Teaching Iranian Elementary EFL Learners to Say ‘No’ Politely: An Interlanguage Pragmatic Study

May 2017 – Volume 21, Number 1

Seyyed Hatam Tamimi Sa’d
Urmia University, Iran

Javad Gholami
Urmia University, Iran


This quasi-experimental study adopted a pretest/posttest design to investigate the effect of instructional intervention in teaching polite refusal strategies explicitly on Iranian EFL learners’ performance of the speech act of refusing. The participants, consisting of 24 male elementary EFL learners aged 12-18, responded to a discourse completion task (DCT) prior to and after they had been provided with explicit instruction concerning the polite performance of refusals in English. Adopting Brown and Levinson’s (1987) politeness theory and Beebe, Takahashi and Uliss-Weltz’s (1990) taxonomy of refusal strategies, the researchers found that the participants’ refusal semantic formulas in the pretest contained a variety of impoliteness markers including directness, lack of mitigation, and terseness of responses. The pedagogical instruction was directed at eliminating these inappropriacy elements, addressing the lengthening and intensification of refusal semantic formulas, use of adjuncts to refusals, titles, honorifics, apologizing, etc. The participants’ responses to the DCT in the posttest showed a high level of appropriacy in the semantic content of refusal utterances compared to their responses in the pretest. Furthermore, the findings demonstrated that significant differences existed in terms of the content, frequency and types of both refusal strategies and adjuncts to refusals between the pretest and posttest phases. In conclusion, the study revealed the positive effects of instructional intervention on the development of the pragmatic competence of learners with low linguistic proficiency levels.

Keywords: EFL learners, instructional intervention, (im)politeness, pragmatic competence, refusal


How to say something is as important as what to say. Simple enough, this statement points to a significant rule of speech which implies that the pragmatic conventions of the target language (TL) dictate rules of social language use. The failure to comply with the pragmatic conventions of speech (i.e., pragmatic failure) will, in all likelihood, lead to communication breakdown. In this regard, research evidence shows that while most language learners have little or no difficulty acquiring the linguistic aspects of the TL, the pragmatic rules of language use often go unnoticed. Previous research has revealed nonnative speakers’ (NNSs) considerable difficulty in realizing different speech acts, face-threatening acts (FTAs), such as apologizing, requesting and refusing politely. For instance, it has been evidenced that, most often, NNSs lack the pragmatic competence to refuse politely and appropriately when involved in interaction. Studies documenting this inability abound (see, e.g., LoCastro, 1997; Takahashi & Beebe, 1987; Umale, 2011).

The consequences of the inability to refuse politely are also of significance particularly in encounters between speakers from a variety of cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Takahashi and Beebe (1987, as cited in Martínez-Flor & Usó-Juan, 2011) declared that the lack of sociolinguistic ability is most likely to lead to offence: “the inability to say ‘no’ clearly and politely … has led many nonnative speakers to offend their interlocutors” (p. 56). Similarly, in a discussion of encounters between native speakers (NSs) and Japanese speakers of English, LoCastro (1997) confirmed that NSs often feel uncomfortable with NNSs’ lack of linguistic politeness.

Kasper and Blum-Kulka (1993, p. 3) define pragmatics as the “the study of people’s comprehension and production of linguistic action in context”. The present study falls within an area that is referred to as Interlanguage Pragmatics (ILP) and defined as “the study of nonnative speakers’ use and acquisition of linguistic action patterns in a second language (L2)” (Kasper & Blum-Kulka, 1993, p. 3). Research into ILP has focused on the linguistic realizations of different speech acts in a variety of languages. On the other hand, it is often hypothesized that NSs have unconscious access to pragmatic rules (Kasper & Blum-Kulka, 1993). As a result, some researchers have attempted to bring these pragmatic rules of appropriate language use to NNSs’ conscious attention through teaching them. The current study seeks out to achieve such a purpose by exposing Iranian learners of English as a foreign language (EFL) to polite refusal strategies.

Politeness and Face

Politeness is a major social notion. One of the major works on politeness is Brown and Levinson’s (1987) theory of politeness which comprises five politeness superstrategies as follows (see Figure 1 as well):

  1. Bald on record politeness strategy: the speaker does the FTA without any mitigating devices as in: Give me that book!
  2. Positive politeness strategy: the speaker uses such mitigating devices as in-group markers like ‘honey’ and ‘dear’: Give me that book, dear!
  3. Negative politeness strategy: the speaker employs politeness markers indicative of social distance: Would you please give me that book?
  4. Off record politeness strategy: the speaker uses hints, allusions, etc.: I have an exam!
  5. Do not do FTA: the speaker chooses not to do the FTA with the hope of preserving the hearer’s face.

Figure 1. Possible strategies for doing an FTA (Brown & Levinson, 1987, p. 69)

A notion that is central to Brown and Levinson’s (1987) theory of politeness is that of ‘face’ which refers to one’s “public self-image” and consists of two types: negative face and positive face. While negative face deals with one’s “freedom of action and freedom from imposition”, positive face is associated with one’s feelings being appreciated and approved of.

Refusal strategies and Adjuncts to Refusals

Refusals are of remarkable importance in everyday social life as individuals refuse offers, requests, suggestions and invitations on a regular basis. However, refusals are notoriously difficult to manage and lead to disruption in harmony in relationships. Classified as a dispreferred type of FTA (Félix-Brasdefer, 2009), refusals risk the addressees’ positive face by restricting their freedom of action (see Brown & Levinson, 1987). In this connection, one of the most common classifications of refusal strategies is Beebe, Takahashi and Uliss-Weltz’s (1990) taxonomy which divides these strategies into two broad sets, namely, direct and indirect, as well as adjuncts to refusals (see Table 1 below).

