On Congratulating, Thanking, and Apologizing in Jordanian Arabic and American English

Rula Fahmi Bataineh

Jordan University - Jordan

Abstract

A mounting body of evidence suggests that despite the existence of shared underlying elements, politeness is realized differently across cultures. This study examines the politeness strategies used by 50 Jordanian native speakers of Arabic and 50 American native speakers of English. A 9-item Discourse-Completion Task was used to collect the data for the purpose of identifying potential similarities and differences in the use of (and response to) politeness strategies between Jordanian speakers of Arabic and American speakers of English. The two sample groups were found to employ similar politeness strategies with varying frequencies and realizations.

Keywords: American English, apologies, congratulations, cross-cultural variation, Jordanian Arabic, politeness strategies, thanks


Introduction and Theoretical Background

Over the past few decades, an extensive body of research has been done on (cross)linguistic politeness (Al-Issa, 2003; Blum-Kulka, House & Kasper, 1989; Blum-Kulka & Olshtain, 1984; Boxer, 1993; Brown & Levinson, 1978, 1987; Chen, 1993; Coulmas, 1981; Davies, 1987; Herbert, 1986, 1989, 1990; Hobbs, 2003; Holmes, 1988a, 1988b; House & Kasper, 1981; Ishihara, 2003a, 2003b; Ji, 2000; Kasper, 1990, 1995; Leech, 1983; Lorenzo-Dus, 2001; Márquez-Reiter, 2000; Nelson, Carson, Al Batal & El Bakary, 2002, to mention a few). This literature suggests cross-cultural differences in speech-act performance among different speech communities.

Similarly, a good body of research has been done on Arabic politeness, which, to the best of this researcher's knowledge, started with Ferguson's work on Syrian Arabic (1967, 1976, and 1983). Later research was done on Moroccan Arabic (Davies, 1987), Egyptian Arabic (El-Sayed, 1990; El-Shazly, 1993; Farghal, 1996; Nelson & El-Bakary, 1993; Soliman, 2003), Iraqi Arabic (Al-Nasser, 1993), Saudi Arabian Arabic (Al-Ammar, 2000; Al-Shalawi, 1997; Al-Tayib Umar, 2004; Hassanain, 1994), Omani Arabic (Emery, 2000), and Jordanian Arabic (Bataineh, 2001; Bataineh & Bataineh, 2005, 2006, 20o8; Jarbou, 2002).

Austin (1962) laid the principles of Speech Act Theory which postulates that many utterances, dubbed speech acts, do not only communicate information but also perform actions. Later on, providing a theoretical framework within which the dimensions of utterance, meaning and action involved in speech acts are seen as one unit, Searle (1969) claimed that all speech acts are meaningful, rule-governed, and executed through illocutionary force, the knowledge of which is part of one’s linguistic competence. It was not until later that Brown and Levinson (1978) introduced the notion of indirect speech acts, claiming that most speech acts are indirect although some address the hearer directly.

Despite the lack of consensus on a definition, the term politeness has been conceptualized as ‘conflict avoidance’ (Brown & Levinson, 1987; Lakoff, 1975; Leech, 1983, 1999; Marquez-Reiter, 2000); as 'highly conventionalized pre-patterned expressions whose occurrence is tied to more or less standardized communication situations' (Coulmas, 1981); as ‘consideration for others’ feelings as to how they should be treated in interactions’ (Brown, 2001; Hill, Ide, Ikuta, Kawasaki & Ogino, 1986; Ide, 1991; Sifianou, 1992); as ‘behavior which promotes smooth communication between interlocutors’ (Ide, 1989, 1993; Usami, 2002); as ‘appropriate’ or ‘adequate’ behavior according to social norms (Meier, 1995a, 1995b; Sifianou, 1992); as 'strategic conflict-avoidance' (Eelen, 2001); and as 'strategic construction of cooperative social interaction' (Watts, 2003).

In this study, congratulations are seen as an acknowledgment of the achievement or good fortune of another, whereas thanks are expressions of gratitude. An apology is an expression of regret or seeking forgiveness for an offense.

Politeness has been known to be relatively difficult to learn because it involves the ability to understand both the language and the social and cultural values of its speech community. Fluent English as a foreign/second language (ESL/EFL) learners, who show mastery of English grammar and vocabulary, may not be able to produce socially and culturally appropriate language. For successful communication, these learners need be not only linguistically competent but also pragmatically so (Bachman, 1990; Blum- Kulka & Olshtain, 1984).

