Speech Act Theory Implications For English Language English Language Essay

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Speech act theory was introduced by J.L Austin in How to Do Things with Words. Later John Searle further expanded on the theory, mostly focusing on speech acts in Speech Acts: An Essay In The Philosophy Of Language (1969) and A Classification Of Illocutionary Acts (1976). Searle further defined speech acts and categorised them. First of his five classifications were Representatives, where the speaker asserts a proposition to be true, using such verbs as affirm, believe, conclude, deny, and report. The second category is Directives, when the speaker tries to make the hearer do something, with such words as ask, beg, challenge, command, dare, invite, insist, request. The third is Commissives, where the speaker commits to an action, with verbs such as guarantee, pledge, promise, swear, vow, undertake, warrant. The next category is Expressives, where the speaker expresses an attitude to or about a state of affairs, using such verbs as apologize, appreciate, congratulate, deplore, detest, regret, thank, welcome. And the last category is Declarations, where the speaker alter the external status or condition of an object or situation, by making the utterance, for example: I now pronounce you man and wife, I sentence you to be hanged by the neck until you be dead, I name this ship….and so on. (Searle, 1976 ) There have been additions to this list, however, the focus of this essay is on how meaning is communicated from the speaker to the listener(s), how it is interpreted and how they are related to TEFL. It will focus on the three types of meaning an utterance has, but it will not explain the types of speech acts in detail.

According to Austin (1962) speech act is a functional unit in communication. It’s an act that a speaker performs when making an utterance. (LinguaLink website) Utterances have three kinds of meaning (ibid) which are Locutionary, Illocutionary and Perlocutionary. (Schmidt, R. & Richards, C. 1980, Cohen, 1996)

Locutionary act is saying something with its literal meaning. (Searle, 1969) For example, in saying “I am cold.” the locutionary meaning is that I feel cold. Illocutionary meaning is the social function of the words or the way they are intended to be understood (Ibid). For example “I am cold.” may actually be a way of asking the other person to close the window. If this is the intention an Indirect Speech Act (Austin 1962 & Searle 1975) had been performed because the meaning is dependent on the hearer’s interpretation of what has been communicated. The Perlocutionary meaning (ibid) is the effect or the aim of the utterance on the feelings, thoughts or actions. The Perlocutionary force of the utterance “I am cold.” could be that the listener closes the window. If it was the intended outcome from the words the perlocutionary force (result or aim) matches the illocutionary meaning (intention). This may not always be the case, which is called Perlocutionary failure (Leech, 1983: 204-5). A very common example is that “Could you pass the salt?” (Searle, 1969) is a request rather than asking about ability (Fraser 1983: 29). Also the sentence “Why are you so sensitive?” is more likely to be a criticism rather than a question. (Pinner, 2008).

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There are a number of empirical research on practical applications of speech acts for language teaching. Bardovi-Harlig & Hartford, Blum-Kulka & Kasper, Olshtain & Cohen, Schmidt & Richards and Wolfson researched and evolved the implications of speech acts for English language teaching. The teaching of speech acts becomes more intriguing regarding cross-cultural pragmatics. The findings from a cross-cultural study by Cohen, Olshtain, and Rosenstein (1986) showed that non-native speakers (NNS) were not aware to certain sociolinguistic distinction that native speakers (NS) make, for example ‘excuse me’ versus ‘sorry’ or ‘really sorry’ versus ‘very sorry’. One of the first studies that focused on first language (L1) and second language (L2) speakers while performing speech acts was The Cross Cultural Speech Act Research Project (Blum-Kulka, House and Kasper 1989). It was observing and analysing the differences of seven languages in how they use the speech act of request and apology. (1989: 11). The study looked at social distance and dominance (Wolfson, Marmor and Jones, 1989: 191). The findings revealed that the foreign speakers’ responses were quite different from native speakers’ answers and that not just low but advanced level learners can make sociolinguistic errors. Furthermore according to Boxer & Pickering (1993: 56) sociolinguistic errors are gaps in etiquette or as Bachman terms in “sociolinguistic competence”(1990). He states that these errors are more serious than grammatical errors (Crandall & Basturkmen 2004: 38) Hence explicit teaching of pragmatics would be beneficial to language learners, (Rose & Kasper, 2001) because acquisition of native like production by non-native speakers may take many years even if they are in the target culture (Schmidt, 1993: 25-6). There is a divergence between the responses of native and second language speakers of English, therefore the explicit teaching of illocutionary meaning and conducting certain types of speech acts has value for students (Blumka-Kulka, House, Kasper 1997, Schmidt ,1996, Bardovi-Harlig,1999). Cohen (1998: 66-7) also advocates the need for explicit teaching and notes that it does not take a long time for students to put the knowledge from speech act training into use, if the learners want to fit in and to be accepted in the target culture. Cultural contrast does not only exist between speakers of different languages. There can be also a cultural contrast when the native language of the speaker is the same but the culture is different. For example, Creese (1991) discovered differences between American and British speakers of English in dealing with compliments. Gumperz (1982) looked at variations between British-English and Indian-English speakers when performing speech acts in institutional settings. These studies have implications for TEFL and for English as a Global Language .They also introduce the limitations of “appropriateness”.