Table 1. Taxonomy of refusal strategies

Semantic Formulas



I refuse

A) Performative

I) Direct

B) Non-performative statement

1) “No”

I can’t; I won’t; I don’t think so.

2) Negative willingness/ability

I’m sorry; I feel terrible.

A) Statement of regret

II) Indirect

I wish I could help you.

B) Wish

I have a headache.

C) Excuse, reason, explanation

D) Statement of alternative

I’d rather do…; I’d prefer

1) I can do X instead of Y

Why don’t you ask someone else

2) Why don’t you do X instead of Y

If you had asked me earlier, I would have…

E) Set condition for future or past acceptance

I’ll do it next time; I promise I’ll…; -Using “will” of
promise or “promise”

F) Promise of future acceptance

I never do business with friends.

G. Statement of principle

One can’t be too careful.

H. Statement of philosophy

I. Attempt to dissuade interlocutor

“I won’t be any fun tonight” to refuse an invitation

1. Threat or statement of negative consequences to the

waitress to customers who want to sit a while: “I can’t
make a living off people who just order coffee.”

2. Guilt trip

Who do you think you are?; That’s a terrible idea!

3. Criticize the request/requester, etc. (statement of
negative feeling or opinion); insult/attack

4. Request for help, empathy, and assistance by
dropping or holding the request.

Don’t worry about it; That’s okay; You don’t have to.

5. Let interlocutor off the hook

I’m trying my best; I’m doing all I can.

6. Self-defense

J. Acceptance that functions as a refusal

1. Unspecific or indefinite reply

2. Lack of enthusiasm

K. Avoidance

1. Nonverbal

a. Silence

b. Hesitation

c. Do nothing

d. Physical departure

2. Verbal

a. Topic switch

b. Joke


c. Repetition of part of request, etc.

I’ll think about it.

d. Postponement

Gee, I don’t know; I’m not sure.

e. Hedging

That’s a good idea…; I’d love to…

1. Statement of positive opinions/feeling or agreement

Adjuncts to refusals

I realize you are in a difficult situation.

2. Statement of empathy

uhh; well; uhm.

3. Pause filler

4. Gratitude/appreciation

Review of Literature

The significance of refusal behavior has sparked a considerable proportion of scholarly attention among researchers due to the face-threatening nature of this speech act. In this regard, most studies have been comparative, investigating realizations of refusals in different languages and cultures. Nelson, Carson, Al Batal and El Bakary (2002), for instance, compared the use of refusal strategies in Egyptian Arabic and American English, finding out that a similar trend was followed by both groups of speakers. In another study, the realizations of refusals by speakers from three different cultures (i.e., American, Arab and Japanese) in English indicated that regret, excuse, reason and explanation were the most frequent refusal strategies (Al-Kahtani, 2005). More recently, Al-Shboul, Maros and Yasin (2012) compared the use of refusal strategies among Jordanian and Malay learners of English. While the pattern of refusal strategy use was found to be similar in the case of refusing requests, the two groups utilized different refusal strategies when declining invitations. In the Iranian context, Allami and Naeimi (2011) focused on refusal behavior in terms of the frequency, shift and content of semantic formulas among a group of Persian speakers and Persian learners of English and compared the findings with data elicited from English NSs. In line with a large number of previous studies, Allami and Naeimi (2011) found that ‘direct refusals’, ‘statement of regret’ and ‘excuse, reason and explanation’ were the most frequent strategies. In another cross-linguistic study of refusal strategies among Iranian EFL learners, Hassani, Mardani and Dastjerdi (2011) found out that higher social status contributed to the use of more indirect strategies in Persian but to more direct strategies in English.

Other studies have dealt with a variety of issues surrounding refusals. In a study of linguistic politeness in refusal, Félix-Brasdefer (2006) found out that male speakers of Mexican Spanish drew on formulaic and semi-formulaic expressions to negotiate face. Wannaruk (2008) focused on the role of pragmatic transfer in the refusal behavior of Thai EFL learners in both American English and Thai. This study demonstrated that learners with low proficiency were more susceptible to pragmatic transfer. Abdul Sattar, Lah, and Suleiman (2011) focused on how Iraqi Arabic native speakers studying in Malaysia refused suggestions in their L1. The findings indicated that interlocutors’ status was the most influential factor in formulating the content and frequency of the semantic formulas. Martínez-Flor and Usó-Juan (2011) took a methodological approach toward ILP by discussing and comparing the benefits of three data collection tools, namely oral role-plays, written DCTs and awareness tests, concluding that these can be used for both research as well as pedagogical purposes.

Numerous scholars have called for pedagogical intervention to enhance language learners’ pragmatic development and to foster their sociolinguistic awareness rather than to leave the pragmatic aspects to develop on their own (see, e.g., Al-Kahtani, 2005; Blanche, 1987; Kasper & Blum-Kulka, 1993; King & Silver, 1993; Linde, 2009; Martínez-Flor & Usó-Juan, 2010; Vásquez & Fioramonte, 2011). Some researchers have also attempted to reveal the positive effect that can arise as a result of instruction delivered to language learners in various speech acts (Kondo, 2008; Lingli & Wannaruk, 2010; Silva, 2003). Such attempts, however, have not always been successful. LoCastro (1997), for instance, examined the effect of pedagogical intervention on the development of pragmatic competence among Japanese learners of English. LoCastro’s (1997) study was not very promising, revealing that Japanese learners did not make adequate use of the politeness markers taught to them.