Whether or not politeness strategies are essentially the same across languages has been extensively researched. However, this matter is highly controversial, for while some researchers (e.g., Gordon & Lakoff, 1975) claim that speakers of divergent languages use essentially universal formulas, others (e.g., Cohen, 1996; Ellis, 1994; Kasper & Blum-Kulka, 1993; Kasper & Rose, 1999) claim that differences and similarities exist between native speakers and non-native language learners.

The majority of politeness research since the republication of Brown and Levinson’s theory in 1987 is essentially within that theory which has constituted the preferred framework for empirical speech act research in various languages, cultures, and cross-cultural settings. Cross-cultural research (e.g., Blum-Kulka & Olshtain, 1984; Gumperz & Tannen, 1979) revealed that different cultures have different rules of appropriateness. Politeness strategies, and their verbal expression, are present in all human speech communities, but they are governed by the socio-cultural values of these communities. Owing to factors like the social organization of the community and the structural make-up of its language, it is quite rare to find languages that share formulas with identical content, function, distribution, and frequency of occurrence.

Similar to Crystal's (1987) claims about the use of the word please in European languages, Arabs do not use the words please and sorry as often as native speakers of English. An Arab EFL learner who would follow Arabic politeness norms may seem impolite to an English speaker who may also sound over-solicitous, insincere or sarcastic when speaking Arabic.

Purpose and Significance of the Study

In this study, the researcher expands on the language-/culture-specific research through investigating the strategies used to offer congratulations, thanks, and apologies by Jordanian native speakers of Arabic (henceforth, JNSs) and American native speakers of English (henceforth, ANSs). This study aims to contribute to the literature on intercultural pragmatics and to provide insights to researchers, practitioners and learners of English and Arabic.

It is worth noting that this study does not focus only on the initial use of politeness formulas but also on the responses to these formulas. More specifically, the study attempts to answer the following questions:

  1. What are the strategies used by JNSs to express and respond to congratulations, thanks, and apologies?
  2. What are the strategies used by ANSs to express and respond to congratulations, thanks, and apologies?
  3. What are the potential similarities/differences in strategy use between JNSs and ANSs?

The main contribution of this study lies in its scope. Previous studies on politeness were most often concerned with one or two aspects of a speech act (e.g., Ishihara (2003a, 2003b) on compliments). This study uses nine scenarios which elicit the use and response to congratulations, thanks, and apologies. The present concern with both the initial formula and its response, coupled with the variety of situations in the Discourse completion task (DCT), adds to the strength of the conclusions drawn from the research, for other studies (e.g., Chen, 1993; Liang & Jing, 2005) have investigated as few as four situations.

Method, Instrument, Sample, and Data Collection and Analysis

This study aims to investigate the politeness strategies used by JNSs of Arabic and ANSs of English. The instrument used for this study is a nine-item two-version DCT[1] to which the participants provided potentially appropriate formulas and responses. Both versions of the DCT have identical content and format but differ in the language used. To avoid language-induced difficulties, the DCT was translated into Arabic prior to its administration to the Jordanian respondents.

Except for a few suggestions which were all taken into account, a jury of three professors of teaching English as a foreign language, two of curriculum and Instruction, and one of measurement and evaluation judged the DCT as appropriate for the purposes of the study. Due to the inaccessibility of more ANSs in Jordan, only the Arabic version of the DCT was piloted on a sample of 25 Jordanian students (excluded from main sample). Using Chronbach's alpha, the reliability coefficient was found to be 0.889.

Each of the nine situations of the DCT calls for the use of a politeness formula: three (situations 1, 2, and 3) involve congratulating, three (4, 5, and 6) involve thanking and three (7, 8, and 9) involve apologizing. The participants were also expected to respond to each formula.

The DCT was then distributed to fifty JNSs and fifty ANSs. This researcher would have preferred a larger sample but, unfortunately, was not able to ensure access to more ANSs. The respondents were tediously located through a combination of word of mouth and numerous calls on the American Embassy in Amman. This inaccessibility of American respondents has, in turn, dictated the number of JNSs. In order to avoid considerable variation in the background of the respondents in the two groups, and to insure the comparability and consistency of the results, the researcher limited her sample to American and Jordanian male and female students between 18 and 25 and professionals over the age of thirty.

