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Pragmatics and Communicative Competence: English in a Second Language Environment and the Pedagogical Challenges



A plethora of research has been done on the linguistic competence of Nigerian users of English especially in the areas of phonology, syntax, morphology, and semantics. However, little has been in the area of pragmatics. This paper details the importance of acquiring pragmatic competence, and adduces reasons for the apparent inertia in pragmatics oriented research. Based on the fact that all linguistic competencies are generally transferred in the classroom; the latter being the major domain of English in the L 2 context with teachers as primary agents, the paper recommends pedagogical interventions towards improving their pragmatic competence. The call is hinged on research findings detailing poor communicative competence of forty English language teachers in ten secondary schools in Ethiope East Local Government area..
Pragmatics and Communicative Competence: English in a Second Language Environment and
the Pedagogical Challenges.
A plethora of research has been done on the linguistic competence of Nigerian users of English
especially in the areas of phonology, syntax, morphology, and semantics. However, little has
been in the area of pragmatics. This paper details the importance of acquiring pragmatic
competence, and adduces reasons for the apparent inertia in pragmatics oriented research. Based
on the fact that all linguistic competencies are generally transferred in the classroom; the latter
being the major domain of English in the L2 context with teachers as primary agents, the paper
recommends pedagogical interventions towards improving their pragmatic competence. The call
is hinged on research findings detailing poor communicative competence of forty English
language teachers in ten secondary schools in Ethiope East Local Government area..
Keywords: pragmatics, communicative competence, second language acquisition, ESL
classroom, English language teachers, Nigerian English.
Effective communication cannot be achieved if contextual factors are ignored. In certain
contexts, deciphering the meaning of utterances may depend entirely on the ability of the
interlocutors to understand pragmatic cues. Over the past years, different definitions of
pragmatics have been provided. However, most authors are generally agreed that pragmatics is
the study of the negotiation of meaning between speaker(s) and hearer(s) in a given context
(Obins: 2015, Savignon: 2007, Thomas: 2001, Levinson: 1982). Pragmatics therefore matches
what is uttered and what is really meant as speakers may, at times, mean more than they say in a
strictly semantic sense.
The importance of pragmatic awareness as the apogee of second language teaching and learning
has been brought to the fore since Dell Hymes propounded his notion of communicative
competence. According to him, learners must acquire two skills relevant to language acquisition;
the grammatical and the pragmatic. He asserts that learners must learn to speak not only
grammatically but also understand the nuances of pragmatic meaning in order to achieve
communicative goals. The latter entails acquiring pragmatic competence that dictates appropriate
ways of conveying communicative intent in various situations. Therefore, learners must acquire
not only linguistic rules such as morphology, syntax, phonology, and vocabulary, but they must
also acquire sociocultural rules of language use (Hinkel 2006).
The pragmatic aspect of communication is socio-culturally bound and easy to acquire in L1
environment but difficult in the L2. Commenting on the gap between the linguistic and pragmatic
layers, Rintell-Mitchel (in Savignon:2007) said: “perhaps perhaps the fascination that the study
of cross-cultural pragmatics holds for language teachers, researchers, and students of linguistics
stems from the serious trouble which pragmatic failure can lead to. No error of grammar can
make a speaker seem so incompetent, foreign, so inappropriate, as the kind a user gets when he
does not understand or otherwise disregard the language’s rules of use”. Consequently, it has
been frequently reported that non-native users with advanced competence in syntax and
semantics often have problems comprehending and producing pragmatically appropriate
Pragmatics is an indispensable aspect of language ability in order for second language (L2) users
to understand and be understood in their interactions with native speakers. Consequently, it is
curious that the study of pragmatics has long been a neglected in the field of second language
acquisition research. This is ironical when one considers that pragmatics is firmly established as
a critical research area in first language (L1) development. Pragmatics is often divided into two
components: pragmalinguistics, which concerns appropriateness of form, and sociopragmatics,
which concerns appropriateness of meaning in social context (Leech, 1983). Pragmatic
competence is the speaker’ s knowledge and use of rules of appropriateness and politeness which
dictate the way the speaker will understand and formulate speech acts. Speech acts are one of the
key areas of linguistic pragmatics. Specific speech acts include apology, complaint, compliment,
refusal, request, and suggestion. Research findings overall indicate that even advanced level
nonnative speakers often lack native-like pragmatic competence in a range of speech acts
(Bardovi-Harlig, 1991). In other words, speakers who may be considered ‘fluent’ in a second
language due to their mastery of the grammar and vocabulary of that language may still be
unable to produce language that is socially and culturally appropriate.
