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Why Should Speech Acts be Taught?

Learners of all languages tend to have difficulty understanding the intended meaning communicated by a speech act, or producing a speech act using appropriate language and manner in the language being learned. Research has found that classroom instruction on speech acts can help learners to improve their performance of speech acts and thus their interactions with native speakers.

Speech acts have been taught in some second language classrooms, yet most materials have been written based on the intuition of the textbook writers. There seems to exist a shared belief that native English speakers just know intuitively how to interact in their language and should be able to explain the social use of the language to the learners. However, this commonly shared belief is not necessarily true; in fact, a native speaker's intuition is sometimes unreliable. For example, a textbook writer might have a teenager greeting his friend at the airport with, "Hello, Harvey. How was the flight? I see you got a new bag," when he might actually say something like, "Hey, man — what’s happening? I like your bag. It’s awesome!"

Often the use of the language is unconscious and speakers of the language may be able to explain what one "should say," but are unlikely to have an accurate, comprehensive, or objective picture of how people actually interact. For example, in ESL textbooks, speakers typically accept a compliment modestly and with grace:

A: What a beautiful dress!
B: Thank you. I’m glad you like it.

However, in real life, when someone compliments us, we may reply:

A: That’s a cute dress you’re wearing.
B: Really? This old rag? I got it at the Salvation Army for $2.00!
or
B: You’re the third person today who’s complimented me on it. I must have done something right!

Research has shown that native speakers of American English accept a compliment only about one third of the time, which would suggest that what ESL learners are learning from textbooks may be grammatically correct, but inauthentic in terms of real language and real interactions with native speakers.

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Last Modified: January 22, 2015 at 9:52