Fifty copies of the Arabic version of the DCT were distributed to the JNSs who were divided into students from undergraduate programs in the Faculty of Science and Arts in two Jordanian universities, administrative personnel who were either high school graduates or holders of a two-year college Diploma in administrative sciences, and academic personnel who had Master's or Doctoral degrees in arts, education and administrative sciences. The respondents' age ranged between 19 and 25 for the students, 26 and 34 for the administrative personnel, and 31 and 54 for the academic personnel. The JNSs were predominantly Moslem with only two Christian respondents.

Similarly, fifty copies of the English version of the DCT were distributed to the ANSs, all of whom were reportedly Christian with age ranges between 21 and 23 for the students, all American college students on an exchange program at one of the two universities from which the JNSs were drawn, 36 and 53 for the administrative personnel, 41 for the one university professor representing academic personnel, and 44 and 53 for diplomatic personnel. Table 1 shows the distribution of the sample in terms of nationality, gender and occupation.

Table 1: Sample Demographics

Total

American

Jordanian

                            Nationality

Occupation    

American

Jordanian

Female

Male

Female

Male

22

25

12

10

12

13

Student

20

5

11

9

5

0

Administrative personnel

1

20

1

0

6

14

Academic personnel

7

0

3

4

0

0

Diplomat

50

50

27

23

23

27

Total

Both versions of the DCT were then collected and their content analyzed in terms of the types of strategies found in the subsample’s responses to each of the nine scenarios. Percentages were calculated to identify potential similarities and/or differences in the strategies used by each group.

Findings

The respondents gave a total of 1800 responses which were further categorized into the five super strategies of acknowledging, rejecting/denigrating, ignoring, acknowledgingand mitigating, and accepting and retuning. Each super strategy was, in turn, divided into sub-strategies which amounted to 14 strategies: thanking, expressing joy, noticing and attending, agreeing, reassuring, using metaphors, nonuse of a formula, ignoring, showing humility/begging for forgiveness, begging for forgiveness and explaining, rejecting/dismissing, thanking and returning, and thanking and assuring. The researcher first discusses the strategies used by each group in both solicits and responses and then discusses potential similarities and differences between the two groups.

Of the five super strategies, acknowledging was the most and accepting and returning the least used by either group. However, the order of the other super-strategies differed with percentages of 15% and 12.3% for ignoring, 9.2% and 21.4% for acknowledging and mitigating, and 7.6% and 13.6% for rejecting and denigrating by JNSs and ANSs, respectively, as shown in Tables 2-6 below.

Table 2: Frequency of the JNSs’ and ANS’s acknowledging strategies

 

JNSs

ANSs

Super Strategy

Strategy

Solicits

Responses

Total

Solicits

Responses

Total

n

%

n

%

n

%

n

%

n

%

n

%

Acknowledging

Thanking

1o9

24.2

0

0

109

12.1

44

9.8

106

23.6

150

16.7

Thanking & explaining

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

17

3.8

17

1.9

Expressing Joy

99

22.0

0

0

99

11.0

121

26.9

6

1.3

127

14.1

Noticing and Attending

79

17.6

0

0

79

8.8

4

0.9

0

0

4

0.4

Agreeing

0

0

225

19.1

225

9.6

0

0

42

9.3

42

4.7

Reassuring

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

14

3.1

14

1.6

Using Metaphors

5

1.1

47

10.4

52

5.8

0

0

1

o.2

1

0.1

Subtotal

292

64.9

272

60.4

564

62.7

169

37.6

186

41.3

355

39.4

Super Strategy I: Acknowledging

Congratulating, thanking, and apologizing are all expressive acts (Searle, 1969) because, in uttering them, one expresses one’s feelings. They are all types of acknowledgements, which may readily explain why this super strategy of acknowledging has had the highest frequency of occurrence in the utterances of both JNSs and ANSs. Both sample groups acknowledged through the use of the strategies of thanking, expressing joy, noticing and attending, agreeing, and using metaphors, as detailed below.

Thanking

JNSs responded to formulas of congratulations with an expression of gratitude. These formulas either took the form of a simpleشكرا (šukran (Thank you)) or an elaborate prayer in which God is appealed to to preserve or bestow health or more worldly goods on the interlocutor, as in the example

الله يسلمك (‘allah ysalmak (May God preserve you!))

