Volume 3 ~ November 2011
ISSN # 2150-5772 – This article is the intellectual property of the authors and CIT. If you wish to use this article in your teaching or in another format, please credit the authors and the CIT International Journal of Interpreter Education.
Annette Sachtleben andHeather Denny
Auckland University of Technology,
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For interpreters, the principle of equivalence of sense is vital. To follow this principle, the interpreter
needs to understand the Speaker or Signer’s (S) intention in order to provide
an equivalence of effect for the Hearer (H) (Pöchhacker, 2004 p.
144). Thus understanding the pragmatic force of an utterance is just as
important as understanding the lexical meaning, and interpreters need to develop
pragmatic competence as part of their skill set. Crystal (1985) defines
pragmatics as “the study of a language from the point of view of users,
especially in the choices they make, the constraints they encounter in using
language in social interaction and the effects their use of language has on
other participants in the act of communication” (p. 240).
As Yates (2007)
clarifies, “Because in different languages and cultures, equivalent words may
have different impact, there is a danger that we may innocently transfer a
construction from our first language into the use of our second although it may
not have the same effect” (p. 22). Thomas (1983) puts it more bluntly: “While
grammatical error may reveal a speaker to be a less than proficient language
user, pragmatic failure reflects badly on him/her as a person” (p. 97). Therefore,
it follows that the interpreter—in his or her incorrectly interpreting a
message—who is not proficient in passing on the pragmatic message of S may
cause H to infer something quite different from that which S intended.
However, the best method of raising
pragmatic awareness remains unclear when training interpreters in the
classroom. Excellent texts describing pragmatics (Blum-Kulka, House, &
Kasper, 1989; Grundy, 2008; Yule, 1996) sometimes are too theoretical for
interpreters in training. Student interpreters need practical examples linking
theory to the interpreting tasks that await them. Wadensjö (1998), although not using the
term pragmatics, refers to the contextual effect
on meaning while discussing interpreting practice in a way that every
interpreting student can understand. Lecercle (1999) writes in great detail
using complex examples that, perhaps, are better suited to those practicing
interpreters who have an academic education than to novice interpreters.
Pragmatic competence can be divided into
two areas: illocutionary competence and sociolinguistic competence. Illocutionary
competence is the awareness of a variety of
language functions and intentional ways of expressing them, such as the choice
of softening words such as “just” and “perhaps” in a request. Sociolinguistic
competence can be further subdivided into
sensitivity toward dialectal variety, register and naturalness as well as the
ability to understand and use cultural references and figures of speech
(Bachman, 1990). Pragmalinguistics—that is, the
study of the relationship between language items and the purpose and effect
they have in a specific context (Leech, 1983) also needs to be part of the
Thus, although sociolinguistic competence
and pragmalinguistics are of great importance to interpreters, interpreting educators
typically find that these areas often are very difficult to teach explicitly
when dealing with interpreting students’ second (B) language. For the effective
teaching of pragmatics, actual authentic discourse samples are needed for
classroom analysis in order for interpreters to (a) initially recognize
pragmatic effect and (b) identify the actual pragmatic features used (Napier,
2006; Denny, 2008).
Methodology, research questions, and data collection
teaching-research project uses the Action Research (AR) paradigm (Jennings & Graham, 1996; Winter, 1989), which allows for
insider perspectives and potentially makes possible the adjustment of aims
during the investigation. Thus, the research was co-conducted by Sachtleben as
a teacher–practitioner and by Denny as a researcher–practitioner. As Dick
(2000) states, “Action research provides enough flexibility to allow fuzzy
beginnings while progressing towards appropriate endings”. This research study
was a pilot for further work on the teaching of pragmatics, and AR allows for
the development of a new hypothesis or the retesting of results arrived at in a
pilot study. Researchers have successfully used AR for the evaluation of
educational programmes (Jennings & Graham, 1996; Winter, 1989). In
recommending AR, Dick also claims that the interpretation of data is often
richer in instances where there is researcher involvement. He advises that to
avoid any perception of conflict of interest, collaborative research is
advisable; this allows for moderation of data analysis and critique of research
In this project, having two people working
together enabled the coding of items to be moderated, thus ensuring consistency
and accuracy. In AR, the use of multiple sources of evidence ensures its
trustworthiness (Dick, 2000). Triangulation was achieved by drawing on data
from student blogs, a journal written weekly by the teacher–practitioner, and
two participant surveys that were administered at two time points: during Week
8 of the 12-week semester and 6 months after the end of the semester.