A number of studies (e.g., Boxer & Pickering, 1995; Bouton, 1994; Kasper 1997, Dörnyei, 1997 Bardovi-Harlig, 2001) have shown that language learners with high grammatical proficiency are not always competent in pragmatic aspects of the foreign language (FL). As Boxer & Pickering (1995) point out grammatically advanced learners may not know how to use appropriate language in different situations and digress from pragmatic norms of the target-language. They might directly translate speech acts from their mother tongues into the target language when they are trying to get the intended meaning across. Teachers often disregard pragmatic failures and they sometimes assign them to other causes, for example to disrespect. (p. 47)

The contrast in cultural norms may reduce speech act theory being universally relevant to language, but there is a definite need for teaching them in the language classroom. Bardovi-Harlig and Hartford point out that theories related to teaching and learning are cultural and they are usually not shared when teacher and students have different backgrounds (1997: 129). Boxer and Pickering (1993:45) states that the appropriate speech behaviour depends on the rules of the societies. On the side of overtly teaching illocutionary force and meaning Schmidt (1993: 25-26) discusses the value of making learners conscious of the meanings or functions of various speech acts. He talks about “consciousness perception” and lists examples from his acquisition of Portuguese. He observed how to end a phone conversation. Before this observation he was not confident of what to say when finishing a phone conversation, but after he was able to make use of this new knowledge (Ibid: 29). From my own experience it was really useful when someone explained the different phrases to me that I should use in English, because I came across as being rude at many times without me intending to be rude or even knowing about it. It is important to make the students aware of expressions and phrases, such as “I’d better let you get back” for saving face of both parties when closing a conversation as learners often express difficulty.(Schmidt 1993: 29).Cohen (1996: 411) also states that explicit teaching of speech acts helps learners in communicating with native speakers in real life.

Widdowson (2003: 04) points out that theory and practice in ELT should not be separated. Teachers should not go into explaining the theory in details, but this does not mean the two should be separated. If learners are to be effective in acquiring a language they need to have a certain amount of sociolinguistic competence (Bachman 1990) of the learnt language or they would fail using for example English language as they will not be able to communicate their real intentions without a loss of face (Brown and Levinson, 1978).

I agree with the above mentioned theories of Cohen and Schmidt that speech acts and particularly the illocutionary meaning behind them can help language learners in becoming more skilled speakers and avoid them from losing face. I also think that it is important to give the student a chance to make some observations and come to their own conclusions, without telling them what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. As Ellis (1998) states let the student be the researcher. This way the students learn to make their own decision based on their own observations of what is appropriate.

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McConachy (2007) analysed the dialogues which contain speech acts in several English language course books. For example, dialogues which present the speech act of suggestions, but without any contextual information. He suggests that the teacher need to add to these the dialogues by asking questions about the speakers’ relationship to one and other and asking students to guess any illocutionary information. This asks the students to make their own judgement on the situation and it makes them aware of illocutionary meaning.

It seems that speech acts are finding their way into classroom materials (Bardovi-Harlig & MayhanTaylor, 2003), but there is still a lot that teachers need to add to make them more comprehensible. At first teaching speech acts it is important to determine the students’ level of awareness in general by eliciting. Dialogues are useful to show student how speech acts are used, also the evaluation of a situation is a good technique to reinforce the awareness of the learners. Activities such as role plays are good for practicing speech acts. At the end feedback and discussion are useful so students can tell their understanding. Again the idea is to encourage the “learner as researcher” (Ellis, Bardovi-Harlig et al, 1989) approach and assist students to make their own observations.

The most practical implication of speech act theory in teaching is the idea that the literal meaning of the words might not agree with the intended meaning.

As I understand speech acts focus on communicative intentions in a language. It is useful for language learners to teach them, because they provide an insight into the study of language as it is used in a social context, and also because they can be applied when learners need to discuss different meanings in a certain context. Bardovi-Harlig & Hartford (1997: 114) report that the difference between speech acts and language functions is not always recognised in language teaching, and that the two have a “distinct difference.” This point might be argued because the study of speech acts comes from the idea that communication is a performance of certain acts, such as making statements, thanking, asking questions, apologizing, complaining and so on (Blum-Kulka, House & Kasper 1989: 2). These are functions within a language, which means that speech act theory is about teaching functional units of language with the aim of an understanding of possible illocutionary meaning present. Materials do not always follow this, however there is a progression towards presenting speech acts with contextual information. Teachers need to simplify the speech acts and the sociolinguistic norms around them by breaking them down into easy terms, so the language learners can use them. Although this does not mean it should be separated from the theory. The best way to teach speech acts might be to make students more aware of pragmatic variables and to give them enough information to be able to make their own observations. This allows learners to work out themselves the best way to perform a speech act in any given situation.


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