In congratulating a friend on his engagement and either parent on the birth of a baby (in situations 1, 2, and 3), most ANSs thanked the speaker using a simple thank you.

Expressing Joy at the Interlocutor's Accomplishments, Good Luck or Recently Acquired Goods/Possessions

In situations 2 and 3 (where congratulations are offered to the parents of a new-born baby), JNSs offered utterances such as

يتربى/تتربى بعزك (t/yitraba bcizzak (May he/she live in your good care!))

The paternal build-up of the society is evident in the kind of good wish directed at each parent. No one will risk saying this utterance to the mother, for the father is the provider even if the mother, too, works outside the home.

ANSs often offered simple congratulations in response to situations 1, 2, and 3 (in congratulating a friend on his engagement and either parent on the birth of a baby).

Noticing and Attending to the Interlocutor's Presence, Interests, Needs, or Achievements

In situations 2 and 3 (where congratulations are offered to the parents of a new-born baby), the utterance below was given.

الصلاة على النبي، مبروك ما جاكو (Assalaatu :cannabi! mabru:k ma ja:ku (Prayers be upon the Prophet! May what you have got be blessed!)

In situations 2 and 9 (congratulating a mother on the birth of a baby and apologizing for being late for an appointment), ANSs gave responses such as

I know I’ve been a jerk. Hope you are not too disappointed.

Agreeing

In responding to the formulas given in situation 6 (responding to a request to allow passage in a crowded corridor), 94% of the respondents agreed with the speaker with formulas like the one below. The remaining 6% silently allowed the speaker through.

ولا يهمك (wala yhimmak (It’s all right!))

In situation 2 (a mother’s response to being congratulated on the birth of her baby), a good number of ANSs gave responses such as:

She is adorable, isn’t she?

Using Metaphors

Few JNSs initiated or acknowledged certain formulas by means of metaphor. This especially marked responses to situations 6 and 7 (Thanking one's brother for switching on the light and responding to a host's apologies for the inadequacy of a meal with 1.1% and 10.4%, respectively), as in the following example:

نورك يكفي (nu:rak yekfi (Your light is enough!))

In response to situation 7 (in which a host indicates his/her feeling that the meal is not good enough for the guests), an ANS responded with:

You’re a prince among men!

Two items on the DCT were only responded to by the American native speakers, namely, thanking and explaining and reassuring.

Thanking and Explaining

In situation 3 (a father’s response to being congratulated on the birth of his new baby), ANSs gave responses such as:

Thank you [and I’d talk about baby and wife].

Reassuring

In situation 7 (in response to one’s apologies for the inadequacy of a meal), some ANSs gave responses such as

At least the effort was there, not to worry.

Super Strategy II: Ignoring

In their responses to the DCT, JNSs reported non-use of a formula while ANSs reported both non-use of a formula and ignoring, as discussed below.

Table 3: Frequency of the JNSs’ and ANS’s ignoring strategies

 

JNSs

ANSs

Super Strategy

Strategy

Solicits

Responses

Total

Solicits

Responses

Total

n

%

n

%

n

%

n

%

n

%

n

%

Ignoring

 Nonuse of  a Formula

32

7.1

103

22.9

135

15.0

22

4.9

51

11.3

73

8.1

Ignoring

0

0

0

0

0

0

8

1.8

30

6.7

38

4.2

Subtotal

32

7.1

103

22.9

135

15.0

30

6.7

81

18.0

111

12.3

Non-Use of a Formula

JNSs sometimes chose not to mitigate with a formula. For example, in situations 5 and 6 (where one thanks a waiter for cleaning up and one thanks one's brother for turning on the light in a poorly lit room), some respondents chose to offer no formula. However, this should not be misunderstood as impolite because a formula is often replaced by other indications such as a smile, a nod, or some facial expressions.

Meanwhile, ANSs opted for ignoring by either not using a formula or ignoring the person/offense altogether. For example, insituation 8 (apologizing for accidentally pumping into someone), ANSs apologized by means of an apologetic smile or responses such as

[I’d/He’d look at him/me (neither angrily nor really acknowledging me) and keep on doing whatever it is he/I was doing.]

Super Strategy III: Acknowledging and Mitigating

Apologies were found to fall under this category, as shown below.

