Excuse Me (or Please Move): Teaching Pragmatics in Conversation

Excuse Me (or Please Move)
Teaching Pragmatics in Conversation

Stacia Levy
by Stacia Levy 121,148 views

Traditionally, ESL instruction has focused on teaching the grammar of the language, with a lot of concentration on the verb tense system.

Recently more attention has been given to vocabulary, often divided into categories like “colors” or “animals.” Less attention has been given to pragmatics, or the social use of language, using language in a way appropriate to the context and to get things done. For example, “Excuse me” in contemporary American English has taken on a function of getting someone who is blocking the way to move. More obscure but still necessary to know are familiar phrases and their contemporary usages, such as “May I help you?” which sometimes is not an offer of help at all but rather a request to be left alone (when said in a flat tone, while the speaker is obviously busy and is not a service person whose job is in fact to help the addressee).

Language to Teach

First in teaching pragmatics is deciding what to teach. Some obvious areas of instruction are language appropriate for greetings, opening and closing a conversation, and farewells. There are of course many other language functions (getting people to move, be quiet, go away, etc.), but this is a start.


  • How are you?

It’s remarkable, long after the witty observation that the definition of a person with poor social skills is one who, when asked “How are you?” actually tells you, people still do this. The joke highlights the pragmatic function of “How are you“as a greeting, not a real inquiry into one’s health (unless coming from one’s doctor). And the appropriate answer (unless to one’s doctor) is “fine.” Teaching students this function is important because of the wide-spread use of the greeting.

Opening and Closing a Conversation

  1. 1


    • Do you have a moment?
    • Can we talk?

    With phrases such as these, the speaker establishes a need to impose on the listener’s time to talk.

  2. 2


    • I won’t keep you/I’ll let you go.
    • I know you must be busy.
    • Wow, I didn’t realize how late it’s gotten.

    All of these phrases are important to recognize for what they are: the speaker’s desire to end the conversation and move on. Missing this cue—and sometimes even native speakers will—can result in annoyance in the speaker.

  3. 3


    It’s remarkable, but native English speakers rarely end a conversation with “goodbye.” Rather, they’ll often use one of the following:

    • I’ll let you go.
    • I won’t keep you.
    • I’m sorry, but I’ve got a bunch work to do and have to go.

How to Teach Pragmatics

Once some language has been decided upon for instruction, an actual method of instruction should be settled on.

  1. 1

    Awareness Raising

    First, students do need to be made consciously aware of pragmatics—the fact that native speakers violate its rules demonstrates that it is not easily or consciously learned. Awareness of this issue can be achieved by first directly introducing the topic and naming it as pragmatics, the way people use language out in the “real world” as opposed to in books. Most students are aware of this dichotomy: my daughter, who is studying Spanish as a second language, a useful language to know in our home state of California, has nevertheless questioned the value of Spanish class because of the way the language is taught: “When am I ever going to have to say ‘what color is your oven’ in Spanish?” she asked, and she is right in that this is language, although highlighting colors and appliances, of limited use. Student motivation to learn can be increased by introducing pragmatics as the study of useful, “real life” language and by discussing typical examples and why they are used: What does the receptionist say to you in the doctor’s office when the doctor is running late? Often it is “to make yourself comfortable,” and she says that because “sit down and be quiet,” which is what she wants you to do, is too direct and rude (at least for the setting, a doctor’s office).

  2. 2

    Authentic Examples

    Discussing authentic examples like the one above is one method of teaching pragmatics. Another is to actually see examples in action, perhaps from well chosen clips of TV shows. Often the dialogue is very realistic, depending on the program, and there is the added advantage of hearing correct intonation. The instructor can choose a clip from a favorite program and play about 5 minutes of it, asking students to note the language used for greetings, for introducing a topic and closing it, for farewells. Ask about why the characters made those particular language choices: Why “What’s up, Dog?” rather than “How are you?”) Play the clip again as necessary.

  3. 3

    “Homework” Assignments

    Give students a brief homework assignment for extended practice. Have them go to Starbucks or the student union or a similar public place and just observe the language use going on. Note the way people greet each other, take leave of each other, and so forth. Write the examples down if they are hard to remember (students might want to be discrete about that, as people can become nervous if they think they are being In some way recorded or documented.) Bring the examples back to class for discussion.

  4. 4


    After students have learned some social language, it’s time to practice a specific with a kind of exercise drawn from the world of dramatic arts helps here—that of improvisation, when actors are given a general sense of their character and the situation and must from there develop the dialogue and plot impromptu. The same can be done in ESL class: “Elena, you’re the boss, and Jackob, you’re e the worker, and you need to go into her office to ask her a question about your work. What is a polite way to do that?” This is, after all, how language use happens in real life—I’m in a specific situation like needing my boss’s signature on some papers, which means interrupting him, and I have to think of the most appropriate language for the situation. After they’ve rehearsed their sketches, student volunteers may perform for the class.

In conclusion, pragmatics is a less-explored but important part of language learning.

It is as fully important as studying the grammar and vocabulary of a language because it demonstrates how language is actually used in specific situations and the appropriate way to use it to accomplish specific tasks.

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