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Some problems with functions and speech acts
and some solutions through pragmatics to help
upper intermediate learners
by Greg Gobel
- 1

‘All learners of a foreign language are familiar with the disturbing sensation of understanding every word, and the literal meaning, but somehow missing the point.’ -Cook (1989: 41)


Functional language has been a focus in ELT over the past three decades with varying amounts of emphasis, from the Functional-Notional syllabus to a minor component in multi-layered syllabuses. However, in my experience learners often do not get the ‘whole picture’ regarding understanding and using functional language from coursebooks that teachers and learners are often expected to use and ‘work through’ in many language schools. I am currently teaching an upper intermediate course in which the learners have difficulties coping with appropriately interpreting and using functions. This paper investigates some problems that learners have with functions and suggests possible solutions for helping upper intermediate learners.

Speech Acts/Functions

McCarthy says, ‘Speech acts refer to the communicative intention of what is said or written. In speech-act theory, all language is seen as doing things’ (McCarthy, 1998: 179). Dörnyei and Thurrell say they ‘carry out an action or language function’ (Dörnyei and Thurrell, 1992: 80).

‘No utterance is completely context free in terms of meaning and function. Nevertheless,…it is possible to classify utterances into a very small set of functions’ (Hatch, 1992: 121). Searle determined five general types of speech acts (summarized from Hatch, 1992: 121-131):

Directives trying to get someone to do something
Representatives committing, in some way, to the truth of an utterance
Commissives committing to doing or not doing something
Expressives expressing emotion in some way
Declarations bringing changes to the way things are

van Ek (1980) describes six self-explanatory main functions of language:

  • imparting and seeking factual information

  • expressing and finding out intellectual attitudes

  • expressing and finding out emotional attitudes

  • expressing and finding out moral attitudes

  • getting things done

  • socializing (Finocchiaro and Brumfit, 1983: 23)

Sub- and micro- functions can be categorized, e.g., instructing, commanding, suggesting, and requesting are types of ‘directives’ or ‘getting things done’.

Although speech acts may be direct (e.g., Put that gun down!), ‘the majority in everyday conversation are indirect’ ( Dörnyei and Thurrell, 1992: 80). ‘Language learners can easily misunderstand indirect speech acts and take what has been said at its face value’ so ‘making learners aware that such structures have a “surface” and “real” meaning can therefore be very important’ ( ibid : 80-81). In other words, there is often a hidden meaning of utterances which can be problematic for learners to convey and interpret.

Consideration of the response that a speaker expects from her listener is necessary. There are two possible responses, ‘an expected, polite reaction (e.g., accepting an invitation or complying with a request), and an unexpected, less common or more “difficult” reaction (e.g., turning down an invitation, or refusing to comply with a request). These two types of reaction have been called preferred and dispreferred answers respectively’ ( ibid : 43). Yule says that preferred responses show less distance, ‘closeness and quick connection,’ while dispreferred responses show more ‘distance and a lack of connection’ (Yule, 1996: 82).

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