Table 4: Frequency of the JNSs’ and ANS’s acknowledging and mitigating strategies

 

JNSs

ANSs

Super Strategy

Strategy

Solicits

Responses

Total

Solicits

Responses

Total

n

%

n

%

n

%

n

%

n

%

n

%

Acknowledging  & Mitigating

Showing Humility/Begging for Forgiveness

79

17.6

4

o.9

83

9.2

143

31.8

39

8.7

182

20.21

Begging for Forgiveness and Explaining

0

0

0

0

0

0

11

2.4

0

0

11

1.2

Subtotal

79

17.6

4

o.9

83

9.2

154

34.2

39

8.7

193

21.4

Showing Humility/Begging for Forgiveness

JNSs showed humility or begged for forgiveness in situations 7, 8, and 9 (where a host apologizes for the inadequacy of a meal, one apologizes for accidentally bumping into a passer-by, and one apologizes for being late to an appointment with a friend, respectively), as shown below.

مقصرين (mqassri:n (We are leaving much to be desired!))
عفوا(:cafwan (Excuse me!))
آسف على التأخير (‘a:sif :cala-l-ta’ki:r (Sorry for being late!))

Notice how super strategy IV is invariably used in response.

ANSs acknowledged and mitigated using the strategies of showing humility/begging for forgiveness and begging for forgiveness and explaining, as shown below.

Showing Humility/Begging for Forgiveness

In situation 7 (in which a host expresses feelings that the meal is inadequate for his/her guests), a good number of ANSs gave responses, which, albeit non-formulaic, show inadequacy, as in

Sorry! I tried a new recipe.

Begging for Forgiveness and Explaining

In situation 9 (upon being late for an appointment), ANSs gave responses such as the following:

Sorry! I overslept.

Super Strategy IV: Rejecting and Denigrating

This strategy is used to maximize the other person’s face, especially in response to apologies and thanks. This super strategy was realized through rejecting/dismissing, as shown below.

Table 5: Frequency of the JNSs’ and ANS’s rejecting and denigrating strategies

 

JNSs

ANSs

Super Strategy

Strategy

Solicits

Responses

Total

Solicits

Responses

Total

n

%

n

%

n

%

n

%

n

%

n

%

Rejecting & Denigrating

Rejecting/Dismissing

47

10.4

21

4.7

68

7.6

46

10.2

76

16.9

122

13.6

Subtotal

47

10.4

21

4.7

68

7.6

46

10.2

76

16.9

122

13.6

In response to the formulas used in situation 1 (where the guests attempt to denigrate the host’s feeling of the inadequacy of a meal). JNSs showed a positive value- judgment on the host without discrediting the statement itself.

سلامة خيرك (sala:mit kérak (May what God blessed you with be safe!))

Also note how the example underestimates the value of the meal itself by stating that his/her lack of intent to dine at the host’s which was rather incidental.

احنا مش جايين نجربكم (ihna miš ja:yi:n njarribkum (We are not here to try/test you!))

Similarly, a few ANSs used rejecting/dismissing in situation 7 (in response to a host’s apologies for the inadequacy of a meal) as follows:

Oh, no. Everything was fine.

Super Strategy V: Accepting and Returning

Table 6: Frequency of the JNSs’ and ANS’s accepting and returning strategies

 

JNSs

ANSs

Super Strategy

Strategy

Solicits

Responses

Total

Solicits

Responses

Total

n

%

n

%

n

%

n

%

n

%

n

%

 

Thanking & Returning

0

0

5o

11.1

50

5.6

51

11.3

43

9.6

94

10.4

Accepting & Returning

Thanking & Reassuring

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

25

5.6

25

2.8

Subtotal

0

0

5o

11.1

50

5.6

51

11.3

68

15.1

119

13.2

Thanking and Returning

JNSs often showed gratitude by an echo-response of the interlocutor’s good wishes, as shown in example 11:

الله يسلمك (‘allah ysalmak (May God preserve you!))

ANSs, on the other hand, exhibited this super strategy through the strategies of thanking and returning and thanking and reassuring.

Thanking and Returning

In situation 7 (in response to a host’s apologies for the inadequacy of a meal), ANSs gave responses such as the following:

Thank you! We’re sorry to have inconvenienced you.