In this study, the authors sought to
answer the following three research questions:
evidence is there of development in the learners’ awareness of the pragmatic
norms targeted in instruction?
evidence is there that this awareness extends to cross-cultural awareness of
evidence is there that the learners make use of this awareness of the pragmatic
features targeted in instruction in their own interactions, both inside and
outside the classroom?
Fourteen of the 29 interpreting
students at Auckland University of Technology in Auckland, New Zealand, agreed
to participate in the research. There were three main sources of the data, one
of which was the students’ blogs, which were reflective and explorative in nature. These data
were collated, coded for any pragmatic features noticed, and matched to the
weekly lesson input to note changes and development in the participants’
understanding of pragmatic awareness. Additional data came from the two surveys,
which explicitly asked the participants for comment on their perceived changes
in their understanding of pragmatics in New Zealand English conversation. The
final and triangulating data source was the teacher’s weekly log, in which
she commented on class content and dynamics, individual student comments,
technical matters, classroom management, and teaching methodology. The teacher
knew the students quite well by the end of the semester and could identify who
had been in New Zealand for only a short time and who was in employment where
English was spoken. The teacher could then suggest reasons to contextualize and
complement the participant data. Dick (2000) confirms that “Differences between
data sources, used critically, can then lead the researchers and the
participants towards a deeper and more accurate understanding”.
The researchers analyzed the four blogs that each learner wrote by
coding for evidence of learners’ noticing language and paralinguistic features
used for pragmatic effect. It is interesting to note that once students became
aware of pragmatic features, they were able to notice and include others in
their reflections. Although initially, the authors coded only for those pragmatic
features that were introduced in the classroom, as more pragmatic features were
noted in the blogs, these were added to the coding. For example, classroom-introduced
features included hesitators, softeners, exaggeration, and repeated words, whereas
additional themes that emerged from the learner’s blogs included silence,
in-group language, and humour. Example 1 illustrates an example from a blog,
with coding noted in parentheses.
Example from blog
“Should I tell?”
please. It’s Friday. And it’s already 3 o’clock. So, please…”
I have been in
New Zealand for almost 5 years, so I now know why this student mentioned Friday
afternoon: Most Kiwis are laid back and start drinking on Friday afternoon.
(Analysis of cultural difference). However, if I am new to here, I will not
know why he mentioned it, because it does not matter if it is Friday or not in
Japan. This student perhaps understood the lecturer’s implication and wanted to
indicate his understanding by giving a straightforward opinion without silence.
(Silence or lack of silence). He might expect the other students would laugh so
he could put them in a good mood. In addition, the tone of his voice was
cheeky, and it made us laugh too. (Use of humor).
The content of individual blogs differed
considerably. Sometimes, the learner showed clearly explicit understanding,
whereas at other times, a pragmatic feature was simply noticed. For example, an
unexpected reaction to what had been said was reflected on, and a reason was
posited. The reflective comments in the blogs very often referred to
cross-cultural or cross-language differences. Oftentimes, a parallel situation
would be explained in the context of the first-language culture to highlight a
reflective blog posted by the students set the baseline for measuring further
development of pragmatic and cultural awareness. The baseline consisted of the
number of students showing awareness of these features in Blog 1. This number was compared to the number of students who noticed the
same features in the second, third, and fourth setof blogs.
lists the features used for pragmatic effect, which were identified and coded
for, having been noticed and referred to in the interpreting
students’ reflective blogs.
Example 2: List
- Exaggeration or understatement for effect
- Repeated words
- Irony or sarcasm
- Reference to the use of intonation or stress
- Register between participants/use of in-group
- Paralinguistic features/nonverbal language
- Identification of a speech act
- Reference to politeness norms
- Use of discourse makers
- Silence or lack of silence
- Use of humor
The two participant surveys
specifically asked about the students’ perceptions of their pragmatic
understanding. One of these survey questions was explicitly related to
interpreter training (see Appendix).
