criticised for failing to address such loose uses of language, and for treating metaphor, hyperbole and irony equally as flouting of the Quality maxim (ibid). Relevance theorists claim that besides irony, all the above loose uses of language are used to convey optimal relevance more economically (ibid), while irony involves ‘an expression of tacitly dissociative attitudes’ (ibid:272) and requires a higher order of meta-representational ability.
Not believing in the co-operative nature of humankind, Sperber and Wilson (1986) suggests a Communicative Principle where the audience would only pay attention if the stimulus is worth processing and relevant enough, and that the speaker, might have to be capable and willing to draw the hearer’s attention to his/her intentions, away from competing stimuli. Grice was criticised for seeing speaker unwillingness as a violation and thus not conveying implicatures (ibid 2004), although I worry about such a misrepresentation, considering that a violation simply comes from a speaker not wanting to convey the implicature, and does not mean the hearer cannot infer from the unwillingness. Arguably, Grice tended to focus on implicature generation and less on hearer interpretation strategies.
3.2 Politeness Principle (PP)
(xv) I don’t suppose you’ve time to spare?
Based on claims that sentences do not always have information-bearing functions, PP is proposed as a necessary complement to CP (Leech 1983:80), to explain indirect sentences like (xv) which seem to violate the quantity maxim. While CP enables communication through the assumption of cooperativeness, PP allows for such co-operation by regulating social equilibrium and relations (ibid:82). Thus, PP is seen to override CP at times.
The Ironic Principle (IP), however, allows for PP to be exploited in order to uphold CP (ibid:82-83). In (x), Sue is afraid of causing offence to Brian and makes light of Brian’s flaws, allowing him to infer her real meaning through indirectness, by way of irony, ‘an “honest” form of apparent deception, at the expense of politeness’(ibid:83).
While CP has been criticised repeatedly for not being universal, PP allows for the study of how such principles are variable on different dimensions and are exploited differently in different societies (ibid:84). Nevertheless, how much of CP is non-universal?
3.3 The universality of CP
I have found disagreement over whether Grice believed in the universal application of CP. Spencer-Oatey and Jiang (2003) claimed that according to Grice, they were universal principles of language use. Leech (1983:80) believed that no claim has been made that CP applied in the same way everywhere. Sperber & Wilson (1987) and Davis (1998), however, both think of implicatures as social conventions, and therefore, interlinguistic, and lists quantity implicatures and irony as common to many languages (ibid:186). Gazdar (1979:54), on the other hand, takes Grice’s claim that CP is something ‘reasonable for us to follow’ to mean that the nature of the maxims are universal, and argues that Grice’s maxims ‘cannot be defended as universal principles of conversation’ (ibid:55). Clyne (1994:12) believes the maxims are anglo-centric, of limited relevance, and need reformulation to take non-English cultures into consideration.
Examples in 2.2.1 showed how some adherence to the maxims is already instinctive in my learners, but consider (iii) again. In parts of Northern Greece, ‘children’ conveys the GCI of ‘sons’. When interlocutors do not share the same schema of the word ‘children’, misunderstandings could arise. Considering the four factors Grice (1975) purported interlocutors use to communicate through implicature: the literal meaning of the utterance, the roles and expectations of participants, the situation, context and nature of the conversation, and the world around the participants, we can deduce that people from different cultural backgrounds would have different expectations, roles and world views, and see the contexts and nature of conversations differently (Bouton, 1999). Van Dijik’s (1977 in Brown and Yule 1983) Assumed Normality of the World suggests that our reactions to particular communicative situations are learnt through our experience of interpreting them in prior similar contexts. If the respondent’s sociocultural (Sociocultural abilities refer to the respondent’s skills at selecting speech act strategies appropriate to the culture involved, the age and sex, the social class and occupations and roles and status of the participants in interaction) and sociolinguistic abilities (Sociolinguistic abilities refer to the respondents’ skill at selecting linguistic forms to express a particular speech act strategy and their control over utterance’s register of formality) must be considered for the success of speech acts (Cohen, 1996), so it must be when interpreting implicatures.
3.3.1 Bouton’s cross-cultural study
Bouton (1988) found a significant difference between the way NS and non-native speakers (NNS) interpreted the implicatures presented within contextualised dialogues (the dialogues were presented on paper and lacked the paralinguistic and non-linguistic features that would normally be present when interpreting implicatures. This may have had some effect on his findings.), with the Germans/Spanish/Portuguese having more similar scores to NS than the Chinese/Japanese. We could perhaps conclude that certain cultures have more similar expectations and world views to the target culture than others.
Subsequently, Bouton (1994) noted that without explicit instruction, there was increased mastery of implicature types as time passes (particularly, those based on flouting the relevance maxim), although progress was slow after 17 months, and irony remained a problem even for those immersed for 54 months. The types of implicatures that remained difficult for those immersed for more than 17 months, however, were the ones that improved when a separate group was given explicit classroom instruction. Such instruction, conversely, did not help them improve on relevance-based implicatures.
