Let’s agree to disagree: a lesson in pragmatics

Students Disagreeing

Another great post from Alice on using theater to teach pragmatics, in this case the pragmatics of disagreement. In this day and age especially, it can be useful to teach our students how to express disagreement, and to go beyond useful words and phrases, to the construction of logical arguments.

Last spring, Maissa and Bushra were discussing fall courses, and Bushra casually mentioned that she was not planning to take grammar. “It’s all online.” She said, “I don’t need it.”

Bushra has a point. Youtube has made it possible for anyone with a cell phone to post a grammar lesson, and some of them are very good. They can be watched multiple times and at the point of need. In addition, many publishers and entrepreneurs are putting out apps, games and activities that offer meaningful practice with the fixed patterns we call grammar rules.

Fortunately, however, learning to speak a language entails far more than grammar lessons. Corpus linguistics has taught us the value of looking at the way words partner to create new meanings, and pragmatics studies acknowledge the social knowledge and skills that are necessary for initiating, managing and sustaining interpersonal relationships.

In order to keep the classroom relevant, hang onto our jobs, and, most importantly, support students in developing their ability to participate in discourse, we might look to the functional language that communities rely on when they have certain types of conversations.

For example, let’s disagree. Consider that disagreement can be hard in one’s native language. It is true that some people love disagreement as a way to keep conversations lively. They enjoy playing “the devil’s advocate.” However, there are many situations in which speakers are very uncomfortable taking an opposing side.

In addition, there are different types of disagreement. There’s the kind of disagreement around existential issues such as whether aliens exist. Then there’s the kind of nuts-and-bolts disagreement about how to move forward with a group project. The former is fairly low stakes, but the latter is going to have a direct impact on grades or careers as well as feelings about classmates or colleagues.

English learners can benefit from learning to disagree effectively.

Keep reading Let’s agree to disagree

For more activities and materials on pragmatics and theatre, check out Alice’s ELT Drama tab and The Integrated Skills through Theatre series.

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