Pragmatics vs. Semantics

Here’s a link to a funny list about the strange hidden meanings behind British English politeness. It raises an interesting question: why is there such a difference between the words people use and what they really mean?

This distinction is called semantic meaning vs. pragmatic meaning. Semantics is the study of the intrinsic meaning of words and grammar, while pragmatics is the study of how language is perceived by an interlocutor. In other words, it’s the difference between a word’s dictionary meaning, and how it works in a certain context, said by a certain person, to another certain person, with a certain relationship, and a certain communicative objective, etc.

There are many easy universal every-day examples. For example: you successfully finish a task in work, your boss says, “Good job.” The semantic and pragmatic meanings are simple and clear. Now imagine the same boss says, “Good job,” after you just accidentally deleted the task you were writing. We technically have the same semantic meaning but the opposite pragmatic meaning; this time a sarcastic insult as opposed to a reassuring compliment.

My point is that learning grammar and translating vocabulary isn’t everything. We need more than just isolated examples of language; we need context, emotions, relationships, facial expressions, etc. Language is a truly complex and intricate skill that cannot be described solely by systems and rules; developing the feeling for the implicit features of communication is something that only comes with face-to-face practice. So, in conclusion, and once again, no excuses – get out there and practise.

Error Correction

As I sit here staring blankly out the window of my Parisian suburban train, I find myself experiencing twenty minutes of earphone assisted peace. In this tranquility, many curious thoughts on teaching and learning start to materialise. Now, through tumblr, I have a way to needlessly share them with the public at large.

So without further waffle, let’s talk about error correction.

I was teaching a pre-intermediate class recently – the classic “present yourself” lesson plan. I noted a couple of their mistakes:

  • “I am studying here for 3 weeks.”
  • “I am unemployed since January.”

Instinctively, I prepared for a grammar session, in which students would have unquestioningly accepted their mistakes and noted the corrections. But in looking at these mistakes from another perspective, they represented examples of grammatically correct ‘chunks’ (for Michael Lewis fans), simply mismatched. For instance:

  • “I am studying here,” well formed positive progressive statement.
  • “for 3 weeks,” correctly constructed prepositional time adverbial.

In another context, matched with a different chunk, these constructions would have been commendable. So I took a different approach: I drew squares around the chunks, praised their formation and demonstrated alternative partner chunks that would have been grammatically appropriate.

This all sounds like “So, what’s new?” kind of stuff, but it went down really well with the students. It was like I lifted that layer of punishment or criticism that comes with mistake correction and replaced it with praise and discussion.

It reminded me that correction can go down differently with students depending on our approach. It also reminded me that delayed error correction, although arguably less effective than immediate feedback, is a stress-free and holistic approach whose overall benefits outweigh its disadvantages.

In conclusion, I’ve reinforced my belief that self-reflection concerning teaching in general is essential, and can lead to the kind of experimentation and habit-changing that allows us to better satisfy students’ particular needs. As you can imagine, I’m a big fan of experimental practice, and evaluating each experiment is the only way to really learn and improve as a teacher.