Bouton (1999) believed implicatures differed in their opaqueness to NNS. Relevance-based implicatures required a lot of background information to interpret (idiosyncratic implicatures) and seemed impervious to teaching efforts, but depended on the building up of native-culture schemata over time. Formulaic implicatures, such as PopeQ (Bouton (1988) uses the term PopeQ to refer to typical ironic questions used in answer to another question. Other examples include, ‘Can ducks swim?’ and ‘Do bears sh*t in the woods?’) [see (xvi)], indirect criticism [see (viii)] and irony, however, have pattern-based structural or semantic clues, and these patterns can be taught, recognised, and used.
Deb: Do you like ice-cream?
Derren: Is the pope Catholic?
3.3.2 Irony and English humour
Much cross-cultural misinterpretation of implicatures concerns sense of humour. Consider:
(Pointing to a bottle of Coke on the table)
Nao: Is this coca-cola?
Me: It’s a pizza.
The Japanese Nao, who thought I had meant to treat her like a fool, was puzzled. Some months later, Nao said, ‘I understand! British humour is about bullying others!’ Both the Japanese and Chinese have one expression to mean irony and sarcasm, and being ironic carries a negative connotation of insult. Although Nao had identified the semantic pattern in irony, her sense that the English found humour in bullying others was misplaced.
Anthropologist Fox (2004:65-66) notes that the English treat irony as ‘a constant, a normal element of ordinary, everyday conversation’ and the ‘dominant ingredient in English humour’. What makes irony even more difficult for foreigners is that a deadpan face is the expected norm. Fox sympathises with foreigners, admitting that self-parodying is part of the English psyche deeply schematised in the culture.
If spoken irony is difficult for NNS, written irony poses a bigger problem. Hatim (1997) attributes irony to the English preference for understatements and the cryptic, enabling one to express an attitude without saying very much. Irony is hard to preserve when translating written texts. Hatim (ibid:196) suggests that Arabic is intolerant to such opaqueness, with translators of irony needing to flout the quantity maxim by being over-informative.
3.3.3 Making CP universal
Keenan’s (1976) investigation in Malagasy culture has spurred criticisms that Grice’s principles were monocentric and full of assumptions based on Anglo-Saxon norms and culture (Wierzbicka 1985, Gazdar 1979). Keenan (1976) admits the Malagasy community are not uninformative, but explains that Grice’s maxims do not hold in some societies. However, perhaps it is the critics themselves who have been monocentric and have interpreted Grice’s words from an English perspective. Arguably, being ‘as informative as required’ would stand with the Malagasy speakers if the ‘information’ expected and the schema of what ‘information’ entails differs in their culture. I believe CP could be realised in different cultures in different ways. Consider.
(xviii) Returning an unidentified missed call,
Singaporean: Hello. Who called?
Clyne (1994:192) states that in both European and East/South-east Asian culture, the more information/knowledge provided, the better. Singaporeans, however, sometimes seem comfortable with the bare information minus the niceties, so we could argue that what is ‘required’ depends on cultural variation and situational expectations. Clyne (ibid:194) proposes a set of revised ‘maxims’ (Appendix) to make CP more universal by considering different cultural norms and expectations when applying Grice’s principles. How can teachers then apply this knowledge to help students adapt to a foreign environment?
In the last part of this series, I will be looking at the implications that Grice’s theories have on teaching and asking for ideas as to how this could be relevant to what we practitioners do in the language classroom.
Clyne (1994)’s revised maxims
Quantity: A single maxim – ‘Make your contribution as informative as is required for
the purpose of the discourse, within the bounds of the discourse parameters of the given culture.’
Quality: Supermaxim – ‘Try to make your contribution one for which you can take
responsibility within your own cultural norms.’
Maxims (1) ‘Do not say what you believe to be in opposition to your cultural
norms of truth, harmony, charity, and/or respect.’
(2) Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.’
Manner: The supermaxim can be retained in its original form – ‘Be perspicacious.’
Maxims (1) ‘Do not make it any more difficult to understand than may be
dictated by questions of face and authority.’
(2) Avoid ambiguity unless it is in the interests of politeness or of
maintaining a dignity-driven cultural core value, such as harmony,
charity or respect.’
(3) ‘Make your contribution the appropriate length required by the
nature and purpose of the exchange and the discourse parameters
of your culture.’
(4) ‘Structure your discourse according to the requirements of your
Clyne, M.G. (1994) Inter-cultural communication at work: cultural values in discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
 Maxim (2) of Quality and Maxim (2) of Manner have disclaimers put onto them.
For more detail, see Clyne (1994:194).
