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Pragmatic Failure in Successful Communication Analytical Essay

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Updated: Dec 25th, 2019


Successful communication is a desirable result of every person, who is participating in the discourse. In order to create favorable conditions for interaction, both interlocutors should be aware of how communication act emerges. First, the speaker is codifying the information, which is proceeded by sending the message to the listener. Further, the latter is decoding this message and perceives this information.

Successful communication occurs, when both the message encoded and decoded are of the similar content and force. For successful communication the English philosopher Paul Grice has outlined certain maxims of Quantity, Quality, Relation and Manner:

  • Quantity: make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purpose of the exchange). Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.
  • Quality: Do not say what you believe to be false. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.
  • Relation: Be relevant.
  • Manner: Avoid obscurity of expression. Avoid ambiguity. Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity). Be orderly. [Grice, 1989]

These are the universal guidelines for acquiring interlocutors’ mutual comprehension. However, in order to achieve better understanding, both speaker and listener are to share common principals and rules in cases, when the intents of the utterance are not explicit. These rules and principles are unlikely to coincide with each other, when we are talking about cross-cultural communication.

Everyday practice shows how often representatives of different nations fail to manage an appropriate interpretation of the message in a conversation. “It can cause misunderstandings or create offence when speakers can understand only the literal meaning of words and do not know the rules of use for interpreting those words” – state Rintell & Mitchell. [cited from Darmayenti, 2010]

Indeed, a considerable damage for conversation mostly appears neither in pronunciation errors, nor in grammar and syntax, but in pragmatic incompetence. The latter is the precursor to pragmatic failure, which, as Jenny Thomas defines, means “the inability to understand what is meant by what is said”. [Thomas, 1983]

Pragmatic failure may constitute two subtypes, which are inextricably linked and sometimes cannot be considered separately. Thus, pragmatic failure includes pragmalinguistic and sociolinguistic failure.

Pragmalinguistic failure

By the definition of Thomas, “pragmalinguistic failure occurs when the pragmatic force mapped by S onto a given utterance is systematically different from the force most frequently assigned to it by native speakers of the target language, or when speech act strategies are inappropriately transferred from L1 to L2”. [Thomas, 1983]

Hence, pragmalinguistic failure is connected to the language itself, when it occurs that the words and expressions are transferred from native language to the target language without taking their pragmatic meaning into consideration. There are several types of pragmalinguistic failure, which consider inappropriate transfer of expressions, speech act strategies and target language expressions. [Darmayenti, 2010]

The first instance conveys the fictitious translation of expression from the native language into the target language. Taking the conversation between an Englishman and a Russian as a demonstrative model, one may observe where the pragmalinguistic failure occurs.

E: How do you do? (saying it in Russian)

R: Frankly speaking, not very well. Some family problems are worsening conditions at work and… it seems I have a bad luck. (answering in Russian)

Pragmatically competent people are aware of the fact that expression “How do you do?”, unlike the expression “How are you doing?”, does not demand the detailed response about how the listener feels etc. The “How do you do?” utterance is a manner of formal greeting between the acquaintances and traditional response to this expression would be the same “How do you do?”

Obviously, the Englishman, intending to greet the Russian in a respective way, has simply translated the expression from the native language into the target language and did not consider the fact, that there is no actual expression to correspond to “How do you do” in Russian. Naturally, answering the question, the Russian started describing his life and the Englishman, in his turn, has been surprised to hear extensive information.

The second instance of pragmalinguistic failure lies in inappropriate transfer of speech act strategies. The theory of speech acts, developed by J.Austin and J.Searle differentiates several groups of utterances that have communicative force (e.g. performative, expressive, directive expressions, etc). [Searle, 1976] The failure conveys incorrect application of these utterances, when some communicative norms and conventions from the native language are being automatically transferred to the speech in target language.

Situation: Somebody (a Russian) set on the Englishman’s foot. The Englishmen says “Excuse me”. The Russian is embarrassed.

This elementary instance illustrates, that English politeness formulas, applied in the majority of situations even when the speaker is “a victim”, are not commonly used in Russian language.

The last sample of pragmalinguistic failure one can observe in inappropriate use of target language expressions. This kind of failure occurs, when a speaker applies direct translation from native language into the target language, often applying the words-equivalents, which may or may not have the same semantic meaning. Let us consider the situation with the Russian- and English-speakers.

R: You have bought a new dress!!

E: Yes, just yesterday!

R: Oh, you’re so extravagant!..

E: (offended)

The pragmalinguistic failure occurs while using the word “extravagant” for this word exists both in Russian and English language and is confusing due to different semantics. In Russian this word has a positive connotation and means “exquisite, elegant”, while in English the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary defines it as “spending a lot more money or using a lot more of sth than you can afford or than is necessary”.

Hence, these instances reinforce how ineffective and at times offensive communication may become due to pragmalinguistic failures, which is caused solely by pragmalinguistic incompetence. In order to succeed in cross-cultural communication, the speaker should be aware of at least elementary communicative conventions of the target language. The speaker should be competent in basic expressions in order not to induce misunderstandings or offences during conversation.

Sociolinguistic failure

In comparison with pragmalinguistic failure, sociolinguistic one are directly connected to cultural peculiarities and, by Thomas’s definition, is described as “social conditions placed on language use’ being based on ‘…cross-culturally different perceptions of what constitutes appropriate linguistic behavior”. This conveys that the speaker is not familiar with social and cultural conventions of the target language speakers. [Thomas, 1995]

Common English-Russian sociolinguistic failures rise upon the taboo topics, politeness conventions, and familiarity. Thus, the expressions used in Russian can be considered offensive, interfering within personal space, or simply impolite. It is widely common among Russian people to ask acquaintances about some private life details of the interlocutor, which, in their turn, the Englishmen would regard as lack of manners and the performance of familiarity quality. [Amaya, 2008]

Naturally, the latter is closely linked to the mentality and worldview of each nation for the brought up from generation to generation concepts about people and environment bear considerable differences. For instance, in this paper I am analyzing some communicative conventions and problems, arising around them, of the two nationalities – English and Russian.

