Developing Pragmatic Competence in Vietnamese Learners of English Ho Thi...
Developing Pragmatic Competence in
Vietnamese Learners of English
Ho Thi My Hau, M.Ed.
Why the lack of sociolinguistic knowledge is a problem, and what
might be done about it.
Learning a language means more than knowing linguis-
Although English as a foreign language has been
tic features such as the rules of grammar or the vocabu-
taught in Vietnam for some years, sociolinguistics has
lary system. We must also know how to use a language
not been introduced until recently. Some teachers are
in its social and communicative contexts. Even with a
aware of the important role sociolinguistic features play
high level of language proficiency and goodwill, one
in teaching a foreign language. However, many others
cannot project a good image of oneself when lacking
are accustomed to the old way, and do not appreciate
the ability to perform these language functions appro-
the fact that social competence should be part of stu-
priately. Failing to take this into account, foreign lan-
dents’ training, alongside linguistic competence. That
guage learners may create misunderstandings which are
is one of the reasons why Vietnamese learners of
beyond their control. The mistaken messages they send
English who are quite good at grammar and vocabulary
or receive lead not only to breakdowns in communica-
cannot communicate effectively with speakers of the
tion, but also to bad effects within social relationships.
target language.
When they commit such mistakes, learners are consid-
In a study based on class-visit reports and question-
ered as lacking in pragmatic competence. As Thomas
naires filled out by Vietnamese teachers of English at
points out:“While grammatical error may reveal a speak-
high schools in central Vietnam, Tran points out that
er to be a less than proficient language-user, pragmatic
91.8% of teachers did not refer to situational contexts
failure reflects badly on him/her as a person.” This
when teaching. In addition, 72.7% of examples of pre-
common problem can also be seen in Vietnamese
sented vocabulary and structures were context-free,
learners of English.
with the focus on form rather than function.
The biggest problem Vietnamese learners of English
Another factor, according to Tran, is teaching mate-
have is their limited ability to communicate effectively
rials. Ninety-nine percent of teachers completing the
with native speakers despite their good command of lin-
questionnaire stated that current textbooks have only
guistic knowledge. Although they may have spent a long
implicit explanations or no explanations of sociolin-
time studying English and done very well on exams, they
guistic aspects of English. There was a time when
still have great difficulty making themselves understood
mechanical drills filled textbooks as a way to provide
or interpreting properly what is said to them. What they
students with opportunities to practice. Then new text-
need is not only to know about English but also to know
books following the communicative approach were
how to use English properly. The purpose of this article
Some were written by native English
is to investigate the reasons why Vietnamese learners
authors; others were designed by Vietnamese writers.
lack this ability, in order to find out feasible solutions.
The former have not really succeeded in assisting stu-
dents with their social competence because they are
Reasons for the Lack of Pragmatic
not designed for Vietnamese learners; the latter, on the
other hand, seem not to be helpful because they lack
satisfactory descriptions of sociolinguistic features of
Of all the factors behind inadequate pragmatic com-
the target culture. Tran gives the following example
petence in Vietnamese learners of English, the way in
from the book English 6, written by Vietnamese authors
which English is introduced and distinctive cultural dif-
for the sixth form of secondary schools in Vietnam. This
ferences are the main reasons for the problem.
is a dialogue between two English schoolgirls during
the first day at the playground (Cao, Nguyen, Hoang, and
Teacher’s Edition
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Tran, 1986, Unit 12):
of the great differences in language, non-verbal routines,
and cultural values between Vietnamese and Australians,
Daisy: There’s a new boy in my class.
her Vietnamese learners feel uncomfortable and often
Mary: What’s his name?
avoid communicating with native speakers. She notices
Daisy: His name’s Jim.
that Vietnamese learners often lack the confidence to
Mary: How old is he, Daisy?
begin and maintain a conversation. The differences can
Daisy: He’s eleven.
be clearly seen in such areas as topics of conversations,
Mary: How many pupils are there in your class?
degrees of directness, different assumptions about roles,
Daisy: There are thirty.
and different practices in using language functions.
Mary: How many boys and how many girls?
According to Le, due to an unclear distinction
Daisy: Six boys and twenty-four girls.
between “personal” and “non-personal” concepts in
Mary: Oh, there are many girls in your class.
