The Importance of Developing Pragmatic Competence in the EFL Classroom

Teacher Speaking in Class

What is pragmatic competence and why is it important?

Pragmatic competence is ‘the ability to use language appropriately in a social context’ (Taguchi, 2009).  It is the key to effective communication in a second language.  While communicative competence and grammatical competence are explicitly taught and developed in the EFL classroom, developing pragmatic competence is often overlooked.  However, it is actually the skill which native speakers subconsciously use to define a non-native speaker as a successful communicator…and, hence, as someone they would like to talk to, help, be friends with and even hire.

It is important to note the distinction between language transfer and pragmatic transfer.  Common examples of language transfer include:

  • I have 20 years’ (J’ai 20 ans). In French, ‘avoir’ (to have) is used to express age as oppose to the verb ‘to be’ in English.
  • I have house’ (‘U menia est’ dom). There are no articles in Russian and many other Slavic languages as well as Japanese and Korean, to name but a few.
  • Not using intonation in interrogative sentences. For example, intonation is not used in questions in Spanish.


On the other hand, there are two types of pragmatic transfer.  Firstly, pragmalinguistic transfer occurs when L2 learners use the strategies of their L1 to perform a linguistic function which is performed (often significantly) differently in the L2.  In the EFL classroom, this is often dealt with purely as an issue of register.  However, the root cause of a student producing inappropriate register is often pragmatic transfer.  Common examples of pragmatic transfer include:

  • Open the window!’ The imperative is the most appropriate request-making strategy in lots of languages (for example, Slavic languages)
  • I apologise’ or ‘Forgive me’ instead of ‘I’m sorry’ when expressing an apology.  In this case, the performative is directly transferred from the L1.

The second type of pragmatic transfer is sociopragmatic transfer which occurs from applying the sociocultural norms of the L1 to the L2.  Examples include:

  • Referring to the teacher by using a title such as ‘Miss’ or ‘Sir’. The use of titles is more commonplace in non-English speaking cultures.  This could also occur because English does not have a T/V distinction (like the tu/vous distinction in French, for example).  As such, English is a very informal language with relatively low social distance between all interlocutors, regardless of one’s position, power or ranking within the culture.
  • Asking someone you have just met for the first time: ‘How much money do you earn?’ While this situation would be perceived as somewhat offensive to a native English speaker, it would not be considered inappropriate in some other languages and cultures.


Stages of L2 Language Competence

All second language speakers even at pure beginner level possess communicative competence.  Take the request example of asking for someone’s pen.  The most basic linguistic request form would simply be ‘Pen!’ (while pointing at the pen).

Once some grammatical competence begins to develop and some more vocabulary is acquired, then the utterance would most likely progress to something like ‘Give me your pen, please!’  While this sentence is grammatically correct and the second language speaker has communicated effectively what he wants, the problem is that the imperative is generally perceived as being even more impolite than swearing in English (Wierzbicka, 2003).  However, the learner is not being rude; he is merely pragmatically incompetent.  It is the role of the EFL teacher to guide the student to use the most conventionalised strategy for making the request in English – ‘Could I have your pen, please?’  This is one example of what is involved in developing the student’s overall pragmatic competence.

Some instances of pragmatic awareness are covered in the CEC core material textbooks at every level.  This stresses the importance of developing pragmatic competence from pure beginner level right through to advanced levels.  See Resources for Developing Pragmatic Competence in CEC Core Material below.


Figure 1.  Pragmatic competence in a second language comprises not only communicative and grammatical competence but also considers the appropriateness of language, taking sociocultural variables into account.


The Role of the EFL Teacher in developing Pragmatic Competence

As EFL teachers, we need to be aware of the different ways in which pragmatic transfer manifests itself as it can have a profound impact on our students, their experiences within English speaking environments and on their interlanguage progress. Using English in a socioculturally appropriate way is vital for effective communication and for immersion into an English speaking society and culture.  This is why the role of EFL teacher and his understanding and awareness of L2 pragmatic competence and development are paramount.

