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4. On Comprehension as Part of Communication Pragmatic transfer and pragmatic dissonance

The final level of language that I shall deal with in this section which might be susceptible to crosslinguistic influence of transfer is the pragmatic level. Pragmatic transfer has been documented from many different areas and perspectives, both in terms of which and how different speech acts are realised but also regarding the use of politeness strategies and the perception of the interpersonal relationship in the context concerning the speech act (Jarvis & Pavlenko, 2010, pp. 107-111; Kasper, 1992). From an interlanguage perspective, pragmatic transfer is the combination of pragmalinguistic and sociopragmatic factors from L1 which influence in some way the use and understanding of pragmatic performance in L2. Based on a premise that a universal pragmatic base exists to which language users have access but may need to be reminded of the possibility to tap into these resources, Kasper (1992, p. 207) arrives at a definition of


pragmatic transfer which reads: “the influence exerted by learners’ pragmatic knowledge of languages and cultures other than L2 on their comprehension, production and learning of L2 pragmatic information”. As two different, but interconnected, aspects of pragmatic transfer, Kasper proposes the notions of pragmalinguistic transfer and sociopragmatic transfer.

Pragmalinguistic transfer refers to those aspects of pragmatic transfer which relate to (transfer of) illocutionary acts, illocutionary force, politeness and the many different linguistic means of realising politeness, i.e. “the process whereby the illocutionary force or politeness value assigned to particular linguistic material in L1 influences learners’ perception and production of form-function mapping in L2” (Kasper, 1992, p.209). Sociopragmatic transfer, on the other hand, refers to the social interactional aspects of pragmatic transfer such as for example the relationship between participants in terms of social distance, power distribution and the rights and obligations connected hereto. Sociopragmatic transfer, then, is: “when the social perceptions underlying language users’ interpretation and performance of linguistic action in L2 are influenced by their assessment of subjectively equivalent L1 contexts” (Kasper, 1992, p. 209).

In other words, language users have a universal base of pragmatic knowledge available both in terms of access to the same strategies for expressing speech act with varying force and politeness (the pragmalinguistic aspect), but also in terms of being able to assess the interpersonal and contextual factors in connection with this (the sociopragmatic aspect). When pragmatic transfer still occurs, this is due to the influence from L1 in L2 in terms of how a given context is perceived and interpreted and in terms of using specific L1 strategies in realising speech acts in L2 (Kasper, 1992). As a consequence, the role of teaching is to help L2 users or learners to gain access to the universal base of pragmatic knowledge to limit the amount of pragmatic transfer in their communication (Kasper, 1992).

As for the connection between proficiency and transfer at the pragmatic level, Li (2002) raises an interesting discussion of what the terms pragmatic dissonance, i.e. those cases in which an otherwise fully proficient (near-native speaking) foreign language user finds herself in a situation of having to realise a speech act where the pragmatic norms of the foreign language conflict with those of her mother tongue. Based on his own experiences as a native speaker of Cantonese Chinese and a near-native speaker of English (including many years living and working abroad), Li describes how he often finds himself in situations where the norms of his native Chinese conflict with those of his English, for examples in the use of terms of address, responding to


compliments, or having to express disagreement. Unlike the kind of transfer which goes on unnoticed by the speaker, he is fully aware that there are different pragmatic norms connected with the same situation, but he remains uncertain of how to handle them since following one set of norms would violate the other (Li, 2002). Though this might seem anecdotal, Li’s pragmatic dissonance would no doubt resonate with many (very proficient) language users who personally or professionally engage in communication across languages and pragmatic norms. Furthermore, it adds an interesting perspective to the discussion of transfer and proficiency. Even if (negative) crosslinguistic influence may to some extent be mitigated through an increased proficiency in L2, raised awareness of differences in pragmatic norms or a deeper L2 cultural immersion, will this help the individual language user in handling conflicting pragmatic norms between L1 and L2?

Do the pragmatic norms of the L2 take preference over those from L1? The question becomes even more relevant in the case of intercultural communication in a common language such as ELF. If a native speaker of Russian engages in communication with a native speaker of Chinese using English as their common language, which pragmatic norms should then be adhered to?

Those connected with Chinese, those with Russian or those norms linked to English as a native language?

Summing up on comprehension

The purpose of this chapter was to show how comprehension is understood in this project as an integrated part of the communication process. The communication process showed how speaker and hearer are able to meet in communication, first through the common voice of grammar, which serves as the end point of the speaker’s role in communication and marks the starting point for the hearer’s part in communication. And second, through the process of anchoring, where the hearer backtracks the journey made by the speaker to recreate in her own mind what lied before. In that sense, rather than being a linear process as the depictions in the previous sections showed, the communication process is in fact much more a circular process, explaining how and why communication works. It could be illustrated as follows, using Durst-Andersen’s (2011a) terminology and inspired by the Communicative Wheel presented in Durst-Andersen & Cobley (to appear), to appear, but both greatly simplified as well as elaborated. Simplified in its components and subcomponents and elaborated to show the full process of anchoring which leads to the intake, i.e. comprehension:


Figure 4 The communication process illustrated with special attention on the process of anchoring and intake, partly based on Durst-Andersen & Cobley’s much more elaborated Communicative Wheel (Durst-Andersen & Cobley, to appear)

The figure shows the process of naming, framing and anchoring highlighting how the process of anchoring is really a two-step process of the hearer reconstructing the steps the speaker went through in the process of naming and framing, but in the reversed order. Naturally, the journey made by the hearer will never be precisely the same as the one made by the speaker, as they take place in separate minds. However, the fact that the hearer is able to put herself in the mind of the speaker, so to speak, is what in the end makes the two meet and communication successful.