It can be seen from this brief review that most studies have focused on the learners’ refusal strategies and few have attempted to examine the effect of the explicit teaching of polite refusal strategies in general and on elementary learners’ performance, in particular. The present study is motivated by the scarcity of research into the effect of the instructional intervention in teaching refusals to elementary language learners. More specifically, the study was an effort to find answers to the following research questions:

  1. What refusal strategies and adjuncts to refusals do Iranian EFL learners utilize prior to and after receiving pedagogical instruction in refusing?
  2. Is there any significant difference in the use of refusal strategies and adjuncts to refusal by Iranian EFL learners prior to and after receiving pedagogical instruction in refusing?
  3. What politeness markers characterize Iranian EFL learners’ refusal strategy use prior to and after receiving pedagogical instruction in refusal?
  4. Does explicit pedagogical instruction in refusal contribute to the learners’ polite performance of this speech act?


Participants and Setting

The sample of the study consisted of 24 male Iranian EFL beginners studying in one of the most prestigious and popular language institutes in Ahwaz, Iran. The participants were selected out of the whole ‘elementary’ population in the institute which comprised 220 learners. The selection procedure was convenience sampling in which the participants who were available and who comprised one intact class were chosen. There were no female participants as the study was conducted in the males’ department of the institute. Certainly, this constitutes a major limitation. The participants’ proficiency level was determined based on the in-house placement test administered by the institute. The purpose of choosing beginner level students was to examine the extent to which instruction in pragmatics can accompany linguistic achievement in incipient stages of language acquisition. The participants, whose age ranged from 12 to 18, were school students who attended their English class after their school classes. As for their language background, 19 participants (79%) spoke Persian natively, 2 participants (8%) spoke Arabic as their mother tongue and 3 others (12%) were fully bilingual in both languages. It is worth noting that all the participants had complete familiarity with Persian, speaking it either as a native or second language. Therefore, Persian was selected as the shared language for instruction. As confirmed by the participants, they did not have any access to further sources of instruction outside the classroom setting which would interfere with the process of pragmatic instruction of the study. This was assured by asking the participants to which they responded in the negative.


The data were elicited by means of a purpose-made discourse completion task (DCT). As a type of questionnaire, a DCT includes a set of scenarios which describe certain situations. Each situation is followed by a blank space which the respondent is required to fill out (Mackey & Gass, 2005). DCTs have been used extensively in research into the pragmatic aspects of L2 learning in general and politeness conventions in particular (e.g., Al-Shboul et al., 2012; Kasper & Dahl, 1991; Wannaruk, 2008; Zhang, 2012). The use of DCTs for generating data on pragmatic competence has been associated with numerous advantages including ease of administration and the feasibility to manipulate factors like age and status differences between interlocutors (Mackey & Gass, 2005). After the DCT had been prepared and before it was used to gather the data, two assistant professors, who held doctoral degrees in applied linguistics at Urmia University, Iran, were asked to review the DCT and provide comments on it. The initial DCT was examined in terms of content and face validity and underwent some modifications. Moreover, the DCT was devised and administered in English; however, owing to the participants’ low proficiency, the Persian translation of each situation of the DCT and that of the instructions was provided (see Appendix A). A description of the DCT situations and the relative interlocutor power (P) of the speaker (S) and the hearer (H) is given in Table 2.

Table 2. Description of the refusal situations on the DCT




(S=H; =P) Equals

Declining a friend’s invitation to dinner


(S=H; =P) Equals

Refusing to lend one’s book to a friend


(S˂H; -P) Low-High

Refusing one’s teacher’s call for help


(S˂H; -P) Low-High

Refusing one’s father’s request to sleep


(S˃H; +P) High-Low

Refusing to help a lower grade student


(S˃H; +P) High-Low

Refusing to take one’s younger sister to shopping


Note. S: Speaker (i.e., refuser); H: Hearer (i.e., addressee; refusee)

One final comment is in order. While one of the strategies proposed by Beebe et al. (1990) is the use of non-verbal language, the participants were not provided with an opportunity to use or choose non-verbal language in refusing. It was assumed that non-verbal communication would provide the participants with the opportunity to avoid giving any verbal answers. Non-verbal communication was therefore eschewed so that the researchers could evaluate the extent to which the participants were able to successfully realize linguistic politeness in refusing.

Instructional Targets

The participants were provided with instruction in the areas of refusal behavior summarized in Table 3. Each session of instruction lasted for 15 to 20 minutes. To identify the instructional targets for inclusion in the treatment, the researchers selected those refusal strategies that the participants had utilized most frequently in the pretest, for example ‘the use of excuses, reason, explanations’ and ‘statement of regret’. It was assumed that the participants were more inclined and willing to use those strategies, and therefore they would be more open to receiving instruction in such strategies. Refusal sub-strategies were counted as data whenever they appeared in the participants’ answers as well. However, they were not taught for several reasons. First, teaching them required much effort on the part of the researchers who were limited by time. Second, teaching such sub-strategies would make the process of instruction too complicated for the learners. Furthermore, the participants’ low proficiency level was taken into account as a limiting force which would not allow, for example, the teaching of ‘wish’, a refusal strategy that is not easy for beginners to handle. This issue is particularly relevant from the viewpoint of grammatical complexity inherent in expressing wishes in English. Another instance is the strategy of ‘set condition for future or past acceptance’ which required the teaching of conditional sentences. As a result, some strategies were found to be considerably difficult for the participants and were thus not included among the instructional targets. However, it is noteworthy that the instructional targets were not limited to those used the most frequently by the participants. Those strategies that were used the least frequently and politeness markers such as ‘intensifiers’ (e.g., so, very, really) and ‘thanking’ (as a positive politeness strategy) were also included. Finally, the researchers found it more economical not to focus on all the refusal strategies but on certain aspects of this speech act.