 I believe there is a typing error here. Grice’s original maxim of Manner was to be ‘perspicuous’, rather than ‘perspicacious’. This slightly changes the meaning of the maxim, which I assume was not the intention.
As English confirms its position as the global lingua franca and the language of international trade, business and tourism, there has been more and more talk in the English teaching world regarding the necessity of teaching idioms.
Seidlhofer (2004) warned of the dangers of unilateral idiomaticity, whereby the use of idioms by a speaker could result in incomprehension on the part the interlocutor who is less acculturated to native-speaker norms.
In other words, the use of idioms could be to the detriment of mutual intelligibility and serves no purpose except to perpetuate the native-speaker’s target culture, which is usually taken to mean the American or the British culture.
Now, before you get up in arms about this and start bellowing, ‘But my students want to be taught English idioms!’ from the rooftop of the nearest language school, let me reassure you that I am not entirely comfortable with lumping all English idiomatic expressions together and damning them all at one go.
So first of all, let us consider this. What is an idiom?
The online dictionary www.dictionary.com defines ‘idiom’ as ‘an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements’, while the Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary defines it as ‘a group of words whose meaning is different from the meanings of the individual words’.
Both dictionaries then proceed to give examples of idioms such as ‘to kick the bucket’ and ‘to let the cat out of the bag’.
The meanings of these fixed expressions are clearly far from the meanings of the words themselves (‘to die’ and ‘to tell a secret by mistake’, respectively), but are idioms always so easily defined?
Look the following dialogue for example. Can you spot the idioms?
Rachel: Hey, why are you feeling so down?
Michael: My pet hamster passed away last night.
Rachel: Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that. I know, how about some retail therapy to cheer yourself up?
Michael: I can’t. I’m broke. I blew all my money on this tiny hamster coffin. It cost a bomb.
Rachel: I’ll treat you to something nice. Come on, let’s go.
Michael: I can’t. I’m knackered. I stayed up all night last night mourning little Lord Nelson.
Rachel: Look, at the end of the day, you can’t beat yourself up like that. You’ve got to get over it.
Michael: I can’t. I’m dying inside…
Rachel: Alright then…whatever.
You could comfortably categorise ‘it cost a bomb’ as the same kind of idiom that ‘to let the cat out of the bag’ is.
But how about ‘passed away’, ‘cheer yourself up’, ‘blew all my money on ~’, ‘stayed up’, beat yourself up’, and ‘get over it’?
Are you arguing that these are phrasal verbs?
But don’t most phrasal verbs have meanings that are not derivable from the individual meanings of its constituent parts?
Are phrasal verbs naturally idioms then?
How about ‘feeling down’, ‘retail therapy’, ‘I’m broke’, ‘I’m knackered’, and ‘at the end of the day’?
Arguably, these are expressions that might have started out as idioms, but through common and frequent use, have earned a place in our cognitive processes as directly representing a different meaning to its linguistic origins? Most teachers might not even consider ‘broke’ an idiom, and would take its meaning of ‘without money’ to be simply another homonym of the word ‘broke’.
Another example of this is the above adjectival past participle ‘knackered’ (meaning ‘tired’). Originally meaning ‘to kill’, sending your horse to ‘the Knacker’s Yard’ meant that your horse was due to be slaughtered due to old age. However, even in late 1800s, ‘to knacker’ had already taken on its idiomatic meaning of ‘to tire out’.
But would English speakers from the USA, Jamaica, India or Singapore understand/use the word ‘knackered’ when they want to say that they are ‘tired’?
The online etymology dictionary www.etymonline.com states that the word ‘idiom’ was first seen in French in the late 1500s to mean ‘form of speech peculiar to a people or a place’, and in Latin and Greek to refer to ‘peculiarity in language’ and ‘peculiar phraseology’.
This suggests that the original concept of idiom referred to a type of colloquialism or code used amongst a particular group of people. This code-specific characteristic is clearly seen in the word ‘knackered’, where the target culture is closely tied to the idiomatic expression. The same can be said of the following idioms:
‘to be full of beans’ (‘to be full of energy’ – UK),
‘drinking the Kool-Aid’ (‘people who conform without questioning the belief or argument, displaying a lack of critical examination’ – US),
‘came out of the left field’ (‘unexpected, unusual, irrational’ – US baseball idiom)
‘catch no ball’ (‘didn’t understand a thing, wasn’t able to grasp the concept’ – Singaporean English idiom resulting from a direct translation from the Hokkien dialect)
‘the equation has changed’ (‘the relationship has changed’ – Indian English idiom resulting from a direct translation from Hindi)
‘She’ll be apples’ (‘everything will be alright’ – Australian English)
‘box of fluffy ducks’ (‘everything is going my way’ – New Zealand English)
If the above idioms are used by a particular speech community and is code-specific to those peculiar to a place or country, then should we teach these idioms to our EFL students?
