Pragmatics is the contextual meaning of language. It goes beyond the words themselves and takes into account social, cultural, and situational factors. The pragmatics of language allow us to disambiguate meaning and communicate effectively. In the classroom, pragmatics often focuses on how to use different language functions (e.g., requests, invitations, complaints) in specific contexts. This includes teaching students how to determine the best way to communicate in a given situation, while taking into consideration other cultures and norms.
The term “pragmatic” is used to distinguish it from semantics, which focuses on the meaning of individual word meanings in a sentence or phrase. It is also distinct from communication studies, which tries to understand how we interpret the messages that other people send us through their words and actions. Pragmatics deals with the more subtle aspects of communication, including how we make assumptions about what other speakers mean when they say certain things, and how that influences our interpretation of those words and actions.
Morris describes the difference between semantics and pragmatics in this article for the Pragmatism Cybrary. He explains that pragmatics is the study of “what people actually do and think as they use language.” In other words, it is not just about what words we use but about the context and other social cues that accompany our speech. The social cues may include body language, facial expressions, or tone of voice that help us to convey our intended meaning through our utterances.
As the field of pragmatics has evolved, linguists have attempted to unify the two main roots of the theory by introducing concepts such as speech acts and politeness. However, the field has yet to fully converge. A major challenge facing pragmatics is that the varying constraints of various experimental tasks have interactive effects on the adaptive behavior of people. Thus, it may be impossible to create comprehensive theories that supervene over these experimental task demands.
The field of pragmatics has been influenced by many other disciplines, especially philosophy, sociology, and anthropology. Morris drew on his background in these disciplines when explaining the concept of pragmatics in his book, “Signs, Language and Behavior.” He explained that the field of pragmatics differed from semantics because it was concerned with what people actually did and thought as they were using language.
For example, he points out that in a wife saying to her husband, “I need some help,” the husband hears her as an insult, while she sees it as an offer of assistance. He adds that the misunderstanding arises because of different cultural expectations for how men and women should interact with one another.
Teachers often incorporate pragmatics into their lessons by giving their students request scenarios and asking them to determine the best way to respond to each one. These activities can be a fun way to teach students how to communicate in a variety of situations. They can also give students practice with the grammatical principles of deixis, which are a form of illocutionary force that relies on context to work.