The Propositional Nature of Utterances in the Spoken Discourse and Its Application in ESL/EFL Teaching[1]


    In this study, the author suggests that both semantic meaning and pragmatic meaning should be learned by L2 learners, esp. EFL learners, whose target language environment is relatively poor, to enable them to fully develop their communicative competence. He further indicates that communicative language teaching has been officially pronounced and promoted as the major English teaching approach in Taiwan; however, pragmatic competence, a major component of communicative competence, is the least instructed component in actual practices. Even when the contextual effect is addressed, the role of the situational context and that of linguistic form have rarely been treated with equal magnitude. Therefore, he attempts to bring the ESL/EFL teachers’ attention to the significant role played by the situational context in speech and in the learner’s spoken language development by demonstrating that utterances are always propositional in natural language use even when they are in the reduced form and that linguistic form and situational context are complementary with each other to make communication meaningful and functional. Research evidence from both theoretical and empirical studies is also provided to support such an argument. Based on such a nature of speech, the Minimal Context Approach and some teaching principles are proposed.




It is not unusual that the findings from theoretical studies are applied in language instruction. For instance, as discussed in Hadley (2001), the argument over the necessity of practice (or output) in SLA is resulted from the input hypothesis, and the corrective feedback (or negative evidence) issue is developed from the argument between the cognitive theory of learning and the behaviorists’ theory of learning. Ellis (1997, originally cited in Hadley (2001, p.80)) also suggests that practitioners and applied linguists can “draw on SLA research and theory to initiate, tentatively or confidently, various pedagogic proposals” (p. 76) although he indicates that researchers are cautious in applying their research results directly to language teaching. Such a view on the relationship between theories and teaching is also taken in this study.

Studies in pragmatics, e.g. speech acts, have revealed that the context where an utterance occurs contributes a substantial amount of meaning to communication. In other words, both the situational context and the linguistic form of an utterance should be involved to determine its meaning in real-time communication. Therefore, if the meaning of a linguistic form should be learned by the learner to enable them to use it correctly, it makes perfect sense for them also to learn the contextual meaning associated with the linguistic form to enable them to use it appropriately. This is why language learners’ pragmatic competence should also be developed in order for them to fully develop their communicative competence. Since L2 learners, especially foreign language learners, typically lack the natural environment for target language use, the provision of situational contexts, which are needed for the linguistic form to be communicatively meaningful, becomes even more critical when the teacher presents language input to the learner.

Communicative language teaching (CLT) has been the leading ESL/EFL teaching approach for more than three decades; however, pragmatic competence development is still among the least addressed topics in developing the learner’s communicative competence. In Taiwan, pragmatics has rarely been included in the teacher’s practice although CLT is officially pronounced as the major teaching approach (Xin 2006). To better develop the learner’s pragmatic competence, the contextual effect has also to be included in the curriculum and in the practice. A recent focus in ELT has directed the practitioners’ attention to the contextual effect of language instruction, e.g. in Task-Based Learning (Ellis, 2003 and Nuan 2004), the language in each task is highly contextualized. Nevertheless, the role of context and that of linguistic form have rarely been treated with equal magnitude in ESL/EFL instruction, especially in the EFL classroom instruction. In research even when the concept of context is aimed at, it is mostly limited to the linguistic context alone (Huang and Li, 2006). For instance, some research has been done to investigate the contextual effect of the learner’s vocabulary building in reading instruction, (Cain, Oakhill, & Lemmon (2004), Hulstijn, (2003), Rapaport, (2005), Van Daalen-Kapteijns, Elshout-Mohr, & De Glopper, (2001), among others.) A consensus of the positive effect of linguistic contexts on ESL/EFL teaching has been reached among researchers although it may be less than satisfactory in actual practices. Nevertheless, the effect of situation contexts on L2 learners’ acquisition of pragmatics has rarely been the target area of study.

