March 2013
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EFL Teachers' Pragmatic Evaluation of Learners' Face-Threatening Acts
Chi-yin Hong & Yung-gi Wu

Chi-yin Hong

Yung-gi Wu

For language users, the capacity of producing pragmatically appropriate utterances (i.e., pragmatic competence) is an essential basis for successful communication. According to Bachman and Palmer (1996), pragmatic competence refers to the ability to relate utterances to the speaker’s communicative goals and the features of the language use setting. It includes not only the speaker’s ability to use a language for different purposes but also the listener’s ability to understand the speaker’s real intentions, especially when these intentions are not directly conveyed. It also involves the capacity to relate a set of linguistic forms and meanings intended by those forms in specific contexts (Bialystok, 1993). A lack of pragmatic competence can cause misunderstandings and communication breakdowns, particularly when face-threatening acts, such as requests and complaints, are involved.

English language education in EFL settings tends to focus on developing learners’ grammatical competence and ignores pragmatic competence. EFL teachers also concentrate on assessing grammatical competence more than pragmatic competence (Bardovi-Harlig & Dörnyei, 1998), which probably reflects their conception of prioritizing grammatical accuracy in teaching. This can restrict the development of pragmatic competence of EFL learners, who have received relatively limited pragmatic input (see, e.g., Bardovi-Harlig & Hartford, 1996; Kasper, 1997) compared to ESL learners. The present study aims to probe into EFL teachers’ pragmatic evaluation of two face-threatening acts, requests and refusals, produced by English language learners to investigate the relationship among their scoring of grammatical accuracy, appropriateness of expressions, and overall performances.

Thirty college students in Taiwan participated in this study: 15 low-proficiency learners and 15 intermediate learners. Their proficiency levels were determined based on their performances in prior proficiency tests. [1] In addition, 11 English teachers who taught in senior high schools and colleges scored the learners’ productions of request and refusal strategies. Two instruments were used: a written discourse completion task (DCT) and a scoring chart. The written DCT was an open-ended questionnaire, which provided scenario cues to the learners and required them to write down what they would say if the situation really happened. There were eight scenarios: four request situations and four refusal situations. Among the four request situations, two included a teacher and two involved a classmate as addressees to investigate the effects of the addressee’s status on the subjects’ requests, and the same variable distribution applied to the refusal situations. The other instrument was a scoring chart, in which the 11 English teachers scored all of the learners’ speech act productions based on grammatical accuracy, appropriateness of expressions, and overall performances, on a scale of 1 to 7.

The results show that in general, the intermediate group scored higher than the low group. There were slight differences between the two groups’ scores in request situations, but in Scenario 6 (i.e., a scenario of refusing the teacher) the low-proficiency learners’ scores were significantly lower than the intermediate learners’ in terms of grammatical accuracy, appropriateness, and overall performances. These results seem to suggest that the difficulty level of refusals is higher than requests, contributing to the low-proficiency learners’ problems both in grammatical accuracy and appropriateness. However, there could be another interpretation that comes from the influence of grammatical accuracy on the teachers’ scoring. Further correlation analyses show that the two learner groups’ scores of overall performances correlated with those of grammatical accuracy and appropriateness, but comparatively, the low-proficiency learners’ scores of grammatical accuracy and appropriateness were also correlated and reached the significance level, whereas the intermediate learners’ scores did not exhibit this tendency. The following sample productions selected from Scenario 6 may reveal some clues of such influences. The first three examples produced by low-proficiency learners represented common refusal strategies, explanations, and negation of abilities, which were also often used by the intermediate learners. These refusals, involving grammatical errors such as the deletion of auxiliary verbs and wrong word choice, received low scores in terms of the three scoring criteria.

(L5) Teacher, I afraid of I’ll miss the money. (2.43/2.45/2.36) [2]

(L13) It’s not reliable for me to keep the class fund. I am not good at count. (3.18/3.36/3.36)

(L14) I think I don’t have a heart strong enough to keep such a great number of money. Could you please change the bill manager? (3.18/3.09/3.09)

Comparatively, the intermediate learners received a higher score in general, including for appropriateness, even though their strategy use was similar to that of the low-proficiency learners. For instance, the following example involved an explicit refusal, which was not appropriate in interactions with superiors, but it still got an average score higher than 4.

(I7) Sir, I am not willing to have so much money with me. I’m not careful enough. (4.73/4.27/ 4.27)

In addition, the following two examples produced by the intermediate learners show the speakers’ negation of abilities. With a higher level of grammatical accuracy, they got a higher score in appropriateness than similar refusal strategies used by the low-proficiency learners.

(I9) I can’t take care of the class fund. (4.82/4/4)

(I12) Mr. Wang, I’m afraid I can’t take good care of the class fund. (4.82/4.73/4.82)

To sum up, the EFL teachers in the present study were influenced by grammatical accuracy while evaluating the utterance appropriateness of low-proficiency learners’ refusals. With utterances including grammatical errors, the teachers were likely to be distracted from weighing social desirability. Although such influences seem to be inevitable, teachers’ focus should not be diverted from appropriate pragmatic strategies, which can be as important as correct grammar. After all, in EFL settings where authentic input is relatively limited, teachers play a vital role in offering input and bring learners’ attention to relevant linguistic and pragmatic features so as to acquire them. A pedagogical focus exclusively on grammatical competence might determine learners’ priorities in learning and thus encourage grammatical competency at the expense of pragmatic competence (Bardovi-Harlig & Hartford, 1996). Teachers should keep in mind that grammatical errors do not necessarily result in social inappropriateness of speech behaviors though grammatical competence is indeed part of communicative competence, and that developing grammatical competence does not guarantee pragmatically competent speakers. Appropriateness of expressions should be integrated into teaching to arouse EFL learners’ awareness of pragmatic competence in efficient and smooth communication and avoidance of communication breakdowns.


Bachman, L., & Palmer, A. (1996). Language testing in practice. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Bardovi-Harlig, K., & Dörnyei, Z. (1998). Do language learners recognize pragmatic violations? Pragmatic versus grammatical awareness in instructed L2 learning. TESOL Quarterly, 32, 233–262.

Bardovi-Harlig, K., & Hartford, B. S. (1996). Input in an institutional setting. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 17, 171–188.

Bialystok, E. (1993). Symbolic representation and attentional control in pragmatic competence. In G. Kasper & S. Blum-Kulka (Eds.), Interlanguage pragmatics (pp. 43–57).New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Kasper, G. (1997). The role of pragmatics in language teacher education. In K. Bardovi-Harlig & B. S. Hartford (Eds.), Beyond methods: Components of language teacher education (pp. 113–136). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

[1]The subjects had taken either the General English Proficiency Test, a national English proficiency test in Taiwan, or the TOEIC.

[2] L refers to the low-proficiency learners (and I to the intermediate learners), followed by the number, which represents the subject’s serial number in their group. The three numbers in the parenthesis at the end of each sample are the scores for grammatical accuracy, appropriateness of expressions, and overall performances.

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