What is Pragmatic Linguistics?

Pragmatic is an area of linguistic study that addresses questions about how people use language in real-life interactions. It is often conflated with other areas of linguistic study such as semantics, syntax, and semiotics, but it is important to note that they are distinct. Semantics is the study of rules that determine the literal linguistic meanings of expressions; syntax is the process by which words are combined to form sentences; and semiotics concerns the use of signs and symbols as messages. Pragmatics is an investigation of how those messages are interpreted in a social context.

A central concern of pragmatics is how people make decisions about what to say and do in a given situation. A pragmatist views reality as an ongoing process of becoming, and so they look for ways to change that existence through actions (Biesta 2010; Maxcy 2003).

The word pragmatic derives from the Latin prae ‘before’ and grammatica ‘grammar’. It refers to the fact that we learn pragmatics through practice in a social environment and so our utterances and behaviors are often informed by what has been said and done before us, as well as by what we have learned from previous experiences. Pragmatics is thus about what we can infer from the past actions and utterances of others (H.P. Grice 1975).

For example, your daughter might tell her friend that eating cookies can make you gain weight. While in a literal sense the daughter is simply explaining that fatness is a risk of eating too many cookies, your friend might interpret this statement as an accusation that her friend is calling her overweight. This is an example of implicature, a type of pragmatics.

One of the most interesting aspects of pragmatics is that it looks at what is actually said and done, rather than focusing solely on the intended meaning. This is a distinguishing feature of pragmatics that separates it from the more formal and scientific approaches to linguistic analysis, such as semantics, syntax, and phonology.

Consequently, pragmatics is considered to be an applied field, and it can easily be taught in the classroom. As the articles in this issue of the Forum demonstrate, teachers can incorporate pragmatic instruction by using lessons on different language functions such as greetings, requests, complaints, invitations, and apologies. These lessons can be linked to the students’ home culture and their own experience in the target culture.

In addition, research has shown that pragmatic routines can be taught to beginning foreign language learners. The studies by Wildner-Bassett (1994) and Tateyama et al. showed that even very beginner foreign language learners can be taught pragmatics through a set of standardized communicative events. This dispels the myth that pragmatics can only be taught after learners have acquired a solid foundation in L2 grammar and vocabulary. This is consistent with uninstructed first and second language acquisition research, which shows that the most successful L2 acquisition is function-driven – i.e., the need to communicate propels the learning of linguistic form right from the start.