Vietnamese culture, Vietnamese people may create mis-
Tran points out here that Vietnamese learners may
understandings in cross-cultural conversations with
believe that asking the age of a person, which is very
Westerners. While inquiring about one’s personal life is
common in Vietnam, is also common practice in English.
considered close and friendly among Vietnamese peo-
From the study, it can be concluded that in Vietnam
ple, it is inappropriate with native English speakers who
sociolinguistic features are not paid sufficient attention
may find such behavior impolite.
to in either teaching or curricula.
Since virtually
The degree of directness in Vietnamese culture also
their only input comes from teachers and textbooks,
differs greatly from that in English-speaking cultures.
students thus have little chance to be exposed to the
The use of indirectness in expressing disagreement is a
target culture.
Vietnamese cultural feature that could cause misunder-
In terms of assessment, examinations and tests are
standing. Except in a close relationship, disagreement is
not designed to assess learners’ communicative compe-
avoided as much as possible. To Vietnamese, directness
tence. University entrance examinations mostly lack
is not appropriate because it might damage a relation-
sections for speaking and listening skills. The main focus
ship. Brick and Louie notice this phenomenon and state
is to assess ability through exercises on grammar, vocab-
that Vietnamese people, in order to keep harmony and
ulary, reading, and composition.
The grammar and
avoid conflict, rarely express strong disagreement.
vocabulary exercises are usually context-free, which
Though they privately disagree, they may apparently
encourages a mechanical application of what has been
express agreement. Feelings are not usually displayed; a
learned at school. Students are also required to do tasks
smile may be used with various meanings. While to
related to discourse structure, for example, to put a jum-
Vietnamese people it is very important to maintain rela-
bled dialogue in correct order.
tionships in this way, such tactful indirectness might be
Naturally, this way of evaluating plays a very impor-
read by foreigners as insincere or dishonest.
tant part in deciding the way of teaching and learning.
Another significant cultural difference that affects
Why should teachers bother helping students develop
speaking is the Vietnamese system of social relation-
pragmatic competence when such a thing almost does
ships. According to Le, centuries of Confucianism in
not exist in the assessment criteria? Even if teachers
Vietnam has exerted a strong influence on the social
realize the need to assist students in this area, they are
relationship structure. Sex and age are the key factors in
reluctant to do so because their purpose is to prepare
deciding the role of a member in a family as well as in
students to pass examinations.
Learners attending
society. Language use is affected by this concept of
evening classes at language centers also aim to get a cer-
social role. Brick and Louie point out that the choice of
tificate of language proficiency, which again is conferred
language forms in Vietnamese is determined by the rela-
based on exams that pay little attention to social aspects
tionship between the speakers, whereas in English it is
of the language.
the “degree of disruption” instead of the relationship
that mainly determines language choice. They also point
Cultural Barriers to Pragmatic Competence
out that the concept of respect rather than politeness is
paid more attention to in Vietnamese and Chinese soci-
With respect to difficulties Vietnamese learners face
eties, where age, education, and social status play a key
due to cultural differences, Wise observes that because
role in communication. As a result,Vietnamese learners,
as seen by Wise, find it difficult to address people in
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English. To Vietnamese learners, with their complicated
one linguistic system to another may lead to interfer-
forms of address, it is impossible to express respect in
ential mistakes just as any other transfer.
English using the simple system of names and pronouns.
Similarly, Cohen finds that foreign language learners
Le believes that Vietnamese speakers may be embar-
may go through a process of mental translation before
rassed to use one pronoun for different people of differ-
performing a speech act, resulting in a negative transfer
ent statuses. The custom of asking people’s age origi-
from the mother tongue. Holmes and Brown claim that
nates from the fact that Vietnamese people want to
if students are not consciously aware of the social con-
address others appropriately.
text in which they are communicating, they are likely to
Cross-cultural studies on pragmatic aspects of
adopt their native social and cultural values. This may
English and Vietnamese reveal that although there are
result in giving unintentional offense.
some similarities between the two languages and cul-
Kasper sees, on the other hand, that adult learners
tures, the many differences cause significant problems
automatically have some universal pragmatic knowledge
for Vietnamese learners of English (Dang; Ngo; S.P.
and that some aspects of cultural values are positively
Nguyen; T.B.T. Nguyen; V.X. Nguyen; Ta; Tran). Among
Yet research in this area (Kasper;
many examples observed, Le mentions apologies and
Fukushima;Tanaka, cited in Kasper) reveals that learners
gratitude. To Vietnamese people, Australians overuse
do not often use the valuable information they possess.
