Scholarly article on topic 'Assessing EFL Learners’ Performance of the Conventional Expressions of Complaining and Apologising'

Assessing EFL Learners’ Performance of the Conventional Expressions of Complaining and Apologising Academic research paper on "Sociology"

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Abstract of research paper on Sociology, author of scientific article — Esther Usó-Juan, Alicia Martínez-Flor

Abstract Research conducted in the field of interlanguage pragmatics has suggested that foreign language learners have serious difficulties in reaching an adequate level of pragmatic competence since there are a lot of contextual factors that may influence an appropriate use of the language. This paper investigates learners’ choice of the semantic formula used to express complaints and apologies in situations which varied according to the sociopragmatic factors of social status, social distance and severity of offence. Results show that learners were limited to make themselves clear when expressing an appropriate complaint and apology. These findings are discussed and pedagogical implications suggested.

Academic research paper on topic "Assessing EFL Learners’ Performance of the Conventional Expressions of Complaining and Apologising"

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Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 173 (2015) 53 - 60

32nd International Conference of the Spanish Association of Applied Linguistics (AESLA):

Language Industries and Social Change

Assessing EFL learners' performance of the conventional expressions of complaining and apologising

Esther Uso-Juana*, Alicia Martinez-Flora

aUniversitat Jaume I, Campus Riu Sec, s/n 12110, Spain

Abstract

Research conducted in the field of interlanguage pragmatics has suggested that foreign language learners have serious difficulties in reaching an adequate level of pragmatic competence since there are a lot of contextual factors that may influence an appropriate use of the language. This paper investigates learners' choice of the semantic formula used to express complaints and apologies in situations which varied according to the sociopragmatic factors of social status, social distance and severity of offence. Results show that learners were limited to make themselves clear when expressing an appropriate complaint and apology. These findings are discussed and pedagogical implications suggested.

© 2015 TheAuthors.Publishedby ElsevierLtd.This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license

(http://creativecommons.Org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/).

Peer-review under responsibility of Universidad Pablo de Olavide.

Keywords: interlanguage pragmatics; conventional expressions; complaints; apologies

1. Introduction

Pragmatics is the study of communicative action in its sociocultural context. In the fields of second language acquisition and language pedagogy, a current predominant theoretical framework for pragmatics is the formula or conventional expression, that is, an utterance that has a communicative value. Following Bardovi-Harlig (2006, p. 3), the term formula makes reference to three different uses: i) developmental formula, that is, a routine which is learnt as a whole, that is to say as a unique word or expression without analysing the different parts or constituents that form them (e.g. Do you have time or Are you busy?); ii) social formula, that is, a routine which is fixed and typically associated to particular communicative situations (e.g. Nice to meet you or I'm just looking); and iii)

* Corresponding author. Tel.: 0-964-729624; fax: 0-964-729261. E-mail address: euso@ang.uji.es

1877-0428 © 2015 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license

(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/).

Peer-review under responsibility of Universidad Pablo de Olavide.

doi: 10.1016/j.sbspro.2015.02.030

semantic formula, that is, a conventional expression which is considered as the component of a particular speech act. For example, an apology may contain the following semantic formulas: an expression of apology, an explanation, an acknowledgement of responsibility, an offer of repair or promise of forbearance. Researchers in interlanguage pragmatics (ILP) summarise native speakers' (NSs) expressions into semantic formulas and use them to code learners' expressions of speech acts. Therefore, semantic formulas play a key role in the analysis of learners' speech act performances.

For the purpose of the present paper, we are going to focus on the last use of formula. More specifically, we are going to centre on those conventional expressions associated to the complaint and apology speech act sets. We have chosen the complaint-apology sequence as the object of our study for two main reasons. First, reacting appropriately to complaints seems to be crucial as it is an important factor in keeping successful communication and maintaining social relationships, specifically in work-related situations. Second, complaint-apology sequences are likely to arise very often in interactional exchanges in the field of tourism and, consequently, learners from this discipline should have the necessary pragmatic knowledge to enable them to use them appropriately in their future jobs.

