What is Pragmatics?

Pragmatics is an area of linguistic study that looks at the relationships among the meaning of words, the circumstances in which they are uttered and the speaker’s intentions. It also examines how speakers manage to communicate effectively in the face of ambiguous situations.

While pragmatism does not claim to have all the answers, it is able to incorporate and adapt other well-established theories of truth into its own frameworks. This is what makes it a flexible and valuable tool for researchers in their efforts to understand human language.

A pragmatist believes that it is better to take action that might produce good results, even if it may not be the absolute truth, than to wait for something perfect that might never come. This is why pragmatics is often associated with utilitarianism.

It allows us to see that language isn’t just a system of symbols but, rather, that it is also a social practice with its own rules and expectations for appropriate behaviour. It also allows us to view communication as a process that involves the dynamic interplay of various social factors, including culture and context.

Pragmatism is also a useful tool for language teaching as it provides a more holistic understanding of second-language communication. It can help teachers to understand that while grammatical structures might be the same across different cultures, idioms, pronunciation and intonation vary according to individual, cultural and social backgrounds. This awareness can provide a more accurate account of how languages are used by real people, making them more meaningful and authentic to learners.

In addition, it can also be used to counteract ill-founded stereotypes that students might hold about the communication styles of their target cultures. For example, research on cross-cultural pragmatics has disproved the commonly held belief that Japanese learners are more direct in their communicative behavior than other L2 learners. Instead, studies on requests (Blum-Kulka & House, 1989) and refusals (Beebe, Takahashi, & Uliss-Weltz, 1990) have shown that the alleged directness of the Japanese L2 is more a function of cultural values and the specific pragmatic functions of these requests than their actual linguistic abilities.

From an epistemological perspective, pragmatism is also useful in that it steers away from metaphysical debates about the nature of truth and reality, and concentrates on examining practical understandings. It can therefore be seen as a bridge between epistemological perspectives that assume knowledge and action are independent of one another and more traditional interpretivist understandings that emphasize the role of interpretation in discovering social realities (Morgan, 2014a).

However, it is important to note that pragmatism’s emphasis on evaluating ideas and beliefs based on practical outcomes can introduce a bias toward short-term results and immediate gratification and may discourage long-term investments or efforts with uncertain returns. It can also lead to a lack of guiding principles, making it difficult to address complex ethical dilemmas or establish long-term goals. For these reasons, a balanced approach is necessary in which pragmatism is combined with more foundational philosophical positions.