This circular view of communication as well as the emphasis on grammar as a common code and meeting point for speaker and hearer makes this approach different from for instance Sperber &

Wilson’s Relevance Theory in which communication is not (only) a matter of linguistic and grammatical encoding and decoding, but rather about intentions, i.e. the speaker’s expression of intentions and the hearer’s interpretation of the speaker’s intentions (Sperber & Wilson, 2002, 2005). Accordingly, comprehension is an inferential process “involving the construction and evaluation of a hypothesis about the communicator’s meaning on the basis of the evidence she has provided for this purpose” (Sperber & Wilson, 2002, p. 7). Communication as the expression and interpretation of intentions is based on the universal Principle of Relevance, i.e. a cost-effect balance between what they call a positive function of the cognitive benefits gained by processing it (the effect) and a negative function of the efforts required to process it (the costs) (Sperber &

Wilson, 2002, 2005).


Although Sperber & Wilson would most likely agree that certain aspects of human verbal communication are in fact linguistically and grammatically coded, their argument is that a great part of human communication is inferential, and as a consequence comprehension is not simply a matter of the hearer backtracking the journey made by the speaker, but rather the hearer making her own journey based on the evidence presented and the Principle or Relevance. In other words, the hearer will stop at the first interpretation which meets her expectations of relevance because the hearer will assume that the speaker has formulated the message in a way that the first interpretation will be the right one. There is of course always a risk that this may be the wrong interpretation, because ultimately “comprehension is a non-demonstrative inference process”, but following this process of comprehension is the best the hearer can do (Sperber & Wilson, 2002, p. 19).

Along the same lines Dipper, Black & Bryan (2005) apply Slobin’s Thinking for Speaking to the process of comprehension, arguing that comprehension is an “enrichment of skeletal linguistic meaning with other aspects of meaning to form a coherent conceptualisation” and should therefore not be viewed as simply a reversed process of production. In other words, they argue that although the starting point of comprehension is the meaning derived from the basic linguistic form, this meaning alone cannot account for comprehension, rather it must be supplemented with what they refer to as “other components of meaning derived from linguistic form”, such as the qualia structure of all words in the sentence and the pragmatic meaning of the sentence frame, and components of pragmatic or conceptual meaning, which include situation, interpersonal and contextual factors. Their point here is that this process of enrichment is guided by pragmatic principles, such as for instance Sperber & Wilson’s Principle of Relevance, so that what ends up forming the full comprehension are other components of semantic, pragmatic and conceptual meaning all guided by the Principle of Relevance (Dipper, Black & Bryan, 2005). Based on research within aphasia and the relationship between production and comprehension which shows that comprehension was not affected as much as production by language impairment, Dipper, Black & Bryan (2005) conclude, amongst other things, that comprehension cannot simply be a reversed process of production as the linguistic meaning of an utterance is just one amongst many sources of meaning to guide comprehension and that for some utterances the main source of meaning or guide to meaning will be pragmatic rather than linguistic.


Although some part of comprehension will no doubt be inferential and thereby greatly influenced by various contextual factors, this should not necessarily exclude looking at the role of the linguistic element in comprehension. As Dipper, Black & Bryan (2005) also state, the linguistic meaning is still a valuable source of input to meaning comprehension, and the evidence that Sperber & Wilson argue provide the basis for making an inferential comprehension may also be at least to some extent linguistic or grounded in the linguistic form, as a meeting point for speaker and hearer. An important point of the view of comprehension laid out in this chapter is exactly that it highlights how speaker and hearer meet through language not once but twice. The first time when the speaker delivers the utterance after the process of naming and framing, i.e. when the speaker’s output is left for the hearer to convert into intake. We might call this meeting point for the physical meeting point. Comprehension at this point is being able to read (or hear in a spoken context) the words, but also to understand their basic semantic content as well as the (syntactical) relationship between the words. In other words, the levels of understanding that Deterding (2013), through Smith’s (1992) terminology, calls intelligibility and comprehensibility, i.e. the recognition of words and the understanding of the meaning of words, respectively.

The second time speaker and hearer meet is once the hearer has created her intake of the utterance by mentally recreating the journey made by the speaker, but in reversed order, i.e. unwrapped first the stage of framing and then the stage of naming. We might call this the mental meeting point.

Comprehension at this point is much more detailed or nuanced than at the first point and involves understanding the different indexes that the utterance carries, i.e. understanding which situation in reality the utterance relates to, how the utterance is a symptom of the speaker’s experience of this and what information the utterance signals. We could compare this to the level of understanding which Deterding (2013), again in Smith’s (1992) terminology calls the level of interpretability, or the understanding of the meaning behind words. This second meeting is possible because the process of comprehension to some extent is a reversal of the process of production, at least in our mother tongue. What happens to comprehension and the communication process in a foreign language is a question left unanswered. In other words, comprehension is layered and the full understanding of an utterance involves comprehending both layers, i.e.

reaching both meeting points.

If we consider the connection between mind and body encompassed by the understanding of words as image-idea pairs deeply anchored in our body through the process of acquiring our


mother tongue, then it seems only reasonable to argue that even the meaning encompassed by linguistic form is so much more than simply the prototypical semantic content. And if we combine this with the understanding of comprehension as the hearer’s mental recreation of the speaker’s journey, we might understand at least to some extent why language may be such a powerful tool for communication, at least in our mother tongue. The question still remains what happens to comprehension in a foreign but common language. My aim with this project is to be able to shed some light on this.