“sorry,” whereas to Australians the lack of “sorry” by
Therefore, teaching can play an active role here.
Vietnamese speakers of English in some situations is
considered impolite. The same is true with “thank you,”
Is Pragmatic Competence Teachable?
a frequently used expression in English which
Vietnamese speakers use far less because they think that
Regarding the teachability of pragmatic compe-
overusing the expression may come across as insincere.
tence, Edmondson, House, Kasper, and Stemmer point
Vietnamese learners of English tend to behave in
out that “cognitive learning” plays an important role in
accordance with Vietnamese cultural values when they
the development of pragmatic competence in language
come into contact with native speakers of English. This
learners. Olshtain and Cohen, Morrow (cited in Kasper),
may result in misunderstanding, embarrassment, or dis-
and Wildner-Bassett argue that pragmatic features can be
comfort, all a result of a lack of pragmatic competence.
taught. According to Cohen (cited in Kasper), it is pos-
In what follows, a quick review of studies on the acqui-
sible to teach strategies for speech act realization to
sition of pragmatic competence will be presented as the
adult learners of a foreign language. At present, howev-
basis for suggestions with respect to Vietnam.
er, people do not know much about the natural
sequence of the development of pragmatic competence
Developing Pragmatic Competence
in adult foreign language learners. As a result, at the
moment syllabuses cannot be designed to assist such
Research on the Problem
natural development.
Olshtain and Cohen (cited in Cohen), in their study
To begin with,“transfer strategies” (that is, transfer-
on the role of instruction in the acquisition of apologiz-
ring sociolinguistic rules from one’s mother tongue)
ing skills, also claim that teaching does play an active
have been frequently noticed in research. As Coulmas
role in the development of pragmatic competence in
points out (pp. 69-70):
learners. Blum-Kulka and Olshtain compare learners’
[T]he risk is particularly high, that the foreign lan-
responses to situations in which an apology is called for
guage user sticks to the underlying rules governing the
before and after training, and note the progress learners
usage of the corresponding phrases of his mother
made after being trained.
tongue. This kind of transfer of pragmatic rules from
Vietnamese learners of English tend to behave in accordance
with Vietnamese cultural values when they come
into contact with native speakers of English.
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At What Level Can Pragmatic Competence
instruction in complimenting did better than a group
Be Taught?
that did not.
Thus, although it is impossible to teach all language
To reject the idea that pragmatic competence can
functions (Williams), the active role that teaching plays
only be developed after learners have obtained a certain
in developing learners’ pragmatic competence cannot
level of language proficiency, Wildner-Bassett, from a
be denied. As Thomas states (p. 96):
study on intercultural pragmatics and proficiency, points
It is the teacher’s job to equip the student to express
out that pragmatic routines can be taught even to for-
her/himself in exactly the way s/he chooses to do so—
eign language beginners. Tateyama, Kasper, Mui,Tay, and
rudely, tactfully, or in an elaborate polite manner.
Thananart also share this view. This is very important in
What we want to prevent is her/his being uninten-
curriculum development and syllabus design because
tionally rude or subservient.
common opinion holds that pragmatic competence can
only be developed after students have a basic command
Implications for Teaching and Learning
of grammar and vocabulary. But as Kasper points out,
from the very beginning learners can practice pragmat-
Suggestions and implications for teaching have been
ic routines to help them manage standardized commu-
included in many of the studies on the acquisition of
nicative events.
pragmatic competence. Thomas emphasizes the need to
develop students’ awareness of cross-cultural differences
Metapragmatic Routines and Formulas
in communication. Teachers should pay attention to
development of their students’ metapragmatic ability in
Addressing this issue, House concludes from her
order to enable them to analyze language consciously.
study that the acquisition of pragmatic competence
Various studies have described speech acts such as
includes routine memorizing.