     Therefore, in this paper the author aims at bringing the ESL/EFL teachers’ attention to the significant role played by situation contexts in speech and in the learner’s spoken language development by demonstrating that with appropriate contexts, a linguistic form can often be considerably reduced in real communication, especially in casual daily conversations. In other words, utterances are always propositional no matter they are structurally in the full or the reduced form. Based on such a nature of spoken language use, the Minimal Context Approach will be proposed, and additionally, some teaching principles following from the approach will also be proposed and discussed.




        The following is the evidence that draws on the research to support the concept that contextual information is essential in both language use and in language learning.


Evidence from Language Acquisition


        Emergenist frameworks of first language acquisition believe that the child’s language development moves from (1) exemplars without internal analysis to (2) routine-like regularities inducted from these memorized data, and finally to (3) abstracted rules of the internal structures of the learned patterns (Pine and Lieven, 1993, 1997; Pine et al. 1998, originally cited in Mitchell & Myles 2004, p. 98). In general the child begins her language learning with crying, the universal language, followed by the babbling of vocal sounds that are able to convey and transmit messages to the caretakers at the fairly early stage of her language development. Her language continues to grow overtime following the natural course of both her physical and mental maturation. At each stage of her language development, every single utterance the child makes, even a cry, is propositional and meaningful with the intended communicative function in the situation associated with the utterance. For example, at the one-word sentence stage, when a child, driven by hunger, says, “Mommy, milk” the child is actually saying, “Mommy, I want milk.” The reduced linguistic form is normally propositional, and thus understandable, in the given situation. In other words, the child’s language development is a socialization process (Overfield, 1996) during which time, contextual information always plays an essential role. Such a view of the first language development can also be found in the research of second language acquisition (Ellis, 1994).

        For example, the findings of a study on the comparison of the input effect on output between bilingual elementary children and EFL children in Taiwan show that with the native English speaking teachers as the major input source in the bilingual group, in contrast to the non-native English speaking teachers in the EFL group, the bilingual children’s vocabulary and syntax developments are far more advanced than the other group (Huang and Liu 2004). The major advantages that the bilingual group has over the EFL group are two-fold, i.e., both the quality and the quantity of the input. Although the total instruction time between the two groups is compatible, in the bilingual group, English, apart from being treated as the object language of learning, was functionally used for real communication during the instruction, while English was treated only as the object language in the EFL group. Second, the native English speaking teachers of the bilingual group used English for communication much more frequently than the non-native English speaking teachers of the EFL group. Therefore, authentic English use, containing both the linguistic form and the situation context, is the major factor for the better performance of the bilingual learners over the EFL learners.


Evidence from the Lexical Approach


        Research in vocabulary learning concludes that isolated words are harder to learn and memorize than words in context. This is because our long-term memory is a well-organized storage and the new words also have to be encoded in a similar way to be learned and stored well. Since contextualized chunks of language are organized units and are richer in meaning than isolated words, they are easier to be learned. This argument is supported by the lexical approach (Lewis, 1993). Nattinger and DeCarrico (cited in Lewis 1993, p.19) suggested that lexical phrases are the basis for fluency in speaking. This is because the prefabricated speech stored in speakers allows them to retrieve expressions more efficiently than individual lexical items and thus more attention of the speakers is available for them to focus on other areas of the speech, such as the style and the discourse meaning. They also indicated that native speakers have a repertoire of quite a few such prefabricated “chunks” of speech, which represent a great amount of common conversation expressions. It is obvious that second language learners also need such prefabricated chunks of speech stored in the memory before they are able to analyze their internal structure. Since the meaning of routine formulae “depends heavily on a proper description of their respective situation contexts” (Coulmas, 1979, p.242), contextualized language can be another beneficial factor to help them with the learning and use of the language.


