In the field of pragmatics and psycholinguistics, it has been discussed whether the understanding of non-literal statements is more difficult than that of literal ones. Within the framework of this debate, the present study is part of the work on the understanding of direct (literal) and indirect (non-literal) speech acts and, specifically, seeks to account for how this occurs in children with and without Asperger syndrome. Its overall goal, then, is to compare the understanding of direct speech acts, simple indirect speech acts, and complex indirect speech acts in five children with Asperger’s relative to five children without Asperger’s.
To do this, first, the main theoretical findings regarding the understanding of speech acts and Asperger’s syndrome will be presented. Subsequently, the understanding of speech acts will be measured by means of an instrument that is made up of five stories that serve as a context for three types of speech acts, one direct or literal, another simple indirect or indirect request and one complex indirect or indirect assertion. this instrument will be applied to five subjects with Asperger’s and five subjects without Asperger’s with the same characteristics (sex, age, economic level, etc.). Finally, you will realize the results that the application of the instrument yielded, and the conclusions that emerge from them.
Three acts in Pragmatics
As linguists explain, a speech act involves performing three actions simultaneously:
- A locutionary act : to make an utterance with an interpretable meaning, for example: “Leave me your blue book.”
- An illocutionary act : the intention with which the statement is issued. In the example above, the intention is to ask/command. This “illocutionary force” can also be, for example, joking or begging for something, stating a fact or requesting an action to be carried out… In short, whatever the speaker‘s intention is at the time of uttering an utterance.
- A perlocutionary act : it is the effect that the statement has on the listener, how he interprets it and, therefore, how he feels when understanding that statement. Upon hearing the statement “Leave me your blue book” the receiver reacts in one way or another depending on the intent of the sender: it can be an order or a request, the intention can be to intimidate or persuade, etc.
This triple level of speech acts makes utterances more than grammatically structured linguistic units. Thus, it is a complete communication instrument subject to cultural codes conditioned by the position of the speaker, the listener and the very environment in which the action takes place. It is the fact of knowing everything from courtesy formulas to topics or how to deal with some matters depending on the interlocutor, which will mark the ability to communicate in a foreign language to someone who does not belong to that speaking community.
Language teachers must pay special attention to ensuring that students learn, in addition to the appropriate grammar and vocabulary, the communicative and social rules that will allow them to function appropriately in social situations. In short, ensure the development of communicative competence in the language being studied.
Types of Speech acts
- Representative or assertive : the speaker accepts, denies or expresses his opinion about something; also when making a description of objects, people, environments…
- Directives : the sender uses elaborate utterances to give advice, to compel or persuade the listener to take an action.
- Commitments : express certainties and evidence, assume an obligation, commitment or purpose.
- Expressive : they show the speaker‘s emotion (congratulations, condolences, joy…)
- Declaratives : when the speaker looks for his speech act to change a situation. For this declaration to have value, it must have the appropriate power, for example, a judge to pass sentence.
The student of a foreign language must learn to differentiate that the same statement can fit into different types of speech act depending on the intention of the speaker. Thus, the teacher must influence the difference between formal and informal registers and the appropriate courtesy formulas for each occasion and interlocutor.
When planning the teaching units for students of a foreign language, the necessary content must be considered in order to comply with the parameters established by the European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).
The first forms of courtesy that students learn when they begin the study of a foreign language are greetings, farewells and the formulation of simple and useful questions. In the initial levels of study, students must be able to introduce themselves, greet, say goodbye, respond to invitations and suggestions, ask for and accept apologies, etc. As you progress in the study of the language, you will be able to use the rules of courtesy appropriately to exchange and request information, as well as to express opinions and attitudes. A person with communicative competence in another language will be able to express themselves clearly in a formal or informal register., switch from one to another naturally and make emotional, humorous and allusive use, showing their skill and understanding of both the language and the cultural keys of their interlocutor.
Understanding speech acts: Direct and Indirect / Simple and Complex
Speech act theory was originally proposed by Austin (1962). It states that with each statement we make, we carry out a certain linguistic action: threaten, congratulate, etc. Taking this idea as a starting point, Searle (1975) points out that direct speech acts occur when a speaker means exactly and literally what he is saying, for example, what is your name? Here the illocutionary force of the question is reflects in the interrogative form. The same author in relation to indirect speech acts points out that they occur when the illocutionary force is not reflected in the linguistic form. For example, could you close the door? In this case, the illocutionary force would be: “close the door” which would indicate an order expressed in the form of a question.
Now, in relation to the understanding of speech acts, Belinchón (1999), initiates a debate about the steps that must be taken when understanding non-literal forms, among which, together with irony, metaphor and idioms, indirect speech act. The specialist considers that non-literal language consists in the use, by the speakers, of expressions and linguistic statements that do not mean what they apparently mean. They would include:
- Indirect speech acts (such as indirect requests) that are used to express a communicative intention other than the one that appears linguistically marked in the sentence, for example “Do you have time?, with the intention of being told what time is it.
- Ironies and sarcastic comments, with which the speaker indirectly communicates a critical or mocking attitude, for example, “how nice” to tell someone that they have done something inappropriate.
- Metaphors, which serve to obliquely characterize something or someone by attributing the properties of another thing or person, for example, “she is a viper”
- Idioms or set phrases, sayings and proverbs that are conventional combinations of words to describe and value facts and people, for example “he dropped the cassette”
For its part, the standard pragmatic theory posits that the intentional interpretation of these utterances would seem to constitute a late, slow, and probably optional stage of processing that would require the listener to perform at least three kinds of operations:
- Derivation of the literal or linguistic meaning of the utterance.
- The evaluation of the plausibility and relevance of this semantic representation with respect to the conversational context and the previous cognitive context.
- The realization of pragmatic inferences that lead to the identification of the intentional meaning or intended by the speaker (conversational implicatures).
Importance of the speech act in the teaching of a language
A speech act is asking a question, making a statement, promising something, apologizing… By studying a foreign language, the student learns a series of formulas that allow him to speak, that is, perform speech acts, and interact with other people to achieve a purpose. From simple day-to-day actions —such as ordering a coffee in a bar or buying a train ticket— to dealing with more complex situations that may arise in a relationship with a person who speaks a different language.
It is this pragmatic approach to communication that makes the goal of teaching a foreign language to be to boost the student’s communicative competence. That is why it is important that teachers work with students so that they are capable of assimilating and using grammatical structures in the target language, while understanding its complexity as a communicative tool to function in real circumstances.