Speech Acts and Cross-Cultural Pragmatics

Speech Acts and Cross-Cultural Pragmatics

Clara Bauler (Adelphi University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-8467-4.ch009
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Linguistically diverse learners tend to first relate the pragmatic ability they already possess in their first or more dominant language (L1) to act in the L2; as a result, miscommunication and misunderstandings are frequent and common. Teachers can help learners develop awareness about L2 pragmatic norms by making visible how speech acts are performed in the L2 community of speakers while providing opportunities to engage in role-playing or real interactions involving the accomplishment of selected speech acts. This chapter offers an overview of the importance of context in cross-cultural interactions, a brief survey of the theories of speech acts, and concrete pedagogical ideas for teachers to develop linguistically diverse learners' pragmatic awareness and ability while celebrating and promoting linguistic and cultural diversity.
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Linguistic Context And Situational Context

One of the main concerns of pragmatics is the relationship between context and language, and how this relationship influences the ways we speak. What we say and do with each other, including verbal and non-verbal aspects of communication, is directly affected by the context and situation we are engaged in. Therefore, in order to be able to participate in interactions and communicate successfully, hearers and speakers need to know more than the linguistic features expressed by an utterance; they need to know other situational variables that are relevant to the interpretation of these utterances, such as temporal and spatial circumstances, the social identities and status of the participants, the emotions evoked during the interaction, and the social activity that is taking place. All of these variables are shaped by sociocultural values, attitudes, and ways of doing things shared by a community of speakers of a determined language or variety of language.

The role of context is crucial for speakers to make interpretations about what is meant in each conversational encounter. Before I came to the U.S. from Brazil to study in California, I learned that a phrase like, Can I have a cup of coffee? would suffice to order coffee in a coffee shop in English-speaking countries. Needless to say, I was completely lost when I went to order coffee at my local big coffee shop chain in Los Angeles. On the menu, there were more than 20 options of “a cup of coffee,” including size, flavor, and temperature (hot or cold). I had never seen a menu like that in my life! In addition, I did not know whether I should sit or not when I entered the coffee shop, as in Brazil, we usually sit and order a “cafezinho” to drink with friends. So, I suddenly realized that the phrase I had learned, Can I have a cup of coffee? was not going to help me to obtain the kind of coffee I wanted. I needed to also consider the place, the people I was ordering coffee from, non-verbal cues, such as waiting in line and sitting after I get my coffee, and the cultural practices and expectations for the situation, such as: Do people order coffee fast? Will people judge me if I take too long to order coffee? What kind of coffee do people usually order when the weather is hot or cold? Do people actually sit and have a conversation at coffee shops or do they just grab the coffee and go? How do these cultural norms work and how do I use language to accomplish those norms? Confronted with these questions, I needed to consider both the linguistic context and the situational context in order to convey my message accurately.

There are many factors to consider when we speak that go beyond the strict linguistic context, which is limited to words and utterances that surround what has been said or written. Continuing with the same example, as it is the case in most U.S. big coffee shop chains, ordering coffee typically involves the following sequence of events: We get in line, we order the coffee we want really fast (most people already know what they will order), we give out our name, we wait at the counter for the coffee to be ready, we hear our name being called, and then we sit down at a table. Not equipped with all this background knowledge, I kept ordering the same “small cup of coffee,” now with the addition to of the adjective “black.” For a whole month, I did not know how to order the kind of coffee I really wanted. After living in the U.S. for more than a year, I finally learned that the “cup of coffee” I really liked was a “small latte.” It took me some time and a lot of trial and error to acquire that knowledge even though, at the time I moved to California, I had been studying and speaking English for more than 15 years. From this example, we can see how intrinsic the context is to how we communicate. Without contextual knowledge, we might not be able to accomplish our communicative goals.

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