Evidence from Speech Act Acquisition Study


A study by Xin (2006) on EFL junior high school students’ speech act acquisition shows that raising the students’ awareness of speech act functions of apology, request and gratitude by making them practice using formulaic speech in virtual conversation texts can significantly increase their ability of judging these speech act functions in other similar situations. In this study, the experimental group adopted the Minimal Context Approach, while the control group followed the common method used by the local English teachers, i.e. the detailed explanation and analysis of the speech acts. The result of the speech act knowledge tests was able to evidence the effect of contextualized learning.


Evidence from Free Voluntary Reading and Extensive Reading Studies


Krashen (2004) drew on the results of substantial amount of studies from the literature to argued that Free Voluntary Reading (FVR) results in better reading comprehension, writing style, vocabulary, spelling and grammatical development. On the other hand, he argues that direct instruction in reading is not the answer to better literacy. Huang (1998, 2004) also proposed a model of extensive reading that proves to be effective on the learners’ reading comprehension and affective factor development. The major concept proposed in this model is the creation of a reading material-rich environment and the easy access to these materials, which are comprehensible and interesting to the learners. While Krashen’s FVR mainly addresses children’s literacy development, Huang’s model works for EFL learners. The common ground between them is that they both consider the contextual information from reading materials and learners’ easy access to the print-rich environment critical in developing the learner’s reading proficiency.

  In summary, I have provided evidence from both theoretical research and empirical studies to argue that to make language learning effective and language use communicative, both the linguistic form and the contexts associated with its use should be supplied in the learning process. In addition, I will provide another important piece of evidence from the perspective of the language in use to support this argument. That is, the propositional nature of utterances in spoken discourse.




A proposition can be briefly defined in logic, linguistics and philosophy as the meaning of a statement that has a truth-value. According to Searle (2006), other kinds of speech than statements also assert propositions. For example, an interrogative is an inquiry into a proposition’s truth-value. Take (1), below, as an example. The expression, “Going to the class?” is an inquiry into the proposition “You’re going to the class.”


Sue: Hi, Sam. Going to the class?

Sam: No, going home.

In a similar manner, an imperative can be propositional. For example, in (2) below, the expression “Come on in, Jane” can be interpreted as “You, Jane, are invited to come in.” Therefore, interrogatives and imperatives are propositions with different illocutionary force than statements.


Tom: Come on in, Jane. Sit down, please.

Jane: Thanks.


Semantic Meaning versus Pragmatic Meaning


        One way to characterize the proposition of an utterance is to distinguish between semantic meaning and pragmatic meaning. The semantic meaning of a proposition can be briefly defined as the meaning of a sentence in its isolated form, i.e. free from any contextual information, while the pragmatic meaning of a proposition must involve contextual information, (Saeed 2003). Therefore, semantic meaning is stable, while pragmatic meaning is an utterance meaning which is sensitive to the contextual variation. Take (3) below as an example:


Tammy: That’s a gorgeous handbag! Where did you buy it?

Kim: Thanks. My mother gave it to me as a birthday gift.

Tammy: Oh, really?

Here, contextual information is necessary to determine the true meaning of the expression “Oh, really?” in (3). Its exact meaning, i.e. utterance meaning, can be determined by the relationship between the interlocutors and by the intention of the speaker, Tammy, which is realized by the prosodic features, (and even the body language,) related to the intention at the moment it is uttered. Therefore, the true meaning of the expression may be different from one utterance to another. For example, one reading of it can be “I doubt what you’ve just said.” Such an interpretation is available under the condition that Tammy knows Kim quite well and she assumes that Kim might not have told the truth about the handbag. The other meanings of the same expression can be an irony, an expression of amazement, a confirmation of Kim’s response, or simply a routine-like response without much interest in what Kim says. All these various meanings of the same proposition have to be derived from the source other than the linguistic form alone, such as the intention of the speaker and relationship between the two interlocutors. Semantic meaning here serves only as the basis of the much richer meaning of this expression.

        Therefore, in a spoken discourse, a situation context is always assumed to exist to fulfill the meaning gap insufficiently specified by the linguistic form, especially when the gap is created by the reduced linguistic form. The two types of information complement each other to make a conversation successful and meaningful.


