Monday, August 15, 2016

Offers they CAN Refuse

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland

“How about lunch next week?”
“Are you interested in attending the training on Friday morning?”
“Are you free to get together tomorrow for coffee?”
“I’m having a party Saturday night at my house. Can you come?”

As an ESL instructor in North America, one of my most fervent hopes is that my students develop a social life that includes hanging out with other American students. I know from experience that cultivating relationships with proficient speakers is a great way to acquire language. When I lived in Russia many (many, many) years ago, it was my desire to communicate with my Russian friends that motivated me to navigate the complexities of Russian grammar, not the grades I received in in my language classes.

The Problem with Making Plans

However, making plans with proficient English speakers can be a process fraught with invisible pitfalls. As I described in previous blogs (The Art of Yes, But … and Can I Please Borrow your Car?), language learners not only need to know the grammar of the language they are using, they also need to know about the unconscious linguistic maneuvers speakers make when they are doing something in that language.

These language contortions are super tricky for our students because they are different from culture to culture. For instance, how I might turn down one of the above requests in English and how our OPT worker, Yutaro, might do it in Japanese would be completely different. According to Takahashi and Beebe (1984) Japanese speakers are less likely than American speakers to use expressions of regret with lower status interlocutors, their excuses are less specific, and their refusals often sound quite formal to an American ear. The other thing that makes this all difficult for our learners is that we almost never think consciously about how we use language to accomplish tasks like refusing an invitation. We just do it.

The Feeling of the Message

You might be wondering, as I did when I first started reading research associated with pragmatics, “Well, what difference does it make if someone refuses an invitation in English while following the politeness “rules” of their first language. We’ll all still understand the person, right?” And, the answer to that question is that we will technically understand the words he/she says, but the feeling behind the message may be lost. “If a person commits a linguistic error, he[/she] is just perceived as less proficient in the language. If he[/she] makes a pragmatic mistake, however, he[/she] might appear as rude, disrespectful or impolite.” (Wannaruk, 2008, p. 319) Yikes!

For example, if I were Yutaro’s Japanese employee and I were to invite him to my house for a party, he might say something in Japanese that roughly translates to, “I can’t go. I have to spend time with my family. Please let me know next time you have a party.” On the other hand, if my supervisor invited me to a barbecue at her house, I would say something like, “Oh, that sounds great! The party is this Saturday? Argh! I have to go to my husband’s stupid work thing, so I can’t make it. Rats!” While, on the surface, the refusals look similar, the American refusal is different in that the reason is more specific; it turns out that reasons are really important in English refusals (Takahashi & Beebe,1987 and Wannaruk, 2008). Incidentally, when I asked Yutaro about what he would say in this case, he said that in Japan, if his supervisor invited him to a social event, he wouldn’t be able to say no at all.

Teaching English Refusals

The elements of an American refusal are pretty standard, and a little subconscious alarm is triggered when a refusal doesn’t contain them. We generally include:

1. an expression of positive opinion, such as “I would love to”
2. an expression of regret
3. an excuse

According to the experts, speech acts, like refusing an invitation, need to be taught explicitly. Even years after living in the target language, students “will have difficulty in acquiring appropriate language use patterns” (Kasper & Schmidt, 1996, p. 160). It’s important to draw students’ attention to the elements of a refusal by providing them with samples of refusals and having them identify what is happening in each part. As well, it’s helpful to teach students formulaic language, like “I would love to” and “Oh, it sounds wonderful” and “I am so sorry that I can’t make it.” Teachers can follow up by having students watch refusal videos that are available all over the internet (just search “ESL refusal”) and discuss the language and strategies they see. Finally, it can be fun to have students create dialogues in response to a variety of scenarios, for instance: “a classmate invites you for coffee after the class” or “your supervisor asks you to attend a workshop on Saturday.” TESOL Press has a GREAT book, Pragmatics: Teaching Speech Acts, that contains photocopiable activities and materials for teaching refusals, as well as plenty of other speech acts, in case you would rather not reinvent the wheel.

If you are teaching in an EFL context, pragmatics may not be for you. After all, if a Thai engineer is learning English so she can communicate with a German factory owner, American politeness may not be high on her list of priorities. However, it may be for someone who plans on working or studying in a native English speaking context. We all just need to know our students well enough to make the determination of whether or not teaching something like refusing an invitation is a valuable way to spend out class time.

Kasper, G. and Schmidt, R. (1987) Developmental issues in interlanguage pragmatics. SSLA, 18, 149-169.
Takahashi, T. and Beebe, L. (1987) The development of pragmatic competence by Japanese Learners of English. JALT Journal, 8(2), 131-153.
Wannaruk, A. (2008) Pragmatic transfer in Thai EFL refusals. Regional Language Center Journal, 39(3), 318-337.


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August 25, 2016 at 12:37 pm

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Comment from Sue Alexander
August 27, 2016 at 1:01 am

Really enjoying this blog!

Comment from Tamara Jones
August 29, 2016 at 11:17 am

I am so glad you are finding it interesting!

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February 1, 2017 at 4:30 pm

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