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Jan. 2010, Volume 8, No.1 (Serial No.

76)

US-China Foreign Language, ISSN 1539-8080, USA

Reflections on the nature of pragmatic failure


YAN Li-ming, ZHUANG Yan
(College of Foreign Languages and Cultures, Chengdu University of Technology, Sichuan 610059, China)

Abstract: Pragmatic failure is a problematic issue since it tends to cause misunderstanding and even hatred between native speakers and foreign language learners. Undeniably, identifying and minimizing pragmatic failure is one of the prerequisites for successful communication on the part of language learners. Therefore, it is urgent and absolutely significant for learners to carry out a comprehensive investigation on the nature of pragmatic failure so as to gain a deeper insight of the cross-cultural pragmatic differences and benefit the cultivation of learners cross-cultural communicative competence. Recently, there have been quite a few researches done in this field with fruitful results on the basis of the research of J. Thomas. With researchers increasing interest in pragmatics, it is firmly believed that it is necessary to conduct a detailed and thoroughgoing study of the nature of pragmatic failure instead of making superficial descriptions of isolated cases of pragmatic failure. Even the traditional definition and classification of pragmatic failure should be re-examined. Key words: pragmatic failure; nature of pragmatic failure; causes of pragmatic failure; definition and classification of pragmatic failure

1. Introduction
As well-known, a competent language learner should speak fluently, correctly and appropriately as well. He is supposed to have a good mastery of grammar and to have the ability to produce and understand utterances which are appropriate to the context in which they are made. As Morain (1986, p. 64) puts it, being able to read and speak another language does not guarantee that understanding will take place. Any communication breakdown resulting from verbal and non-verbal factors is bound to violate the pragmatic principles or deviate from the conventions of the target culture. This has been investigated by many linguists and scholars, among whom Thomas proposes the notion of pragmatic failure which often stands in the way of effective communication. Before moving on to the delimitation of learners pragmatic failure, it is essential to define what pragmatic failure is, or what kind of errors are going to be taken as pragmatic failure.

2. Understanding different kinds of meanings


The answer to what pragmatic failure is, or what kinds of errors are going to be taken as pragmatic failures in the present study, greatly relies on two distinctions: how we understand different kinds of meaning, and how we distinguish sense and force in Leechs terminology (Leech, 1983, p. 30). 2.1 Leechs sense and force It is well-known that semantics and pragmatics describe the meaning of an utterance in different ways.
YAN Li-ming, associate professor of College of Foreign Languages and Cultures, Chengdu University of Technology; research fields: pragmatics, language and cultures, foreign language teaching. ZHUANG Yan, lecturer of College of Foreign Languages and Cultures, Chengdu University of Technology; research fields: pragmatics, language and cultures, foreign language teaching. 1