Resources: Semi-authentic discourse samples
In this study,
the authors trialled the use of a new resource to provide recorded naturalistic discourse samples for
classroom analysis so that students could explicitly recognize pragmatic
features in context. It was anticipated that a resource such as this, which can
provide repeated listening, would be an effective basis for
pragmalinguistic study. Authentic language samples can be analyzed and
discussed. However, fully authentic samples—which include the many
irregularities and imperfections of actual spoken discourse—can be difficult to
record. Permission needs to be sought, the appropriate recording equipment
needs to be on hand, and there may be interference from background noise, which
interferes with recognition of subtle features. Thus, the authors used semi-authentic
language samples tomeet that need. For semi-authentic recordings, native
speakers or expert speakers are told the context of a conversation and are asked to simulate the
conversation in a role play. Thus, spontaneously generated language occurs,
containing all the nuances of interpersonal discourse, and it can be recorded
under studio conditions.
semi-authentic recordings of
different face-threatening acts (Brown & Levinson, 1987) were made: (a) a
complaint about a late report, (b) an offer of help that was misunderstood and
then repaired, and (c) criticism in a meeting that required steps for conflict
avoidance. University colleagues familiar with the aims of teaching
pragmatics as part of language learning were used as
actors for the
recordings. First, each actor received a description of
the part to play a few days before the recording session and was entrusted to
deliver it appropriately. No actor saw what part the other interlocutor had to
play, nor were there any rehearsals or discussion prior to the recording being
made, in order to retain the sense of spontaneous interaction. The final
outcome of the actors’ interaction was not known in advance but was left to
resolve itself. An example of such a role-play description can be seen in
3: Example of role-play description
A. Role: Colleague (male). Scenario: Clarification and Repair.
You see [that] your colleague has a
A. Role: Colleague (male). Scenario: Clarification and Repair.
You see [that] your colleague has a
B. Role: Colleague (female). Scenario: Clarification and Repair.
You are a highly experienced and competent
The three recordings that resulted
were between 5 and 6.5 minutes in length. Because one actor did not know what another
would say, the ensuing dialogues were spontaneous and had the authentic
qualities of stopping and restarting as well as using pauses, repeated words,
and a number of filler words (e.g., “well”). In addition, because the exchanges
were problematic, the actors used the appropriate pragmatic devices naturally
to convey the underlying meaning. This was found to be helpful at the initial
teaching stage. More subtle nuances of intonation combined with stressed words
became clear with repeated listening.
The recordings were in digital format,
meaning that they could be loaded onto the online platform used at the
university for student self study as well as played in class through the
computer and ceiling speakers. This digital format ensured that each student
could hear equally well regardless of where he or she was seated. The computer
program that was used allowed the teacher total control of stopping, starting, and
replaying single phrases. This was especially efficient when particular phrases
were being discussed and analyzed by the class.
The interpreting class: Students,
content, and parameters
The class for this
research project consisted of 29 students (27 female, two male), of whom only
one had been born in New Zealand and had English as her mother tongue. Many of
the students had come to New Zealand as children, whereas others had come
within recent years. Three students had been in New Zealand for only 3 weeks
when the class began. There were 12 mother tongues: Mandarin, Cantonese,
Korean, Japanese, Hungarian, Russian, Macedonian, French, Urdu, Hindi, Tongan,
and English. Three of the students were already working as interpreters,
including in the courts. Most of the students had been employed in various jobs,
and some continued to work part time while they studied part time. Only the
three recent arrivals from Mainland China had never been employed at all. This
rich diversity led to productive classroom discussions and deep intercultural
The course titled “Oral Discourse for
Interpreting” was compulsory for first-year students in the Bachelor of Arts
(BA) in Interpreting program. The content that was covered included pragmatics,
English phonology and pronunciation, and some basic interpreting techniques such
as shadowing, as well as idioms and common text types. The course length was 12
instruction weeks, with a 2-hour class each week and a 1-hour computer
laboratory practice session. Further practice materials were available online
for self study.
The use of the semi-authentic
discourse samples was the backbone of the teaching of pragmatics. Because each
discourse sample lasted approximately 5 minutes, not one was analyzed in its
entirety in a single class. Before playing the recording, the teacher explained
the context. Then, she played the sample three times without comment. Specific
questions to students about general content elicited details about meaning. At
the next stage, more detailed questions about the pragmatic impact were asked.
