Teaching Pragmatics Logo


Due to their complex nature, refusals in English represent a major challenge for English learners, a problem attributed in part to cross-cultural differences in refusal patterns. Below is brief review of the literature dedicated to the study of this speech act.

Takahashi and Beebe (1987) note that “[t]he inability to say 'no' clearly and politely, though not too directly, has led many non-native speakers to offend their interlocutors” (p. 133). As pointed out by Gass and Houck (1999) and Soler and Pitarch (2010), part of the complexity of refusals stems from the fact that they involve a long negotiated sequence, a characteristic often neglected in instructional materials. Soler and Pitarch (ibid.) note that “most of the pedagogical proposals ignore the fact that speech acts such as refusals function as a response to an initiating act and they are co-constructed by two or more interlocutors over multiple turns” (p.66). Including explicit instruction of refusals in ESL/EFL curricula would help learners understand these nuances, thereby allowing them to be better equipped to avoid social interactions with unintended negative outcomes.

As is the case with requests, refusals can be performed using direct and indirect strategies. Beebe et al. (1990)  provide a concise overview of these strategies, summarized below:

Direct Strategies:
  1. Using performative verbs (e.g., I refuse.)
  2. Non-performative statements (e.g., No; I can't)

Indirect Strategies:
  1. Statement of regret (e.g., I'm sorry.)
  2. Wish (e.g., I wish I could help you.)
  3. An excuse/reason/explanation (e.g., I have a headache.)
  4. Statement of alternative (e.g., I'd rather...)
  5. Set condition for future or past acceptance (e.g., If you had asked me earlier, I would...)
  6. Promise of future acceptance (e.g., I'll do it next time.)
  7. Statement of principle (e.g., I never do business with friends.)
  8. Attempt to dissuade the listener (e.g., I won't be any fun tonight.)
  9. Acceptance that functions as a refusal (e.g., Showing lack of enthusiasm)
  10. Avoidance
  • → Non Verbal (e.g., silence, hesitation, doing nothing)
  • → Verbal (e.g., topic switch, joke, repetition of part of the request, hedging)

In addition to these, Beebe et al (1990) describe a number of linguistic resources (adjuncts) that may accompany the refusals described above. These include using pause fillers (e.g., um... well...); a statement denoting a positive opinion or agreement (e.g., I'd love to come); a statement showing empathy towards the interlocutor (e.g., I realize you are in a difficult situation), and using an expression of gratitude (e.g., Thank you so much for the invite). 

In order to foster learners' acquisition of the pragmalinguistic features and functions of refusals, a number of methodological principles need to be taken into consideration. An important component of teaching pragmatic skills is to raise learners' awareness of the characteristics of speech acts in order to promote their appropriation of the different strategies that accompany them. Drawing on Long and Crookes' (1993) work, Silva (2003) points out that instruction should focus on implementing pedagogical tasks, and recommends that learners listen to examples of target discourse in which role-play activities can be based. He adds that “[r]ole playing invitations and refusals to invitations can be taken as either a target task in itself or as a pedagogical task leading to a more complex task, such as networking in a social event” (p. 67). The target discourse which learners are exposed to should be based on empirical data; that is, on natural language samples. Olshtain and Cohen (1991) also agree that learners should be engaged in role-playing in order to experiment with the pragmatic components of this speech act. The authors endorse the adoption of an inductive approach to teaching pragmatic skills, arguing that learners should be guided to evaluate the social situation calling for a particular speech act, thereby encouraging them to think for themselves about culturally appropriate ways to communicate in the L2.

Boxer and Pickering (1995) suggest that instruction of L2 pragmatics should help learners analyze the speech act into its semantic formulas in order to enable them to realize the speech act itself. Bardovi-Harlig et al. (1991) highlight the importance of focusing initially on teaching the main strategies accompanying the speech act in question, and to provide structured activities (e.g., fill-in the blank, discourse completion tasks) as a way to help learners acquire the most common expressions used when performing a given speech act. The authors also suggest that instructors should provide feedback to learners regarding their performance, and should engage students in discussions regarding their perceptions, expectations, and their awareness of similarities and differences between the L1 and the L2 to help them identify potential situations in which pragmatic failure occurs.