Pragmatics for Language Educators: A Sociolinguistic Perspective

Virginia LoCastro. New York: Routledge, 2012. Pp. xv + 331

Reviewed by:
Thi-Thuy-Minh Nguyen
National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Pragmatics for Language Educators, by V. LoCastro, provides an impressive discussion of what the study of pragmatics involves, how the different core areas of this field contribute to our understanding of language in use in today’s diverse world, what implications pragmatics research has provided for second/foreign language (L2) teaching, and how data-based studies on pragmatics topics are conducted. Offering a broad perspective on pragmatics with a wealth of multilingual data for readers’ examination, the book proves itself to be an excellent reference for language professionals, teachers, and students who wish to broaden their knowledge of the subject and familiarize themselves with empirical research in the field.
The book comprises four major sections with thirteen chapters, each ending with a helpful list of suggested readings, discussion questions and data analysis activities for readers’ further exploration and reflection. Contents discussed throughout the book are well informed by an ‘inclusive’ view of pragmatics that draws not only on linguistic analysis, but also on cognitive and sociolinguistic dimensions to interpret interactional meaning.

Part 1 (chapters 1-3) provides an introduction to the field of pragmatics by examining foundational concepts, principles and theories of pragmatic meaning. Chapter 1 (“Defining the territory”) settles on the definition of pragmatics, describes its scope of study and how it differs from other related areas of language study. Chapter 2 (“Principles of pragmatic meaning”) explains key concepts and terminology needed to build background knowledge of the field such as sentence and utterance meaning, intentionality and force, reference and indexicality, entailment and presupposition, inference and implicature. Chapter 3 (“Sociolinguistic theories of pragmatic meaning”) discusses four influential approaches to understanding speaker meaning, including Grice’s Cooperative Principle, preference organization, speech act theory and interactional linguistics. In addition, the author addresses the limitations of Grice’s theory and the speech act theory in accounting for interactional behavior and argues for the need to include both linguistic and non-linguistic context of utterance in the analysis of language use.

Part 2 (chapters 4-10) explores the various core areas of interest in pragmatics research and their applications to language teaching. Chapter 4 (“Cross-cultural pragmatics”) addresses cultural influences on language behavior and critically assesses communication glitches arising from clashing values and beliefs. The author helpfully points out the need for a ‘non-deficit’ view of L2 speakers’ pragmatic behavior that acknowledges linguistic and cultural diversities. Chapter 5 (“Interlanguage pragmatics”) looks into issues on developing pragmatic competence in a L2 and covers a range of topics such as learner language characteristics, stages of pragmatic development, influences of previously acquired languages, as well as teacher-related and learner-related factors that constrain L2 pragmatic development. Chapter 6 (“Politeness”) touches upon politeness in social interaction, another aspect of pragmatic competence. The chapter provides a critical review of Brown and Levinson’s (1987) theory of politeness and an alternative approach offered by Watts (2003) and Locher (2004). The chapter also presents a range of instructional strategies to facilitate the teaching of politeness at different proficiency levels. Chapter 7 (“Interactional construction of identity”) discusses the enactment of identity in language use and its implications for language educators. In particular, L1 identities can affect L2 acquisition as learners often find themselves caught between conflicting L1 and L2 identities and as a result, may consciously or non-consciously seek to converge to or diverge from L2 norms. Chapter 8 (“Institutional talk”) addresses interactions that are constrained by norms of institutional settings such as oral examination contexts, doctor-patient discourse, courtroom trial discourse, and workplace communication whereas Chapter 9 (“Language, gender, and power”) focuses on the enactment of gender and power in language use. The issue of identity claims previously discussed is again picked up in these two chapters and examples from relevant research studies are examined for insights. Chapter 10 (“Classroom pragmatic development”) discusses how pragmatic competence can be fostered in classroom settings, particularly where there is little opportunity for contact with target language norms. It covers a variety of issues related to developing pragmatic competence in the globalized context, such as the role of pragmatic competence in intercultural communication, the potential of and constraints on pragmatic instruction, as well as the much-debated question of whose norms to teach, given the evolving variations in language usage and use among English-speaking communities. The chapter concludes with recommendations for classroom teachers who wish to teach pragmatic skills both inside and beyond the classroom context. For example, it is suggested that students be given more control of classroom discourse so that they can practice interactional rules of speaking. Teachers may also consider training students for future workplace communication by including in the syllabus job interviewing skills, business letter writing and so on.

Part 3 (chapters 11-12) introduces methodologies for researching pragmatics with a view to guiding novice researchers. Chapter 11 (“Guidelines for small sociopragmatics projects”) presents important issues and procedures involved in doing research such as ethical concerns, research design, data collection and interpretation whereas Chapter 12 (“Ideas for research projects in sociopragmatics”) reviews exemplary studies to encourage readers to think about possible topics for future research.

Part 4 (Chapter 13), “Pragmatic competence in our diverse world”) concludes the book by reiterating the author’s goal and approach to studying pragmatics, as well as bringing together issues that have been discussed throughout the previous 12 chapters. The author once again emphasizes the value of researching and acquiring knowledge of pragmatics to develop a non-judgmental stance in intercultural communication.

In short, Pragmatics for Language Educators is a valuable addition to the field of pragmatics and language teaching. The book’s clarity of exposition and extensive use of illustrative materials makes it accessible to everyone. Particularly, the inclusion of non-Western data caters well to readers who are non-native speakers of English and allows for a balanced, unbiased perspective on human interaction. Moreover, the inclusion of reader’s hands-on tasks at the end of each chapter, as well as detailed guidelines for students’ research projects, sets the book apart from other books dealing with similar topics. Students and instructors would find this book an engaging and thought-provoking read.

Brown, P. and Levinson, S. (1987). Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Locher, M. A. (2004). Power and politeness in action: Disagreements in oral communication. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Watts, R. (2003). Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.