Here the comparison is really topical, because the two languages belong to different language groups: English belongs to Germanic group and Russian – to Slavonic; as well as the nations are representatives of different roots, which makes the research substantial.

Turning back to the topic of sociolinguistic failures, it is also reasonable to mention that some uncomfortable situations can be induced by the Englishmen’s extensive politeness. At times, the speech is so euphemistical that for a representative of other nation it is almost impossible to define communicative offence of the utterance.

Moreover, the Englishmen consider their speech polite and corresponding to all etiquette standards for they have a tradition of modest response. On the expressions of gratitude, praise, and compliment Englishmen usually react very moderately and politely, undermining personal properties in order to sound appropriately.

Further, Thomas differentiates that there also are “sociopragmatic” judgements, concerning the size of imposition, cost/benefit, social distance, and relative rights and obligations. [Thomas, 1995] Russian learners of English language may use certain communication strategies, not taking into consideration the social status of the interlocutor, conditions, in which the conversation is being realized, and time peculiarities. On all of these factors described above it is important to reflect for, disregarding them, the interlocutors may also face a pragmatic failure.

Main Reasons for Pragmatic Failure

As it has been already underlined, the main reason for unsuccessful communication is pragmatic incompetence of the interlocutors. Here, it is important to consider, that pragmatic knowledge is not easily acquired with grammar knowledge only. Pragmatic knowledge is a complex part of language learning and involves extensive explanations to the utterances of English, their usage peculiarities and broad cultural context.

Exactly when applying the latter to language learning, a person may be sure of considerable achievements in pragmatic field. [Wierzbicka, 1991] While teaching and learning, accordingly, it is reasonable to combine the acquisition of linguistic general information, rules, and norms with the cultural information that would be thoroughly combined together.

In such a way students could gradually get some pragmatic knowledge while not forgetting about the structure and rules of the language itself. Due to the necessity in knowledge about culture in order to gain some pragmatic competence, it is logical, that the second main reason for pragmatic failure occurrence is cultures differentiations.

Chen & Starosta define that “a culture is a complex set of shared beliefs, values and concepts which enables a group to make sense of its life and which provides it with directions for how to live.(1998, 54) [cited from Darmayenti, 2010] Indeed, culture determines our viewpoint, sets our prejudices, and shapes our perception. It also largely determines our reaction towards different messages we receive.

Cultures are different from nation to nation; sometimes they even differ within one nation and create special cultural subgroups. [Kasper, 1997] Naturally, language, being one of the culture constituents, is largely depending on it, is facing the continuous change and transformation.

Language, like culture, is dynamic, which explains its constant progress and modification according to the society, which operates it. That is why, due to the fact that language and culture are inextricably linked, one may consider oneself the language speaker only with presence of cultural context, this is pragmatic knowledge about conventions, phenomena, and processes.

Generally, the Russian culture may be characterized as the culture of collectivism, where majorly all Russians are the typical Russians. In comparison, the Englishmen are quite individualistic, while putting strong accent on self-separation from the whole society and finding the features of self-identity. Englishmen are strongly interested in personal achievements and self-realization as a person, and only than as a part of society, which also has its own obligations. [Trosborg, 1994]

Undoubtedly, that a language learner should be aware of such general characteristics of a nation, whose language he or she is willing to acquire. The learner is welcome to get acquainted to the cultural peculiarities and accept them, broading his or her outlook.

Naturally, this knowledge acquisition would occur only through the prism of own beliefs and conventions, already set by the native culture. However, it is important to be exposed to something different and to learn to respect each custom of a particular culture for it was being shaped through time and obstacles and deserves understanding and consideration.

Hence, it would be reasonable to point out again, that pragmatic competence while learning language and succeeding in communicating a message in this language is crucial factor. It is impossible to achieve appropriate language fluency without knowing cultural peculiarities of the nation, whose language you are learning. Because of the fact that language and culture cannot be separated, they should be learned in a composite way, through combining linguistic forms learning with some cultural realia.

What is more, only being pluralistic and willing to accept and respect the existence of other cultures’ conventions can lead to true pragmatic competence, which would be able not only to make your communication effective, but also make you more open-minded and wise.

Reference List

Grice H.P. (1989). Studies in the Way of Words. Harvard University Press.

Kasper, G. (1997). Linguistic etiquette. In F. Coulmas (Ed.), The handbook of sociolinguistics United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishers, 374-385.

Leech, G.N. (1983). Principles of pragmatics. New York: Longman Group Limited.

Searle J.R. (1976). A Classification of Illocutionary Acts// Language in Society. –– Vol. 8, №1.

Thomas, J. (1983). Cross-cultural pragmatic failure. Applied Linguistics, 4(2), 91-112.

Thomas, J. (1995). Meaning in interaction: An introduction to pragmatics. Essex: Longman Group Limited.

Trosborg, A. (1994). Interlanguage pragmatics – Requests, complaints and apologies. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co.

Wierzbicka, A. (1991). Cross-cultural pragmatics: The semantics of human interaction. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co.

Amaya L.F. (2008) Web.

Darmayenti, M. (2010, November 2). . Web.

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