If your answer is yes, which ones? And why?
Would you teach these idioms only for receptive purposes or would you encourage your students to produce them? What are the dangers of this?
How do you decide which idioms to teach?
How about the use of the word ‘Whatever’ in the dialogue above?
It doesn’t really mean ‘anything that…’; nor does it mean ‘no matter what’.
It carries the illocutionary force of ‘I don’t care’ or ‘That’s your problem, man!’ to show indifference or dismissal.
Although it started out as a code-specific slang word, it is now used globally, perhaps due to the dominance of Hollywood.
Could any of the above code- or community- specific idioms gain international recognition too?
Please go here to do my little poll on idioms and share your ideas and beliefs on teaching them.
Allow me to end this blogpost with this little piece of irony for us all to chew on as we go to bed tonight…
When asked, many of my learners say that they want to learn idioms because it makes them sound more native.
But more often than not, idioms are either used inappropriately, inaccurately, or simply overused.
Case in point: When John McClane in Die Hard 3 hears the building supervisor saying that it was raining ‘dogs and cats’, he immediately susses out that the building supervisor was not Amercian, thus leading him to conclude that he was German and belonged to the villain’s gang.
In trying to sound more native, learners end up sounding less native.
What a dilemma!
Seidlhofer, B. (2004) ‘Research Perspectives on Teaching English as a Lingua Franca’. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 24, pp:209-239.
This series is inspired by a conversation between Mike Hogan and myself about examining the controversies in ELT. We wanted to consider the different positions taken by different members of the industry. However, to do so, we’d need a debate, a disagreement of sorts. And it became apparent that we either tend to agree with members of our PLN (flying creatures of the same feathers and all that), or would keep an open mind and be fairly polite and supportive of one another (that is why we tweet and blog). Seeing that, the only way to get a real debate going was to actively play Devil’s Advocate (DA).
The following debate took place as an Instant-Messaging Chat on Skype. The statements of here are of the DA and in no way represent my beliefs about teaching. This is merely a tool to spark a dialogue between you, the reader, and all those involved in this project. You can find previous instalments of DA here.
So the eighth victim on the hot seat is Hugh Dellar.
Hugh Dellar is a teacher and teacher trainer at University of Westminster, London. He has been teaching for almost twenty years, mostly in the UK, but also in Indonesia. He is the co-author of two five-level General English series, INNOVATIONS and OUTCOMES, both of which are published by National Geographic Learning. He has given talks and teacher development sessions all over the world and blogs at http://www.hughdellar.wordpress.com. He also runs a busy language-focussed site here. In addition, he is a life-long Arsenal supporter, obsessive hoarder of obscure 1960s vinyl and general bon viveur, as the photo bears witness to!
Chia: Hi Hugh, thank you for taking time out to be here today!
Hugh: Thank you for inviting me, Chia
Chia: I have heard that you are not the biggest advocate for dealing with intercultural communication in the English language classroom. Would that be right?
Hugh: Kind of, yes. Part of the issue for me is that I’m never really sure what is actually meant by things like ‘dealing with intercultural communication in the classroom’ . . . and I fear many people who bandy such terms around aren’t either!
I believe that the MAIN role of a language teacher is to teach language and that most other things are a distraction.
Chia: Surely the role of a English language teacher these days is to help our learners become better communicators. And well, Hugh, as soon as you communicate with someone who is not from where you are from, you are communicating interculturally.
Hugh: The way we help our students become better communicators is by teaching them better English.
Your definition of communicating interculturally just seems to me to mean talking to people!!
I think that the real issue is that students communicate better with each other when they share more language in common, and the more English students speak, the more they are able to communicate with each other and find both common ground and differences . . . and in a sense that’s the same whether you’re talking to someone from the other side of the world or from a neighbouring country. I just don’t see what the ‘cross-cultural’ part is supposed to be apart from providing language and opportunities for students to talk to each other . . .
Chia: First of all, Hugh, as a coursebook writer, you must agree with me that communicating is not limited to just speaking. What about writing, listening and body language?
Hugh: Well, of course, communicating includes writing, listening and reading yes. But those essentially involve linguistic knowledge and competence.
As for body language, well, that’s very personal and something that for me – unless it crops up in class, as admittedly it sometimes does – is certainly not something I’d go out of my way to ‘teach’.
Chia: What you are saying is that when people can find common ground and differences and be aware of these, then they will become more successful communicators, right?
So therefore, if we can help them to become more aware of cultural characteristics of those with whom they will be communicating, can we not make the learning process more efficient by allowing them to become more aware of these common grounds and differences (and I include body language in that).
We’re training our learners to become better communicators, not just better English language users. Or do you see that differently, Hugh?