Types of Utterance That Can Be Propositional in an Appropriate Context


A question related to the complementary relationship between the linguistic form and the situation context is to what extent the linguistic form can be simplified in a casual daily conversation. The answer to the question is: Any content word or phrase representing a major phrasal constituent in a clause can be propositional in a natural contextualized utterance. In certain restricted conditions, even a function word can be propositional. Let’s look at the examples below:


A: What’s happened to you? You look like hell.

B: Nothing.                                               (NP)

A: Come on. Tell me what’s wrong!                 (VP)


A: How do you like this song?

B: Very much.                                           (Adv. P)


A: How’s the show last night? Was it good?

B: Great!                                                  (Adj. P)


A: Where did you put my glasses, Paul?               

B: Here, Dad. On the kitchen table.                (PP)


A: Fire! Fire!                                                    (NP)

B: Call 911, someone!


        The italicized expressions in each dialogue above are all propositional. What makes these reduced verbal expressions propositional is the information provided by the discourse and the situation assumed by the conversers in each dialogue. The contextual information may include the world knowledge of and the shared knowledge between the interlocutors. For example, in the last dialogue in (4) above, an earlier cry “Help! Somebody, help!” (the discourse) and/or the actual scene of a fire (the event) would normally be assumed for the utterance of, “Fire! Fire!” (the linguistic form), to make the functional meaning (the speech act function) in this dialogue.

       In summary, the discussions so far have demonstrated that in natural speech an utterance is always propositional, meaningful, and functional, even though its linguistic form is considerably reduced. This is because language in use is highly contextualized. Language learning and teaching, therefore, must not simply pay attention to the linguistic form alone and ignore the critical role played by the situation context associated with it.


What Is Missing in Actual Teaching Practices in Taiwan?


Among the several types of information that make an utterance meaningful, what is commonly learned in formal instruction in our school system is usually the linguistic form, with or without the linguistic context (Huang and Liu, 2005). What is missing in most practices is the situation context, without which the linguistic form is functionally inadequate and non-communicative. This will make the learning of language not authentic and unnatural, which will in turn make the learning more difficult and less successful. Based on such an understanding of the current teaching practices, the Minimal Context Approach (MCA) is thus proposed.




The Minimal Context Approach will be briefly described in this section. The term “minimal” has two senses here. First, it refers to the least amount of information that is necessary to make a lexical item or a phrasal expression propositional in its linguistic context. By such a definition, a sentence alone is sufficient to make a lexical item or an expression propositional. However, a sentence alone is not sufficient to make a lexical item or an expression communicatively functional. Therefore, the situation context has to be involved, and thus “minimal” here also refers to the minimal situation context that is necessary to make an utterance pragmatically functional. “Minimal Context” is so defined in this approach because the context in which a lexical item or a phrasal expression involves is intended to contain pragmatic meaning, instead of semantic meaning. While the minimal linguistic context of an utterance is basically a sentence, the minimal situation context will be the content of an event corresponding to the linguistic form. Thus, a minimal context of an expression in this approach contains at least four major components, i.e. the linguistic (base) form, the discourse, the speech act function, (or propositional content,) and the event/situation. The first two are the language form and the last two are the meaning or content of the form.

Since what is essential in this approach is to make the language learned as functional and communicative as possible, in language instruction it is crucial to create the settings as close to the authentic ones as possible. Thus, in each minimal context created, both linguistic and situation contexts have to be provided to learners to model the use of the target linguistic form. For example, for a given expression “a good job”, a possible minimal linguistic context can be as follows: (base form and discourse)

Jerry: You’ve done a good job, Kerry.           

Kerry: Thanks! I’m glad you like it.

And the minimal situation context needed to match the above language form with an assumed function can be:

Kerry has just done something satisfactory to his supervisor, Jerry, and Jerry is in the mood to show Kerry his encouragement, or praise. 