Confident students usually responded first. In addition to the listening and
aural analyses of the discourse samples, there followed focused written tasks
associated with the text; these tasks required identification of certain
features—for example, the pragmatic purpose of repeating a word, or the use of
a softener. These written tasks could be done individually, with a peer, or in
a small group.
In addition to this work, there was
explicit teaching of a range of pragmatic features, which were identified in
the listening and analysis class work. Each student was referred to an online
glossary of pragmatic terms and features. In the class content, the instructor
aimed to introduce the most common pragmatic features first, such as intonation
and stress, hesitators, or softeners. Only three pragmatic features were taught
per class, although more features were often referred to as they were embedded
in the discourse sample. The reason for this was in part because, according to
Scarino (2009), pragmatic awareness is a developmental process that needs time.
She also referred to the fact that students need to capture their own
“participation in communication, understood as the interchange of meaning, and
their reflective analysis of what is at play, in particular instances of
communication across cultures” (Scarino, 2009, p. 68).
metalanguage for class discussion was being learned, easier samples were
discussed. When students used their own terminology, this was accepted, and
then the typical pragmatic term was introduced and clarified. Sometimes, there
was disagreement among the students regarding the pragmatic meaning of an
utterance. The disputed phrase would be discussed, thus clarifying the context,
exploring the relationship between S and H, and trying some variation in the
intonation and prominence or stress. However, the instructor pointed out that
sometimes, a speaker may actually demonstrate ambivalence because, as Leech (1997)
reminds us, “It is often in the speaker’s interest, and
in the interests of politeness, to allow the precise force of a speech act to
remain unclear” (p. 99).
All of the discourse samples had been
listened to and analyzed within 8 weeks. Every 2 weeks, the students wrote a
reflective blog—four blogs in all. First, they transcribed a short conversation
or part of a conversation in which they had participated or observed. Then,
they were asked to analyze it for any pragmatic meaning and pinpoint the
various pragmatic features that were present. Next, they were asked to compare
the words used with their first-language lexical equivalent, and then with the
sense equivalent. Finally, they were asked how the differences would affect
interpreting the conversation into their mother tongue. The task guidelines
were as follows:
was the pragmatic meaning shown? (Sarcasm/ exaggeration/ softeners/ hedging/
understatement/ sentence stress & intonation/ other)
the equivalent words when interpreted into your LOTE carry the same pragmatic
meaning? What does this mean to you as an interpreter?
Results and discussion
Critical reflection of the results of the teaching
activities and cross-referencing of the different data sets lead us to make
conclusions about the effectiveness of this teaching approach. Analysis of the data
from the reflective blogs showed an increase in the number of students showing
awareness of all the pragmatic features. The survey data provided evidence that
the learners did make
use of their awareness of the pragmatic features targeted in instruction in
their own interactions both inside and outside the classroom. Although there
may have been an element of “pleasing the teacher” in these survey responses,
earlier data from the blogs detailing the development of awareness could not
have been contrived because identification of features was not possible without
awareness. The blog data are shown in Figure 1, and the development of
awareness that was extrapolated from the blog data is detailed in section 4.1.
Blog Data Analysis
The most noticeable
increase in student awareness of pragmatic meaning during the period of
instruction was in the area of stress and intonation. This was due to the
classroom input, as this area was referred to in the first class and
consistently thereafter. It was a new concept for many of the interpreting
students who had learned English as a Second Language, and thus, it had added
impact. Additionally, in this class, some time was also spent on developing
clear and fluent English pronunciation, so stress and intonation carried a
double learning load.
awareness was a matter of high interest to all of the students, and an increase
in conscious awareness of cross-cultural differences was the next most notable
change in their reflective notes. We also noted a considerable rise in student
awareness of pragmatic impact in the area of hesitators. This feature was
introduced early in the curriculum and was prominent in the discourse samples
being analyzed. Hesitators, although common in English interpersonal
communication, are often not “noticed” by interpreters, who may focus on the
message rather than on an interruption in the smooth delivery of the message.