Following Trosborg (1995, pp. 311-312), complaints are expressive illocutionary acts "in which the speaker (the complainer) expresses his/her disapproval, negative feelings etc. towards the state of affairs described in the proposition (the complainable) and for which he/she holds the hearer (the complainee) responsible". These acts are designed to cause offence and are therefore, inherently face-threatening to the hearer, so in terms of Brown and Levinson's (1987) politeness theory, complaints are face-threatening acts. Due to the face-threatening nature it entails, the speaker needs to control the level of directness at which he/she is going to perform the complaint (Chen, Chen & Chang, 2011) and resort to the use of different strategies in order to avoid offending the hearer and to remain polite. Complaints might serve as an initiating speech act of apology sequences, although one speech act may occur without the other. For the purposes of this study, however, we will consider the communicative event of complaint-apology as an adjacency pair.

Apologies are also expressive illocutionary acts. Nevertheless, in contrast to complaints, apologies are considered as a type of convivial speech act whose goal is to maintain social contract and restore harmony between the speaker and the hearer (Leech, 1983). Therefore, according to Bergman and Kasper (1993, p. 82), they can be defined as "compensatory action to an offense in the doing of which S (the speaker) was causally involved and which is costly to H (the hearer)". It is important to point out that an apology involves different aspects of face depending on the perspective from which it is considered. For the hearer, an apology is a face-saving act because it provides support for the hearer's negative face as "it is made clear that he/she has been harmed by the speaker's actions" (Sabate-Dalmau & Curell-Gotor, 2007, p. 291). Contrarily, for the speaker, "an apology is a face-threatening act (FTA) as it damages the speaker's positive face" (Warga & Scholmberger, 2007, p. 223). In fact, it implies the acceptance that something wrong has been done, whether on purpose or not.

Empirical studies have provided support for the relationship between social/contextual variables and the preferred strategies used for complaining (Chen, Chen & Chang, 2011) or apologising (Istiffi & Kampusu, 2009). Indeed, to complain and apologise appropriately and in a socially acceptable manner, special attention needs to be paid to what is said on the basis on three parameters: i) social status, and ii) social distance (Brown & Levinson, 1987), as well as iii) the level of offense involved in the complaint being performed (Olshtain & Weinbach, 1987). Building on this assumption, this study aims at examining learners' choice of the semantic formula used to express complaints and apologies in a variety of contrasting situations.

2. Method

Participants taking part in this study consisted of 14 English as a Foreign Language (EFL) learners who were in the first-year course of the degree of Tourism. Their ages ranged between 19 and 21 years old, the average age being 19.8 years. According to the Quick Placement Test (2001) distributed among them prior to the beginning of the study, they all had a lower-intermediate level of English which corresponds to a B1 according to the Council of Europe level.

The data were collected via open role-plays as they are closer to naturally occurring speech events. The role-play set involved eight tasks, each including a typical scenario for a complaint (partner A) and an apology (partner B). In order to design this test, we took previous research on the field of ILP into account. First, topics for the scenarios

were obtained through exemplar generation (Liu, 2010). Thus, an online questionnaire was designed in which five English NSs and five non-native speakers working in different sectors of the tourism industry were asked to describe the three most recently occurring events which contained complaint-apology sequences among co-workers at the same company. On the basis of the situations described in this questionnaire, we selected the eight topics included in the test, which involved discussions between two interlocutors regarding: cigarette breaks (task 1), a recommendation letter (task 2), a business meeting (task 3), a lost hotel reservation (task 4), misspelled business documents (task 5), casual conversations at front office (task 6), habitual late arrival for work (task 7), and false educational credentials (task 8).

