Are you already a competent speaker of English?



You might have already experienced some awkward or funny misunderstandings when speaking English or another foreign language with native speakers. Misunderstandings or pragmatic failure in a foreign language between members of different cultural backgrounds and languages are very frequent. They occur when people greet each other, when they apologize about something, when they pay compliments to someone but also when somebody refuses to do something or when something is requested. But what exactly does pragmatic failure mean and how can you avoid it and become a competent foreign language speaker?

An example for pragmatic failure from linguist Philip Riley:

“Englishman: Can I give you a hand?

Japanese lady traveller: (burdened with two suitcases, baby, etc.) So sorry, so sorry, you are very kind.” (Riley 2007: 192).

Here we can see that the Englishman was not sure whether the Japanese lady was accepting or refusing his offer because her answer which for her is an acceptance to his offer, does not have the same function and meaning in his variety of English (cf. Riley 2007: 192).


Both members of this dialogue understand and speak English but they have a different level of English. The Englishman who is a native speaker does not understand what the lady says because they have not the same cultural values and norms about how to behave or what to say in different specific situations. He cannot differentiate whether the utterance of the Japanese lady is a polite request for help or just a phrase for thank you, but I don’t need any help. Their pragmatic competence in English differs, because they have different cultural backgrounds.


Pragmatic competence is “the ability to use language effectively in order to achieve a specific purpose and to understand language in context” (Thomas 1983: 92).

This means that the Englishman does not understand the intention of the utterance of the Japanese lady and, therefore, has no idea what to do. At the same time the Japanese lady uses the wrong words to express her intention because she lacks pragmatic competence in English.

Sometimes pragmatic failure has no serious consequences and can be rather funny and anecdotal, in other cases it can have more dramatic consequences and produce conflict, anger and reaffirm stereotypes. To avoid misunderstandings in a foreign language you need to become a speaker who has linguistic competence.


information-1294813_1280Linguistic competence consists of grammatical competence which is the knowledge of intonation i.e pronunciation, phonology (the organization of sounds), syntax (the organization of words), semantics (meaning of words) and morphology (how words are formed), as well as pragmatic competence in order to use language effectively to achieve a specific purpose and to understand language in context (cf. Thomas 1983: 92).

So, for using a language, grammar and vocabulary are not enough. You also need pragmatic competence, that is you need to know how to participate in conversations in a similar way native or competent speakers of the language do (cf. Johnstone 2008: 7). Pragmatic competence is important because pragmatic errors are often interpreted as rude behavior or attributed to personality flaws. Native speakers expect foreign language speakers to make grammatical, lexical or pronunciation mistakes, but when they make pragmatic mistakes, for example, when they are too direct in situations where they shouldn’t, then the native speakers think that they are rude because they assume them to have the same pragmatic norms even though unconciously.

Also, your role as hearer is very important. You not only need to become a competent speaker, but also a competent hearer. You have to learn how to interpret sentences correctly and to solve interpretive problems. Some methods or strategies that are useful to become a competent speaker of a foreign language are, for example, translation tasks as well as the use of authentic material such as films, video clips, TV and radio programmes that immerses the learner in authentic cultural experiences. Also, observing what native speakers say or how they behave in particular situations, bringing native speakers to the classroom to share experiences, and role plays in which you have to achieve certain goals such as apologizing or  asking for directions to get somewhere or asking for information when you are abroad are some useful exercises in order to improve your pragmatic competence (cf. Padilla 2013: 37-38). 


In addition, you should learn how to become a cautious optimistic hearer. This means that, as a hearer, you should consider various interpretations of what the speaker has said. So, apart from your first interpretation of the speaker’s utterance which might be wrong, other interpretations are possible. For example, when Arabs greet Americans with an unusual phrase at the beginning of a bargaining such as: Where are you from?. This sentence is interpreted by many non-Arabs as an invasive request for personal information. If these hearers had been cautious and optimistic, they would have realised that their interpretations were the result of having wrongly applied cultural assumptions which differed from that of their interlocutor. The behaviour of their interlocutors was interpreted on the basis of their own cultural representations or knowledge of what is appropriate in this situation. Therefore, you may not produce the right first interpretation because, as a foreign speaker you are not fully aware of the interactive principles in the target language yet or because you behave guided by your mother tongue. Cautious optimism is a useful cognitive strategy that helps you to search for different interpretations and find the right one. Teachers, for example, can help students understand that they behave and speak in a certain way because of different cultural patterns, or because of a wrong habit. Some of the activities mentioned above can be useful to learn this strategy. Moreover, teachers could

  • use authentic materials (e.g. video clips) showing examples of more or less serious misunderstandings
  • initiate activities in which learners remember past experiences of misunderstandings
  • make students act out role plays in which they are put under pressure to decide how to react quickly in specific situations, or
  • ask the students to give their own examples of misunderstandings collected from friends, acquaintances, family and relatives.

After these activities, pupils could analyse why their communication or that from the others failed (cf. Padilla 2013: 43-49). 


It is a well-known fact that a study-abroad experience is useful to become a more competent foreign language speaker. However, some studies have found out that it has a mixed effect. It improves the perception of pragmatic correctness and the production of adequate dialogues. But a stay in a foreign country fosters a development in comprehension speed. As you can see, a high language level and study-abroad experience do not lead to confident performance on all aspects of pragmatic competence. Nonetheless, they are advantageous factors that possibly lead to a higher level of comprehension (cf. Taguchi 2011: 926).



To sum up, we can say that intercultural pragmatic failures are frequent and they happen because of the different cultural background of the speakers. To avoid them, you need linguistic competence which consists of both grammatical and pragmatic competence. The role as hearer is equally important as the role of a speaker, as you have to interpret what you hear correctly. Study-abroad experience is also to some extent relevant if you want to improve your pragmatic competence in a foreign language.



Johnstone, B. (2008) Discourse Analysis, 2nd Edition. Malden: Blackwell.

Padilla Cruz, M. (2013): “Understanding and overcoming pragmatic failure in intercultural communication: From focus on speakers to focus on hearers”. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching 51:1, 23–54.

Riley, P.(2007): Language, Culture and Identitiy. London: Athenaeum Press Ltd.

Ryan, J. (2016): “Introducing referents for recognition: L2 pragmatic competence and miscommunication”. Journal of Pragmatics 97, 55-73.

Taguchi, N. (2011): “The Effect of L2 Proficiency and Study-Abroad Experience on Pragmatic Comprehension”. Language Learning 61:3, 904-939.

Thomas, J. (1983): “Cross-cultural pragmatic failure”. Applied Linguistics 4(2), 91-112.

Xu, Wei, Case, Rod. E., Wang, Y. (2008): “Pragmatic and grammatical competence, length of residence and overall L2 proficiency”. ScienceDirect, System 37, 205-216.


All pictures are taken from the image database Pixabay and released under Creative Commons CC0 allowing to adapt and use them without attributing the original author or source.



Ann Alphabet & Logophile

We are Marie and Sandra. Marie is a 25 year-old student of Applied Linguistics in the first semester. She has a BA in Linguistics from Heinrich-Heine Universität Düsseldorf. Sandra holds a bachelor's degree in Teaching German as a Foreign Language and English from Augsburg University and is a student of Applied Linguistics at the University of Bonn.

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