AUTHOR: Phyllis Kaburise TITLE: Speech Act Theory and Communication SUBTITLE: A Univen Study PUBLISHER: Cambridge Scholars Publishing YEAR: 2011
Chiara Meluzzi, University of Pavia-Free University of Bozen, Italy
Phyllis Kaburise analyses the pragmatic competence of second language learners of English at Univen (University of Venda), in South Africa; the mother tongue of all the informants is Tshivenda. The author uses a specific functionalist approach, by evaluating not the grammatical competence of her students but their strategies in mediating between their linguistic competence and their communicative needs in everyday communication. In her analysis, Kaburise also combines a pragmatic approach with Speech Act (SA) analysis, in order to provide more useful suggestions to the interpretation of the data. The book is organized in six chapters: chapter 1 is an introduction to the study and to its theoretical frameworks. In chapter 2, the author analyses the notions of “meaning” and “communicative competence”, while in chapter 3 she analyses the units she used to evaluate the communicative competence of Tshivenda speakers (i.e. event, situation, and act), and she discusses the use of these units in the main SA theories. Chapter 4 is dedicated to the data analysis of eighteen selected cases, in order to illustrate the various possible interpretations or functions of non-native speakers’ utterances. In chapter 5 Kaburise presents the principal findings of her research, by showing how communicative competence is “a multi-faceted attribute” (p. 153), and how the context often helps the hearer in the interpretation of the meaning and the function of utterances even in case of linguistic or pragmatic blemishes. Finally, chapter 6 presents some suggestions to improve second language speakers’ communicative competence, and it also discusses the main variables of this kind of study on language use.
Chapter 1 introduces the typology and the aim of the research: the investigation of the communicative competence of a group of Tshivendas English second language speakers at Univen. The author borrows the notion of “communicative competence” from Gumperz (1982), and she also recognizes that there are “regulated procedures” (p. 7) behind verbal activities, even if these regulations never affect the creativity of human language. Indeed, one can always find different ways to accomplish its main functions, i.e. transmitting speakers’ intentions to the hearer. After this short theoretical picture, the author reports few examples of sentences uttered by these non-native speakers of English, e.g. (p. 8):
Student: Please I have come for you for some assistance. Lecturer: Oh? Student: Yes, I need some pamphlets on Wuthering Heights.
The problem in the student’s first utterance is the expression “come for you”, not very useful in seeking someone’s favour. This utterance fails to achieve its main pragmatic goal, by instead causing confusion in the hearer, as is clear from the lecturer’s answer; the situation could only be clarified by the student’s second utterance. This kind of example leads to Kaburise’s main research question: the correlation of form and function does not always occur in the utterances of non-native speakers of English, because syntactic, semantic and, most of all, pragmatic imperfections in one utterance may cause a problem in the interpretation of the function of the utterance itself. However in the case of narrow context, these imperfections may not affect the final comprehension of both meaning and function of utterances. Kaburise’s study is therefore a pragmatic one, since it deals with “utterance meaning rather than sentence meaning” (p. 11).
Chapter 2 explains the notions of “meaning” and “communicative competence”, since Kaburise states that “linguistic meaning is dependent on the level of interlocutors’ communicative competence” (p. 15). Following previous scholars’ considerations, the author divides the discussion on linguistic meaning into three sub-topics: syntactic meaning, semantic meaning and pragmatic meaning. The author also considers the possibility of an “interface” level, especially between the semantic and the pragmatic dimensions, e.g. Turner (1999), but she prefers to maintain a division with three branches. Indeed, she states that this “distinction has enabled analysts to separate strictly linguistic facts about utterances from those that involve the actions, intentions and inference of language users” (p. 22), as was previously noted in Bach (1975). Kaburise then introduces a long discussion of “pragmatic meaning”, by taking into account the main different theories, from Austin and Searle’s SA analysis to Levinson (1983), basing this review of the state of the art mainly on Mey (1993). Kaburise than analyses the concept of “communicative competence”, by referring in particular to the classic Hymes (1967) and to Richards & Rodgers (1986). The author then spends some time discussing the two levels (i.e. linguistic and psycholinguistic), which constitute communicative competence, according to Canale & Swain (1980). On the linguistic level, communicative competence should be divided into four interrelated areas of competence (i.e. grammatical, discourse, socio-linguistic, and strategic competencies), while on the psycholinguistic level two different dimensions of communicative competence are recognisable (i.e. knowledge and skills). The author concludes by considering language as a social-semiotic tool, in Halliday’s (1978) terminology, and by judging communicative competence as “the ability of social beings to accurately formulate and interpret their intentions within their social reality” (p. 43).
