Pragmatics is Everywhere

I got this amazing feedback from an educator about one of our drama books and how teaching pragmatics resonates with her students:

I introduced the idea of using [Her Own Worst Enemy] in the classroom to my principal, and she loved the idea! I also did a tiny lesson on pragmatics with some of my ninth graders, and they seemed to enjoy it. A few weeks after the lesson, a special needs student was able to connect pragmatism to another lesson we were doing. There are powerful things for students to learn in this play!

This is why we keep putting out books. It’s always inspiring to hear that they are having an impact on teachers and on students alike. And learning more about pragmatics, thanks to my time working on this project with Alice Savage, has impacted my life as well. I had never given so much thought to the ways our daily communication are affected by the social rules about how to act in different situations and contexts.

Or the broad range of communicative tools we use beyond grammar and vocabulary! We use tone, intonation, allusions and references, poses, facial expressions, body language, and rhetorical strategies when we speak, We often do this unconsciously, so we are far more aware of pragmatics when we have to interpret it in other people. And interpreting someone’s intentions through their verbal and nonverbal cues is as important as communicating. But every day, to paraphrase David Crystal, we make choices of what we will say and how we will say it. We make these choices in order to get certain effects based on our understanding of the context, our relationship with the speaker, and our needs and wants. All of this is pragmatics, a kind of hidden language of communication.

Pragmatics is about Choices

Imagine a few different scenarios.

  • A teenager wants to borrow $20 for a video game from their mother the day after crashing the family car into a telephone pole.
  • A teenager wants to borrow $10 for a book from their father who is often indulgent.
  • A worker wants an advance of $500, about 50% of next week’s pay check, just after the company announced it was going to be keeping a close eye on finances.
  • A worker wants a raise of $50 a week (about 5%) after getting an excellent annual review.
  • A 20-year old whose birthday is coming up wants to ask their uncle, whom they rarely see, who sometimes gives a gift and sometimes doesn’t, for $100 toward a racing bike.

Each is a situation of a person asking someone in a superior position for something. But the relationship, current situation, and context are very different in each. The stakes are also different. And that means the way these people will ask will be very different. In some cases, they can be very direct. In other cases, they need to be more indirect, and persuasive. Perhaps they will need to be manipulative or cajoling. We make these choices automatically. But a student from another country and culture, one with different rules, may have trouble understanding how to navigate these different situations in their new context. Particularly as they are also working on using the right words and grammar!

That’s why methods used to teach children, who are also new to the world and less steeped in social and cultural rules, are often a good place to look for how to teach pragmatics to ESL or EFL students.

Why Do Strangers Smile at Me?

For example, when my son was 6 years old, he asked me why strangers sometimes smile at him when he does or says something cute in public. It seemed like such an odd question. Of course we smile at small children. We do it all the time. So I told him people tend to like children and smile when they see a child doing something cute. It’s meant to be positive.

“But do I have to smile back?” he asks. Now, this is an important question. It’s not enough to just interpret other people’s meanings. You also have to know what is expected of you in a social situation.

“No, you don’t have to do anything,” I tell him, “They’re just being nice. You can smile back or wave, if you want. But you don’t have to.”

“Are they laughing at me?” Another important question. How do we know when people are being insulting? At what age do we expect to be treated seriously? How do we balance a child’s need to be recognized as a being with legitimate needs and feelings with the reality that children can be (and should be) childish sometimes.

“Probably not,” I tell him, “Not in a mean way. Maybe they secretly wish they could do the things you can do because you’re a kid.” I’m reminding him that relationships and context matter. Adults can’t act like kids. Husbands and wives can’t treat each other like strangers. A boss can’t talk to employees the same way she talks to her children, or nephews, or neighbors.

This question reminds me of my students who sometimes ask why Americans smile all the time. In many places, smiling is a sign of enjoyment. It’s only done in social situations when people are happy and having fun! In the US, it’s often a kind of greeting. We smile to show that we are friendly and open or to take the edge off of our words. Students who misinterpret this think Americans are silly. They may even think that someone smiling at them is a sign of romantic interest. And when they fail to smile as they greet someone, they can come off as cold. So pragmatics really does matter. And it really does have to be taught

Our line of drama textbooks that teach pragmatics through plays

Teaching with Stories is Teaching Pragmatics

I’ve also noticed my son’s school used to teach manners and classroom behavior (i.e. pragmatics) through social stories. Social stories are simple descriptions of good behavior and the reasons for them. They read a bit like the Gallant side of Goofus and Gallant from Highlights.

“Walton washes his hands when he comes inside after playing. His hands have dirt on them from all the things he touched outside. He doesn’t want to spread that dirt inside. And sometimes dirt can make us sick . . . “

The children read these stories, talk about the choices the characters make, and the reasons for those choices. Then the teacher reminds them of these stories at appropriate times of the day. After recess the teacher can say, “Time to wash hands. Do you remember what the boy in the story did? He counted to twenty while he rubbed.” There are even TV shows like Daniel the Tiger that make these social stories a lot more entertaining and turn these little lessons into unforgettable songs (Seriously, they are earworms from hell, but quite effective!).

Sometimes at school, the teacher even acted out the social stories with toys. I know this because my son used to ask me to act these things out with his toys! His bears have broken each other’s toys without saying sorry, refused to play with each other, and even told mommy they don’t want to go to the store today. Once they wouldn’t eat dinner at all, not even one little bite. It’s a great way to model what to do in difficult situations and give students the lamguage they need to navigate difficult situations as well as the kinds of variables we look for in difficult situations (Maybe the boy who snapped at you was tired or angry about something else, or you hurt his feelings without realizing it.)

Unless you teach young children, you’ll want to do roleplays, not act things out with toys. Awareness of pragmatics can even spice up your roleplays, even the most mundane ones. And prepare students for real-life situations where things can break down! Textbook roleplays always feel too dry and efficient and realistic to me! And a good roleplay is not only a great teaching tool, it’s genuinely engaging. It’s a play, because you’re creating a real situation. And it’s pragmatics. It’s teaching the reasons we make the social choices we do.

Play with Pragmatics

Now, the social situations our students are navigating are often more complex than what to do when you accidentally break a friend’s toy. But plays have a message in them. And that message is put into everyday language. In fact, plays are perfect for the language classroom because most plays are a series of conversations. The goal of a playwright is to leverage pragmatics effectively so that the dialogue sounds natural, the characters act like normal people would (with perhaps a little bit of heightened drama), and the resolution is satisfying (or unsatisfying for good reason).

So when we do plays with students, we’re teaching them how to act in certain situations. We’re showing them why people do the things they do (and those actions and reasons can be very different in different cultures) and we’re giving them the language to navigate these situations. And as our reviewer said, students really respond to it.

Looking for more?

Browse all our free resources for doing drama in the classroom at Plays and Drama Resources for Students. 

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