Certainly, a conversation of this kind can be much longer and more complicated than this, but this is enough to make the expression “a good job” functional and communicative. A longer discourse and more complicated situation will not harm the learning as long as they match the learner’s proficiency level. The point to make here is that none of the essential components of the functional language use should be neglected in teaching any single expression.

        Although we know that the richer the situational context is, and the more casual the occasion is, the more frugal the linguistic context may be, it is not my intention to go any further to deal with the details of the style issue for the time being. Let’s start with the daily casual language first as this is where most EFL learners begin with their learning.

The MCA takes the functional view of language and language learning. It views language learning as the process of social interactions. The learner develops her/his language through actually participating in and experiencing, (not rote memorizing,) the language use activities, (or tasks as the sense defined by Ellis, 2003) which are embedded in various social situations related to the learner. Language learning observes the natural order of development. Such order includes both the learner-internal mental stages of development and the external socio-environmental opportunities accessible to the learner. Only when the learner knows the function, not simply the semantic content, of each form will the form be meaningful and useful, and so will the learning become easer and more successful. Therefore, to make every linguistic form functional, all the major components of the MCA have to be included and integrated in the instruction.




The following is some principles that can be followed in teaching practice although the MCA may be premature to be a ready-to-use teaching technique before more empirical evidence is found, and these principles are not intended to be comprehensive.

Firstly, language does not work in isolation. As the first purpose and one of the main purposes of EFL learning is to learn to make meaning in real communication, the learner has to learn that semantic meaning can be distinguished from pragmatic meaning and that pragmatic meaning is the meaning of the language in use.

Secondly, it is important to make the learner be aware of the role played by situation contexts in natural language communication. This is to make the learner understand that in natural communication, reduced expressions can be communicative as long as other types of information in the context are available. The teacher can demonstrate the use of expressions in minimal contexts to the learner and then have them practice using them in similar contexts.

Thirdly, meaning negotiation is one of the important processes that the learner with low proficiency levels develops their language. The teacher has to model such process. For example, in conversation (5) below, the teacher’s feedbacks through meaning negotiation may help to make the student’s fragmentary expressions propositional and meaningful.


T: What are you doing, Tim?

S: I, uh… a book.

T: What are you doing with the book?

S: I read book.

T: Oh, you are reading the book. What kind of book is it?

S: Storybook.

T: OK, good! You’re reading a storybook. I like to read storybooks as well.


Finally, to make the learning easier at the beginning level, the basic unit of linguistic form to be learned is fixed expressions, as is defined in the lexical approach (Lewis, 1993), rather than isolated lexical items, in that they have many advantages over created speech with respect to functional communication. For example, the learning of them is easier, and the processing time is less when using them because less workload is required to retrieve them in our brain, especially when familiar situation contexts occur. Since a single form can be used in various situations, choose the ones that most commonly occur in daily life and that are closely related to the learner’s life experience to begin with. After this stage, the learner can move forward to a more complicated Task-Based learning.




                In this paper, I have argued that the situation context of speech should be an indispensable part of our spoken English instruction in that it plays an essential role in developing the learner’s pragmatic competence, while pragmatic competence is a major component of communicative competence, which is one of the major curriculum goals of the current ELT in Taiwan. The theoretical and empirical studies of the contextual effect on communicative competence development were cited and discussed to support this argument. In addition, evidence from speech data analysis was provided to demonstrate that an utterance in a natural conversation is always propositional and functional in its context, even when it is not fully realized in its phonetic form. Based on such a nature of language in use, the Minimal Context Approach, together with some teaching principles, is proposed. As a matter of fact, this approach has just been put into an empirical test by Xin (2006). The findings in Xin’s study have shed some light on the potential of applying this approach to improve EFL learners’ pragmatic knowledge awareness. Finally, it is to be reminded that this approach may work better for spoken language instruction to EFL learners of lower proficiency levels.

[1] This paper was presented at the ETA, ROC conference, Taipei, TW, in 2006.




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