March 2018
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TEACHING THE PRAGMATICS OF DIGITAL COMMUNICATION: CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR ESP PRACTITIONERS
Ismaeil Fazel, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada

In this brief piece, I aim to foreground the importance and complexities of teaching the sociopragmatic and intercultural dimension of digital communication. Needless to say, in the past few decades, the digital revolution propelled by advancements in modern technology has dramatically and irrevocably transformed the communication needs and practices of the academic as well as professional and corporate world. In today’s transnational and global economy, professionals increasingly need to engage with digital and multimodal modes and genres of communication, such as emails and teleconferencing. Navigating these digital genres demands certain communicative skills, strategies, and sensibilities, which calls for a proper pedagogical response from English for specific purposes practitioners (ESPers). One of the challenges and complexities of responding to the needs of ESP learners for digital communication is teaching the sociopragmatic and intercultural aspects of digital communication.

On a relevant note, in 2006, I was part of a small ESP team tasked with devising and delivering an intensive course on writing effective business emails. The clientele composed of a fairly small group of Iranian engineers (N = 16) working in a cement engineering company who needed to communicate—via business emails and letters—with their English-speaking counterparts in Asia and Europe. After conducting a needs analysis in the form of interviews and assessment of written work (i.e., emails), an intensive course was designed to help the engineers write business letters and emails more effectively. It is worth noting, however, that the company had demanded an intensive 5-week course, given the exigencies of the project.

Admittedly, though, teaching the course proved harder than I had anticipated, as it was my first experience of having to teach such a course. Teaching email communication, as a digital genre, can be particularly challenging as it combines the features of spoken and written communication (e.g., Evans, 2010; Jensen, 2009). Drawing from the needs analysis and in consultation with my colleagues, I decided to focus the instruction chiefly on the following focal points:

  • email formatting (i.e., subject lines, salutations, closing, body paragraph(s), other genre-specific features),

  • the content (e.g., clarity of request, request content), and

  • language forms and functions (e.g., degree of formality, request strategies) in the email genre.

Given that I did not have any relevant commercially available teaching resources at my disposal, the teaching material mainly consisted of samples and exemplars (both good and poor ones) as well as the participants’ own emails. At the end of the 5-week course, I noticed that the participants appeared to have developed a good grasp of the format and generic conventions of business email (e.g., salutations, closing). However, there were still discernible, lingering challenges and—both instructor observed and self-perceived—problematic areas, especially in terms of appropriateness of emails (e.g., tone, overuse or underuse of directness and formality). Such problems were more visible particularly when it came to e-negotiations and disagreements. In retrospect, an important area that I think was not adequately addressed in the course was the sociopragmatic and intercultural aspect of email communication. Quite clearly, though, fostering pragmatic competence and cultivating appropriate politeness strategies in email would need a much longer course than 5 weeks.

The preceding example showcases but one of the potential challenges in teaching digital communication, namely, addressing the pragmatic competence in email communication, and by extension digital communication. Needless to say, in today’s increasingly digitized world, professionals increasingly need to have the capability and sensibility of using digital—both synchronous (e.g., teleconferencing) and asynchronous (e.g., email)—modes of communication.

To successfully participate in computer-mediated communication with their international counterparts, professionals need to carefully and tactfully construct their messages to ensure they are considered appropriate and polite. This means that they need to be familiar with the sociopragmatic norms of the target community. The norms and conventions “of the community tend to make certain pragmatic behavior more or less preferred or appropriate in a given context by speakers in that community” (Ishihara & Cohen, 2010, p. 13). Pragmatic knowledge helps language users construct linguistic messages that are context-appropriate and polite, and it is considered “one of the most complex and challenging aspects of communicative competence” (Ishihara & Cohen, 2010, p. 76). Teaching pragmatic and intercultural dimensions of digital communication seems particularly important in today’s globalized world, where there is an increasing need for professionals to communicate transnationally. Yet the bigger questions I would like to raise to the ESP community are:

  • What does effective instruction of digital communication entail? And how does it differ from teaching nondigital modes of professional communication?

  • Do the rules of engagement and communication (including pragmatics of communication) in the digital sphere differ from the nondigital domain (which we, ESPers, are often more accustomed to teach)?

  • What constitutes the best practices in teaching effective and appropriate digital communication to professionals?

Though some (e.g., Cowan, 2015; Stolley & Brizee, 2010) have proposed a generic set of ground rules for digital communication, often dubbed as netiquette, there seems to be a need for further and richer conversations and contributions in this vein, given the generic nature of such dos and don’ts. Clearly, ESPers need to be ready to take up the challenge of teaching their clientele how to effectively and sensibly use new and emerging modes of digital communication.

References

Cowan, A. (2015). Email etiquette in different countries. Retrieved from http://www.business2community.com/infographics /email-etiquette-different-countries-infographic-01197474

Evans, S. (2010) Business as usual: The use of English in the professional world in Hong Kong. English for Specific Purposes, 29, 153–167.

Ishihara, N., & Cohen, A. (2010). Teaching and learning pragmatics: Where language and culture meet. Harlow, United Kingdom: Longman Applied Linguistics.

Jensen, A. (2009). Discourse strategies in professional e-mail negotiation: A case study. English for Specific Purposes, 28, 4–18.

Stolley, K., & Brizee, A. (2010, April 17). Purdue OWL: Email etiquette. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/636/01/


Ismaeil Fazel is a lecturer at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. His main research interests include academic writing, English for academic purposes, and language assessment. He has published in journals such as English for Academic Purposes and TESL Canada. One of his recent publications is a coauthored encyclopedia entry on English for specific purposes (Abrar-ul-Hassan & Fazel) in the TESOL Encyclopedia of English Language Teaching (2018).

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