Table 3. Instructional targets

No. Instructional targets Session
1 Intensification by use of ‘so’, ‘very’, ‘ terribly 1
2 Lengthening the semantic formulas 2
3 Providing reasons, excuses and explanations 3
4 Use of ‘sorry’ to show regret 4
5 Use of honorifics and alerters such as ‘Sir’, ‘ Teacher’, etc. 5
6 Use of in-group markers such as ‘my friend’, ‘ dear’, etc. 6
7 Thanking and promising; expressing interest 7
8 Use of adjuncts especially ‘pause fillers’ 8
9 Discussion of interlocutor relative power and politeness 9
10 Review of the above targets 10

Allocating 10 sessions for the teaching of refusal strategies was mainly based on two main assumptions. First, it was assumed that instructional sessions longer than half an hour would be tiresome. Therefore, a decision was made as to allocate only up to, at most, 20 minutes of the class time to teaching one refusal strategy and to focus specifically on that strategy throughout the refusal training time. Second, the researchers were able to maintain the longitudinal nature of the research by dividing the training periods into different sessions instead of condensing the whole training into one or two prolonged (and most presumably tiring) sessions. The aim of the pretest was to evaluate the extent to which the participants’ responses were sociolinguistically appropriate prior to the instruction and to improve their appropriacy through training.

Procedure and Data Analysis

The present study is quasi-experimental (i.e., without random assignment of participants) with a pretest/posttest design through which the researchers aimed to measure the effect of instruction on pragmatic performance in refusing politely. The pretest was administered before the pragmatic instruction was delivered while the posttest was administered after 10 sessions of teaching the participants how to refuse politely in English. The instruction began on the session in which the pretest was administered. This issue requires some clarification. The researchers did not need to calculate and interpret the pretest data before they started the instruction. In fact, while most of the instruction focused on the most frequently used strategies, some instructional targets had already been specified by the researchers prior to the pretest. These latter strategies did not need to be necessarily based on the participants’ responses in the pretest and included intensifiers (e.g., so, very, terribly, etc.) and expression of sorrow (e.g., I’m sorry) as politeness markers. In other words, a decision was made to include some politeness markers whether or not the participants had used them in their pretest answers. During each instructional session, the participants were provided with numerous examples of polite and impolite refusal semantic formulas. The reasons for the politeness or impoliteness of these formulas were discussed as well. The classroom techniques consisted of role-plays, elicitation of examples from the participants and the joint discussion of the politeness and impoliteness of the examples given by the teacher and students. The students were also asked to take notes of the explanations, write down the examples of both polite and impolite refusals and finally review them at home as outside-classroom assignments. The students found these activities to be very appealing. Due to the participants’ low proficiency, the explanations and awareness-raising/meta-talk about the target features were conducted in Persian to ensure full comprehension on the part of the learners. However, most of the given examples and instances were in English and the participants were exposed to a good number of instances for each target feature. Persian examples were offered for comparability. The participants demonstrated high motivation to know about how they can be polite in English. Aside from the discussions about how to improve the linguistic politeness of one’s refusal utterances, the participants were also provided with information about how the addressee’s power should be dealt with when refusing. The interlocutor relative power (abbreviated as P in the paper) is highly important in this study since politeness (i.e., the main subject of the study) and power are closely linked. As specified in Table 3, the discussion of interlocutor relative power and politeness was done in session 9. To this end, the researchers drew mainly on Brown and Levinson’s (1987) politeness theory. Indeed, the discussion was done in a very simple language to ensure that it was understandable to teenagers as young as 14-17 years of age. More specifically, the discussion revolved around how and why individuals in society have varying degrees of power relative to each other due to such factors as age (e.g., old people or adults vs. young people or kids), sex (e.g., male or female), relationship (e.g., parents and children), wealth (e.g., rich people vs. poor people), etc. The participants’ awareness was also raised as to the fact that individuals might have equal degrees of power as in the case of close friends. Table 2 describes the power of the addresser (i.e., speaker) as opposed to that of the addressee (i.e., hearer) in each DCT scenario. The same DCT was used for both the pretest and the posttest phases. Nonetheless, the order in which the DCT items were presented in the pretest was different from that in the posttest. The memory effect was assumed to be negligible, considering the duration of the treatment which lasted for 5 weeks. The participants were asked to provide their answers only in English as the objective of the study was not to compare their use of refusal strategies in Persian and English but the extent to which they had improved after having been exposed to pragmatic instruction in refusal strategy use in English. The instructions were provided in both Persian and English so that the participants would not have any difficulty understanding the scenario being described.

The collected corpus was analyzed by two trained raters specialized in applied linguistics to identify the refusal strategies and adjuncts to refusals following Beebe et al.’s (1990) classification of refusal strategies. The raters’ codings of the refusals showed a high level of inter-rater reliability in this regard, i.e., an average of 86% of agreement. Having been coded, the data were entered in Statistic Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS 20) for analysis. Descriptive statistics and frequency counts were presented and paired samples t-tests were run to examine if there were any significant differences between the pretest and posttest in the use of the refusal strategies and adjuncts to refusals. The data were then analyzed qualitatively to evaluate the refusal semantic formulas in terms of their degree of sociolinguistic appropriacy. In this phase, the analysis drew mainly on Brown and Levinson’s (1987) politeness theory.


Refusal Semantic Formulas: Type and Frequency

The present study set out to examine the possible effect of the explicit teaching of polite refusal strategies on the Iranian EFL learners’ performance of this speech act. The first research question addressed the refusal strategies as well as adjuncts to refusals that the participants used prior to and after receiving the instruction in refusing. The results are summed up in Tables 4 and 5 below. Due to space constraints, the refusal sub-strategies have not been included here.

