I’ve been a teacher in English classrooms long enough to know what some students really mean when the say ‘communicating is the most important thing’. This can be rephrased in the lines of ‘As long as I can make myself understood, I do not have to worry about grammar or vocabulary subtleties’, or, worse still, they intend to say: ‘If I can communicate at least the basic, that will be enough’. But how far is this really desirable?

Well, this is language used in its most rudimentary form. Students who do not break through the intermediate level barrier will not be able to get across subtle meanings because they would need grammar and vocabulary resources they have not achieved, and therefore tend to ignore them solemnly. They have got accustomed to getting by on barely enough. Naturally, they will have to make do with their elementary command of the language, and in many cases these learners will succeed in expressing themselves well enough to get things done, at least partially.

However, communication is a rather delicate process. A single word may ruin the success of the whole interaction. It is very common for learners to rely on a limited number of words to try to express what they need to convey, but this can often lead to misunderstandings. Read, for example, what the following study says in this respect:


Although in some cases pragmatic failure lacks serious consequences, and, on the contrary, results in rather funny and anecdotal misunderstandings, in other cases it has more dramatic repercussions by causing misunderstandings that  may result in puzzlement, surprise, astonishment, frustration, embarrassment or anger. In extreme cases, it may even produce interactive conflict, cultural friction, communication breakdown, unfair and unjustified attribution of personality traits with subsequent labelling and stereotypes, or contribute to the perpetuation of discrimination as a consequence of very different interactive norms across speech communities.


Taken from CRUZ, M. Padilha. In ‘Understanding and overcoming pragmatic failure in intercultural communication: from focus on speakers to focus on hearers’.


When foreign language users lack resources, they may use words (or expressions) that carry negative connotations, without being able to rephrase them more appropriately. One of the aspects that can be analyzed is the use of directness when we want to require things from our listeners. Directness is a thorny issue, varying from language to language. A dreadful mistake is when foreign language speakers transfer pragmatic characteristics from their mother tongue to the native speaker’s language.

It is very common, for example, for Brazilians to demand something very directly, like this:


            Lend me your pencil, please!


Ok, you have a ‘please’ at the end of the sentence, but still this makes it awkward. If this sentence were directed at a native speaker, it could possibly be deemed rather rude. Now let’s look at other ways more advanced learners could express the same idea:


* Could you lend me your pencil, please?

* I wonder if you could lend me your pencil

* I was wondering whether you could lend me your pencil?

* Would you be so kind as to lend me your pencil?

* Would you be kind enough to lend me your pencil?


If all you can say to make this request is as we’ve shown in the aforementioned example “Lend me your pencil”, you may get the pencil you need, but the hearer may feel you were impolite, and will probably have more negative feelings towards you. That is to say, you may ‘get want you need, but not want you want’ (not only do you want the pencil, but you also want to feel you are a confident user of the language and that the way you interact with people is successful enough to establish fruitful interactions that go beyond conversation).

Notice that we are not talking here about the application of grammar in itself. We are talking about the use of more complex language structures to convey subtle meanings that demonstrate you can use language successfully enough to show politeness and respect to the interlocutor. It is not a grammar query such as discussing whether you should use “I” or “me” (that is, the subject or the object pronoun) in comparative structures, as in “He is taller than I/me”. Choosing either of these forms ( I or me) will not result in pragmatic failure, because it has no connection whatsoever with the pragmatic dimension of language use. It is not a trivial question, quite the contrary, it is vital for the interactive success.

Successful foreign language speakers want to go beyond the use of words, they want to convey meanings in appropriate ways so they can feel part of a language community. So, the next time you think about demanding something from your listener, watch out the words and grammar structures you use. Always remember to take the listener’s perspectives into account too, after all we do not want to be misunderstood, do we?


Suggested reading

teaching and learning pragmatics where language and culture meet




Refresher Vocabulary & Grammar Tests For Advanced Proficiency Exams with Answers by Ricardo Madureira, Disal Editora.

For supplementary exercises (free of charge) (units 11 – 15), from my book “Refresher Vocabulary and Grammar tests…”, please go to: , click on ARTIGOS and then download the file.