The study population consists of forty English language teachers in selected secondary schools in
Ethiope east Local Government Area of Delta State. Like all other ESL contexts, the learning of
all aspects of linguistic competenciesi is achieved principally in the context of the classroom. The
classroom teacher of English is therefore expected to impart, not only the established
competencies, but also communicative competence.
Data is generated using an “Interpretive Meaning-Inventory”. The instrument is so designed to
test the ability of respondents to sieve out contextual meaning. Respondents are simply expected
to provide most probable interpretations for five test items. The responses are graded on cline of
“more probable” to “less probable” interpretations depending on the cline of acceptability of the
interpretations. Simple percentage is used to calculate the data generated. The validity of the test
items is guaranteed by the fact that they are culled from the work of noted pragmaticists. The
cline of acceptability of the meaning of the test items is consequently not reliant on the authors
own idea of acceptability of the respondents’ interpretations but based on the established work of
experts in the field of pragmatics.ii
Results and Discussion
Test Item Number
Number of more
Number of less
Total Number ofinterpretations
14 36 40 10% 90%
26 34 40 15% 85%
33 36 39 7% 83%
47 31 38 18% 82%
56 34 40 15% 85%
26 173 197 14% 86%
As shown in the data analysis, respondents gave less acceptable pragmatic interpretations to the
test items. The less acceptable interpretations are significantly preponderant (86%) compared to
the more acceptable interpretations (14%). These figures are clearly indicative of a deficit in
pragmatic competence of the tested English language teachers and provide further validation that
the L2 context tends to produce users of English with reduced pragmatic awareness and the
tendency to under use contextual information.
The foregoing has significant implication on the ability of the respondents to impart the studied
linguistic competency. The importance accorded Pragmatics as an indispensable aspect of
linguistic knowledge in the Nigerian ESL context can be accurately gauged by the
paucity/absence of pedagogical materials designed to facilitate its learning/acquisition in the
classroom context. This is in sharp contrast to the surfeit of pedagogical materials designed to
facilitate competence in the phonological, syntactic, and semantic subcomponents of language.
The proceeding is perhaps entrenched partly by the general failure within the ESL milieu to
recognize the place of pragmatics as an important cog in the quest for approximation to native
standard, and partly by the linguistic platforms adopted in the earliest attempts at linguistically
comparing variants of Nigerian English language with the standard L1 variety. This might not be
unconnected with the fact that pragmatics is not as reducible in investigational terms in
comparison with the other subcomponents of linguistics. Consequently, the study of implied
meaning was completely ignored in the design of pedagogical materials tailored to impart other
linguistic competencies in the Nigerian ESL context.
For instance, Brosnahan’s, Bamgbose’s, and Banjo’s models, which have largely set the tone and
defined comparative studies between varieties of Nigerian English and the L1 variety,
concentrated on the phonological, syntactic, and to some extent, the semantic, subcomponents.
The pragmatic subcomponent is either completely ignored or peripherally referred to. The
comparative study of pragmatics, vis a viz the implication its portends to the L2 learner was
largely ignored despite the fact that the place of pragmatics, as an integral part of L2 linguistic
competence, has become topical due to the pioneering work of Hymes and others at least a
decade before the pivotal and influential comparative studies of Banjo and Bamgbose.
This oversight can perhaps be hinged on the overwhelming theoretical influence of Chomskyan
transformational grammars. Chomsky’s theories, modified over time, exerted so much influence
on the study of language so much so that the relevance of other theories are judged in relation to
his. Transformational grammar bestrode linguistic thinking from the 50s to modern times like a
colossus and has continued to define linguistic dynamics to this day.
In recent times however, the expedience of this type of analysis1 as a universally applicable
linguistic theory has been questioned by the representation of language as “a social semiotic”
(Halliday: 1978:9). This has led a number of linguists to portray Chomsky as denying that any
systematic relationship exists between linguistic form on the one hand and pragmatic meaning
and function on the other” (Newmeyer 1994:1) Similar concerns motivated Hymes, a linguist
and an anthropologist, to insist that proficiency in language should include communicative
competence, a concept that directly challenged some of Chomsky’s ideas. The concept of
communicative competence is a response to Noam Chomsky's distinction between competence
(knowledge of grammatical rules necessary to decoding and producing language) and
performance (actual language use). Hymes objected to the marginalization of performance from
the center of linguistic inquiry and proposed the notion of communicative competence, or
knowledge necessary to use language in social context, as an object of linguistic inquiry. Since
appropriate language use is conventionally defined, and varies across different communities.
A surfeit of data-backed research has indeed proven beyond doubts that there is an acute deficit
of pragmatic knowledge in the ESL and EFL mileux. Research into the pragmatic competence of
adult foreign and second language learners has demonstrated that grammatical development does
not guarantee a corresponding level of pragmatic development and that even advanced learners
1 Chomskyan Transformational Grammar
may fail to comprehend or to convey the intended intentions of speech acts due to the influence
that L1 pragmatic knowledge has on the non-native speakers' comprehension and production of
L2 pragmatic knowledge. (Eslami-Rasekh: 2004, Kasper: 2008).