The EFL teacher has a responsibility to intervene in the devastating process that pragmatic failure (i.e. not using language appropriately in context) can trigger for a second language learner.  ‘A stitch in time…’ comes to mind.


Figure 2. The devastating process that pragmatic failure can trigger for a second language learner.

A teaching approach which encompasses pragmatic competence is necessary to complement our approach to developing communicative and grammatical competence.  Instead of the ‘Presentation-Practice-Production’ approach for grammatical and communicative competence, ‘Illustration-Interaction-Induction’ has been suggested by McCarthy (1998) as an effective approach in developing pragmatic competence.  It simply consists of using examples from real spoken language, interacting with them and analysing them before finally drawing general conclusions from the examples as to how language is used in context.  This ties in nicely with the Input-Interaction-Output hypothesis of SLA (Gass, 1997) which emphasizes the role of interaction in SLA.  As learners interact with the language, they begin to test hypotheses about it, notice their errors and self-correct which results in much more consolidated learning.  By interacting with the language, learners can better analyse and understand the use of language in context and develop their pragmatic competence.


As English continues to dominate as the lingua franca, we have a duty to our students to ensure, at the very least, that they have an awareness of sociopragmatically appropriate language (pragmatic competence) as a complement to the foundations of communicative and grammatical competence.  This leads to improved English language skills and an enjoyable experience in an English speaking environment for our students as well as enhanced intercultural communication overall.


Resources for Developing Pragmatic Competence in CEC Core Material

Language to Go (Elementary)

  • Lesson 15 – In a café
  • Lesson 31 – Culture Shock
  • Lesson 37 – Excuses, excuses

New Headway (Pre-Intermediate) “Everyday English” sections

  • 45 – Expressing doubt and uncertainty
  • 61 – Continuing a conversation
  • 101 – Saying thank you and goodbye

New Inside Out (Intermediate) “Useful Phrases” sections

  • 46 – At a restaurant
  • 66 – Expressing interest and sympathy
  • 74 – Asking for directions

Cutting Edge (Upper Intermediate) “Real life” sections

  • 38 – Dealing with unexpected problems
  • 81 – Awkward social situations
  • 114 – Dealing with problems on the telephone

Cutting Edge (Advanced)

  • 49 – Question tags/intonation to express interest, surprise, anger, or concern
  • CF all of the above with p. 68 – Rudeness. This lesson focuses on discussing (mostly!) non-linguistic (behavioural) rudeness as oppose to linguistic utterances which could be perceived as impolite/inappropriate.


Useful links

This YouTube clip gives a (very!) brief introduction to Pragmatics from a leading expert in the field, Stephen Pinker, and gives examples of pragmatics in action.

This YouTube clip shows examples of pragmatic failure in English (by native English speakers!).  It demonstrates…

  • The failure to disambiguate locution (what is said) and illocution (what is meant)
  • The phenomenon of the re-offer
  • The problem with giving/accepting a compliment
  • “How are you?” as a conversation starter, not an actual query!


Further Reading

  • Blum-Kulka, S., & Olshtain, E. (1984). Requests and Apologies: A Cross-Cultural Study of Speech Act Realization Patterns (CCSARP).Applied Linguistics5(3), 196-213.

  • Jianda, L. (2006). Assessing EFL learners’ interlanguage pragmatic knowledge: Implications for testers and teachers.Reflections on English language teaching5(1), 1-22.

  • McCarthy, M. (2014). From ‘Your Mother is Calling You’ to ‘Ugomonites! (Settle Down!): A Pragmatic Analysis of Requests in Hiberno-English and Russian in Conversational and Institutional Settings. M.A. thesis. University College Cork.

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



  • Gass, S., (1997). Input, Interaction and the Second Language Learner. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc., Mahwah, New Jersey
  • McCarthy, M. (1998).Spoken Language and Applied Linguistics. Cambridge University Press.
  • Taguchi, N. (2009). Pragmatic competence in Japanese as a second language: An introduction. In N. Taguchi (Ed.), Pragmatic competence, 1-18. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Wierzbicka, A. (2003). Cross-cultural pragmatics. The semantics of human interaction. Second edition. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

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