Thanking and Reassuring

In response to situation 7 (in which a host apologizes for the inadequacy of a meal), an ANS wrote

[I’d thank him/her and pick up at least one item I liked and praise it].

Discussion, Conclusions and Pedagogical Implications

It is imperative to note the recurrent appeal to God in JNSs responses. Religion influences interactions in Arabic, and expressions with religious content signify politeness in almost all social contexts. Expressions with religious content are used to greet, invite, agree, disagree, apologize, blame, or promise, which is consistent with Davies’s (1987: 82) report of a proliferation of religious formulas in Arabic in contrast to their relative dearth in English.

Furthermore, unlike their American counterparts, JNSs were divided into two distinct groups with respect to their use of religious reference in politeness formulas. Offering a prayer or appealing to God was one of the most powerful strategies used among JNSs so much so that a good number of the formulas were either a prayer themselves or preceded or followed by one. While all ANSs and some JNSs showed gratitude by a simple thank you, other JNSs accomplished the same by appealing to God for the upkeep of the person who has provided the service, as shown in the examples below

شكرا (šukran (Thank you.))
يعطيك العافية (yacti:k-l-caafiyeh (May God give you health.))

The two sample groups used the same five super strategies. However, even though acknowledging was the most and accepting and returning the least used by either group, the order of the other super-strategies differed with percentages of 15% and 12.3% for ignoring, 9.2% and 21.4% for acknowledging and mitigating, and 7.6% and 13.6% for rejecting and denigrating by JNSs and ANSs, respectively.

Although the JNSs used the super strategy of acknowledging more frequently than ANSs (62.7% and 39.4%, respectively), more strategies were used by ANSs. This is evident in the absence of thanking and explaining and reassuring from the JNSs’ responses. Both groups used thanking, expressing joy, noticing and attending, agreeing, and using metaphors (12.1%, 11%, 8.8%, 9.6% and 5.8% by JNSs, and 16.7%, 14.1%, 0.4%, 4.7% and 0.1% by ANSs, respectively).

ANSs’ tendency to use more diverse strategies than the JNSs was evident in the use of all super strategies except rejecting and denigrating under which both sample groups used the strategy of rejecting/dismissing. JNSs only used nine strategies, namely thanking, expressing joy, noticing and attending, agreeing, using metaphors, nonuse of a formula, showing humility/begging for forgiveness, rejecting/ dismissing, and thanking and returning, whereas ANSs used 14 strategies adding thanking and explaining, reassuring, begging for forgiveness and explaining, ignoring, and thanking and reassuring.

The two sample groups were found to use the same types of strategies, albeit to varying degrees, to achieve their interactive goals. With two such divergent cultures, this phenomenon serves as another piece of evidence for the notion of cultural/linguistic universality. Regardless of their cultural/linguistic background, interlocutors seem to always opt to keep interaction friction-free, show goodwill, and secure the cooperation of the other.

Nevertheless, much cultural specificity exists in the strategic repertoire of people with different cultural/ linguistic backgrounds. Form is one of the most obvious areas of this specificity, for it is not at all uncommon for a culture to attach to a formula a meaning which is often different from, or even opposite to, its surface meaning. An Arabic formula likeخلص عمره (kilis cumruh (That is the end of his life.)) may strike a non-Arabic speaker as odd or even offensive; however, it is just one of a stock of formulas of condolence. One who is alien to the cultural connotation of such formula would feel offended at the remark unless he/she learns to receive it in the sympathetic spirit in which it was uttered, for this, among others, is a special strategic form which is learned just as another aspect of the culture.

Transferring from the native culture, language learners have no way of guessing the potential similarities/differences between the native and target cultures. Possible case scenarios are when (1) a native speaker is not aware of the language learner's lack of socio-cultural knowledge (Blum-Kulka, 1997), (2) both the learner and native speaker are not aware of the extent of the variation between the two cultures (Hinkel, 2001), and (3) the native speaker encounters (and reacts to) unacceptable behavior (against the norms of the target but not the native culture). Blum-Kulka (1997:57)warns that pragmatic failure "carries the risk of being attributed to flaws of personality or ethno-cultural origins and may carry grave social implications".