Hugh: I’m not even necessarily saying that you need to find common ground or difference, really. I’m saying people who have more language and can use that language more skillfully will be better communicators. It may be that you use that talent and that language to find common ground, if that’s what you’re interested in, or differences. It may also be, of course, that you use it to manipulate, abuse, sell to, etc. It depends on what you want from situations, doesn’t it? And what people want depends on them and the situations they’re in and who they’re interacting with. In life in general, I mean, not just in classrooms.
I’m very very wary of talk of ‘cultural characteristics of those with whom they will be communicating’, though, partly because it inevitably leads to over-generalisations and stereotyping of the ‘Germans are direct and blunt, Japanese value politeness and ritual’ variety; partly because who actually knows who our students will be dealing with outside of class in the rest of their lives and partly because people vary so widely. I’ve met super informal, sweary, drinking Japanese folk and far more formal ones, just as I have Germans, English and so on, and any smart person treats each person on a person to person basis – and the core of the way you negotiate that is through language.
Chia: In no way do I mean we should teach dos and don’ts. And I agree that over-generalisations lead to stereotyping and essentialism. What I mean is – Should we not make our learners aware of how their communication styles can be interpreted by others, and how other people’s communication styles can be misinterpreted by them?
It’s about raising awareness of potential areas of difficulty and not about trying to overgeneralise certain cultures or nationalities. e.g. Many coursebooks have topics like ‘Work’ or ‘Jobs’ and have writing tasks involving the writing of a CV. In the USA, putting your date of birth on your CV could result in it being thrown in the bin as they don’t want to risk being accused of discrimination, but in Germany, not putting your DOB or photo on your CV could mean your application might not be considered. Shouldn’t learners be made aware of such things?
Hugh: I just don’t see how you think this works in class Chia. Some people might think you’re direct, others might think you’re not; some people might feel you’re talkative, others may be more talkative than you. How does knowing this benefit students? And is it really our job to tell them this? People learn what others think about them through interaction throughout their lives, and most people – if they’re adults – already have a fairly strong sense of their own self anyway . . .
If all you mean is learning conventions of how things like CVs are done in UK or US cultures, then that’s fine. I see that as genre awareness rather than cross-cultural differences. Though of course even this knowledge only really helps students if they’re applying for a job in the UK or US.
If a German is applying to an international company in Germany but sending a German-style CV in English, is it such an issue? I suspect not and I suspect it certainly won’t be what gets them the job or doesn’t get them the job.
All I do as a writer or teacher is present things like CVs in the standard way I’d expect them to be, but don’t make an issue of this being ‘cultural in any way . . .
And besides, at University of Westminster, we get 5-10 CVs a week coming though the door, almost all from native speakers, and are they somehow culturally consistent? Are they heck! They’re wildly diverse . . . so where then are cultural norms?
Chia: Let me first respond to your point on the adult learners’ sense of self.
Coming from someone who believes that we shouldn’t overgeneralise, you obviously know that our sense of self and the identity we portray changes from context to context, depending on the communities of practice we are in, the interlocutors involved, our past experience of that particular discourse community, etc. e.g. A career woman who has to adjust to the discourse styles and rules of the playground when associating with other mothers might choose to portray herself quite differently. If she doesn’t, she could risk being misunderstood. That is why it is always difficult when first adapting to the culture of a new company or social group we find ourselves in.
You also can’t deny that the culture in which we grew up in has a strong effect on the opinions we form. e.g. Would you agree that ‘the best form of decision-making is group consensus’ or ‘a person’s value is measured by their achievements’. Surely you must acknowledge that these are culturally loaded opinions. Would it not benefit our learners to reflect on how the way they see the world is socially constructed? And would it not be possible to do such reflection and awareness-raising in an English language class? Should we not be teaching our learners to become better communicators or not just better users of the linguistic features of a language?
Hugh: in terms of the career woman, I’m not sure what your point is IN TERMS OF LANGUAGE TEACHING.
Yes, it might be a nice study to do for someone on a Sociolinguistics module on an MA TESOL or something to see how one person varies their own language use across contexts, but all that’d tell you is . . . how one person varies their language across particular contexts. It won’t tell you anything of value in an EFL class.
As for awareness raising of how culturally constructed our own sense of what’s right and wrong, what’s normal is, etc . . .I just don’t see that as our job as language teachers . . . and I’m not sure that it’s actually achieved through discussing things like whether or not you agree the best way to make decisions is through group discussion or through one leader telling everyone what to do etc .
I’m also not sure folk from one country will agree anyway . . . I don’t buy into the idea that these supposed ‘norms’ actually really exist that much. Maybe . . . MAYBE . . . if I was preparing a Business English student to go and do business in China, say, I might want to do ONE small exercise on things people say about China and the business culture there, with the proviso that these may or may not be true, and that really they’d be best going and finding out for themselves, but that’s about it.