Chapter 3 is dedicated to the evaluation of communicative competence, using the three discrete units recognized by Hymes, “event” (language and text), “situation” (context) and “act” (function/meaning). The discussion takes into account the main works of both linguistic and philosophy of language fields of research, in order to describe what these three units mean in a pragmatic domain. The “event” refers both to language and to text, which is considered not as a static phenomenon but as a process: as Halliday & Hasan (1989) point out, texts are created through an interaction between semantic and contextual information. The “context” is defined as “a frame or schema through which utterances are examined and interpreted” (p. 66), with a pragmatic or sociolinguistic approach, as in Saville-Troike (1982). Finally, in the “act” analysis Kaburise reviews the main studies in the field of SA Analysis, in particular Austin (1962), Searle (1969) and Levinson (1983). The last part of the chapter is then devoted to Grice’s (1975) approach to the macro-category of “meaning”, and to the notions of “inference” and “implicature”.
In chapter 4 the author presents her data with a qualitative approach. The analysis consists of 18 spoken examples of Tshivenda students’ utterances; the same utterances were discussed in written form with the students themselves in order to understand the speakers’ intentions and hearers’ interpretations of the same utterance. A first analysis demonstrates the existence of a “tension between a structural and a pragmatic evaluation of utterances” (p. 108): that the form of the utterance influences the hearer’s perception of speaker’s communicative intentions. However the data shows that in 10 of 18 cases communication was successful, i.e. both speaker and hearer assigns the utterance to the same speech act category. In the second part of the analysis, Kaburise analyses all 18 utterances of the sample with great attention to the context of the utterance and to speakers’ intention. The utterances are divided into three types, i.e. requests, complaints, and statements, according to the communicative intention of the speaker. A very interesting example is utterance 5 (pp. 121-3), in which a student who failed to submit an assignment on the due date said to the lecturer:
“I am asking to be apologised due to my failure to submit my assignment”
The student is making a request, but his real communicative goal is to apologise. In classic SA Theory, apologies and requests are two different acts, since apologies are expressives and refer to the speaker’s psychological state of mind, while requests are directives and try to push the hearer to do something; however, both these speech acts imply an effort by the hearer to avoid a possible face-threating act. In the above case, the student achieves a positive response from the lecturer, since “the request is implied in the apology” (p. 122): indeed, the lecturer uses the Gricean notion of implicature to understand the student’s communicative intention, also because she knew that the student is a non-native speaker and a learner of the English language. With these examples, Kaburise demonstrates how linguistic meaning is a process of negotiation and co-construction between the speaker on one side and the hearer on the other side.
In chapter 5, then, the author evaluate her findings, by reflecting on the theoretical notion of “communication” and “meaning”, as previously discussed in chapters 2 and 3. For Kaburise, the analysis demonstrates how “communicative competence is a multi-faceted attribute” (p. 153), and that means that it is not always easy or even possible to assign a univocal communicative intention to a single utterance. Even with this limitation, Kaburise still considers SA Analysis as the most appropriate strategy to examine the realisation of speech acts or functions. In this regard, the author notes the interrelation between the grammatical and pragmatic dimensions: grammatical mistakes may signal a non-native speaker of a certain language, and make the hearer more indulgent of possible pragmatic mistakes. This means that “pragmatic principles are more normative than prescriptive” (p. 163), and that a violation in the form of the utterance does not always lead to a failure in communication, i.e. in the interpretation of both meaning and function of the utterance.
In chapter 6 the author suggests some ways to enhance the communicative competence of second language speakers, by distinguishing between two types of failure: a pragmalinguistic failure and a sociopragmatic failure. In the first case, Kaburise suggests raising “the awareness of the speakers to the possible misinterpretation of their utterances” (p. 168), while in the second case it is important to make the learners aware of the pragmatic and discourse norms of the target language. In the author’s opinion, an SA Theory approach can be useful in these regards and it can also inform new research on the topic of communicative competence of non-native speakers.
