English is Context: Practical Pragmatics for Clear Communication

by Andreas Grundtvig
Delta Publishing 2021

Pragmatics has been a particular area of interest for me ever since I did my MA some 12 years ago. I was intrigued by how language can be used as a powerful tool to do things: to build relationships, resolve conflict, get people to do things we want them to do, etc.

The study of pragmatics also aligned with my fascination with how language works and my belief that teachers of English needed to go beyond teaching the surface meaning of grammar and lexis in order to help learners become better communicators (evidenced by my regular ETp column Not Only But Also). And I’m not even talking about critically reading between the lines of an article to decipher someone’s hidden agenda. I’m talking about the pragmatics of everyday conversation.

Consider these utterances:

  • Saying ‘Are you busy?’ as you enter your colleague’s office space is, in fact, code for ‘I would like to take up some of your time so that I can talk to you’.
  • Saying ‘I can’t believe I forgot my pen. I could have sworn I had it in my bag!’ is, in fact, a request (albeit ‘off-record’, to use a term coined by Politeness theorists Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson) for the listener to lend you their pen.
  • Using an overly polite request like ‘I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind possibly selling me an ice cream’ is highly inappropriate and potentially impolite when said to an ice cream vendor, because it may suggest that you are being sarcastic and drawing attention to their tardiness in serving you.
  • Saying ‘I can’t make it to the meeting. I’ve got to wash my hair’ should be enough to signal to the listener that you’re not really going to wash your hair but that you think the meeting is unimportant and not worth your time.

Some might argue that the pragmatics of English does not differ wildly from the pragmatics of our learners’ first language, and so they should easily be able to transfer this knowledge when using English. But like so many of these apparently transferable skills (like the ability to self-activate schemata or the ability to read/listen for gist or for specific information), learners are often so caught up with the nitty gritty of grammar and lexis that they neglect to transfer those skills. That is, assuming those skills are transferable in the first place. After all, there is no denying that much of pragmatics and how we do things with words is influenced by culture and context.

And this is why Andreas Grundtvig’s new book by Delta Publishing is called English is Context (rather than English in Context). Ultimately, the definition of pragmatics is the study of how context contributes to meaning.

However, the resources that allow teachers to do this confidently seem to be lacking in the world of ELT. You can, therefore, imagine my delight at finding out about English is Context.

Like many Delta Publishing books, this book is bold and revolutionary – it covers an area of language teaching that is not often dealt with overtly in ELT course materials. The contents are presented in an easily-navigable format.

Part A gives a detailed overview of the different areas influenced by pragmatics, be it discourse, cooperation or politeness. Part A was, without doubt, my favourite part as I smiled through Grundtvig’s short and playful descriptions of the origins of human communication and the history of the English language. Each section in Part A starts with a relevant quote, sometimes from a prominent pragmatician like John Austin or a linguist like Steven Pinker, and sometimes from sociocultural icons like Oscar Wilde, Coco Chanel, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Winnie-the-Pooh. In each of these sections, there are clear references to the lesson plans in Part B of this book, showing us how we can explore this topic in class.

Part B – the longest part of the book – offers 82 lesson plans (yes, I counted!) that might offer the practising teacher useful ideas and suggestions on how they can incorporate pragmatics in their lessons. Teachers will immediately recognise some of the themes in these lessons, eg understanding vocabulary in context, differentiating between register, using indirect language when disagreeing, etc – a familiarity that helps make this book accessible. Depending on the learners, their interests and the contexts in which they might use English, not all these lessons would be immediately applicable to every teacher. However, there is scope for adapting the lesson plans, which can serve to inspire teachers to develop their own pragmatics lesson.

Part C then offers tips for learners on how they can increase their pragmatic awareness and for teachers on how they can incorporate pragmatics in their language lessons.

This book doesn’t need to be read in sequence – teachers can choose to dip in and out of different sections of the book to find what’s relevant and of interest. Teachers who might start out being less familiar with pragmatics will learn a lot more about this less-talked about area of language, and they will no doubt be convinced that English is indeed all about context.

Chia Suan Chong
York, UK