As it became clear that hesitators also carried sociopragmatic meaning, these
interpreters in training were able to adjust to the pragmatic meaning of an
The pragmatic meaning of softeners and
silence (or its lack) in English also featured strongly in students’ changing
awareness of pragmatic features. Softeners are a noticeable feature of New
Zealand (NZ) English interpersonal communication. They are often used in the
workplace environment to provide a more egalitarian discourse, as equal status
is a cultural ideal if not a reality. Silence, on the other hand, is seen as
socially inappropriate in NZ English; thus, it is typically avoided. To ensure
that a speaker’s turn is not interrupted, hesitators or repeated words are
often used (Holmes, 2001).
Awareness of in-group language also had 30%
growth. It had limited occurrence in the discourse samples used but occurred
often in the language samples chosen by the students for their blog analyses. In-group
language is commonly a feature of informal language or of closed groups, both
of which are reflected in student conversation. This feature was introduced
later in the class curriculum but had high interest for the students.
Politeness strategies of NZ English became
easier to recognize when the purpose of softeners and the aim of egalitarianism
in workplace requests became familiar. In their later blogs, students recognized
and reflected on politeness strategies, particularly in a cross-cultural
context, as they came to understand the use of stress to highlight desired lack
of imposition or to define a task.
Figure 1: Growth of awareness of pragmatic features and cultural difference, using the first blog as the baseline
Paralinguistic features—for example, a
sigh, a short laugh, or an expressive “ahh” were specifically introduced in the
classroom after the second blog posting was written. However, this area showed
considerable growth, as it proved to be an area of salience in the discourse
samples and of high interest to 30 percent of the students. Discourse markers and speech acts that
were introduced halfway through the course were not noticed much by students
and were, perhaps, too theoretical to engage the students’ interest. Occasionally,
in the blogs, there were unsolicited comments about the class content that
affirmed this approach to teaching pragmatics to interpreters. Two such
comments can be seen in Example 4.
Example 4: Examples of students’ unsolicited
This tells me: as an interpreter, when we try to
interpret something for people, we not only need to listen carefully what it
has been pronounced, but should also be aware of cultural background of the
speakers during the conversation. And it is very important for the interpreter
to take the context of the conversation into account when we interpret for
other people. (Mandarin 2, blog 2)
As an interpreter, especially legal interpreter, it has been very useful to
learn about pragmatics because legal interpreter is the voice of the
non-English speaker on courts and s/he should render a complete and accurate
version of the Source Language message by conserving every single element of
information including every pragmatic feature like sarcasm, exaggeration,
softeners, hesitation, hedging, sentence stress and intonation. An equivalent
message which keeps the same meaning, implied meaning, language
level and register is critical to the outcome of the
case. Any change from source language to target language
can affect the credibility of [the] witness. (Mandarin 11, blog 4)
Survey data analysis and student comments
The survey questions (as
seen in Appendix) focused on the students’ perception of their understanding
and increased understanding of pragmatic features. Fourteen of the 29
interpreting students had agreed to participate in the research. All of their responses were positive
and affirming. One student responded to the survey question by writing the
If I do not take this paper [subject], I will not
think about the implied meaning or why a joke is funny . . . Now when I talk to
someone in English I always think what this person is trying to tell me and
what he/she wants from me.
gave examples of their interpreting into the target language to show the
pragmatic purpose of an utterance since their learning about the impact of
pragmatics on meaning. A Cantonese speaker commented that in English, among
young teenagers, the phrase “I’ll call you later” meant an invitation refusal.
Thus, she would interpret it into the equivalent “I’m not coming.” Conversely,
the phrase “You have a dragon knife in your hand” would be interpreted into
English as “How can I refuse your request?” as the source-language statement
implied social powerlessness on the speaker’s part.
many comments from students on how much better the social expectations of New
Zealanders were understood and how politeness was often shown using softeners
in NZ English.