Reflections on the nature of pragmatic failure

Semantics generally focuses upon designative (or denotative) meanings and associative (connotative) meanings. The task of pragmatics is to explain the relationship between these two types of meanings: the sense (which has often been described as the literal or face-value meaning) and the (illocutionary) force (Leech, 1983, p. 30). Pragmatics concerns about the meaning in speech situations. Both semantics and pragmatics are concerned with meaning, but there has been a controversy over the distinction between semantics and pragmatics. Leech holds that the difference lies in two different uses of the verb mean (Leech, 1983, pp. 5-6). The answer to the question What does X mean? gives semantic meaning while the answer to the question What did you mean by X? takes learners to pragmatic meaning. Meaning in semantics is abstracted from particular situations, speakers or hearers, but meaning in pragmatics is defined relative to the users of language. Pragmatics deals with the interpretation and use of utterances with reference to the interaction between the utterer and interpreter and the communicative function meaning. The first mean is the literal meaning of an utterance, which is entirely determined by the words (or morphemes) and the syntactical rules according to which these elements are combined. Meaning in this sense is considered dyadic relation. It is directly predictable from the grammatical and lexical features of a sentence regardless of the speaker of the sentence as well as the context and the situation in which the utterance occurs. Such a meaning is called sense (grammatical meaning). The second mean may be taken as a triadic relation, or it involves a third element, that is to say, the user of the language and the situation in which utterance is made. 2.2 Koc and Bambers trichotomy of meaning Koc and Bamber (1977, pp. 7-11) proposed another classification of meanings: (1) The conceptual meaning: the meaning that the sentence/utterance has in isolation; (2)The contextual meaning: the meaning that a sentence/utterance takes on in a particular context; (3)The pragmatic meaning: the meaning that the sentence/utterance takes on only due to the interaction between the speaker and listener. Therefore, when an utterance or a message is sent by a certain person in a certain speech situation, it bears force. The force of an utterance is largely dependent on the situation and the context. Obviously, the study of meaning in this sense is beyond the consideration of semantics. It falls into the realm of pragmatics, that is, the study of language in use. Sometimes, we might misinterpret learners interlocutors utterance even in learners own language if we fail to get the indirect meaning. For instance: A: Have you got a match? B1: Yes, I have. B2: Yes, here you are. (The expected answer) In the above dialogue, speaker B1 cannot understand speaker As remark or intended meaning, which has a function of request. If we cannot go beyond the conceptual meaning of utterances, serious misunderstandings may come into being at the pragmatic level and this is called pragmatic failure. It may imply both a criticism when it is uttered with a rising tone and a gentle invitation when uttered with a falling tone. 2.3 Thomas sentence-meaning and speaker-meaning Thomas refers to sense and force respectively as sentence-meaning and speaker-meaning, and further divided speaker-meaning into two levels: level 1 speaker-meaning and level 2 speaker-meaning. The term speaker-meaning is quite useful in distinguishing pragmatics from semantics since it involves the user of the language and the situation in which the utterance is made. However, the fact that there are several levels of
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Reflections on the nature of pragmatic failure

speaker-meaning should not be obscured. The speech act theory holds that in uttering a sentence, a speaker is performing three kinds of forces simultaneously: locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary. Perlocutionary force does not belong to any level of speaker-meaning because it is the effect on the hearer because of what has been said and force of the utterance. In performing a locutionay act, a speaker is creating part of the speaker-meaning. As we know, most of the words in a sentence may have more than one sense or reference when discussed out of the context. Consequently, a sentence may have several sentence or literal meanings. What a speaker does in performing a locutionay act is to bestow the sentence uttered with one of these possible meanings, namely, to associate it with determinate sense and reference. This part of the meaning is labeled level 1 speaker-meaning, which is different from the sentence meaning in that it greatly depends on the context and situation and is rarely ambiguous. So far, we have made a distinction between different kinds of meanings. The following Table 1 may serve to provide a clearer view of the relation between them.
Table 1 Semantic meaning Conceptual meaning Contextual meaning Relation between different kinds of meanings Utterance Pragmatic meaning Level 1 speaker-meaning Level 2 speaker-meaning (sense and reference) (force and value)

3. Causes of pragmatic failure


3.1 Failure to express or interpret speaker-meaning As discussed above, when one makes an utterance, he or she is expressing two kinds of meanings: level 1 speaker-meaning (sense and reference) and level 2 speaker-meaning (force or value). When an utterance is made, the interpreter is expected to interpret the force of the utterance. Communication will break down if either level of meanings is not successfully produced or interpreted. On the one hand, the speaker may fail to convey his communicative intent if the words or expressions he uses do not convey the senses and references intended, and the sentence he utters does not conveniently express the illocutionary force he suggests. On the other hand, the addressee may misinterpret the sense and reference. For example: (1) (The American teacher A wants to know if the Chinese student B really likes to drink black tea or green tea.) A: What do you like to drink, black tea or green tea? B: No problem. As you like. (2) (One Chinese couple is having dinner at the table, the husband is complaining that the soup is bland.) H: Have you put salt in? W: Yes, I have. (3) (One teacher asks one of her students to tell her the time so that she can decide whether to have a break or not.) T: Do you have a watch? S: Yes, I have. In example (1), the American teacher expected the Chinese students to make a choice, while the students did not get the illocutionary force of the teacher, thus answered the question improperly. In example (2) and (3), the addressee interprets that speakers utterance as a genuine question, rather than, a complaint of the blandness of the
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Reflections on the nature of pragmatic failure

