What is pragmatics? 
Pragmatics is the study of how language is used in communication.  As a learner of a foreign language, what you are learning is actually interlanguage (IL) pragmatics because you already have pragmatic knowledge of your first language while you acquire pragmatic knowledge in your second language.  Your pragmatic knowledge from your first language, however, can either help you or hurt you, depending on how close or how different the target language and culture are to your own.

Why should I study pragmatics? 
You should study pragmatics in order to become more native-like in your language production, which will help you to build relationships with members of the target language culture.  Even if students are able to perfectly master all of the grammar of the language they are studying, unless they acquire pragmatic knowledge, their speech will always seem strange to native-speakers.

What are speech acts and why are they important? 
Speech acts are language users’ attempts to perform specific actions, in particular interpersonal functions that are typically universal to all languages.  These include:  apologies, requests, compliments, and complaints.

Each speech act is comprised of three separate acts:

  1. The speaker conveys some type of meaning to the hearer
  2. The speaker performs a language function
  3. The speaker achieves some effect on the hearer

Speech acts can be direct (from the speaker’s perspective):
Example:  Pass me the bread.

Or indirect (from the hearer’s perspective):
Example:   Could you pass me the bread?

Whether a speaker uses a direct or an indirect speech act depends on a number of factors that determine how ‘polite’ the speaker needs to be to the hearer:

  1. The speaker’s relationship with the hearer
    • The social distance between the speaker and the hearer
    • The power difference between the speaker and the hearer
  2. The degree of imposition on the hearer

Language learners often make two types of mistakes when attempting to perform a speech act in the target language.  The first type of mistake is called sociopragmatic; this type of mistake occurs when the speaker doesn’t know which speech act to use, or when to use a speech act appropriately.  The following is an example of a sociopragmatic mistake between a female English language learner and a female native speaker (NS) of English from the USA.   The nonnative speaker (NNS) receives a compliment, but does not know how to respond in a socially appropriate way.

NS:   I love your accent!
NNS: Thank you very much.

Although in this example the response ‘thanks’ is linguistically correct, the NNS actually dampened the conversation, which can impede the building of cross-cultural relationships.  The sociopragmatic norm for North American middle-class females is to downgrade a compliment.  In US culture, compliments among females are used to build and maintain solidarity in relationships.  The native speaker in the previous example might have expected to hear something like this:

NS:    I love your accent!
NNS: Oh, my English is terrible.  I’ve only been here for 8 months.

Another type of pragmatic mistake that language learners make has to do with the learner’s lack of knowledge about the language itself (forms, structures, and vocabulary).  This type of mistake is called pragmalingistic, and it occurs when the language learner knows which speech act to use and when to use it, but does not know the appropriate language to form a linguistically acceptable speech act.  In the following example, a NNS Middle Eastern female makes a pragmalinguistic error in her attempt to thank her North American native-speaking classmate for loaning her some money.

NS:    I’ll loan you the $20 until tomorrow.
NNS:  May God increase your bounty.

In the previous example, the NNS knew that she had to thank her friend, but because she didn’t know the appropriate linguistic forms for thanking in North American culture, she directly translated his pragmatic knowledge of ‘thanking’ from her native language and culture, which doesn’t work in the North American setting.

Why isn’t pragmatics taught in my textbook or by my teacher?
Most people assume that language learners must spend a long time intensively immersed in the foreign language and culture before developing pragmatic competence; however, recent research in the field of Second Language Acquisition suggests that pragmatic knowledge can be explicitly taught to students. In the past, pragmatics have typically been ignored by textbook companies and teacher training programs. Today, some organizations, such as the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA), are working hard to develop web-based pragmatics lessons for language learners around the world.