Variational pragmatics in the foreign language classroom

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  • System 33 (2005) 519536

    Variational pragmatics in theforeign language classroom

    Anne Barron

    Englisches Seminar, Universitt Bonn, Regina-Pacis-Weg 5, 53113 Bonn, Germany

    Received 14 October 2004; received in revised form 4 May 2005; accepted 17 May 2005


    Situational variation has long been an accepted form of intra-lingual variation inspeech act realisations. The eVect of macro-social factors, such as region, ethnicbackground, age, social status and gender, on intra-lingual pragmatic conventions has,however, received comparatively little attention in the study of pragmatics to date[Kasper, G., 1995. Wessen Pragmatik? Fr eine Neubestimmung fremdsprachlicher Hand-lungskompetenz. Zeitschrift fr Fremdsprachenforschung 6 (1), 6994, 7273]. In addi-tion, only very limited attention has been paid to macro-social pragmatic variation inmodern dialectology, a discipline which focuses on the eVect of macro-social factors onlinguistic choices [cf. Wolfram, W., Schilling-Estes, N., 1998. American English. Dialectsand Variation. Blackwell, Malden, MA, p. 89]. Variational pragmatics is a newlyestablished sub-Weld of pragmatics which aims to meet this research gap. It is situated atthe interface of pragmatics and dialectology and aims at a systematic investigation of theeVect of macro-social pragmatic variation on language in action [cf. Schneider, K.P.,Barron, A., 2005. Variational pragmatics: Contours of a new discipline. Unpublishedpaper presented at the 9th International Pragmatics Conference, Riva del Garda, July 1015, 2005].

    This paper highlights the need for a focus on macro-social factors. It draws attention tothe fact that the rather blinkered focus on intra-lingual variation to date has meant that in0346-251X/$ - see front matter 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.doi:10.1016/j.system.2005.06.009

    research and teaching, languages have been generally viewed as homogeneous wholes, devoid

    * Tel.: +49 228 737308.E-mail address:

  • 520 A. Barron / System 33 (2005) 519536

    of regional and social variation. By means of data from a selection of regional intra-lingualpragmatic studies, the paper attempts to highlight a number of parameters relevant to intra-lingual pragmatic variation. On this basis, a case is made for language teaching to include avariational perspective on conventions of language use. 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

    Keywords: Variational pragmatics; Pragmatic variation; Regional pragmatic variation; Pragmatic peda-gogy; L2 norm; Second language acquisition

    1. Introduction

    Situational variation due to diVerences in levels of social distance, social domi-nance and degree of imposition, has long been recognised to be a form of intra-lin-gual variation in speech act realisations (cf. Brown and Levinson, 1978, 1987;Kasper, 1989, 1995, p. 72). Intra-lingual pragmatic variation attributable toregional and social factors, such as ethnic background, age, social status andgender (cf. Chambers, 1996, pp. 78), has, however, received comparatively littleattention in the study of cross-cultural pragmatics (cf. Barron, 2003, p. 266;Barron and Schneider, 2005; Kasper, 1995, pp. 7273; Schneider and Barron,2005). Similar to the case in pragmatics, research in dialectology (i.e., in traditionaldialect geography and contemporary urban dialectology) has not paid muchattention to variation in language use, despite this disciplines focus on theinvestigation of synchronic variation. Instead, the study of dialect has concen-trated overwhelmingly on regional and social variation on the phonological,syntactic and lexical levels of linguistic analysis (cf. Wolfram and Schilling-Estes,1998, p. 89). Given this general dearth of such research in pragmatics and indialectology, we, therefore, do not know very much about the systematic nature ofintra-lingual variation (cf. Barron and Schneider, 2005; Schneider and Barron,2005). Consequently, there reigns a general assumption, also in the teaching ofpragmatic competence, that regional and social factors do not inXuence languagein interaction. Languages are seen as homogeneous wholes from a pragmatic pointof view. This lack of interest in the eVect of regional and social factors on linguis-tic (inter)action is all the more regrettable given that an awareness of suchdiVerences may help reduce conXicts between groups in society (Wolfram andSchilling-Estes, 1998, p. 89).

    The purpose of this paper is Wrstly to highlight the research gap in the study of theeVect of regional and social factors on intra-lingual choices in language use in bothpragmatics and dialectology and to discuss the consequences of this for the teachingof foreign language pragmatics. Following this, the paper, taking the case of regionalvariation, aims at identifying preliminary parameters of intra-lingual pragmatic vari-ation. On this basis, the relevance of variational pragmatics for the foreign languageclassroom is then discussed.

