An Introduction to Pragmatics: Social Action for Language Teachers

September 2004 — Volume 8, Number 2

An Introduction to Pragmatics: Social Action for Language Teachers

Virginia LoCastro (2003)
Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press
Pp. xi + 366
ISBN 0-472-08822-X (paper)

When I picked up LoCastro’s An Introduction to Pragmatics: Social Action for Language Teachers, I approached it with the hope that she would make sense of the decidedly complex matter of pragmatics. Yet, after reading this most comprehensive volume, I was left with the feeling that, in a world of “globalization” and greater interaction among people from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and where, as a result, opportunities for breakdowns in communication abound, it is nothing short of a miracle that we are able to successfully convey intended meanings at all. That I was left feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of pragmatics is no negative comment on LoCastro’s book. Actually, it attests to the author’s incorporation of such extensive information on the myriad aspects of communication that have an impact on pragmatics.

LoCastro approaches this introduction to pragmatics in a methodical, easy to follow manner. Her purpose is to raise awareness of the issues with a view to helping learners be better managers of pragmatics. As the book targets both pre- and in-service language teachers, there are no assumptions of prior knowledge. There are definitions of terminology, supported by clear examples to elucidate difficult concepts, thus making the text very accessible to novices. In addition, the material is grounded in research, with much empirical data cited. Readers would likely have a richer appreciation of issues surrounding pragmatics if the book were used, as the author suggests, as a course textbook. Given the topic, it follows that readers would reap greater benefit by discussing the issues raised in the book with others.

The book contains 15 chapters comprising three sections: 1) Basic Concepts, 2) Analytical Perspectives: Theories of Pragmatic Meaning and 3) Pragmatics in the Real World. The first section, Basic Concepts, consists of six chapters: What is Pragmatics?; Meaning; Indexicality; Entailment and Presupposition; Information Structure; and Face, Politeness and Indirectness. These chapters provide the fundamentals for understanding pragmatics in addition to exploring the problem of defining pragmatics. Various linguists’ definitions are offered, but LoCastro proposes this broad one: “[P]ragmatics is the study of speaker and hearer meaning created in their joint actions that include both linguistic and nonlinguistic signals in the context of socioculturally organized activities” (p. 15).

This first section also looks at the relationship between pragmatics and linguistics. Obvious, or literal, meaning, which usually results in a clear interpretation, is discussed although of greater interest is pragmatic meaning, which can only be determined by processing implied meaning, or implicature. As anticipated in such a volume, deixis–using language to “point”–is explained and then broken down for further analysis into several forms of deictic expression: person, spatial, temporal, social, and discourse deixis. The cognitive aspect of pragmatics, including schemata and how information is presented is introduced in the chapter on information structure. Finally, notions of face and its corresponding cross-cultural differences are dealt with in regard to their impact on how a message is transmitted and how it is ultimately interpreted.

In Analytical Perspectives, the second section of the book, the three chapters deal with approaches used to explain pragmatics. The first chapter presents a philosophical approach, where, as one would expect, one reads about Grice and the Cooperative Principle and its limitations. A sociolinguistic approach, which includes performance organization and speech act theory, is discussed in the second chapter. Finally, the third chapter presents two cognitive (psycholinguistic) approaches: relevance theory and action theory.

Material covered in the first two sections of the book provides the basis for the last part: Pragmatics in the Real World. The six chapters comprising this section are really the most engaging and cover Behavior of Listeners; Cross-Cultural Pragmatics; Interlanguage Pragmatics; Politeness Revisited; Learner Subjectivity; and Pragmatics in the Classroom. LoCastro applies the theory introduced earlier to applications in language teaching and learning, and makes connections with research in the field of second language acquisition. Among the many noteworthy points addressed in this section are:

  • The notion of a sequence in developing pragmatic competence, suggesting an interlanguage. Despite teachers’ best efforts, a pre-determined pattern may determine development. Although there are suggestions for teaching pragmatics, one might debate how effective these would be in light of this possible designated development of pragmatic knowledge/use.
  • The issue of resistance to learning pragmatics. Wanting to retain one’s linguistic and cultural identity, for example, may make a learner disinclined to adopt the pragmatic norms of a language.
  • The adoption of “norms”. With the tremendous amount of variation in English, there is the matter of whose “norms” should be considered the standard. This matter is particularly problematic given that English is now spoken around the world by more non-native speakers than native speakers; furthermore, it hints at the question of linguistic imperialism.
  • The analysis perspective. Cultural perspectives may colour the interpretation or analysis of pragmatics. Some scholars have sought systems of analysis that “[enable] the researcher to distinguish cultural differences” (p. 243) so as to avoid interpretation through predominant Anglo-American frameworks of analysis.
  • The level of acceptance of language mistakes. People are generally more forgiving of grammatical mistakes than of pragmatic failure. Therefore, to avoid reproach from an interlocutor, a non-native speaker may not want to give up his/her accent, for example, for this identifies the speaker as being non-native. [-2-]
  • The empowering effect of a learner’s ability to manage pragmatics. Affording learners opportunities to develop their awareness of appropriate language in order to make judicious language choices in a given situation may mean the difference, for example, between succeeding or not succeeding at a job interview. Providing learners with situations for them to discuss pragmatics–to engage in what has been called “thinking and talking about pragmaticsÆmetapragmatics” (McLean, p. 79)–may ultimately result in learners’ being able to better control aspects of their lives that depend on communication.

