LINGUIST List 14.2001

Thu Jul 24 2003

Review: Acquisition/Pragmatics: Barron (2003)

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  1. Susan Burt, Acquisition in Interlanguage Pragmatics

Message 1: Acquisition in Interlanguage Pragmatics

Date: Wed, 23 Jul 2003 13:17:51 +0000
From: Susan Burt <>
Subject: Acquisition in Interlanguage Pragmatics

Barron, Anne. 2003. Acquisition in Interlanguage Pragmatics. John
Benjamins. Pragmatics and Beyond New Series 108.

Announced at

Susan Meredith Burt, Illinois State University.


This is an extremely thorough project in speech act realization, the
analysis of Irish college students' acquisition of German,
specifically of the pragmatics of requests, offers and refusals,
during their study abroad year. In each chapter, the author grounds
her research and analytic decisions in an exhaustive discussion of the
existing literature. The results show that a year abroad can indeed
result in an increase in pragmatic competence in the L2 by learners.
The final chapter includes pedagogical and research implications of
the study.


In the Introduction, Barron reflects on instances of mis-
understanding that she experienced in her time abroad as a learner of
German. Arguing that explicit instruction in foreign language
pragmatics is rare because there is not enough research to support it,
Barron sets out the motivation for her research in the form of
research questions:

1. Is there evidence of changes in learners' L2 pragmatic competence
towards or away from the L2 norm over time spent in the target speech

2. Does pragmatic transfer increase or decrease with time
 in the target culture?

3. What implications do any changes or lack of changes in learners' L2
pragmatic competence have for our understanding of the development of
L2 pragmatic competence?

4. Can one speak of stages of L2 pragmatic competence?'' (p.4)

The second chapter, ''A pragmatic approach,'' situates her research in
the existing literature and provides working definitions of central
terms. Barron sees pragmatic competence as a subcategory of
communicative competence. She outlines the foundations of speech act
theory, and summarizes the various theoretical approaches to verbal
politeness, and to discourse analysis. Finally, she contrasts three
approaches to ''pragmatics across cultures,'' distinguishing between
(1) ''contrastive pragmatics,'' which focuses on ''the
pragmalinguistic realization of communicative functions'' (p.23) in
different languages and cultures, (2) cross-cultural pragmatics,
exemplified by the Cross-Cultural Speech Act Realization Project
(CCSARP) (Blum-Kulka, House and Kasper 1989), which seeks to link
linguistic differences to cultural differences, and (3) interlanguage
pragmatics, which focuses on learners' pragmatic capabilities and
contrasts them with the pragmatic performance of native speakers. The
chapter includes a tabular summary of 51 studies that Barron locates
in this particular area of pragmatics, specifically, those that focus
on the pragmatic development of second language learners.

Chapter 3, ''Acquisitional issues in learner pragmatics'' situates
Barron's specific questions with respect to broader questions in
second language acquisition research. First, learners' construction
of interlanguage (a continuum of rule-governed language systems) is
discussed with respect to the role played by first-language influence,
overgeneralization, and ''teaching-induced errors,'' focusing
specifically on pragmatic aspects of interlanguage. While there have
been different approaches to attempting to understand how learners
develop pragmatic competence, there seems to be no fixed order of
development: increased grammatical proficiency may or may not cause a
corresponding increase in pragmatic capabilities. For example,
increased grammatical proficiency in the second language may give the
learner the opportunity to implement a speech act strategy favored in
the first language, but not appropriate in the second. Increased
proficiency may allow the learner to construct--and to
overuse--supportive moves, and this overuse is pragmatically less
effective. Input to learners is often strikingly different from
speech between native speakers, and thus, may be misleading as a
pragmatic model: native speakers may, for example, make requests to
non- native speakers that are far more explicit than native speakers
would find acceptable.

Nevertheless, the study abroad context is likely to offer learners a
more complete range of input than the foreign language classroom. The
study abroad context is characterized as unique, incorporating, as it
does, both instruction and ''natural'' contexts. And, despite lack of
completely adequate measurements, time in a study abroad experience
does seem to result in increases in both linguistic and pragmatic
competence. This seems to be the case even though a study abroad
experience cannot guarantee exposure to entirely appropriate input:
learners might be ''ghettoized'' from native speakers, by choice
(because of culture shock) or otherwise, or they might be exposed to
verbal practices in one context that are inappropriate in others:
low-prestige variants might serve in informal contexts, but not serve
well if the learner overgeneralizes their use beyond those contexts.
Barron brings up the question of whether it even makes sense to assume
that learners aspire to attain a native-speaker norm in pragmatic
behavior, and discusses several reasons why they may not.

Chapter 4, ''Experimental design,'' is extremely thorough in its
discussion of the research instruments, the participants, the
selection of speech act types to investigate, and the method of
analysis. Barron chose or developed a number of instruments with
which to collect data. She considers the burgeoning literature on
discourse completion tasks (DCTs), and chooses to use a DCT at least
partially compatible and comparable to that used in the CCSARP. In
addition, she develops the ''free DCT,'' in which participants write
dialogue for both speakers, not just one. Barron also developed
''retrospective interviews,'' in which participants do a role-play,
which is videotaped, which they then observe and discuss with an
interviewer. Further instruments include pre-and post-year abroad
questionnaires, and assessment questionnaires, designed to see whether
Irish and German readers assess the power and social distance in
certain situations similarly or not.