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    2. Languages viewed as homogeneous wholes

    2.1. Pragmatics without macro-social variation

    Pragmatics has long been concerned with the question of the universality ofspeech acts and of the strategies and linguistic means available for realizing speechacts (cf., e.g., Blum-Kulka, 1991; Blum-Kulka et al., 1989a; Kasper and Rose, 2002,pp. 164167; Ochs, 1996, pp. 425431). Two important strands of research are gener-ally identiWed here, one emphasising the universal aspects of the classiWcation, andlinguistic realisation of speech acts, including not least the various politeness theo-ries put forward (cf., e.g., Brown and Levinson, 1978, 1987; Fraser and Nolen, 1981;Searle, 1969). The other trend in speech act research concentrates on the cross-culturalvariability of speech act performance (cf., e.g., the edited volume, Blum-Kulka et al.,1989). Currently, many pragmatic universals are recognised. These include the basicspeech act categories of, e.g., requesting, greeting, leave-taking, etc., the broad rangeof realisation strategies for speech acts, such as apologies and requests, inferenceand also situational variation in the use of language (cf. Kasper and Rose, 2002, pp.164167; Ochs, 1996, pp. 425428 for a more comprehensive overview). On the otherhand, areas of cross-cultural variation have also been found. Such areas include thedegree of relevance of diVerent contextual factors in diVerent communities and thediVerent weightings of speciWc contextual factors across cultures. Also, research hasshown that although the inventory of strategies and of modiWcation devices may besimilar in particular cultures, the choices made from this inventory and the distribu-tion of these in terms of relative frequency may diVer. In addition, diVerences mayoccur in the particular linguistic form employed to realise an individual strategyshared across cultures (cf. Ochs, 1996, pp. 428431 for further details).

    Problematically, however, cross-cultural pragmatic research has only dealt withintra-lingual pragmatic variation on the situational level. Situational variability is adimension of variability that has been Wrmly instituted in variational sociolinguisticssince Labov (1972). The investigation of situational pragmatic variation has adoptedconcepts from researchers such as Brown and Levinson (1978, 1987). It has focusedon the eVect of social distance, social dominance and degree of imposition on lan-guage use conventions (cf., e.g., Blum-Kulka and House, 1989; Kasper, 1989).Research focusing on such micro sociolinguistic factors, in Kaspers (1995, p. 72)terms, has been abundant. This wealth of research contrasts, however, with the lim-ited research on the eVect of factors, such as region, age, social status, gender and eth-nic background, on language use conventions. In other words, pragmatic research onthe eVect of macro sociolinguistic factors, in Kaspers (1995, p. 72) terms, remains aresearch desideratum.

    Early cross-cultural research in the form of the Cross-Cultural Speech Act Reali-sation Project (CCSARP) did recognise that regional variation might inXuence lan-guage use conventions. This was apparent in the diVerent intra-lingual varieties ofEnglish for which data was collected, i.e., Australian English (Blum-Kulka, 1989;Blum-Kulka and House, 1989; Olshtain, 1989; Weizman, 1989), American English

    (Wolfson et al., 1989) and British English (House-Edmondson, 1986; House and

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    Kasper, 1987).1 However, regrettably, these diVerent varieties of English were nevercompared in the CCSARP, at least not in a public forum. In other words, althoughthere was a clear recognition in this project of the possible inXuence of regional vari-ation, this aspect of variation was not further investigated. Indeed, the investigationof macro-social variation has continued to take a back seat in pragmatic research ingeneral. DiVerences based on region, age, social status, gender and ethnic identityhave been either abstracted away or, at the very least, not been systematically dis-cussed. Consequently, there has remained an underlying assumption that variationrelative to such macro-social factors does not exist (cf. Kasper, 1995, p. 72; Placencia,1994, 1998; Schneider, 2001; Barron and Schneider, 2005). Kasper (1995, p. 73)laments on this situation, writing:

    Der seiner makrosoziolinguistischen Merkmale entledigte Zielsprachenaktant istdamit ein beobachtungs- und beschreibungsinadquates Konstrukt. Auch ausverschiedenen theoretischen Perspektiven der Soziolinguistik heraus ist derhomogenisierte Zielsprachenaktant nicht zu begrnden. Soziolinguistische Nor-mmodelle haben seit jeher den EinXu kontextexterner und kontextinterner Fak-toren auf situiertes Verstehen und Sprechen hervorgehoben

