Language teaching: What is pragmatics and why is it important when teaching languages?


What is pragmatics?

Pragmatics is a language in use, or even better, a meaning in use (the actual use of the language). We need pragmatics to understand how language is used in a specific context and to be able to use it appropriately.

Why is pragmatics important when teaching?

Pragmatics is a set of skills which allow us to know what to say, to whom and how to communicate ones message in a specific context (what, how, whom, and when). By teaching pragmatic language we teach our students how to use the language appropriately, for example when a student learning English is asked “how are you?” in England, do they need to provide a full and detailed description of their recent life or is it enough to shortly answer “All right” or “Not bad”? It seems obvious that the latter is correct, right? Hmm… it depends on the context and who your interlocutor is: if you are a doctor in hospital, your patient may provide a more detailed response which is appropriate given the circumstances. Another example of how to use English appropriately might be politeness, such as when to use “please” in English.

How to teach pragmatic language:

Firstly, I would start with observing and analysing the language that you, your friends and your colleagues use, why you use certain phrases in one context, how you understand hidden meanings and when it is appropriate to use certain phrases when talking to your manager at work. Secondly, you’ll need authentic resources, from podcasts and radio programmes to newspaper articles and documentary films. Thirdly, you’ll need time to find, prepare and make those resources accessible, providing the right context for the topic introduced, e.g. grammar.

I hope I have inspired you to look at teaching from a different perspective. If you’re interested in learning more about pragmatics, I would recommend this article: Paltridge, B. 2012. Discourse and Pragmatics. Chapter 3 in Discourse Analysis: An Introduction (2nd Edition). London: Bloomsbury.

Please let me know in the comments below if you teach pragmatic language and how you prepare your language lessons.

Written by Kinga Macalla


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