I honestly don’t believe that if you put 100 Brits or Japanese or Russians or whatever in a room and did a test on them to ask, for example, if the best form of decision-making is group consensus or if a person’s value is measured by their achievements, you’d get agreement. People differ. Some Japanese people will agree with some Brits and Russians more than with some other Japanese.
Chia: In terms of the career woman, it is an example of how we need to adapt to new environments and to accommodate the new discourse communities and the new people we encounter, or else we risk being misunderstood and not portraying the image we want to portray. Some people are just better at accommodation than others…
I’m afraid you’re missing the point, Hugh. No one is expecting every Japanese or German to have the exact same values. As I’ve said above, it’s definitely not about giving learners dos and don’ts lists (which may only reinforce cultural stereotypes). It’s about making learners more aware of the values, beliefs and opinions THEY hold, which are culturally bound, and how to adapt and cope when dealing with situations of uncertainty where their interlocutor is clearly communicating upon a different set of beliefs, rules, opinions, etc.
Even if the 100 Brits or Japanese all have different answers, that is fine. Learners need to be aware of the fact that people are different from themselves and might not perceive them as they want to be perceived. If they want to become more successful communicators, they can’t just be dealing with lexico-grammar. We are not teaching a language like Latin that was used only in academic writing. We are teaching a language used for communication. How can you say that you don’t want to teach learners to become better communicators?
Hugh: Indeed, some PEOPLE are just better at accommodation that others – not some CULTURES! It’s all down to the individual. Our job is not to ‘improve’ students and turn them into what we imagine a better person might be. Our job is to teach them language. It’s up to them what they then do with it. Apart from telling students “we need to adapt to different discourse communities and the new people we encounter” – which they will have been doing all their lives in L1 anyway, where they all learn and grow and adapt through their encounters with others, as they grow up and become adults, I’m STILL not sure what you think we should be doing IN THE CLASSROOM to enable students to become these super-communicators?
As for missing the point . . . perhaps you’re making it very clearly! Are we having a cross-cultural breakdown here, Chia?
I’m not saying that anyone expects anyone to have the same values; just that you can’t predict or generalise about what values people may or may not have because of where they’re from.
I DO want my learners to be better communicators, by the way. I just think the way that this is achieved is by teaching more language. Not by telling them blindingly obvious truisms like “By the way, you do know, don’t you, that your own opinions are shaped by your own experiences and that others might not have had these experiences and therefore may have different opinions and thus it’s a good idea to tread carefully when dealing with people that are not you!’
Also, thinking about it, many of the most successful intercultural communicators actually do so by being totally themselves and of their own backgrounds and by making no concession to others on any level. I’m remembering a very hard-nosed Chinese Seamen’s union negotiator I taught last year.
Chia: I think we might be having a cross-cultural miscommunication here, indeed. Let us define ‘culture’ for starts. You seem to be hung up on ‘culture’ as in ‘national culture’, when ‘culture’ does also refer to ‘corporate culture’, ‘family culture’, ‘social group culture’ etc, (notwithstanding the cultural filter through which individuals perceived the world)
I think you are still missing the point.
Hugh: Make it better then!
Chia: I’m not advocating we predict or generalise what values people may or may not have because of where they’re from.
I’m advocating that we help learners realise the issues that arise when they are communicating in situations with interlocutors out of their usual discourse community, and adapt accordingly.
e.g. I had some Latin American and Mediterranean students who were in the same class with several Koreans and Japanese students for the few months they were at International House. One day, we started talking about the way we take turns and how we hold the floor, and the Latin Americans and Mediterranean students at first were adamant that Oriental are just shy. Through discussion, they were surprised to realise that the Koreans found it rude to interrupt others, and in turn thought that the Mediterraneans were rude. The discussion seemed like a revelation to both groups, and is a clear example of how cultural differences could be glaring at you in the face, and you might still attribute it to interlocutor’s personality if you were not made aware.
So, what about discussing such issues in English instead of just talking about hobbies, holidays and the usual banal stuff you often find in course books.
Hugh: Obviously, only an idiot would say they don’t want their students to deal better with situations where communication breaks down, but in classroom terms, I still don’t see what you think we should be doing. It just sounds like you want us to give trite little mini-lectures to students and tell them to ensure they adapt when communicating with folk from different backgrounds! Isn’t this what people all do anyway? In L2 as in L1? I don’t buy the basic premise that these breakdowns even occur that often, to be honest. What I see happening in communications between folk of different cultures, whether they be national, local, company cultures or whatever, is people talking to each other, negotiating meanings (which the better they use English, the easier they find) and getting stuff done or having conversations . . . in terms of the Koreans and Latin Americans, where does that then get them? Did the Koreans all start butting in and interrupting and the Latin Americans waiting and hesitating? Almost certainly not! All that happened is they realised the mirror has two-way glass in it, but their view is still their view . . .