There is empirical evidence that language learners differ from native speakers in both understanding and production of speech acts (Bardovi-Harlig, 2001). She reports that, in advising sessions, language learners produce more rejections and fewer suggestions than their native counterparts. She (2001: 29) claims that

the empirical evidence shows that learners who have received no specific instruction in L2 pragmatics have noticeably different L2 pragmatic systems than native speakers of the L2. This is true for both production and comprehension.

In the study of politeness, that research has been mainly based on either intuitive situations or text perspectives (e.g., Gregory & Carroll, 1978; Held, 1992) may have been behind the recent popularity of empirical methods. For example, Held (1992:136) argues that, along with the speech act theory, the ethno-methodological approach seems to "guarantee the greatest success in researching politeness".

With the prevalence of communicative language teaching, teachers are no longer merely satisfied with the learners' production of grammatically correct language but rather expect them to use language appropriately according to its norms of usage. While Hinkel (2001) argues that textbooks do not potentially account for sociocultural variables, Pavlenko and Lantolf (2000) argue that traditional models of second language acquisition account for the way we acquire lexical, phonological and grammatical units of knowledge. They suggest that the traditional model be supplemented by another in which language learners develop communicative skills which enable them to engage with contextual and cultural communication. Pavlenko and Lantolf's view is consistent with that of Widdowson (1990:102) who claims that

understanding what people mean by what they say is not the same as understanding the linguistic expressions they use in saying it… Every linguistic expression contains the potential for a multiplicity of meanings and which one is realized on a particular occasion is determined by nonlinguistic factors of context.

Research on first language acquisition shows that politeness formulas are one of the few language components parents train their children to use. This researcher believes that, by extension, a great responsibility falls on language teachers to train their students or at least acquaint them with these formulas to ensure linguistic and social command of the language.

However, in their attempt to produce polite non-native speakers, language teachers have not managed to go beyond teaching formulaic expressions, which is far less than what politeness involves. Gregory and Carroll (1978) acknowledge the difficulty of teaching students to be truly polite in artificial classroom settings because politeness entails acquiring a feel for the language as well as for the people who speak it. Linguistic competence alone is no longer enough for learners to be effective speakers of a language but should rather be backed by communicative competence. Language learners need be made aware that what is appropriate in one language may be entirely inappropriate in another. By contrast, if a language learner who attempts to interact with native speakers is met with coldness, indifference, or even aggression, his/her successful communication may be affected and, thus, his/her chances to learn the language would be considerably reduced.

Although research (e.g., Ellis, 1994) shows that pragmatic competence is rudimentary for creating communicatively competent language learners, a notable body of research (Al-Ammar, 2000; Bardovi-Harlig, 2001; Boxer & Pickering, 1995; Kasper, 1999; Sharifian, 2004) shows that grammatically proficient learners do not necessarily possess comparable pragmatic competence. Even those may use language inappropriately and deviate from target-language pragmatic norms, which may often cause them to appear awkward, rude, or even uncultured.

Bardovi-Harlig (2001:25) claims that textbooks are often an unreliable source of pragmatic input for classroom language learners, which is consistent with earlier claims by Carter (1998) who reports that the types of two-part exchange found in textbooks may be considered odd or rude by native speakers of English, as shown below.

A) (Walks up to B in the street) What time is it?
B) It’s just gone six.
(A: Silence; walks away).

The current study is believed to have a number of important theoretical and pedagogical implications. Along with the findings of other investigations of Arabic politeness (e.g., Al-Ammar, 2000; Bataineh & Bataineh, 2006; Farghal, 1996), it provides salient data on similarities and differences between JNSs and ANSs. The researcher cites cases where the two languages show total, partial, or no equivalence, which is often problematic for the language learner. She argues that language learners' awareness of the existence of a difference in form, usage, and/or response may stimulate more appropriate use of target language, most probably through avoiding transfer and literal translation which may otherwise make them misunderstood or misjudged as impolite, odd, or insincere.

Suggestions have been put forth regarding a need for some kind of curriculum, one that explicitly addresses and illustrates the similarities/differences between languages, to alleviate much of the inconvenience and misunderstanding between learners and native speakers of a language at both the receptive and productive levels.