    (The target language participant who is abstracted away from his macro-sociolin-guistic characteristics is an inadequate construct from an observational and descrip-tive point of view. Neither can the homogenised target language participant bejustiWed from the point of view of various theoretical sociolinguistic perspectives.Sociolinguistic norm models have always emphasised the inXuence of context-external and context-internal factors on situated understanding and speaking )2

    Mrquez Reiter (2002) and Placencia (1994, 1998) have also recently highlightedthis desideratum for macro-social variation in the context of the pragmatics of Span-ish. Focusing on region, Mrquez Reiter notes: Very few [studies in Hispanic prag-matics] have investigated pragmatic variation in Spanish. She describes theresearch area as an exciting puzzle waiting to be built on (2002, p. 148). Similarly,in a later paper, she comments:

    Several studies in Hispanic pragmatics have focused on speech act realization. Very few, however, have investigated pragmatic variation in Spanish; that isto say, how diVerent varieties of Spanish vary in their use of language in context (Mrquez Reiter, 2003, p. 167).

    2.2. Macro-social variation without pragmatics

    Research in dialectology and variational sociolinguistics (urban dialectology) haslong established that macro-social factors correlate with linguistic choices. The latter,more recent, research tradition has focused predominantly on the phonological level of

    1 Not all pluricentric languages were diVerentiated regionally.2 This translation, as others in this article, is the responsibility of the present author.

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    language. However, a number of studies in this tradition have also revealed a correla-tion between higher-order social factors and variables in morphology, syntax and inthe study of the lexicon (cf. Apte, 2001, pp. 4346).3 Indeed, this focus of dialect studiesis nicely reXected in overviews of variation in regional dialectology, such as those byBauer (2002) and Kortmann and Schneider (2005). Both of these works discuss varia-tion only on the levels of phonology, morphology and syntax; pragmatic variation isnot even mentioned.4 Similarly, Rickford (1996), a reader-friendly overview of theapplicability of sociolinguistic research on regional and social factors, concentrates onthe phonological, syntactic and lexical levels of language variation. Macro-social varia-tion in language use conventions is not discussed (cf. also Hughes et al., 2005).

    Individual writers in dialectology have lamented this general lack of data on macro-social pragmatic variation. As early as 1978, Schlieben-Lange and Weydt made a pleafor an extension of the scope of dialect studies to include a pragmatic perspective. Morerecently, Wolfram and Schilling-Estes (1998, p. 89), in the context of their account ofdialects in American English, remark, for instance: The acknowledgment of language-use diVerences as a legitimate domain of dialect studies is relatively recent compared tothe traditional focus of dialect studies on language form (i.e., lexical items, pronuncia-tions, grammatical structures ). In other words, Wolfram and Schilling-Estes (1998,p. 56) acknowledge the fact that varieties may diVer from each other, not only on thewell-established phonological, grammatical and semantic levels, but also on the prag-matic level. Rather unusual for overviews of variation in dialectology, they devote acomplete sub-section to diVerences in language-use conventions (1998, pp. 8289).Here, they give an overview of studies which have revealed ethnic identity and genderto correlate with intra-lingual pragmatic variation (cf. also Tottie, 2002).

    2.3. Foreign language teaching and the Kelloggs CornXakes family

    Cook (1999, p. 188) notes that despite objections, the native speaker modelremains Wrmly entrenched in language teaching and SLA research. In other words,foreign language learners are generally expected to become native speaker clones andadopt target language (L2) ways of using language. However, it is not any particularL2 norm which the language classroom puts forward. No, it is the British or Ameri-can norm, and thus also the British or American native speaker, who reigns supremein language teaching. Not only that, but these British and American native speakerspresented are wholesome White families who look as if they have walked oV theback of Kelloggs CornXakes packets in Pennycook (1999, p. 339) words.5

    Needless to say, this illusion of a homogenous L2 speech community contrastsstrongly with the anti-essentialism advocated in critical language pedagogy (cf., e.g.,

    3 Milroy and Milroy (1993) and Trudgill and Chambers (1991) focus, for instance, on the syntax of vari-eties of English.

    4 Bauer (2002) also mentions variation in spelling and pronunciation.5 Indeed, even the description of a Kelloggs CornXakes family is not completely realistic, since the study

    of families implies the study of variation according to age and gender factors often forgotten in pragmatic

    descriptions in the classroom.

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