Table 4. Refusal strategy use across power in the pretest

Type Refusal strategy Power
=P (Equal)
I) Direct A. Performative 0 0 0 0 0
B. Non-performative statement 29 22 34 85 31
II) Indirect A. Statement of regret 26 20 16 62 22.7
B. Wish 0 0 0 0 0
C. Excuse, reason, explanation 43 41 35 119 43.4
D. Statement of alternative 0 0 0 0 0
E. Set condition for future or past acceptance 0 0 0 0 0
F. Promise of future acceptance 0 2 3 5 1.8
G. Statement of principle 0 0 0 0 0
H. Statement of philosophy 0 0 0 0 0
I. Attempt to dissuade interlocutor 0 2 1 3 1.1
J. Acceptance that functions as a refusal 0 0 0 0 0
K. Avoidance 0 0 0 0 0
Total 98 87 89 274 100

Note. The labels in the parentheses at the top of the table (equal, higher and lower) show S’s relative power compared to H’s.

As can be seen from Table 4, overall, the participants used the refusal strategies 274 times. Table 3 also indicates that, all in all and without considering the role of the relative power, the most frequently used refusal strategies in this stage are ‘excuse, reason, explanation’ (119), ‘non-performative statement’ (85) and ‘statement of regret’ (62). Interestingly enough, nearly the same results are obtained when the role of the relative power is taken into account. That is to say, the distribution of the refusal strategies is nearly the same for all power levels. As can be seen, the results show no effect of interlocutor power on the Iranian EFL learners’ use of refusal strategies at this phase, i.e., prior to the instructional intervention.

Moreover, the results of the use of adjuncts to refusals in the pretest stage are summarized in Table 5.

Table 5. Adjuncts to refusals use across power in the pretest

Adjunct Power Total
=P (Equal)
-P (Higher)
+P (Lower)
No. Percent
1. Statement of positive opinions/feeling or agreement 1 0 0 1 6.7
2. Statement of empathy 0 0 0 0 0
3. Pause filler 6 3 2 11 73.3
4. Gratitude/appreciation 3 0 0 3 20
Total 10 3 2 15 100

Note. The labels in the parentheses at the top of the table (equal, higher and lower) show S’s relative power compared to H’s.

According to Table 5, the total number of adjuncts to refusals used in the pretest stage is 15. The most frequent adjunct is ‘pause filler’ (11), followed by ‘gratitude/appreciation’ (3) and ‘statement of positive opinions/feeling or agreement’ (1).

Table 6 presents the frequency of the use of refusal strategies after the instruction (i.e., in the posttest).

Table 6. Refusal strategy use across power in the posttest

Type Refusal strategy Power
I) Direct A. Performative 0 0 0 0 0
B. Non-performative statement 19 21 31 71 22.7
II) Indirect A. Statement of regret 35 27 21 83 26.6
B. Wish 0 0 0 0 0
C. Excuse, reason, explanation 53 46 43 142 45.5
D. Statement of alternative 1 1 2 4 1.3
E. Set condition for future or past acceptance 0 0 0 0 0
F. Promise of future acceptance 0 3 3 6 1.9
G. Statement of principle 0 0 0 0 0
H. Statement of philosophy 0 0 0 0 0
I. Attempt to dissuade interlocutor 0 1 3 4 1.3
J. Acceptance that functions as a refusal 0 0 1 1 0.3
K. Avoidance 0 0 1 1 0.3
Total 108 99 105 312 100

Note. The labels in the parentheses at the top of the table (equal, higher and lower) show S’s relative power compared to H’s.

According to Table 6, overall, the participants used the refusal strategies 312 times in the posttest stage; hence, there is an increase in the number of the strategies in this stage (312) compared to that in the pretest stage (274). Table 6 also shows that, as was true of the pretest stage, the most frequent refusal strategies are again ‘excuse, reason, explanation’ (142), ‘statement of regret’ (83) and ‘non-performative statement’ (71). Furthermore, compared to the pretest stage, the strategies used in this stage are more varied as ‘statement of alternative’ (4), and ‘acceptance that functions as a refusal’ (1) and ‘avoidance’ (1), which are utilized in the posttest, had not been utilized in the pretest stage.

The adjuncts to refusals used in the pretest stage are presented in Table 7.

Table 7. Adjuncts to refusals use across power in the posttest

Adjunct Power Total
=P (Equal)
-P (Higher)
+P (Lower)
No. Percent
1. Statement of positive opinions/feeling or agreement 2 0 3 5 17.8
2. Statement of empathy 0 0 0 0 0
3. Pause filler 10 6 6 22 78.6
4. Gratitude/appreciation 1 0 0 1 3.6
Total 13 6 9 28 100

Note. The labels in the parentheses at the top of the table (equal, higher and lower) show S’s relative power compared to H’s.

Table 7 indicates that the participants used all adjuncts to refusals, although not by any means with the same frequency, except for ‘statement of empathy’ which was not used at all. The most frequent adjunct was ‘pause filler’ (22) followed by ‘statement of positive opinions/feeling or agreement’ (5) and ‘gratitude/appreciation’ (1). As was the case with refusal strategies, the results showed that the overall number of the adjuncts used in the posttest stage (28) increased compared to that of the pretest (15).

Paired-samples t-tests were conducted to examine if there are any statistically significant differences in the use of refusal strategies and adjuncts to refusals in the pretest and posttest phases. The results concerning this issue which was addressed in the second research question are offered in Tables 8 and 9 below.