One area that is emphasized is the importance of having authentic models for awareness-raising analysis and discussion. LoCastro notes the dearth of natural language examples, and with examples from currently used, inauthentic materials, she illustrates how fabricated language samples do not adequately or accurately reflect authentic language use. Language examples in the book are, therefore, largely authentic, illustrating that “one distinguishing characteristic of research in pragmatics is the use of naturally occurring, extended samples of language as data” (p. 30). The examples LoCastro uses are drawn from a variety of language groups, such as Japanese, Spanish, English, French, Chinese and Thai. Furthermore, the many sample exchanges that are introduced remind readers how pragmatics is at work, around us, all the time. As a second or foreign language teacher, one might even be compelled to start capitalizing on the many in- and out-of-class opportunities for compiling language samples that would offer opportunities to do awareness-raising activities with students. Of course, choosing appropriate examples requires that teachers have a thorough understanding of pragmatics and developing this understanding is, of course, the purpose of the book.

At the end of each chapter are Discussion Questions/Tasks and a Text Analysis activity, followed by a list of suggested readings. The tasks and analysis activities allow one to “test” one’s understanding of the theory as well as to experiment with applying that theory to practical classroom materials. An example task from the chapter on Indexicality deals with map reading. In order to apply his/her understanding of deixis, the reader is asked to predict and list potential problems in giving directions or understanding directions (p. 75). A novice to the area of pragmatics will likely find the map task at an appropriate level. More challenging, though, are the text analyses, for example, “Study the examples . . . and underline the rapport strategies. Suggest as detailed an analysis as you can of the purpose of the strategies you observe” (p. 289). The tasks and analyses appear to be correspondingly challenging for pre- and in-service teachers.

While there is little to take issue with in this book, there is one remark that deserves additional comment. In the chapter on cross-cultural pragmatics, LoCastro writes, “Generally, Americans consider their culture egalitarian and avoid displays of power through language, whereas other cultures are characterized by explicit marking of a hierarchical structure, with overt signaling of an individual’s social status, occupation, and age” (p. 238). It may be true that Americans believe they “avoid displays of power through language,” yet much has been studied and written about language and power, with many examples coming from English used in North America. Tannen (2001) has written and spoken (see online interview with Stamberg, 2003) about power displays through voice timbre, metaphors and vocabulary choice with respect to gender, family situations and the workplace. She also cites the political arena as an area where persuasive language is used for power. A topical, oft-cited example of late is, in fact, US President Bush’s manipulation of language for power, using techniques such as “empty language” and “personalization”. One columnist writes, “Take a closer look at [Bush’s] speeches and public utterances and his political success turns out to be no surprise. It is the predictable result of the intentional use of language to dominate others (Brooks, 2003, n.p.). Examples extend to the American media. From the war-associated notion of “collateral damage,” Allahar (2004) derives the term “collateral language” (“lenguage colateral“) to describe deceptive political language used in US military circles, subsequently adopted by the press, to blind the American public to the brutality of war. The purpose of the euphemistic language is to have ideological control, i.e. power, over American society. Thus, “American English” language may be infused with power even if the power is not explicit the way it is in Korean, for example, where morphological markers may indicate status within a hierarchical structure. The implicit, subtle nature of power in language is, of course, grist for the pragmatist’s mill. [-3-]

The matter of language and power notwithstanding, LoCastro’s Introduction to Pragmatics is a comprehensive volume that renders the topic decidedly manageable for its intended audience. Pre-service teachers will appreciate the way theory is explained and subsequently linked to practice. In-service teachers will value the book as a useful reference for refreshing their teaching materials. In the end, learners will be grateful for their teachers’ efforts to raise awareness of an area that is increasingly important in this era of globalization. Interaction among myriad cultures and language groups has become frequent and easy. LoCastro’s book is a valuable resource that may enable teachers to match this ease with the ease of effective linguistic communication.


Allahar, A. (2004, May 23). La política del lenguage y el lenguage de la política. Paper presented at the Fourth International Workshop on Foreign Language Teaching, Communication and Culture, University of Holguín, Cuba.

Brooks, R. (2003, July 13). P-I Focus: Power of presidency resides in language as well as law. The Seattle Post Intelligencer. Retrieved May 4, 2004, from:

McLean, T. (2004). Giving Students a Fighting Chance: Pragmatics in the Language Classroom. TESL Canada Journal(21), 2, 72-92.

Stamberg, S. (Interviewer). (2003, October 21). [Interview with Deborah Tannen]. The Power of Language [Online radio program]. National Public Radio. Retrieved May 4, 2004 from:

Tannen, D. (2001). You Just Don’t Understand. New York: Quill.

Carolyn Samuel
McGill University, Faculty of Arts, English and French Language Center

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