Interlanguage Pragmatics Research Paper Starter

Interlanguage Pragmatics

(Research Starters)

Inter-language pragmatics (ILP) refers to a second language (L2) learner's comprehension and use of linguistic forms within differing contexts. The study of ILP draws on its parent fields of pragmatics (the study of language within context) and second language acquisition. Researchers seek to understand how language learners' pragmatic use of language is different from that of native speakers. This is important because breakdowns in pragmatic competence that occur due to failures in pragma-linguistic and sociolinguistic knowledge can lead to an L2 learner being perceived as rude or negatively stereotyped. ILP also attempts to understand how pragmatics are acquired by investigating whether certain stages of pragmatic learning are common to all learners and whether such stages occur in a particular order. ILP research holds important implications for foreign language classrooms because research supports direct and explicit instruction of pragmatic knowledge. This paper provides an overview of the basic principles and research of inter-language pragmatics.

Keywords Cross-cultural communication; Cross-cultural pragmatics; Inter-language pragmatics; Languages; Linguistics; Pragmatics; Second language acquisition; Speech act

English as a Second Language: Inter-language Pragmatics


Interlinguage Pragmatics (ILP) or Inter-language pragmatics refer to a second language (L2) learner's comprehension and use of linguistic forms within differing contexts. ILP is derived from two disciplines: second language acquisition and pragmatics, the study of language within content. From second language acquisition studies, the term 'interlingua' refers to the language that a second language learner uses on his or her way from beginning to learn a second language to being proficient in that language. At any point of development, interlingua is assumed to be systematic and rule-governed (Selinker, 1972 as cited in Barron, 2003). The term pragmatics refers to a special field within linguistics that focuses on how speakers use language to achieve their purpose. A brief introduction to pragmatics follows in order to lay a foundation for understanding ILP.

The basic principle underlying the discipline of pragmatics is that communication involves interactions between a speaker and hearer who make judgments about what to say given their understanding of the purpose of the interaction and the context of the situation. A significant contextual variation that affects the decisions the speaker and hearer make is the perceived relationship between speaker and hearer. Differences in power between the speaker and hearer (e.g., boss vs. employee) and the level of social distance between interactants (e.g., age, gender, socioeconomic status) result in different language choices (Garcia, 2004). For instance, a college student making a request to a professor, who has more power and is socially distant from the student, is likely to use formal, direct language such as "Would it be possible for me to make up the exam?" However, the same college student, in making a request to a peer may speak with less formality and politeness, "Hey, close the door. It's cold." The difference in the relationship is conveyed through the language and manner that the speaker chooses to use: "Would it be possible" - use of a polite modal to soften the request posed in an interrogative sentence - vs. "Close the door" - a command issued with only the reason "It's cold" to soften the statement.

Inherent to understanding pragmatics is to understand the concept that the same utterances - language that a speaker or listener produces - can have different meanings in different contexts. For instance, the statement, "its cold in here" can be a speaker's descriptive statement of a fact or it can be a request for a listener to do something such as close a window or a door. In order to understand and reply to the intended meaning of the utterance, a hearer or listener must have pragmatic competence. In other words, the listener must know the meaning of the linguistic forms issued in the utterance and the hearer must be able to infer - given the rules governing language use and the context of the situation - what the speaker's intention must be (Bialystok, 1993).

The field of pragmatics pays particular attention to understanding what language individuals deem to be polite within specific contexts. Brown and Levinson (1987) posit that individuals use politeness strategies to preserve "face" where face is an individual's image of one's social approval. They posit two types of face: positive face - which involves' one's desire for approval and negative face - one's desire to be unimpeded in one's actions. When social protocols are followed, individuals are able to mitigate threats to face, but when social norms are violated, individuals lose face and experience negative feelings (Eisenstein and Bodman, 1993).


Understanding differences in how individuals perceive situations requiring politeness or other formal communication strategies is important for facilitating communication and is the basis of one aspect of ILP research. ILP researchers seek to understand how individuals from different cultures use a second language differently from a native speaker when faced with a specific language task. This area of research stems from the broader field of cross-cultural pragmatics and is conducted to increase and improve cross-cultural understanding and communication. It is especially important for contexts such as foreign language classrooms where differences in pragmatics may lead members of one culture to perceive another as rude or to create negative stereotypes.

Speech Act Theory

The foundational theory for cross-cultural pragmatic research is Speech Act Theory. Speech Act Theory is a pragmatic concept that divides what people say into five categories of speech acts. These are:

  • Representatives / Assertives- Where the speaker's statement indicates that the speaker believes what is said
  • Directives - The speaker tries to get the person listening (hearer) to do something
  • Commissives - The speaker commits to doing something in the future
  • Expressives - The speaker states an attitude towards a previous action or state of affairs
  • Declarations - The speaker indicates a correspondence between something stated and the world (Austin, 1976 as cited in Barron, 2003)
  • Studies based on Speech Act Theory have led to the discovery of several universal pragmatic principles. For instance, it is generally believed, based on available evidence, that the existence of the classes of speech acts is universal. Furthermore, it has been found that: 1) speakers do not always state their needs explicitly; 2) speakers use "pragmatic routines;" 3) speakers change their language based on the context of the situation; 4) speakers can choose from a broad range of language uses to meet their needs (Fraser/Nolen, 1981; Searle, 1969 as cited in Barron, 2003).

    Negative Pragmatic Transfer

    On the other hand, many areas of pragmatic differences have also been identified and can cause communication breakdowns as language learners inappropriately apply knowledge of their first language pragmatics to the new language. Negative pragmatic transfer, as this process is called, can occur because of pragma-linguistic interference. For instance, learners may choose linguistic forms from their first language to incorporate into their inter-language (e.g., a speaker from a language that uses have instead of to be for age says "How many years have you?" instead of "How many years are you?). It can also occur because learners have a culturally-bound and differing perception of the social context in which they are speaking. Some common differences in socio-pragmatic knowledge include:

  • Perceptions of status relationships
  • Appropriateness of carrying...

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