Table 8. Paired samples test of refusal strategy use

Paired Differences t df Sig. (2-tailed)
Mean Std. Deviation Std. Error Mean 95% Confidence Interval of the Difference
Lower Upper
Pair 1 Refusal-Pretest – Refusal-Posttest .120 .836 .051 .021 .220 2.383 273 .018*


As Tables 8 and 9 indicate, the numbers of both refusal strategies (t (273) = 2.38, p<.018) and that of adjuncts to refusals (t (14) = 3.21, p<.006) differ significantly in the pretest and posttest.

Refusal Semantic Formulas: Directness

An important characteristic that contributes greatly to the extent that a semantic formula sounds sociolinguistically appropriate is the element of indirectness. Figure 2 below presents the number of direct and indirect refusal semantic formulas as utilized by the participants in the pretest and posttest.

Figure 2. Refusal directness

Figure 2 shows that while direct refusals constitute 23.6% (85 of 359) of the overall number of refusals in the pretest, they comprise 18.5% (71 of 383) of the corpus of refusals in the posttest. This is suggestive of 5.1% of decrease in the use of direct refusals in the posttest. Likewise, while 76.3% (274 of 359) of the refusals were indirect in the pretest, this figure increased to 81.4% (312 of 383) in the posttest.


The findings concerning the pattern of use of refusal strategies and adjuncts to refusals are in line with the results of most previous similar studies including Nelson, Al Batal and El Bakary (2002), Nelson et al. (2002), Al-Kahtani (2005), Wannaruk (2008), Félix-Brasdefer (2009), Morkus (2009), Allami and Naeimi (2011), Abdul Sattar et al. (2011), Hassani et al. (2011), Umale (2011) and Al-Shboul et al. (2012), to name but a few. What nearly all these studies, including the current one, have in common is the learners’ marked preference for ‘excuse, reason, explanation’ and ‘statement of regret’ as the most favorable refusal strategies. As a positive politeness strategy, providing reasons and excuses can possibly contribute to keeping the interaction in harmony by reducing the social distance between the refuser and the refusee. Another explanation might deal with the participants’ preference to delay giving a refusal by lengthening the semantic formula (see Félix-Brasdefer, 2009). As for the use of adjuncts to refusals, the following pattern was found in the posttest: pause fillers>statement of positive opinions/feeling or agreement>gratitude/appreciation. The use of such strategies might be indicative of Iranian EFL learners’ tendency and inclination towards increased harmony through discursive strategies which are based on solidarity rather than power. One of the most important features of refusal is the use of adjuncts although they do not constitute the refusal acts by themselves. Chances are that intercultural communication is mostly driven by cultural similarities rather than differences.

Refusal Semantic Formulas: Qualitative Changes

In addition to the quantitative changes reported above, the findings were clearly indicative of significant qualitative changes which contributed substantially to the politeness of the refusal semantic formulas in the posttest. The factors that contributed to the im/politeness and impoliteness of the refusal utterances which were addressed in the third research question are dealt with here. These were most evident in the length and intensification of the semantic formulas as exemplified. Examples of the participants’ own responses in the pretest and posttest are presented for purposes of comparison and to provide a clearer picture of the effect of treatment on refusal behavior.

Example 1: Length of semantic formula:

a. Pretest: No teacher. I’m sorry.
b. Posttest: Sorry Sir. I can’t help you because I have a hard exam tomorrow. (situation #3, S<H)

By refusing the request, offer or invitation of a higher-status person (here, a teacher), a lower-status person (here, a student) is most likely to cause offense to H particularly if the refusal utterance is not mitigated. The above example of the posttest stage is sociopragmatically appropriate thanks to S’s expression of regret (‘Sorry’), the use of ‘Sir’ as an honorific as well as to his provision of a reason for declining the teacher’s request. These politeness devices have helped soften the force of the refusal, resulting in its politeness. The importance of such linguistic devices cannot be overlooked. For example, the use of the honorific ‘Sir’ in the above refusal not only shows S’s deference but also his adherence to social distance conventions. The above semantic formula is polite from another aspect: it is long enough to be regarded as polite by the addressee. Normally, long statements are deemed as sociopragmatically more appropriate. Willis (2003) remarked that, “In English there is a broad generalisation that longer is politer”, providing the following example to explicate this generalization:

Open the door.
Please, open the door.
Would you open the door, please.
Please, would you mind opening the door? (pp. 19-20).

By extension, Willis’ formula of requests is applicable to refusals and subsequently one can adequately account for the impoliteness of refusal 1(a) and the politeness of 1(b) on the basis of the former’s shortness and the latter’s length.
Another aspect of speech act strategies is their intensification by means of such intensifiers as ‘so’, ‘very’, ‘terribly’ as evident in the following examples:

Example 2: Intensification 1:

a. Pretest: No, I need it.
b. Posttest: I’m so sorry. I need it because I have a test. (situation #2, S=H)

Example 3: Intensification 2:

a. Pretest: No, sorry.
b. Posttest: I’m very sorry. I need the book for exam. I want to study it. (situation #2, S=H)

Regarding the use of intensifiers, Alfattah’s (2010) study of Yemeni EFL learners’ apologetic behavior indicated that the participants’ use of intensifiers in their apology utterances resulted in their sociopragmatic appropriateness. Although Alfattah was concerned with intensifiers in apologies, his discussion can be generalized to different speech acts like refusal. The above refusal semantic formulas can be considered polite on the same basis. It is worth noting that using intensifiers such as ‘so’ or ‘very’ is not the only means of intensifying a speech act strategy; intensification can also be achieved by providing a lengthy utterance like example 2(b) above. On the other hand, it seems that the instruction has led to an overuse of intensifiers as in the following example:

Example 4: Overuse of intensification:

a. Pretest: Sorry my friend. I don’t have time.
b. Posttest: I’m very very sorry my good friend but I don’t have time. (situation #5, S>H)

In effect, by overusing intensification to such degree, refusal strategies like example 4(b) are likely to be interpreted as obsequious or even sarcastic. The other change observed was the use of honorifics and titles such as ‘Sir’ and ‘teacher’. It is possible that the participants had intended these to act as ‘alerters’ as these are frequently used in the Iranian culture with this intention. The results are in line with those of Nor and Aziz (2010) whose study of politeness in meetings confirmed that negative politeness was employed where the relations were asymmetrical (i.e., differing relative power statuses). Brown and Levinson (1987) also note that negative politeness strategies are utilized with the aim of preserving social distance and expressing deference. Furthermore, according to Johnstone (2008), honorifics or address terms are used to preserve the addressee’s (i.e., H) negative face and hence enhance negative politeness.