Anyway, . . . I’ve never advocated just discussing banal stuff, as anyone who knows my books will hopefully testify to, but I honestly think too much is made of these ‘breakdowns’ and that if students are given interesting things to talk about, anyone will talk to anyone, provided they have common language to allow that. My advanced class this term has 8 Chinese, eight non-Chinese, including two other Asians . . . German . . . Spanish . . . Colombian . . . today they chatted about religion in their countries, divorce and divorce laws, and much else besides. It was super interesting, brought about by materials that realised these issues . . . I pre-taught language to help these discussions and then taught more in response to things they wanted to say, but couldn’t. THIS is what I think we should be doing in class.
If you want ONE of these kinds of classes to be about how you start / end / enter conversations, fine . . . but divorce and religion is at least as interesting!
Chia: Fine, I’ll give you that. In a multi-lingual class, that might be very interesting. But how would you propose dealing with the same issues in a monolingual group?
Hugh: In a mono-lingual class students will still disagree about things like the divorce laws . . . maybe religion in their country won’t be such an issue, but monolingual NEVER means mono-cultural. Students will all orient themselves to topics in different ways, have different takes and different opinions. As a writer – and a teacher – those are the spaces I’m interested in exploring – and that I try to teach the language to facilitate discussion about.
Chia: Hugh, it looks like you’ve just agreed that teaching issues like this in class is important. Cogito ergo sum, we should integrate cultural issues into language training! Thank you very much Hugh. I’ve really enjoyed doing this DA with you!
Hugh: Ha ha. I thought it was me who just heard what they want to hear! 🙂
Anyway, thank YOU, Chia, for your time, your questions and your (misplaced) enthusiasms!
Epilogue: Hugh’s views are his own and do not represent any organization he is associated with. Chia, this time, was not only playing DA, but was genuinely taking a stand about the topic in question. Hugh and Chia may have been engaging in many online fights lately, but rest assured they are still friends who are not adverse to the occasional rowdy debate in the pub.
The last day of the conference began with Enric Llurda’s plenary ‘Policies and Attitudes to ELF : A southern European perspective’.
Multilingualism is a natural habitat in Europe (Murphy-Lejeune, 2002)
Myth 1 : One person – One Language
Myth 2: One country – One Language
This corresponds to the monolingualism ideology which leads to native speakerism.
Metaphor of the bridge for ELF –
ELF is a shared language which can connect people on two shores.
But actually, it’s a metaphor for EFL. The bridge is fixed and takes people from one shore always to the other shore and the destination is fixed.
So perhaps a better metaphor is that of a boat, that allows us to be flexible and takes us to different definitions. There are also different types of boats.
A necessary warning
ELF has to do with glabalisation = Englishization = Macdonaldization
Seidlhofer (2011) clearly differentiates Globish? from ELF.
ELF may be a global phenomenon but it’s always locally realized (Mortensen, 2012)
Here, Enric Llurda outlines his research into Catalan universities.
Language policy in Catalan universities
Problem 1: International students require course in English
Problem 2 Local students need to improve their English proficiency to go abroad
Solution courses offered in English (CLIL/EMI) [English as a Medium of Instruction]
If you look at the top 10 European institutions in 2007 academic world rankings, 8 of them have English as their main language. There is now an increase of English programmes in universities in Europe.
Due to a combination of a lack of skills in English, and lack of skills and will to learn by the international group might mean a possibility of Spanish becoming the lingua franca for the university. But this could be devastating for local language and damaging to the international ranking of the university.
Instead, the university should aim for trilingualism.
There was a significant different in English attitudes related to status. Students from high status families had more positive attitudes than medium and low. This might be associated with Dornyei’s (2008) ‘possible self’. No other language was affected by status.
When compared to the attitudes that students in University education, those in secondary education were dramatically different too. The attitudes towards Catalan and English were lower and attitudes towards Spanish were much higher.
International students came to the university to improve their Spanish, but there was also expectations of English being used as a medium of instruction. There were tensions and resistance to Catalan being used as a medium of instruction.
ELF can also lead one to an appreciation of other languages and multilingualism.
Catalan NNESTs’ self awareness
No need to be native-like in order to teach the language successfully
Students about to use English as international language
Knowledge of British culture preferred over local culture or European culture
NNESTs themselves would choose a NS teacher over themselves!
Other interesting findings
Lack of frequent opportunities for using English in interaction.
Significant impact of prolonged experience abroad on attitudes and self-perceptions – Those who had less contact with NSs and didn’t have as many opportunities to use the language were more ‘hooked’ on the NS model. Those who have been in England for a longer period of time were more open to different models of English.
Transformation due to interaction opportunities. They can be empowered through increased usage and better awareness of ELF.
Learners and parents often have the goal to become native-like. Parents are often willing to pay good money to give their children a ‘correct’ model
Users have the experience with a diversity of speakers of different origins and accents. They are aware of ELF and appropriate the language.