Routines contain the
compliments (Holmes and Brown), giving directions
pragmatic knowledge of a community, and these formu-
(Scotton and Bernsten), apologies (Borkin and Reinhart),
las are necessary for everyday verbal communication.
and thanking (Eisenstein and Bodman) . But according to
Schmidt (cited in House) comments that practicing and
Bardovi-Harlig, Hartford, Mahan-Taylor, Morgan, and
memorizing chunks play an important role in skill devel-
Reynolds, descriptions are not enough; there should also
opment. Errors that foreign learners make often come
be approaches to develop pragmatic competence.
from the wrong application of stored chunks (Schmidt
Teachers should develop students’ awareness of prag-
and Frota, cited in House).
matic functions in language. These researchers suggest
Pragmatic oral performance failures in advanced
that students compare their own role-plays on a tape
learners, according to House, result from their inappro-
with real-life exchanges. Students might be asked to col-
priate use of routines. However, metapragmatic infor-
lect data from radio, television, or books, focusing on a
mation alone cannot directly give learners sufficient
certain speech act and comparing different ways of per-
knowledge to enhance pragmatic competence.
forming in different situations. Another way to develop
Pragmatic competence can be improved, though, by giv-
students’ pragmatic awareness is to hold a class discus-
ing learners explicit metapragmatic information, which
sion in which students compare certain function in their
is converted into a “procedural form of representation.”
native culture to the same in the target language (Levine
House and Tateyama et al, when comparing two
et al, cited in Bardovi-Harlig et al).
groups of students receiving explicit instruction (having
Brick and Louie mention that although students may
a metapragmatic component alongside input and prac-
practice certain functions in class, they are unlikely to
tice) and implicit instruction (having only input and
use what they have learned in real-life situations if they
practice, with no metapragmatic component), found
are not aware of the importance of cultural values. So
that both groups developed their pragmatic compe-
teachers should understand students’ cultural presuppo-
tence, but the group receiving explicit instruction did
sitions and what difficulties this might cause them in
better. House also concluded that the group receiving
cross-cultural communication.
explicit teaching of communicative behavior was less
In her study,Takahashi (cited in Kasper) emphasizes
affected by negative L1 transfer. The same result can be
the need to create an appropriate context for pragmatic
seen in Bouton’s study, wherein a group receiving
input in the classroom.
She also suggests that if
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opportunities for practice outside the classroom cannot
enhanced by providing students with opportunities
be provided, it is necessary to give students explicit
to practice, using such activities as role-play, simulation,
instruction to assist them with their development of
or drama.
pragmatic competence.
Kasper summarizes that similar to acquisition of
Rose encourages teachers to use film to help raise
other types of linguistic knowledge, acquisition of prag-
students’ pragmatic awareness or to serve as a source of
matic knowledge needs the same conditions, that is:
examples for explicit instruction. The writer points out
relevant input should be provided; students should have
that Hollywood films can be a good representation of
their attention drawn to the input; and they should have
language use in society. He describes a project in which
opportunities to practice in order to develop good com-
different speech acts were collected from contemporary
munication habits.
American films, then compared with studies of speech
One controversial issue, as Wolfson points out, is
acts. (At this time, only complimenting had been com-
how much sociolinguistic knowledge should be includ-
pared, but the results were positive.) The use of films is
ed in the classroom. In terms of teaching and materials,
encouraged due to the attraction they create, and the
Wolfson warns against relying on the intuition of teach-
fact that they can go with any pedagogical approach.
ers and material designers for sociocultural information,
Holmes and Brown, when designing a series of exercis-
as this has been proved to be inadequate and unreliable.
es to boost learners’ sociolinguistic competence, empha-
Bardovi-Harlig et al note a case in which they compared
size the need to develop their awareness of those con-
textbook dialogues to authentic ones and found great
texts in which there is likely to be negative transfer or
differences. According to Olshtain and Cohen (cited in
interference; to encourage and promote their ability to
Cohen), some ESL textbooks provide a limited number
understand meanings of exchanges socially as well as
of semantic formulas for a certain speech act without
referentially; and to enhance their ability to take turns in
stating the appropriate use of each formula in their spe-
cific context. What is the role of teachers in that case?
In a later study, Holmes and Brown suggest other
Bardovi-Harlig et al suggest that they carefully evaluate
activities and exercises including learning formulas and
the authenticity of teaching materials, and if necessary,
collocations, identifying possible topics, practicing
develop new ones.
forms of address, collecting and comparing linguistic
data, role-playing, and discussing. In their view, the role
Suggestions for Vietnamese Classrooms
of the teacher is to equip students with relevant
knowledge and skills in order to express themselves
With respect to Vietnam, since learners have little
effectively with their own language in the contexts of
chance to be exposed to the target culture, special atten-
their choice.
