Wednesday, November 12, 2008

It all goes back to grammar and vocabulary

The more papers I read in cross-cultural pragmatics, the more convinced I am that foreign language classes are overly marginalizing grammar and vocabulary, even in light of their new emphasis on "communicative competence."

I just finished re-reading, for a class I'm about to teach, a 2001 paper by Thom Hudson entitled "Indicators for pragmatic instruction: some quantitative tools." Focusing on speech acts like apologies, requests, and refusals, Hudson notes that intermediate-level ESL students have little trouble figuring out when a particular speech act is called for, or observing the appropriate linguistic conventions in formulating the act in question.

What trips them up, instead, are the more language-intensive aspects of effective apologies, requests, and refusals--e.g., providing appropriate amounts of accompanying explanation. In apologizing for missing a meeting with your boss, or asking a neighbor to lower the volume of his stereo at night, or turning down an invitation for lunch, it turns out, it helps to have a large enough vocabulary and repertoire of syntactic structures to effectively explain why you missed the meeting, or are bothered by the music, or aren't available at lunch time.

However reluctant today's foreign language teachers are to teach the more left-brained nuts and bolts of language content, it turns out that these are key to successfully executing the more social, right-brained aspects of language use.

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