In chapter 1 the author clearly establishes the main topic of the book, the unity of analysis and the theoretical strategies used in the analysis and in the interpretation of the data. The discussion of the theoretical dimensions of “meaning” and “communicative competence” in chapters 2 and 3 is well-structured in its argumentation and easy to follow in its theoretical statements. However, one scholar’s work is often quoted several times in different parts of the chapter, and this does not always help in understanding those scholars’ different theoretical approaches concerning communicative competence. The examples sometimes are not helpful in clarifying the theories: for example, in the case of the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign, Kaburise uses the example of onomatopoeia to illustrate that “linguistic signs can become motivated, more apparent, less arbitrary, but rather iconic and indexical” (p. 52). However, the examples of onomatopoeia are given only for Tshivenda, without clarifying that onomatopoeia is a common feature in all languages, and, moreover, that this is a very complex topic for general linguistic theory (see Castagneto 2004 for a bibliographical review). On the other hand, an important merit of the chapter is to have well summed up the main works on speech acts; this strategy allows the author to draw a very detailed but still fresh picture of the state of the art in SA Analysis, which is very useful.
Chapter 4 offers a well-organised corpus of data, with contextual and pragmatic remarks that enable the reader to immediately get the point of the whole work. Kaburise offers very clear explanations of the utterances under analysis, by showing both the differences in speakers’ and hearers’ interpretations of the utterances. The study presents various points of interest, in particular concerning the identification of specific common linguistic practices among students at Univen: however, more news about this “jargon” would have been useful and interesting, and perhaps this could be the object of future research.
In chapter 5 Kaburise interprets the previous data, in order to reach conclusions on the complex discussions of both “meaning” and “function” of the analysed utterances. By referring back to previous remarks in chapters 2 and 3 and to the data provided in chapter 4, the author successfully links her findings and her analysis to the previous theoretical frameworks, also adding something new in the field of the data analysis with an SA approach.
Finally, in chapter 6 the author does not summarize the conclusions of her work, preferring to offer instead some suggestions for enhancing pragmatic competence when working with L2 learners.
In conclusion, Kaburise offers a good analysis of her spoken and written data with an innovative SA analysis approach. The basic theoretical concepts of the analysis are clearly illustrated, and that provides the reader with a common background for the interpretation of the findings. The data are very interesting and well laid out, even if a skilled scholar might have liked a more detailed analysis of the quoted dialogues between Tshivenda learners and native speakers of English. For example, a finer classification of the problems in L2 speakers’ communicative competence using SA tools would have been interesting (e.g. analysing the duration of the silences between turns or the hesitations both in questions and answers).
The book is useful for young scholars working on the topic of SA analysis, pragmatics and perhaps even language acquisition. It provides the basic theoretical concepts of both SA and pragmatic analysis, and it serves as a good starting point for future research on communicative competence of non-native speakers of any language.
Canale, Michael & Swain, Merrill. 1980. Theoretical bases of communicative approach to second language teaching and testing. Applied Linguistics (1). 1-47.
Castagneto, Marina. 2004. Chiacchierare, bisbigliare, litigare… in turco. Il complesso intreccio tra attività linguistiche, iconismo, reduplicazione. Cagliari. Arxiu de Tradicions.
Grice, Paul. 1975. Logic and conversation. In Peter Cole & Jerry L. Morgan (eds.). Syntax and semantics 3: Speech Acts. New York. Academic Press. 41-58.
Gumperz, John J. 1982. Discourse strategies. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.
Hymes, Dell. 1967. On communicative competence. Philadelphia. University of Pennsylvania Press.
Levinson, Stephen C. 1983. Pragmatics. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.
Mey, Jacob L. 1993. Pragmatics. Oxford. Basil Blackwell.
Richards, Jack C. & Rodgers, Theodore S. 1986. Approaches and methods in language teaching. London. Longman.
Saville-Troike, Muriel. 1982. The ethnography of communication. Oxford. Basil Blackwell. Turner, Ken. 1999. The semantics-pragmatics interface. Oxford. Elsevier.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Chiara Meluzzi is a PhD student at the University of Pavia and the Free
University of Bozen (Italy). After a Master Dissertation on female language
in Ancient Greek comedy at the University of Eastern Piedmont (Vercelli),
for her PhD Dissertation she is now working on the Italian variety spoken
in Bozen (South Tyrol) with a sociolinguistic approach. Her primary
research interests include sociolinguistics, pragmatics, dialectology,
language contact and historical linguistics.