Example 5: Honorifics:

a. Pretest: No, I’m very tired.
b. Posttest: I can’t. I’m very busy. Sorry, teacher. (situation #3, S<H)

Also, in many cases the participants used all of the above strategies in one single refusal response. For instance, consider example 6 (b):

Example 6: Length, honorifics and intensification:

a. Pretest: Sorry, I can’t help you.
b. Posttest: I’m very sorry, Mr. I can’t because I have a headache. (situation #3, S<H)

Another significant factor that contributed to the performance of polite refusals was the use of adjuncts such as ‘gratitude/appreciation’, ‘pause fillers’ and ‘statement of positive feelings’:

Example 7: Gratitude:

a. Pretest: No, I’m very tired.
b. Posttest: Thanks but I can’t come. (situation #1, S=H)

Example 8: Pause filler:

a. Pretest: Sorry I think my father doesn’t allow me.
b. Posttest: Oh well, I’m very sorry. I can’t help you. I have work and I can’t. (situation #3, S<H)

Example 9: Positive feeling:

a. Pretest: No, I’m very tired.
b. Posttest: Oh sorry my friend. I like to give my book but I give [gave] my book to my another [sic] friend. (situation #2, S=H)

Refusal 8(a) above is not appropriate from several aspects. First, the utterance is considerably short in a way that it sounds abrupt and terse. Expressing negative politeness through such semantic formulas as ‘I’m sorry’ can be suggestive of ‘subjectification’ (Fetzer, 2007). Thus, the participant, an equal in this situation, might have felt that he would be belittled if he apologized. In fact, he has negotiated his power by refraining from apologizing directly and explicitly. On the other hand, refusal 8(b) is sociopragmatically appropriate on the ground that it contains the same mitigating devices that refusal 8(a) is lacking in. All in all, the findings reveal that the instruction had a considerable effect on Iranian EFL learners’ use of adjuncts to refusals. This can be a strong point as Kwon’s (2004) study demonstrated that using adjuncts is characteristic of refusals in American English.

Another significant factor that contributed to the appropriacy of semantic refusal strategies is indirectness. Indirectness has been closely linked to politeness in that the more indirect a semantic formula, the politer it is conceived to be (see, e.g., Blum-Kulka, 1987). The following examples demonstrate that more indirect refusal semantic formulas were used after the participants received pedagogical instruction:

Example 10: Indirectness 1:

a. Pretest: No, I can’t help you.
b. Posttest: I’m really sorry because I have [to] study. (situation #3, S<H)

Example 11: Indirectness 2:

a. Pretest: You can’t come with me.
b. Posttest: Excuse me my dear sister. The weather is awful. I take you with me another day. (situation #6, S>H)

Example 12: Indirectness 3:

a. Pretest: No, I can’t help you, Sir.
b. Posttest: I’m so sorry Sir. I should go to the my [sic] Spanish class. (situation #3, S<H)

The Effect of Pedagogical Intervention

The last research question, which is perhaps the most important one, enquired whether explicit instruction in refusal behavior results in Iranian EFL learners’ more polite performance of this speech act. The results were remarkably positive despite the fact that the focused instructional targets were limited in number due to the participants’ low proficiency and time constraints. The findings clearly suggest that both marked quantitative and qualitative changes were observed in the participants’ refusal behavior after the instructional intervention. For instance, it was evident that following the treatment and instruction in refusal behavior, the participants employed longer refusal utterances, more intensification devices such as ‘so’ and ‘very’, more titles and honorifics such as ‘Sir’ and ‘teacher’, amongst other politeness markers. Furthermore, they provided more plausible explanations for their refusal responses as well as in-group markers like ‘dear’ and ‘my friend’ compared to their use of these strategies in the pretest phase, that is, prior to receiving the instruction. The quantitative changes are reflected in the fact that number of refusal strategies and adjuncts to refusals used in the pretest and posttest differ significantly. The findings concerning the favorable effects of pedagogical intervention are supported by such previous studies as Lingli and Wannaruk (2010) and Silva (2003).

Despite the positive effects of pedagogical intervention reported in the current study, the results are not in line with LoCastro (1997) whose study of politeness markers produced little effect on Japanese learners’ polite behavior. It is likely that the different data collection tools have impacted on the outcomes in that while LoCastro (1997) used group discussions to accomplish pedagogical intervention, we took recourse in the actual teaching of refusals. Another reason might be concerned with the focus of the studies as LoCastro’s (1997) study concerned itself with politeness markers in general while the present study deals specifically with refusal behavior. This comment is not final and it warrants further investigation, though. Similarly, King and Silver (1993) also reported little effect as a result of teaching refusals on intermediate learners.