Second, all scenarios varied according to the sociopragmatic factors of social status, social distance and severity of offence in the realisation of the speech act, and consequently, two levels of social status (i.e., low and high) and social distance (i.e., close and distant) were considered, as well as two levels of severity of offence (i.e., less and more). Finally, the scenarios did not mention the speech act that was being investigated, but instead used the general cues "You explain" rather than you complain or "You respond" rather than you apologise, thus allowing for opting out of the speech act in question. (see Appendix A for full description of each role-play).

In order to collect the data, learners were asked to come in pairs (n=7 pairs) to the researchers' office to perform the eight different oral role-play situations. Each pair was first instructed about the role-play activity, and was then asked to read the first situation and act it out. The researcher told the students who had to perform each particular role. This procedure continued until they all finished the eight situations.

Participants' interactions were tape-recorded and subsequently transcribed in order to analyse the type of formula used when complaining and apologising. For this analysis, we took into account previous ILP studies that have presented classifications of complaint (see Table 1) and apology formulas (see Table 2).

Table 1. Complaint formulas (adapted from Olshtain & Weinbach, 1987; Trosborg, 1995).

Strategies Examples

1. No explicit reproach Never mind, nothing serious happened

2. Expression of disapproval What terrible bureaucracy!

3. Explicit complaint You're always late

4. Expression of accusation I'll speak to your supervisor

and warning

5. Expression of threat I'm not moving one inch unless you change my

appointment

Table 2. Apology formulas (adapted from Olshtain & Cohen, 1983; Blum-Kulka, House & Kasper, 1989).

Strategies Examples

1. Expression of apology Sorry, Pardon me

2. Explanation or account The traffic was terrible

3. Acknowledgement of responsibility It's my fault

4. Offer of repair I'll pay for the broken vase

5. Promise of forbearance It won't happen again

3. Results and Discussion

As previously mentioned, the purpose of this study was to analyse whether EFL learners employed a variety of semantic formulas to express complaints and apologies in a variety of contrasting situations. The analysis of the 112 complaint and apology samples (14 participants x 8 situations x 1 test) yielded a total of 65 complaint strategies and

108 apology strategies. The results concerning the learners' use of complaint categories across scenarios are displayed in Table 3.

Table 3. Frequency (f) of complaint formulas across scenarios.

Complaint Categories

Situations no reproach disapproval complaint accusation/ warning threat Total

f f f f f f

Sit. 1 0 1 5 2 0 8

Sit. 2 0 0 6 2 0 8

Sit. 3 0 1 6 1 0 8

Sit. 4 0 0 6 3 0 9

Sit. 5 0 1 7 0 0 8

Sit. 6 0 0 7 1 0 8

Sit. 7 0 1 7 0 0 8

Sit. 8 0 0 6 2 0 8

Total (%) 0 (0) 4 (6.2) 50 (76.9) 11 (16.9) 0 (0) 65(100)

The most frequently used formula was explicit complaint (76.9% or 50/65). The second rank was occupied by expression of accusation and warning (16.9% or 11/65). The third was expression of disapproval (6.2% or 4/65) and finally, the remaining two formulas, namely no explicit reproach and expression of threat were not used. These results are in line with previous research (Olshtain & Weinbach, 1987; Chen, Chen & Chang, 2011) that found that learners prefer disapproval, complaints and accusation, which are located in the center of the directness scale, to no reproach and threat which are located in the extreme ends of the scale. However, in our study the most striking result was the overuse of the complaint category across all scenarios. These findings lead to the assumption that learners' strategy choices were not affected by the social/contextual variables since they were stuck with the complaint category which means they were limited to make themselves clear while expressing an appropriate complaint.

The findings regarding the learners' use of apology categories across scenarios are displayed in Table 4.

Table 4. Frequency (f) of apology formulas across scenarios.