soup, and a request to tell her what the time is. From the examples above, we can see that the communicative breakdown may occur at both levels of speaker-meaning. Strictly speaking, both the reference and the force of an utterance are studied in pragmatics. More often, the focus is on the second level, that is, whether the illocutionary force is successfully conveyed. Of course, failures on both levels are closely related. Sometimes, a speakers inability to provide clear and sufficient proposition may prevent the intended illocutionary force from being successfully conveyed. 3.2 Failure to observe cultural values Here, for practical purpose, we tend to define culture as a shared set of beliefs, values and patterns of behavior common to a group of people. We know that since every country has its own culture, cultural differences are inevitable. Each culture has its own perceptions regarding what kind of linguistic behavior is appropriate. Pragmatic failure occurs when social conditions (cultural norms, values, religious beliefs, etc.) on language in use are different and utterer or the interpreter fails to observe the cultural values. In other words, it stems from cross-culturally different perceptions of what constitutes appropriate linguistic behavior.

4. Traditional and redefined definition of pragmatic failure


Jenny Thomas (1983, pp. 91-94) defines pragmatic failure in Cross-cultural Pragmatic Failure as the inability to understand what is meant by what is said. She notes that cross-cultural pragmatic failure has occurred on any occasion on which H (the hearer) perceives the force of Ss (the speakers) utterance as other than S intended she or he should perceive it, and offers the following examples to illustrate the point: (1) H perceives the force of Ss utterance as stronger as or weaker than S intended she/he should perceive it; (2) H perceives as an order an utterance which S intended she/he should perceive as a request; (3) H perceives Ss utterance as ambivalent where S intended no ambivalence; (4) S expects H to be able to infer the force of his/her utterance, but is relying on the system of knowledge or beliefs which S and H do not share. Example (4) illustrating a: A: Do you know who set the fire last night? B: No, its not me. A: Oh, I dont mean that. Actually, A only wanted to know who had set the fire. But B perceived the force of As utterance as stronger than A had intended, so B responded very severely. Example (5) illustrating b: Boss: Are you free this evening? Will you come to my house to have a chat? Mike: I will come, anyway. In fact, Mike was not free, but he perceived the utterance of his boss as an order. Example (6) illustrating c: A: Theres a football match tonight. Would you please go with me? B: OK. A: (later) Are you sure you want to go? B: OK, lets not go. Ive something to read. In the conversation, B perceived As utterance as being ambivalent, so he changed his decision.

Reflections on the nature of pragmatic failure

Example (7) illustrating d: A: Do you like rugby? B: I am a New Zealander, you know. A: (confused) A was confused because A and B did not share the same system of knowledge or beliefs. A had no idea that the New Zealanders love rugby. One of the generally accepted definitions of pragmatic failure in China is: Pragmatic failure includes those faults in language use, which make the communication imperfect in verbal communication (HE Zi-ran, et al., 1986, p. 52). The definition of pragmatic failure by QIAN Guan-lian is more specific.
Pragmatic failure is committed when the speaker uses grammatically correct sentences, but unconsciously violates the interpersonal relationship rules, social conventions, or takes little notice of the time, space and addressee (QIAN Guan-lian, 2001, p. 195).

