Learner Strategy Training in the Development of Pragmatic Ability: Research Project


This research project was designed to determine the effects of training second language learners of Japanese and Spanish to learn and use speech acts more successfully while communicating in those languages.

Because new research has shown that learners themselves can benefit by becoming more strategic in their language learning, major textbooks on foreign language learning and teaching have begun to include information about language learning style and strategy preferences. Both Brown's Principles of Language Learning and Teaching (4th ed., 2000) as well as Celce-Murcia's Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language (3rd ed., 2001) have devoted an entire chapter to this issue. The premise of this study is that the focus on learners should not be ancillary to language instruction, but should be an essential component to all language instruction.

Given this backdrop, one of the most perplexing areas of language instruction in terms of how to teach for student learning is that of instilling within learners a sense of appropriate language behavior, and especially in learning and mastering speech acts such as apologizing, requesting, complimenting, refusing, and thanking. Learners of a language can have all of the grammatical forms and lexical items and still fail completely at conveying their message because they lack necessary pragmatic or functional information to make the communication work.

But how can we teach speech acts? If we were to explicitly teach speech acts, would that training actually have any impact on students' pragmatic ability?

To address these questions, this research project began with the design of strategies-based instructional materials for enhancing the learning and effective use of Japanese speech acts. These web-based materials were field tested and were found to be user-friendly and exciting for students. Using these materials, the research team conducted an experiment to determine the effects of training second language speakers to learn and use speech acts more successfully. The research targeted learners of Japanese during the academic year 2003-2004 and will be replicated with learners of Spanish in 2005-2006 once data has been analyzed and new materials can be created for learning speech acts in Spanish.

 A Web-Based Approach to Strategic Learning of Speech Acts (2005)

Andrew D. Cohen and Noriko Ishihara

An in-depth research report on a study to determine the impact of a self-access website for nonnative learners of speech acts in Japanese.

Phases of the Research Project

Phase One: The research project began in the summer of 2002 with the review of the speech acts/pragmatics literature to determine how research should inform the development of materials for learners to address the challenges inherent in learning speech acts. At the same time a preliminary design for the research study was developed and submitted to the Human Subjects Committee of the Institutional Review Board for its approval in fall 2002.

Phase Two: Strategies-based instructional materials for enhancing the learning and effective use of speech acts in Japanese were built on the speech acts/pragmatics literature review. Linguistic samples for learners were solicited from Japanese language instructors and other native speakers of Japanese to be included in the learning module. All of the modular units were pilot-tested by up to seven learners of Japanese (depending on the speech act) during the spring and summer 2003. Students' input was incorporated into a revision of the learning module which is available on the Strategies for Learning Speech Acts in Japanese website (Link: http://www.iles.umn.edu/IntroToSpeechActs/).

Phase Three: During fall 2003 an experimental study was conducted to determine the effects of training nonnatives to learn and use pragmatic information more successfully in speaking Japanese.

Twenty-seven subjects across the three third-year Japanese classes volunteered to serve as subjects in the study. The subjects completed the before-measure tasks by:

  1. filling out a student background survey,
  2. filling out a before-measure survey of their learning style preferences and a before-measure of their language strategy repertoire for performing speech acts,
  3. completing ten to eleven speech act tasks in Japanese consisting of written multiple-rejoinder discourse completion.

A subset of 19 learners also agreed to provide two e-mail journal entries describing their language learning and use of strategies, focusing on the strategies used to comprehend and produce the two speech acts that they were randomly assigned to study during the fall semester 2003. The posttest data collection from 24 learners called for completion of an after-measure of their speech act strategy repertoire and a measure of their ability to perform the two speech acts they studied, that is, the same written multiple rejoinder discourse completion task.

Note: Based on the positive reactions of teachers and students alike, the web-based learning module has been made a component of the third-year Japanese curriculum at the University of Minnesota. Three modular units were assigned as homework in each of the intermediate Japanese classes in fall 2003 (an introductory and two speech act units) and the additional three speech acts are currently assigned to students studying intermediate Japanese in spring 2004.

Phase Four: Data analysis and write up (spring 2004) was the focus for this phase of the research and resulted in the research report A Web-Based Approach to Strategic Learning of Speech Acts.

Phase Five: The research team developed strategies-based instructional materials for enhancing the learning and effective use of pragmatic knowledge about Spanish speech acts. The materials were field tested and revised (fall 2005).

Phase Six: The study replicated with learners of Spanish (spring 2006).

Phase Seven: Data analysis and write up for the Spanish study is the focus of this phase of the study (summer 2006).

Phase Eight: The research team and CARLA disseminate the results of the study and create new materials for learning speech acts (spring 2006).

For more information on this research study contact:

Principal Investigator: Andrew D. Cohen at adcohen@umn.edu.
Research Assistant: Noriko Ishihara at ishi0029@gmail.com.

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