A case in point is reported by Sharifian (2004) in which an Iranian student thanks her American instructor for writing her a good recommendation letter by saying "I'm ashamed." Bewildered by her response, her instructor asks, "What have you done?!!!" A Jordanian student in the same position would have thanked her instructor by saying “you embarrass me” as an indication that what he/she wrote about her is more than she deserves, which is perfectly understandable if the interlocutor were a Jordanian. Such instances of intercultural miscommunication result from the use of what seems like an apology to show gratitude. What these students do is simply translate a speech act from their respective languages into the target language, which may result in pragmatic failure that, unlike grammatical errors, either escapes teachers' attention or is understood as rudeness.

Several scholars (e.g., Kasper, 1997; Kondo, 2001; Olshtain & Cohen, 1990; Rose & Kasper, 2001; Tateyama, 2001; Tateyama, Kasper, Mui, Tay & Thananart, 1997) claim that many pragmatic features can be taught. Kasper (1997:2) wrote

the most compelling evidence that instruction in pragmatics is necessary comes from learners whose L2 proficiency is advanced and whose unsuccessful pragmatic performance is not likely to be the result of cultural resistance or disidentification strategies.

Along the same line, there are claims that although both implicit and explicit instruction assists learning, the latter seems more effective (Bardovi-Harlig, Hartfold, Mahan-Taylor, Morgan & Reynolds, 1991; House, 1996; Judd, 1999). Research on the effect of instruction on pragmatic development suggests that instruction benefits pragmatic development, both in production and comprehension (Bardovi-Harlig & Mahan-Taylor, 2003; House, 1996; Kasper, 1997, 2001; Rose & Kasper, 2001; Schmidt, 1993; Siegal, 1996). Bardovi-Harlig and Mahan-Taylor (2003:3) claim that

[p]ragmatics can be integrated into the English-language curriculum at the earliest levels: There is no reason to wait to introduce learners to the pragmatics of a second language. In fact, the imbalance between grammatical and pragmatic development may be ameliorated by early attention to pragmatics in instruction.

Until recently, foreign language education in Jordan has been mainly concerned with grammatical competence. However, with the advent of communicative language teaching, there is a paradigm shift in which language functions take center stage and gradually replace grammar as one of the main objectives of language learning. Pedagogically, the current findings support previous recommendations that language teachers raise student awareness of the cultural differences between the native and target languages through classroom activities that involve speech act realization in different situations.

Limitations and Suggestions for Future Research

Despite some valuable empirical findings that reveal both similarities and differences between JNSs and ANSs, this research has a few limitations, foremost among which is that no attempt was made to control the demographic background of the subjects. A convenient sample of ANSs was selected and later matched by a sample of JNSs. The fact that only three speech acts were investigated may add another limitation. Further research is, therefore, needed to see if these similarities and differences hold true between in other speech act realization patterns such as greetings, compliments, and condolences. Furthermore, the effect of variables such as age, power, status, familiarity and gender may offer fertile ground for further investigation.

The relative inaccessibility of many ANSs in Jordan, where the study was conducted, has posed an additional limitation. Although the two sample groups were comparable in number, they were more diverse in terms of age, occupation, educational background, and gender.

The researcher has further limited herself to the verbal aspects of politeness. Non-linguistic, paralinguistic, and kinetic manifestations of politeness have not been examined but can be addressed in later research.

Although the present findings are limited to one variety of Arabic and English (viz., Jordanian Arabic and American English), they should prove helpful in doing future research on other varieties. There is a dire need for further research in other varieties of Arabic which are, to the best of this researcher's knowledge, understudied and in need of further investigation.

Although there exists a plethora of research on pragmatic performance, there is a dearth of research on interlanguage pragmatic development (Kasper, 1999; Kasper & Rose, 1999). Schmidt (1993: 21) claims that "there has been little discussion of how pragmatic abilities are acquired in a second language". Similarly, research on Arab EFL learners’ interlanguage pragmatic development lags farther behind, which may also constitute an area of further research.

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About the Author

Dr. Rula Fahmi Bataineh is an assistant professor at the Department of English for Applied Studies at Jordan University of Science and Technology in Irbid, Jordan. She has a Ph.D in Rhetoric and Linguistics from Indiana University of Pennsylvania (U.S.A). She has published on pragmatics, sociolinguistics, TEFL and translation studies in local and international journal.

Author’s Address

Dr. Rula F. Bataineh
Dept of English for Applied Studies
Jordan University of Science and Technology POBox 3030
Irbid 22110, Jordan
E-mail: rula@just.edu.jo



[1] For a copy of the DCT, contact the author at rula@just.edu.jo