Most of the researchers follow suit. They define pragmatic failure in much the same way as either one of the above mentioned. After a careful examination of the definitions mentioned above, the authors find that the traditional definitions of pragmatic failure is not without problem. Firstly, it is unfair to impute pragmatic failure either to speaker (as QIAN Guan-lian did) or to hearer (as Thomas did). It is well known that communication, both verbal and non-verbal, involves sender (speaker, writer, etc.) and receiver (hearer, reader, etc.). Effective communication can only be achieved with the participation of both. Sometimes, it is the sender who is to blame for the communicative breakdown, while sometimes it is the receiver. Therefore, when we define pragmatic failure, it is sensible to take both the sender and the receiver into consideration. Secondly, the traditional definition seems to focus much on verbal communication, little attention being paid to non-verbal communication, which is an integral part of communication. In real communication, a large number of pragmatic failures are due to inappropriate use of body language (such as gestures, facial expressions, etc.) or to the misinterpretation of time and space in communication. In fact, the non-verbal means can sometimes achieve the communicative goal without the participation of verbal means. Thirdly, even though most researchers took social factors into account in defining pragmatic failure, the psychological factors are unforgivably being ignored. As we know, in different psychological state (such as age, personality, saturate state, anxiety, etc.), people tend to express and interpret ideas inappropriately compared with the intended ones, which will consciously or unconsciously cause pragmatic failure. After a thorough investigation of the nature and a careful examination of the existing definitions of pragmatic failure, it seems to be safe to define pragmatic failure as the communicative failure committed in the process of interpreting or expressing utterances (both verbal and non-verbal) due to the lack of the capability of accurate interpretation or of effective use of language on different occasions with the participants psychological states involved. This definition draws learners attention to the following points. First of all, pragmatic failure is not just speaker-oriented; it also takes interpreter into consideration. Secondly, the scope is not restricted to verbal communication, but covers the whole range of communication including non-verbal behaviors and means. Thirdly, it covers both spoken discourse and written discourse. Fourthly, the definition takes into consideration not only linguistic, social factors, but also psychological factors.

Reflections on the nature of pragmatic failure

Pragmatic failure that occurs in cross-cultural communication, therefore, can be termed cross-cultural pragmatic failure. Communications involving culturally different speakers and interpreters are more likely to go wrong than those involving people who share the same cultural background. However, many researchers have ignored the fact that cross-cultural pragmatic failure also occurs in communication at intra-cultural and inter-personal level. Cross-cultural pragmatic failure occurs not only at inter-national level between people who belong to different countries, but also at domestic level when two people coming from the same country but different geographical regions or different cultural group. It may occur even at inter-personal levels when two people in different psychological states. For example, husband and wife may misunderstand each other in a pragmatic way. QIAN Guan-lian (2001, p. 198) has done a research concerning the tolerance of native speakers for pragmatic failure committed by Chinese learners of English in cross-cultural communication. Some may be highly tolerated, some may simply not be tolerated, and some may be tolerated to a certain degree. It does not mean studying pragmatic failure is of no use. On the contrary, Much importance should be attached to learning the non-verbal behaviors and cues in the target language and to learning communicative strategies, etc..

5. Traditional and renewed classifications


Jenny Thomas (1983, p. 97) classified pragmatic failure into two groups: pragmalinguistic failure and sociopragmatic failure. In her study, Thomas states, Pragmalinguistic failure occurs when the pragmatic force mapped by students onto a given utterance is systematically different from the force most frequently assigned to it by native speakers of the target language, or when conventional strategies are inappropriately transferred from the speakers mother tongue to the target language. Sociopragmatic failure arises when learners produce socially inappropriate behavior. Different culture has different assessment towards size of imposition, relative rights and obligations, thus affecting linguistic choice. SUN Ya and DAI Lin (2002) have distinguished pragmatic failure in the broad sense and in the narrow sense in their survey of studies of pragmatic failure in China. Pragmatic failure in the broad sense refers to any errors committed in language use, including spelling mistakes and ungrammaticalities. Pragmatic failure in the narrow sense, which is touched upon by most of the researchers, refers to the unacceptable language uses instead of the ungrammaticalities of the sentences. QIAN Guan-lian has noticed two kinds of pragmatic failure: pragmatic failure in cross-cultural communication and pragmatic failure in the same mother tongue culture (2001, p. 196). They are referred to by SUN Yan and DAI Lin as inter-lingual pragmatic failure and intra-lingual pragmatic failure. It is essential to classify pragmatic failure in order to get a clear understanding of it and study it in a systematic way. Based on Thomas classification and Leechs account of general pragmatics, and considering the nature and redefined pragmatic failure illustrated above, the authors are inclined to divide pragmatic failure into roughly four groups: pragmlinguistic failure, sociopragmatic failure, pragmabehavioral failure and psycho pragmatic failure. Hereby, it is necessary to make it clear that, according to Thomas, both pragmlinguistic failure and sociopragmatic failure occur in verbal communication, i.e., they involve the use of linguistic forms of language. Non-verbal communicative breakdown sometimes occurs together with these two, but sometimes separately. The authors refer to this kind of pragmatic failure as pragmabehavioral failure. Still, there are often some occasions when the communicative breakdown is not caused by the lack of ability to use or interpret the language appropriately, but by unconscious violation of cooperative rules in communication due to the influence