Apology Categories

Situations apology explanation responsibility repair promise Total

f f f f f f

Sit. 1 7 5 0 0 2 14

Sit. 2 7 5 0 0 1 13

Sit. 3 7 5 0 0 2 14

Sit. 4 7 6 0 0 0 13

Sit. 5 7 5 0 0 1 13

Sit. 6 7 4 0 0 2 13

Sit. 7 7 5 0 0 2 14

Sit. 8 7 5 0 0 2 14

Total (%) 56 (51.7) 40 (37.2) 0 (0) 0 (0) 12 (11.1) 108(100)

As can be seen in table 4, the most often used formula was expression of apology (51.7% or 56/108) followed by explanation or account (37.2% or 40/108) and promise of forbearance (11.1% or 12/108). The remaining two formulas namely acknowledgement of responsibility and offer of repair were not used by learners. Furthermore, an aspect worth mentioning is that the combination expression of apology (e.g. I'm sorry, I apologise etc.) and explanation (e.g. I have health problems) accounted for most of the data. The high use of these two categories has also been reported in Istiffi and Kampusü's (2009) study which investigated the act of apologising with subjects from two different levels, i.e., intermediate and advanced. The authors reported some kinds of negative transfer in learners' use of apologies, especially those at an intermediate level and therefore, suggested formal instruction on the use of this speech act to speed up its acquisition.

4. Conclusion

Our study aimed at examining EFL learners' choice of the semantic formula used to complain and apologise in a variety of situations that varied according to the sociopragmatic factors of social status, social distance and severity of offence. Findings showed that learners' strategy choices were not affected by the social/contextual variables since they were stuck with the complaint category when performing a complaint or expression of apology and explanation when performing an apology in all contrasting scenarios. These results point to an interesting pedagogical implication, since in order to be capable of performing appropriate complaints and apologies, different complaint and apology formulas should be employed depending on sociopragmatic factors. To raise learners' awareness about this fact, specific teaching approaches should be designed. By so doing more opportunities to develop learners' pragmatic competence in the foreign language classroom could be provided.

Acknowledgements

As members of the LAELA (Lingüística Aplicada a l'Ensenyament de la Llengua Anglesa) research group, we would like to acknowledge that this study is part of a research project funded by the Spanish Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad (FFI2012-38145).

Appendix A. Appendix A. Role-plays (from Usó-Juan & Martínez-Flor, 2014, p. 130-135)

Role-play 1

Role A

You are a student enrolled in a degree program in Hospitality and Tourism Management. As part of your practicum, you work in a top market hotel performing front desk receptionist duties. By coincidence, your site supervisor is a close friend of yours. Your friend takes a cigarette break every hour and lately, he/she has been asking you to cover for him/her by doing his/her job when he/she goes out to smoke. As you have little experience, guests get impatient because check-in and check out take a while. You are tired of covering for your site supervisor, and plan to talk to him/her about this fact. You explain:

Role B

You are a receptionist in a top market hotel and the site supervisor of a students' practicum performance. By coincidence, the student under your supervision is a close friend of yours. Lately, you have the strong urge to smoke every hour and you ask the student to cover you when you go out to smoke. The student under your supervision wants to talk to you about this fact. You listen and respond:

Role-play 2

Role A

You are a receptionist in a two-star hotel. You are applying for the position of head receptionist in a highly reputed hotel. The interview committee wants to have a recommendation letter from your employer. The hotel general manager, who you barely know, agrees to write this letter. When you read the letter, you discover it only gives generic bromides about your current job. You think your excellent job in the hotel deserves more than a generic letter of recommendation. You go to your boss' office to talk about this fact. You explain:

Role B

You are the general manager of a two-star hotel. You have been asked by one of your best receptionists, who you barely know, to write a letter of recommendation for the position of head receptionist in a highly reputed hotel. You agree and write a generic letter of recommendation for him/her. The receptionist wants to talk to you about this fact. You listen and respond:

Role-play 3

Role A

You are a travel agent working in a leading travel agency. You have an important business meeting in which you count on the presence of your agency manager, and close friend of yours, to help you make important decisions. However, he/she forgets about the meeting. This is the second time that the same thing has happened with this person. After the meeting, you go to the agency manager's office to talk about this fact. You explain:

