Pragmatically Speaking

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For the last 8 or 9 years I have been working in programs that deliver language instruction to adult newcomers who have language levels above CLB 7.  These people have high levels of education and have been professionally trained.  When I first started working with this demographic of students, I struggled with creating content that was relevant for my classes.  I found their language skills to be quite good, and I wondered what else I could offer them. 

Once I started to get to know them a little better, I came to understand that they were having difficulty obtaining employment.  This fact seemed counter intuitive to me because I know that Canada relies on immigration to sustain its workforce.  I had been taught that without immigration, Canada’s population would actually decline.  So, what exactly prevents them from getting a job?

Pragmatics and Culture

I started to investigate how people on the higher end of the CLB rating scale could improve their language.  I discovered that pragmatics was the answer.  Pragmatics, in relation to applied linguistics, involves how we build relationships between the speaker and the listener. The specific strategies we use to build these relationships are culturally determined.  These pragmatic strategies are just as important as grammar and pronunciation for students trying to get a job.

Manners vs. Meaning

According to a study done by Campbell and Roberts in the UK, the reason migrant and ethnic workers are rejected by job interviewers, despite having appropriate qualifications and experience, is their inability to produce the expected pragmatic discourse.  Their use of language to convey meaning is often judged negatively (Campbell & Roberts, 2007).  Crandall and Basturkmen suggest that errors of appropriacy cause greater problems for non-native speakers as they aren’t necessarily identified by native speakers as a problem with language, but more of a difference in attitude (Crandall & Basturkmen, 2004).  After experiencing this revelation, I set out to find some good resources to use in my classes.  That’s when I encountered my next struggle —  there was very little in terms of resources for me to use!

Big Problem: Lack of Resources

Based on the studies, it seems that a valuable step in settlement for new immigrants is to include pragmatic instruction in language programs geared to newcomers.  However, there is a shortage of available resources that facilitate teaching and learning cultural norms appropriate to the Canadian workplace (Louw et al, 2010). 

Best Solution: Reciprocity

Over the years I’ve been building a reservoir of these types of resources, and trying to share them with my teaching colleagues.  Fortunately, I’ve had the opportunity to work with many resourceful, creative, excellent teaching professionals, which has lead me to an exciting project that could ultimately help you! I am about to embark on a research project where I investigate what teachers are doing in the classroom when it comes to teaching cultural norms for the workplace.

My question to you is: What are you doing in your classrooms to facilitate the learning of pragmatic language? (because I know you are probably doing it very well!)


Campbell, S. & Roberts, C. (2007). Migration, ethnicity and competing discourses in the job interview:  synthesizing the institutional and personal. Discourse & Society, 18(3), 243-271.

Crandall, E. & Basturkmen, H. (2004). Evaluating pragmatics-focused materials. ELT Journal, 5(1), 38-49.

Louw, K., Derwing, T. & Abbot, M. (2010). Teaching pragmatics to L2 learners for the workplace:  the job interview. The Canadian Modern Language Review. 66(5), 739-758.

Hi, I’m Gwen Zeldenrust. After a brief absence from the profession, I realized that teaching is my passion and the path that my career should follow. Most of my practice has been focused on teaching ESL to adults in Ontario. In addition to that, I’ve been a trainer for an insurance company, a teaching assistant for several professors at university, taught English in Japan and Core-French at the local school board. While I’ve been teaching ESL I’ve also been working on a project which has developed organically among a group of teachers. Under the name of Language Foundations, we’ve produced a video that teaches strategies for interacting successfully in Canada. The video project has inspired in me a true passion for writing. I love being able to reach out with my thoughts, share ideas and discuss different perspectives. I think writing and teaching are very complementary!


8 thoughts on “Pragmatically Speaking”

  1. I’m so glad you wrote about this. I would love it if we could assemble a great pool of resources and links tied directly to the teaching of pragmatics. This is an area I’ve only begun to touch on recently, but I think it is the area where we can get HUGE return on investment if we spend a little time and energy there.

  2. Interesting blog post! I agree that an explicitly taught awareness of cultural norms involving interpersonal relationships are critical to those studying beyond CLB 7.

    You’ve likely already heard of these resources (see end of post), but I thought I’d share the links.

    The first lists the Essential Employability Skills (EES) for all college graduates in Ontario: regardless of the program of study, graduates are expected to meet all of these skill sets, including interpersonal and personal pragmatic categories. The other 2 links provide details about specific occupations and the skill sets required, again, incorporating more pragmatic areas of interest.

    Essential employability skills:

    Occupation specific

    Occupation profiles:

    Good luck with your research!

  3. Thank you for starting this dialogue, Gwen. Like Suma, I have found the “Teaching Speech Acts” resource useful in my workplace language training classes. I also highly recommend the videos and other resources at Norquest College’s Centre for Intercultural Education. Topics range from giving and receiving feedback to making difficult requests and so on. Students commented that they learned some very important lessons for the Canadian workplace.

  4. Hi Gwen – I’ve been trying to order a copy of your excellent resource, the Language Foundations video program. I cannot find it online. Can I order it from you?

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