Participants included Irish learners of German, and German native
speakers and native speakers of Irish English as well. Barron chooses
to focus on the speech act types of requests, offers, and refusals, in
part because these last two types will allow her to look, not only at
the performance of the speech act in questions, but also at
differences in discourse structure involving these acts: cultural
differences may interfere with learning; specifically, in Irish
English, a ''ritual refusal'' may follow a hospitable offer, with a
second offer (or ''pressing'') then accepted, but this discourse
sequence is not characteristic of German. Barron is also interested
in pragmatic ''routines,'' including both fixed and formulaic patterns
in speech act performance. Mitigation in its various forms is also of
interest, as the politeness/request marker ''bitte'' has been shown
(House 1989) to be pragmatically complex, and pragmatic particles such
as ''doch, eben, mal, schon, einfach'' and so on, are rarely taught
explicitly; these items are likely to be difficult for learners.

Chapter 5, ''A pragmatic analysis,'' shows that the results of
Barron's work are intriguing, illuminating both the quirky path of
pragmatic development, and interesting pragmatic differences between
English and German. For example, when it comes to ritual refusals of
offers (typically followed by re-offers and acceptances), these Irish
learners do attempt to implement the Irish English pattern in German,
but these transfer attempts decrease over time spent in Germany. The
learners' metapragmatic comments show this, as do the stories some
learners tell of using the German discourse pattern in their English
after they return home (and suffering a bit of pragmatic failure in
the L1!). Part of this development is connected with learners'
realization that there is no formula for re-offers in German, and
German interlocutors' puzzlement at ''Bist Du/Sind Sie sicher?''
which learners initially use as a re-offer, provoking pragmatic
failure. The experience of pragmatic failure, however, seems to help
lead to eventual understanding of the discourse differences.

Part of what must be learned includes ''differences in illocutionary
potential'' (p. 182) for similar routines in the two languages.
''Danke,'' for example, cam be used to refuse an offer, while ''Thank
you'' can be used to accept one. ''No problem'' serves as a
minimizing response to thanks, but attempting to use ''Kein Problem''
in this way leads to pragmatic failure, despite the fact that these
similar formulae do share several pragmatic uses on both sides of the
language boundary. ''Das ist (aber) nett von Dir/Ihnen'' as a
supportive move in refusals of offers is a formula which learners
eventually acquire, despite the fact that the translation equivalent
sounds ''gushing'' to speakers of Irish English.

The acquisition of syntactic downgrading as a form of conventional
indirectness is complex, with learners using too much directness
(compared to native speaker norms) in standard situations (those where
the requester has an authoritative role), and too much indirectness
(compared to native speaker norms) in other situations. The picture
is slightly different for lexical downgraders: prior to the year
abroad, learners tended to overuse the politeness marker ''bitte'' in
requests, and to place it at the beginning or end of the sentence,
while native speakers prefer placement in the middle. Over time,
learners come closer to native patterns of placement and use of this
item, as they acquire other downtoners (like ''schon'') that they can
use instead.

Barron summarizes the answers to her research questions in the
Conclusion, making clear which ones are answerable with her data, and
which are not: there is clear movement towards the German native
speaker norm, though not attainment of it, by these learners.
Pragmatic transfer decreases over time in some instances, and
increases in others. Pragmatic development takes a non-linear path,
but pragmalinguistic development seems to outpace sociopragmatic
development, an intriguing observation. Also useful are the
pedagogical and programmatic implications Barron sees for her work:
she suggests more explicit teaching and learning of pragmatic issues,
and proposes ethnographic projects for learners during their year
abroad, and combining pre-year abroad seminars with post-return
seminars for the mutual benefit of new year abroad students and


Given the complexity of the data, one outstanding virtue of this
volume is its painstaking clarity, both in arrangement and expression.
One lapse from this was the unhappy choice of labels L(1), L(2) and
L(3) to stand for the first, second and third periods of data
collection from the Learners, when L1 and L2 are used to indicate
first and second language, respectively. Similarly, in the
discussions of the use of ''bitte,'' in both chapters 4 and 5, Barron
relies heavily on the notion of ''standard situation,'' as House
(1989) dubbed those situations in which the requester has the
authority to make the request (such as a police officer asking a
motorist to move her parked car); as this phrase is not particularly
transparent, Barron perhaps should have repeated her explanation of it
in these later chapters. But I quibble. For the most part, Barron
does not allow the complexity of the material to prevent clear

The clarity and depth of the presentation gives Barron's
recommendations for pedagogical attention to pragmatic issues added
force. Foreign language teachers, particularly teachers of German, of
course, will find this volume valuable, as will students and
researchers in speech act realization.


Blum-Kulka, Shoshana, Juliane House, and Gabiele Kasper
(eds.). 1989. Cross-Cultural Pragmatics: Requests and Apologies.
Norwood NJ: Ablex.

House, Juliane. 1989. Politeness in English and German: The Functions
of Please and Bitte. pp. 96-119 in Blum-Kulka, House and Kasper 1989.


Susan Meredith Burt is Associate Professor in the English Department
at Illinois State University. Her publications on intercultural
pragmatics include articles on the pragmatics of code choice, and a
recent article on American English solicitudes. She is currently
working on a project on speech act realization in English and in
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