Role B

You are the agency manager in a leading travel agency. A travel agent, and close friend of yours, has an important business meeting and counts on your presence to help him/her make important decisions. However, you forget the meeting. This is the second time that the same thing has happened with you. The travel agent wants to talk to you about this fact. You listen and respond:

Role-play 4

Role A

You are the tour representative of a group of 20 retired people (aged 60 plus) which has just arrived after a long journey at a luxury hotel in the tiny village of Jukkasjarvi, Sweden. The unknown man/woman at the hotel reception desk tells you there is no trace of a reservation for a coachload of 20 people. The booking for five days was made three weeks ago and a deposit was sent directly to the hotel bank account. The cold and tired passengers are seated in the coach waiting for hotel check-in. You go the hotel manager's office to talk about this fact. You explain:

Role B

You are the hotel manager of a luxury hotel in the tiny village of Jukkasjarvi, Sweden. You have been informed by the hotel receptionist that a group of 20 retired people (aged 60 plus) has arrived to check in at your hotel and there is no trace of this reservation. The tour representative, although he/she doesn't know you personally, wants to talk to you about this fact. You listen and respond:

Role-play 5

Role A

You are the general manager of a tour operating company responsible for coordinating its daily operations. Your personal assistant, and close friend of yours, does a very good job in supporting you in all aspects of administration and secretarial duties. However, the other day he/she handed in to you a business document with a few misspelled words. You ask your personal assistant to come to your office to talk about this fact. You explain:

Role B

You are the personal assistant to the general manager of a tour operating company, who is also a close friend of yours. You do a very good job in supporting him/her in all aspects of administration and secretarial duties. However, the other day you handed in to the general manager a business document with a few misspelled words. The general manager of the company asks you to go to his/her office to talk about this fact. You listen and respond:

Role-play 6

Role A

You are a reception manager in a highly reputed hotel in charge of supervising other reception employees. You observe a newly-arrived receptionist, who you haven't seen before, having casual conversations with clients regarding personal aspects. The employee code of conduct advises to keep safe distance from clients regarding personal involvement to ensure appropriate professional skills. You ask this new receptionist to go to your office to talk about this fact. You explain:

Role B

You are a newly-arrived receptionist in a highly reputed hotel. While working, you have casual conversations with clients regarding personal aspects. However, the employee code of conduct advises to keep safe distance from clients regarding personal involvement to ensure appropriate professional skills. The reception manager of the hotel, who you haven't seen before, asks you to go to his/her office to talk about this fact. You listen and respond:

Role-play 7

Partner A

You are the manager of a large travel agency. One of the travel agents, and close friend of yours, has a tendency to be habitually late at work resulting in lost sales for the company. You go the travel agent's office to talk about this fact. You explain:

Partner B

You are an agent working in a large travel agency. You have a tendency to be habitually late at work resulting in lost sales for the company. The manager of the travel agency, and close friend of yours, wants to talk to you about this fact. You listen and respond:

Role-play 8

Role A

You are the chief executive of a Hotel Group. Your group is seeking for a general manager in a recently opened hotel in London. A prerequisite to get this job is to have a Master's Degree in Business Administration (MBA). You found that an applicant for the job, who is currently working as a receptionist in one of your hotels, has lied about having an MBA. You don't know this person but, as one of your workers, you want to talk to him/her about this fact. You explain:

Role B

You work as a receptionist in a worldwide hotel chain. The hotel group is seeking for a general manager in a recently opened hotel in London. Candidates are required to have a Master's Degree in Business Administration (MBA) and although you don't have it, you decide to lie about having this Master's degree. The interview committee has discovered you used false educational credentials and now the chief executive of the Hotel Group, who you don't know, wants to talk to you about this fact. You listen and respond:

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