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What is a Speech Act?

A speech act is an utterance that serves a function in communication. We perform speech acts when we offer an apology, greeting, request, complaint, invitation, compliment, or refusal. A speech act might contain just one word, as in "Sorry!" to perform an apology, or several words or sentences: "I’m sorry I forgot your birthday. I just let it slip my mind." Speech acts include real-life interactions and require not only knowledge of the language but also appropriate use of that language within a given culture.

Here are some examples of speech acts we use or hear every day:

Greeting:   "Hi, Eric. How are things going?"

Request:   "Could you pass me the mashed potatoes, please?"

Complaint:   "I’ve already been waiting three weeks for the computer, and I was told it would be delivered within a week."

Invitation:   "We’re having some people over Saturday evening and wanted to know if you’d like to join us."

Compliment:   "Hey, I really like your tie!"

Refusal:   "Oh, I’d love to see that movie with you but this Friday just isn’t going to work."

Speech acts are difficult to perform in a second language because learners may not know the idiomatic expressions or cultural norms in the second language or they may transfer their first language rules and conventions into the second language, assuming that such rules are universal. Because the natural tendency for language learners is to fall back on what they know to be appropriate in their first language, it is important that these learners understand exactly what they do in that first language in order to be able to recognize what is transferable to other languages. Something that works in English might not transfer in meaning when translated into the second language. For example, the following remark as uttered by a native English speaker could easily be misinterpreted by a native Chinese hearer:

Sarah: "I couldn’t agree with you more. "

Cheng: "Hmmm…." (Thinking: "She couldn’t agree with me? I thought she liked my idea!")

An example of potential misunderstanding for an American learner of Japanese would be what is said by a dinner guest in Japan to thank the host. For the invitation and the meal the guests may well apologize a number of times in addition to using an expression of gratitude (arigatou gosaimasu) -- for instance, for the intrusion into the private home (sumimasen ojama shimasu), the commotion that they are causing by getting up from the table (shitsurei shimasu), and also for the fact that they put their host out since they had to cook the meal, serve it, and will have to do the dishes once the guests have left (sumimasen). American guests might think this to be rude or inappropriate and choose to compliment the host on the wonderful food and festive atmosphere, or thank the host for inviting them, unaware of the social conventions involved in performing such a speech act in Japanese. Although such compliments or expression of thanks are also appropriate in Japanese, they are hardly enough for native speakers of Japanese -- not without a few apologies!

Back to Speech Acts.

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Last Modified: February 14, 2014 at 16:41