tion should be paid to materials. As mentioned above,
Kasper suggests that language teaching help stu-
teaching materials used in Vietnam are not adequate in
dents locate second language social practices in com-
terms of providing sociolinguistic information. As an
munication in the right place and interpret them in the
implication arising from his study, Tran suggests that
context of the second language community. Students
should be given both referential and interpersonal tasks.
there should be cooperation between native-speaking
Referential tasks assist students with vocabulary and
textbook designers and Vietnamese writers in the cre-
strategic competence, whereas interpersonal tasks—for
ation of curriculum for Vietnamese learners. At present,
example, exercises to practice expressing gratitude—
while waiting for such materials to come into being, it
can help students succeed in social relationships. As
would be more appropriate to use textbooks written by
seen by Crookall and Saunders, Crookall and Oxford, and
native-speaking authors and to adapt or supplement
Olshtain and Cohen, pragmatic abilities can be
them when necessary.
Teachers should pay attention to development of their
students’ metapragmatic ability in order to enable them
to analyze language consciously.
Teacher’s Edition
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Since teachers and textbooks are the main sources
perhaps Vietnamese and native-speaking English teach-
to which Vietnamese learners turn for input, it is neces-
ers should be paired in team teaching situations.
sary to think carefully about teacher qualifications in
It is not sufficient to provide learners only with rel-
regard to sociolinguistic knowledge. Teachers should be
evant input; what is more important is to give them
equipped with a good knowledge of the target culture.
opportunities to practice. If possible, it would be useful
In order to have qualified foreign language teachers,
to let students take part in different activities and record
teacher training courses need to include a sociolinguis-
their performance. Then a feedback session could be
tic and cultural component.
Furthermore, teachers
used to analyze errors. To this end, a learner-centered
should be aware of changes in the target culture, as well
curriculum and less teacher-directed interaction should
as of new techniques for incorporating culture into the
be encouraged. To promote such changes, evaluation
language classroom.
and assessment need to be reconsidered in view of the
Learners should be made aware of the distinct dif-
larger goal of communicative competence.
ferences between Vietnamese and English-speaking cul-
tures. Film, radio, and television should be used when
other ways to expose learners to the target culture are
lacking. As Richards and Schmidt notice, students’ failure
Within the limits of this article, the planning and
in communication often comes from their surface focus
realization of lessons on language in use cannot be dis-
on structure, without sufficient attention paid to speech
cussed in much detail. As a teacher of English, my great-
acts and functions. Teachers need to point out that
est concern is how to help learners become competent
knowing when to use language, how, and to whom is of
enough to achieve their communicative purposes. To
great importance. For example, in English “thank you” is
start doing what should be done, I think, teachers of
needed to express gratitude, even between members of
English in Vietnam need assistance from resources
a family, whereas in Vietnamese it is not used as fre-
beyond their own individual effort. In raising the issue
quently since it might in some situations be considered
of developing pragmatic competence in Vietnamese
distant or cold.
learners of English, I hope to promote discussion and
According to Richards and Schmidt, students also
research that will contribute to solving the problem.
need to learn which speech acts are considered threat-
ening in the target culture. One example is the use of a
compliment. In Vietnamese, a compliment such as “You
look fatter these days” is totally acceptable when paid to
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“Australian Conversation for Vietnamese:
Pedagogy for more than 12 years. In November, 2000, at
Workshop on Bilingual Materials Using an Integrated
the 8th IALS Symposium for Language Teacher Educators
Approach to Language and Culture Learning.”
at the University of Edinburgh, she gave a presentation
Language Education: Interaction and Development.
on “Communicative Language Teaching in a Developing
Proceedings of the International Conference Held in Ho
Country.” Her professional interests include cross-cul-
Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Ed. T. Le and M. McCausland.
tural communication and American literature.
University of Tasmania, pp. 439-448, 1991.
Teacher’s Editionis a publication of
To teach is to
the English Language Institute
learn twice.
in Vietnam. For more information about
ELI, please see page 56.
– Joseph Joubert
Spot Photo Give this photo and exercise suggestions to students desiring extra
practice, use it in tutoring situations, or collect it and other photos for
classroom use.

Photo by Brad Baurain
This picture is from an
island near Nha Trang.
Briefly tell a partner about
one of your recent trips or
Orally or in writing, give
instructions on how to do a
popular swimming stroke,
such as the backstroke.
With a small group, work
to create a tourist
brochure for Nha Trang.
Make sure it would help
attract many tourists to
visit the beaches there.
Teacher’s Edition
— 11 —
November 2002