We illustrate with the following test items extracted from the instrument used in this study
a. Does Thomas have a girlfriend?
b. He has been visiting Lagos frequently.
Paul: Peter, do you think that James would be willing to lend me the money?
Peter: his wife is not at home.
From a semantic point of view, B’s and Peters responses to A’s and Paul’s query is not
informative. However, meaning can be derived if pragmatic considerations are applied-
consideration that would most likely be ignored by the L2 user of English. If it is shared
knowledge that B keeps track of Thomas’ personal life, his response could be interpreted to mean
“yes, and she lives in Lagos” or “No, Thomas’ frequent trips to Lagos prevents him from finding
companionship”. The same pragmatic principles can be applied to the second test item to yield
interpretations like “Peter does nothing without his wife’s permission” or “Peter is incapable of
independent decisions”
The responsibility for teaching the pragmatic aspects of language use fall on teachers. Some
years back, language teachers faced some obstacles. These include lack of adequate materials
and training, which are the result of a lack of emphasis on pragmatic issues in ESL teaching
methodology courses
Explicit instruction in pragmatics is necessary because a study of language learners shows there
is a marked need for it. Second and foreign language learners show significant differences from
native speakers in language use, in particular, the execution and comprehension of certain speech
acts. Without instruction, differences in pragmatics show up in the usage in the L2 milieu. That is
to say that an L2 user of the English language with high proficiency in syntax, semantics, and
phonology will not necessarily show equivalent pragmatic development. The consequences of
pragmatic differences, unlike the case of grammatical errors, often result in communication
A number of effective pedagogical methods have been developed by researcher to aid effective
teaching of L2 pragmatics. These include Kramch and Ware’s ‘Telecollaboration’ method and
Kohn and Vadja’s ‘Peer Mediated Tutoring Method. However, it is imperative to retrain teachers,
some of whom do not know the basic rudiments of pragmatics, saddled with the task of teaching
pragmatic, with the finer details and application of these and other methods.
A number of procedures have been recommended by interlanguage pragmaticists and researchers
towards the improvement of L2 pragmatic competence. Kramch and Ware’s and Koln and Vajda’s
methods mentioned in the preceding paragraph provide some insights. The first (Kramch and
Ware’s ‘Telecollaboration’ method) relies on some form of internet based technology with two
way video and audio transmission. The second relies on peer to peer interaction by individuals
who are representative of the L1 and L2. These procedures are meant to “open up for explicit
discussion what usually remains invisible in cross-cultural communication: the nature of the
subject matter, the conditions of cross-linguistic exchanges, the nature of language as
discourse…as students explore the nature of language and communication across cultures
through technology mediated interactions” (Kramch and Ware, 2005)
Attractive as the foregoing may seem, they present certain challenges of application in the
Nigerian context. First, Kramch and Ware’s method is heavily reliant on technology. The cost of
setting up the plethora of high speed internet connection vital to the transmission of high density
video and audio in real time is prohibitive. Second, the success of the Koln and Vadja’s method is
largely dependent on personalized contact between individuals representative of the L1 and L2.
In order to know the precise nature of the linguistic problems associated with acquiring L2
pragmatic competence, it is imperative that additional research be carried out on the
phenomenon. It is there necessary that Nigerian linguists take up the challenge of what Kasper,
quoted in Franch (1998), calls interlanguage pragmatics. She defines it as the branch of second
language research which studies how non-native speakers understand and carry out linguistic
action in the target language. The research imperative in interlanguage pragmatics should centre
on the influence exerted by learners prior pragmatic knowledge on the comprehension,
production and learning of L2 pragmatics. The research outcome would be relevant in the design
of pedagogical materials best suited for the teaching of L2 pragmatic competence.
It is an established fact that pragmatic competence would not naturally be transferred in the
process of teaching the grammar of the target language within the confines of a classroom
without deliberate pedagogic intervention. In the native users context, pragmatic/communicative
competence would simply develop alongside other aspects of grammatical knowledge. The
reverse is the case in the L2 context where the communicative acts of even advanced users of the
language routinely contain pragmatic errors and deficits; in that they fail to convey or
comprehend the intended illocutionary force in an utterance.
The point being made is that there has to be a deliberate, pedagogy-centred intervention geared
towards imparting the requisite communicative competence. The implication is that we are
compelled to rely on the present crop of teachers, who suffer from the same pragmatic deficit, to
impart the needed pragmatic knowledge.
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