Reflections on the nature of pragmatic failure

of some psychological factors. The authors intend to classify this kind of pragmatic failure into another grouppsycho pragmatic failure. By Leechs explanation of general pragmatics (1983, p. 11), pragmalinguistics can be applied to the study of the more linguistic aspect of pragmatics, while sociopragmatics is the sociological interface of pragmatics. Thomas stated that she would not wish to claim that any absolute distinction could be drawn between pragmalinguistic failure and sociopragmatic failure (1983, p. 109). But in order to make clear the classification of pragmatic failure, the authors hold that pragmalinguistic failure is linguistic specific, sociopragmatic failure is social specific, pragmabehavioral failure is behavioral specific and psycho pragmatic failure is psychological specific. To enhance effective cross-cultural communication, the communicators should have pragmalinguistic, sociopramgaitc, pragmabehavioral and psycho pragmatic information or competence to be able to identify the pragmatic content of the utterance. If the interlocutors cannot go beyond the conceptual meaning of the utterances or if interlocutors do not pay enough attention to the context and speech event, serious misunderstanding may occur at the pragmatic level (including pragmalinguistic, sociopramgaitc, pragmabehavioral and psycho pragmatic levels).

6. Conclusion
Generally speaking, pragmatic failure is such kind of errors that occur in cross-cultural communication when speakers make grammatically correct utterance, but adopt untimely remark, improper expression or inappropriate ways of speaking in different cultural context. Specifically speaking, pragmatic failure occurs when speakers unconsciously violate the interpersonal norms and social stipulations, or do not conform to time and space perspective, or disregard the occasions of speaking and the social status or psychological state of both sides, or even go against the peculiar cultural values of the target language, which accordingly cause the breaking-off or failure of communicative activities and make the communication unable to reach the anticipatory or satisfactory result.
References: HE Zi-ran & YAN Zhuang. 1986. The pragmatic failure of Chinese students in communication in English: An investigation of Chinese-English pragmatic differences. Foreign Language Teaching and Research, 3, 52-57. (in Chinese) HE Zi-ran. 1991. The pragmatic empathy in communication. Foreign Language Teaching and Research, 4, 11-14. (in Chinese) Koc, A. & Bamber, J.. 1977. The structure of word meanings in semantic memory. In: Symposium on peer interaction and pragmatic development. London: Cambridge University. Leech, G. N.. 1983. Principles of pragmatics. London: Longman. Morain, G. G.. 1986. Kinesics and cross-cultural understanding. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. QIAN Guan-lian. 2001. Chinese culture and pragmatics. Beijing: Tsinghua University Press. (in Chinese) SUN Ya & DAI Lin. 2002. Study of pragmatic failure in China. Foreign Language Teaching and Research, 3, 19-21. (in Chinese) Thomas, J.. 1983. Cross-cultural pragmatic failure. Applied Linguistics, 4(2). London: Oxford University Press, 91-112.

(Edited by Cathy and Sunny)