Pragmatics: Knowing what to say in certain situations

The Foreign Language Teaching Methods modules from the University of Texas-Austin includes a section on pragmatics – how context and situation affect meaning – which is extremely important for language students to learn, yet remains difficult to master. Learning what to say and when to say it, the appropriate use of language, varies significantly among cultures and languages and if students are not even aware of these differences, they risk offending or confusing others or misunderstanding what is said to them. Textbooks do address pragmatics, but in a limited way, such as offering possible ways to accept a compliment, agreeing/disagreeing, or sharing opinions. They do not, and probably cannot, provide all of the possible responses found in native speech.

As pragmatics encompasses all aspects of language, it is not good enough to simply know the grammar and vocabulary; students must also have the cultural knowledge to understand and respond appropriately according to social norms. However, at the beginning stages of language learning, pragmatics may have to take a back seat to basic vocabulary acquisition. If students can’t even produce a coherent sentence in the target language, they certainly won’t be able to focus on the pragmatic aspect of the utterance as well. Nevertheless, we can teach some pragmatic information to beginning students.

One example from my classes is the constant misuse of excuse me and I’m sorry by my French students. In American English, we use excuse me when we want to get someone’s attention or need to get through in a crowded space; whereas we use I’m sorry to apologize for having done something or to express sympathy for someone who has experienced something sad or disappointing. In addition, we may also say Sorry? when we don’t understand or haven’t heard something. Yet my students would constantly say “excuse me” when they had done something wrong  (such as throwing pencils across the room… and yes, I taught at a university) because excuse-moi is what they would have said in French. Then they would start with I’m sorry when they wanted to get my attention. I tried to teach them the differences between the two phrases, and in which situation they should use each, but their habit of translating literally from French into English always interfered until I specifically pointed out the context, like a mother trying to teach her child good manners: If you’re apologizing because you did something wrong, what do you say?

In a different context, this wouldn’t be funny

An example of Americans learning foreign languages is the overuse of I’m sorry in the target language. In some languages, such as French, saying I’m sorry should not be used to express sympathy. If you need to send flowers because your friend’s grandfather just died, you should definitely not write Je suis désolé on the card, because then you would be apologizing for having done something, i.e. causing the death. A standard phrase such as Veuillez accepter toutes mes condoléances would be appropriate in this situation, instead of a literal translation of Sorry for your loss or My thoughts are with you. Pardon is used to apologize for something (accidentally bumping into someone) or to ask someone to repeat what they said (compare I beg your pardon? in English) in addition to meaning excuse me when trying to get someone’s attention, just as excusez-moi is used, especially in restaurants to get the server’s attention. Excusez-moi is also found in the set phrase excusez-moi de vous déranger – sorry for bothering you – so there are several translations for I’m sorry in French depending on the context.

The Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition at the University of Minnesota has a nice site on Pragmatics and Speech Acts, including interactive units on Japanese and Spanish. I’m still looking for a site that focuses on pragmatics in French. Anybody know of any sites like this?

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Dr. Jennifer Wagner

PhD in Applied Linguistics, ESL/French teacher, author of two French books, and helping others to learn languages online at

  • JJ

    Hi, I recently took French as part of the government course for reaching my required liguistic levels. Your thoughts on pramatics in a language are indeed what is missing in teaching as well as more common teaching of idomatic expressions throughout the course…even if the student does not get it at first. The key is listening and hearing it. At the end of the course, they sent me to assess my ability to learn a language. Didn’t make much sense at the end but I went anyway. What I found was fascinating in that, my learning style is one of sound more than of structure. In class settings that can be difficult particulary if other students learn different ways and are not even aware of it.
    There is a book on language learning that I will dig up that was written by a individual who was a student of French and found that the current style of teaching was not working. She was in Ottawa and did a book signing etc, It focuses on I think, the use of idomatic expressions etc in teaching ,… I am not certain of the name or the author, but I have the book and will dig it up. I can probably send it to you since i dont use it but it might give you some thoughts etc.
    Finally thank you for the site and donations are a must for everyone to keep you doing the marvelous work your doing. I think your wonderful.

    • I’ve always found pragmatic information to be the most useful, but yet it also what is usually missing from textbooks, which is real shame for the students. If you can find that book you mentioned, I would definitely be interested in getting a copy! Thanks!

  • Zhu

    The “excuse me”/ “sorry” confused me for a really long time in English, and like you said, same goes with the French equivalent.

    It takes a while to master a language well enough to make the difference between all these little words!

    • Yeah, it confused me forever in French too! I kept saying désolée all the time and didn’t even know I should have been saying pardon or excusez-moi (since I would rarely say pardon in English, and excuse me is only for getting someone’s attention.) Ah pragmatic information, why were you not included in my textbooks??

  • Alex

    Thank you so much for this!! Pragmatics and things like how to properly say “excuse me” (e.g. on a busy street) are exactly what I wish I had learned in school. Of course, the catch-22 is that you really can’t learn that kind of thing in school, and I’m learning it now that I’m living in France (as an assistant ;)). But you did a very nice job of explaining it, and I hope that other people with my same desire to learn such things *before* going to France are able to use your tips!

    • It’s exactly that catch-22 to learning languages that I hope the internet can help overcome. I certainly would have loved to learn all of this stuff before moving to France.


    Using of pragmatics and discourse marks is really important and need some practice.
    If we want to speak as native speakers, we should take into account some important points like: pragmatics, discourse marks/transitions, and some common mistakes (to be rectified). Thanks JENNIE, we are looking forward to recommending us the site.

  • Soleil

    Wow, I’m just now realizing how many times I have sad “desolee” when I should have said “pardon” or “excuse-moi.” Huh. They must have thought I was nuts! Living proof that you are correct!

  • via

    To add to the confusion, when I lived in England I remember people using the word ‘sorry’ in situations where North Americans would say “excuse me,” such as passing someone on a crowded escalator. Even among English-speaking communities, speakers need to pay attention to pragmatics.

    • Yes! The British vs. American differences also led to more confusion for my students.

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