There is a growing awareness and people are starting to challenge notions that used to be taken for granted. There are effects of adding an ELF perspective into teacher training programmes.
He mentions Jeremy Harmer’s blog stating that ‘ learners need some standard to aim at’.
And the question then is – what standard should that be?
In a comment by Jim Smiley on Harmer’s blog, Jim appropriately says that it was about helping students to migrate from learner to user.
As a conclusion, he reminds us that change is on its way and teachers (both NS and NNS) can greatly contribute to it.
As Widdowson (2012) said, first to lead the change would be the community of language teachers and applied linguists.
Andy Kirkpatrick on ‘ELF in Asia – Roles and Implications’
Historically, Malay was a lingua franca, and Bahasa Indonesia and Putonghua (Chinese) were lingua francas in quite different ways. Only 2% spoke Bahasa Indonesia although it was adopted as first language in Indonesia in the 1940s. Today, more than 70% would say they speak Bahasa Indonesia. But this means that other Indonesian languages and cultures are under threat as a result.
Putonghua is completely different
China is multi-ethnic and multilingual.
54 official national minority groups speaking many more than 54 languages.
7 major Chinese languages (with many sub dialects etc)
The language of the powerful has been adopted as the lingua franca.
ASEAN represent political, cultural and historical diversity.
Local Asian students are only learning their language + English, and not learning regional languages.
The ASEAN Charter states that they aim to promote diversity but then states they want unity…which is often obtained at the expense of diversity.
Andy Kirkpatrick stresses that although English being used as a lingua franca in Asian is almost a truism, we must be careful of subtractive multi-lingualism.
David Graddol follows on from Kirkpatrick on ‘How Economic Change can shape the future of ELF’ by talking about the economic expansion in Asia, using the Pearl River Delta economy.
It is regarded as the factory of the world where a high proportion of the world’s electronic goods, garments, shoes, toys etc are made.
Foxconn, who assemble computers and phones (eg iPhone) employs 450,000 in Shenzhen
This economy is premised on the availability of huge numbers of cheap workers.
There is a close relationship between the SARS (HongKong, Macau) and the mainland border areas (especially SEX’s) such as Shenzhen.
CEFR Global Scale
Although we’ve been cruxifying CEF this conference, Graddol says it is revolutionary on its own because it focuses on ‘can-do’ statements and language skills.
Is the CEFR anglo-centric? Does it embody ideas about language learning which are rooted in the EFL experience? (50th anniversary of Haycraft’s Teacher Training course at IH London)
Is the CEFR too euro-centric? It is based on European contexts of language learning.
Is the CEFR based on the NS norms?
The history of the CEFR explains some of the current biases in the CEFR but more can be renegotiated than may be assured.
David Graddol then looks at how CEF is being renegotiated.
CEFR is intended to be an instrument which is defined locally for specific purposes
The CEFR levels are instantiated by particular course and exams.
The functional level descriptors are in principle (but not in practice) ELF-neutral
The ELF community could attempt new descriptors which embody ELF notions.
There is already currently a huge research project underway.
A1 Can understand and use basic phrases related to familiar topics if the other person talks slowly and helps.
A2 Can understand sentences and common expressinos can communicate in simple and direct exchange of information related to routine and familiar situations.
Both these A level descriptors suggest ELF phenomena, but note that bot A1 and A2 levels have been primarily thought of as learner levels, as opposed to L2 user levels.
Level B is defines as the ‘independent user’ i.e. the first level at which users can successfully negotiate meaning without relying on an interlocutor of higher proficiency for support.
C1 has emerged as the key threshold for professional communication. C1 users are able to manage meanings with precision, not always in interactive contexts, At present, NS norms appear strongly in descriptors at this level.
CEFR started with the B1 level and C level descriptors are only now being fully elaborated. Is there a role for ELF?
Many call-centre workers are recruited at B1, trained along the way to B2, and eventually with experience and time, get to C1. When we get choices on the phone e.g. ‘If you need xyz, Press 1. If you want to leave us, Press 2, etc’, we are then put through to different call centre workers with differing levels of English dependent on how difficult the negotiation is likely to be. This is due to the fact that managers need to consider how much they can pay their workers and may not afford higher level English speakers.
We are seeing a number of different economic trends, many of them demanding a high level of English.
The global economic is hastening the shift away from manufacturing towards services.
Primary sector jobs are dropping but this is the sector that doesn’t need ELF.
The Secondary sector grew but is now declining.
What is growing is the Quartenary sector, and here, high levels of English competence is needed.
Interestingly, people who have A and C levels of the CEFR is increasing in demand, and it is the ones with the B levels which are less needed.
Does this mean that mid-intermediate students suffering from ‘mid-int-nigtis’ need to buck up and get to C1?