The current study sought to contribute to our understanding of the impact of the explicit instruction of refusal strategies on fostering sociolinguistic appropriateness among elementary learners of English. The outcomes were favorable and the instruction was found to be beneficial. The results of this and previous studies suggest that a universal pattern seems to exist in refusal strategy usage. The instruction was effective from a variety of aspects of refusal behavior, including directness, length and mitigation of the refusal semantic formulas, indicating that learners can simultaneously focus on several aspects while refusing. The findings indicated that learners’ proficiency level does not constitute an insurmountable obstacle in the path of teaching pragmatics as long as teachers take into account closely what aspects of the TL to include or exclude from the pragmatic instruction. In conclusion, the realizations of politeness conventions often vary from language to language. These differences are likely to lead to impoliteness and subsequently to pragmatic failure. It has been suggested that learners be made aware of these intercultural similarities and differences with the aim of fostering effective communication and avoiding breakdowns in communication (Kondo, 2008). Understandably, individuals are not born with politeness but acquire it gradually over time. Therefore, the teaching of politeness conventions as realized in various speech acts should be on the research agenda. As Márquez Reiter (2000) argued,

Politeness is not something human beings are born with but something which is acquired through a process of socialisation. Politeness in this sense is not a ‘natural’ phenomenon which existed before mankind but one which has been socioculturally and historically constructed (p. 1).

Implications for Practice

This study has clear implications for language pedagogy, particularly teachers and materials developers. Firstly, different speech acts can be taught to language learners so that they can acquire them more efficiently and appropriately. Research is indicative of teachers’ lack of the awareness of the need to teach students the politeness elements of the TL (Byon, 2004). Furthermore, the fact that the participants of the study were beginners suggests that language teachers can launch into the task of teaching pragmatics even when the learners have developed only a limited proficiency in the TL. Nonetheless, this statement should be taken with caution as since it seems that learners are more inclined to acquire more fully those pragmatic aspects which are similar both in the TL and L1. In addition, it is advised that textbook and syllabus designers include further L2 pragmatic content to familiarize learners with what constitutes politeness and impoliteness conventions and foster their pragmatic competence.

Limitations of the Study and Suggestions for Further Research

Exposing language learners to specific instruction with the aim of raising their pragmatic awareness of how to perform various speech acts politely is a promising area of research. The present study was limited from two fundamental aspects: theoretical and methodological. From a theoretical point of view, an impoliteness perspective can be taken by future research in which language learners’ awareness is raised as to what constitutes impoliteness and how to eschew it in interaction. Another theoretical issue is concerned with the fact that the refusal framework (Beebe et al., 1990) and politeness theory (i.e., Brown & Levinson, 1987) that were drawn upon in the present study to analyze the data constitute classic works while it is advised that future researchers base their work on more recent theoretical theories. On the other hand, from a methodological perspective, the scholarly literature has made it clear that other data collection tools such as role-plays can yield more purposeful and legitimate data than DCTs (Nelson et al., 2002). Furthermore, the present study lacked a control group and random assignment. Gender is another issue as the participants of the present study were only males. The findings could have thrown further light had the study been conducted with both genders. Last but not least, studies with larger sample sizes are recommended.

Note. An earlier draft of this study was presented under the title “Teaching language learners to say ‘No’ politely: The case of Iranian elementary EFL learners” at Alzahra University First Postgraduate Conference on Applied Linguistics held on May 21st, 2015 at Alzahra University, Tehran, Iran.

About the Author

Seyyed Hatam Tamimi Sa’d, MA in Applied Linguistics from Urmia University, Iran, is currently an English teacher in Iran Language Institute (ILI). A prolific researcher, he serves as a reviewer for nine international journals within applied linguistics including BJET, JOLT, JLLS, TESL-EJ, JAAS, CJNSE in Canada, USA, UK and Turkey and copyeditor for CJNSE.

Javad Gholami is an assistant professor in TEFL from Urmia University, Iran. He has been teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in TEFL as well as EAP courses especially English for medical purposes as for more than 15 years. His main publications have been on integrating focus on form instruction and communicative language teaching in Iran. Over these years, he also has been running pre-service and in-service teacher training courses and theme-based workshops in private language schools and Ministry of Education.


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APPENDIX A. DCT Refusal (with Persian translation)

نام: …………………….…. جنسیت: مونث مذکر سن: … سال

Name: … Sex: Male Female Age: … years old
لطفا” موارد زیر را با دقت مطالعه کرده و به سوالات پاسخ دهید.

(Please read through the following situations carefully and answer the questions.)

1. دوستتان شما را به شام دعوت میکند اما شما از برادر او خوشتان نمی آید.
(1. Your friend invites you to dinner but you do not like his brother.)
– Hey, how about coming over for dinner Sunday night?
1. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………

2. دوستتان از شما میخواهد که کتابتان را به مدت یک هفته به او قرض بدهید.
(2. Your friend asks you to lend him your book for one week.)
-Reza, lend me your book for a week, please.
2. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………

3. معلمتان از شما میخواهد که در برگزاری جشن مدرسه به او کمک کنید.
(3. Your teacher asks you to help him with throwing a party at school.)
– We need some people to plan the class party. Do you think you can help?
3. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………

4. ساعت 10 شب است و پدرتان از شما میخواهد که زودتر بخوابید.
(4. It’s 10 o’clock and your father asks you to go to bed early.)
– Dear, it’s too late. You should go to bed now.
4. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………

5. شما کلاس سوم دبیرستان هستید و دوستتان که کلاس اول دبیرستان است از شما در درس ریاضی کمک می خواهد.
(5. You are a third year student. Your friend, a first year student, asks you to help him with math.)
– Hey, sorry, can you help me with my math?
5. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………

6. خواهر کوچکترتان از شما میخواهد که او را با خودتان به خرید ببرید.
(6. Your younger sister asks you to take her with you shopping.)
– I want to go shopping with you, Reza.
6. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………

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