I believe, learning about pragmatics has been very
useful in participating in English conversations, because, as I notice things I
understand things better than before. As an interpreter I have also started to
analyse whether the pragmatic feature would be used the same way in my LOTE [language
other than English] and if not, then what would be the alternative, and the
reflective journals have helped me develop the habit of noticing the pragmatic
features in English as well as my LOTE which is Urdu. Overall, I believe
learning about pragmatics is highly useful for interpreters, as it helps you
understand things better, as pragmatics provides an in depth explanation of
every word we use in our sentences and shows when to say what, why we have said
it and how to say it. (Urdu
1, survey 1)
Only one respondent answered that she
had not noticed growth in her awareness of pragmatics in NZ English, but she
ascribed this to the fact she has lived in New Zealand since she was 4 years
old and, thus, had grown up with the cultural understanding of NZ English
after the semester had ended, 86% of the survey respondents reported that they still
consistently noticed the pragmatic content in NZ English conversation; the
remaining 14% responded that this happened only when they were interpreting. Eighty-six
percent also reported that their awareness of cross-cultural differences had
increased as a result of the classroom work and that their cross-cultural
awareness was continuing to develop. One respondent wrote “I’ve also started
thinking about what [other] 2nd language English speakers might misconstrue.”
Generally, there was acceptance that pragmatic features were present in most NZ
English conversations that they listened to or participated in. The responses
affirmed the usefulness of the class content and the effectiveness of this
teaching method for developing pragmatic awareness among interpreters.
The results illustrate that using the naturalistic semi-authentic
discourse samples in the classroom led the students to an explicit awareness of
pragmatic features being used in NZ English conversation. Of particular benefit
was the classroom analysis which focussed on word stress and intonation. These
features were then consciously analyzed by the students in their reflective
blogs. The data from the blogs also showed how much the students had learned to
listen for and identify implied meaning, politeness strategies, and the purpose
of speech acts. Interpreters often disregard hesitators and repeated words
because these individuals are listening for the actual message, which they then
interpret. Thus, the growth in awareness of the pragmatic purpose of hesitators
and repeated words in conversation may lead to a more sensitive message in the target
language when these students begin to work as interpreters.
there was evidence of considerable growth of awareness of cross-cultural
differences and their means of expression. Although teaching pragmatics may be
difficult, it is of great importance to interpreters. A Mandarin speaker summed
it up: “[P]ragmatics to understanding the source language is like water to
number of participants in this single class is small, these results cannot be
generalized. However, with the wealth of qualitative data, similar results may
be obtained in other teaching contexts. In continuing research into teaching
the pragmatics of NZ English to learners of English in New Zealand, it is hoped
that these results will be confirmed. Other interpreter educators and
researchers may consider implementing this approach in teaching interpreters of
spoken and signed language about pragmatic features of spoken language. The
authors are considering future research with colleagues in the Faculty of
Health, into the teaching of awareness of the use of pragmatics in medical
discourse between professionals and patients. Another area for future research
into the teaching of pragmatics to student interpreters could focus
specifically on legal discourse.
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for Interpreting: Assessment 1—Reflective Journal
the first 8 weeks of the semester, you will keep a fortnightly journal of your
growing awareness and understanding of the pragmatic content of English
conversations based on the conversations that we study in classand those that you
participate in or listen to. You will also comment on the differences between
the pragmatic content of equivalent situations in your Language Other Than
English (LOTE). Each entry will be approximately 400 words and will include
examples that you have analysed pragmatically.
To assist you with your journal writing for
the first three entries, think of a conversation you recently heard or took
part in and then try to answer the following questions:
Who were the participants in the
conversation? (friends or strangers or classmates)
Where was the conversation taking
What did the participants want from
each other? (friendship/help/a good time/sympathy/other)
How was the pragmatic meaning shown?
(body language/ sarcasm/ exaggeration/ softeners/ hedging/ understatement/ sentence
stress and intonation/ other)
Would the equivalent words when
interpreted into your LOTE carry the same pragmatic meaning? What does this
mean to you as an interpreter?
Week 8: Final journal entry survey. Please answer these additional
Did the pragmatic features we study in
class help your understanding of spoken interaction?
How useful were the classroom examples
and learning materials?
Do you feel you understand more about
pragmatics than at the beginning of semester? Please comment.
Has learning about pragmatics been
useful for you as a participant in English conversations, and as an
Survey 6 months later—trigger questions:
Do you still notice the pragmatic content
in English conversation . . .
a. All the time? ? b. Only when interpreting? ? c.
Occasionally? ? d. Not at all?
Do you think you can now understand
and respond more automatically to pragmatic content when taking part in English
conversations? If yes, please give examples.
Have the features you studied in class
been part of the everyday conversations you have heard or participated in
during the last 6 months? If yes, please give examples.