Skip to content

Research Paper On Speech Act Theory

This article gives an overview of the research related to speech acts and its importance to the field of second language learning. Speech Act Theory is a pragmatic theory that classifies the functions of language into five major categories. The most minimal unit of discourse within these categories is the speech act. Although speech acts can be realized in a variety of ways, they are often characterized by semantic and syntactical formulas that can be taught to second language learners. However, in order to use the speech act correctly, learners must not only understand how to form the utterance, but also when, where and how to use it. Thus, speech act research frequently focuses on how different cultures understand and use speech acts in context. Speech act research has been criticized for being ethnocentrically biased toward western cultures and for using inconsistent language to describe language use.



English as a Second Language > Speech Act


The old adage to "say what you mean and mean what you say" encourages speakers to speak plainly and be true to their word. This may seem like sage advice, especially for those who want to win friends and get ahead in the world. But speaking plainly and saying what you mean is not always as simple or as desirable as one might expect.

In the field of pragmatics, the study of speech acts--minimal units of discourse that have a particular function--has shown that people are often ambiguous and indirect when making their point. They hint when making a request, or they complain to open a conversation. Because individuals often adjust their utterances in order to be polite, they frequently make statements that are anything but plain. Instead, they rely on the audience to infer the real meaning of their words from the social situation in which the statement is made.

Study of Speech Acts

Linguists who study speech acts try to decipher these seemingly confusing uses of language as one of several areas of research. Other goals of the speech act researcher are to identify when, where, why, and how speech acts are realized. For instance, researchers often examine the settings where communication occurs to identify the kinds of speech acts people use within the setting. Or given the realization of a particular speech act, they may identify and categorize the utterances and grammatical patterns that are common to that speech act. This kind of research can be useful to individuals who work in fields related to communication and education. It is particularly useful for teachers and students of foreign languages, as research in cross-cultural pragmatics based on speech act theory has shown that there are differences in the ways that individuals from different cultures attempting to achieve similar goals use language. By studying the speech acts that are common to a culture, a second language learner can improve his or her ability to communicate in that culture.

The Speech Act Theory

The formation of speech act theory is generally accredited to Austin (1962), who introduced, and Searle (1969, 1976), who further developed, a philosophy of language that classifies the communicative functions of an utterance. In the first set of classifications, Austin (1962) identified the locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary acts of language. The locutionary act generally refers to the literal meaning of an utterance; the illocutionary act refers to the intention of the speaker in performing the act such as requesting, warning, etc. Finally, the perlocutionary act refers to the consequence for the hearer that is brought about by the performance of an act such as convincing, surprising, or deterring.

Searle (1976) further classified the illocutionary act into five categories of communicative functions. These provide the framework for the study of speech acts today. These are:

* Representatives: The speaker commits him or herself to the belief that the propositional content of the utterance is true.

* Directives: The speaker tries to get the hearer to commit to do something in the future (e.g., requests, warnings).

* Commissives: The speaker commits him or herself to do something in the future (e.g., promises, offers).

* Expressives: The speaker expresses his or her state of mind about something that happened in the past (e.g., thanking, complaining).

* Declarations: The speaker, who has institutional recognition (e.g., judge or priest), declares something to be true and in making the declaration makes it true (e.g., priest christens a baby).


Frequently studied speech acts include: requests, apologies, compliments, complaints, refusals, and expressions of gratitude. Information that is gained that is pertinent to teachers of second languages includes the nature of the speech act, the ways the speech act can be realized, and the effect of culture on its realization.

Although an extensive inventory of speech acts and their realizations would be too much for this paper, included here is an illustration of the kinds of information known about speech acts using the often-studied speech act of requesting. Requests are defined as utterances in which the speaker tries to get the hearer to perform an action that is in the speaker's benefit (Trosberg, 1995). In making a request, a speaker has a choice to use a direct or indirect utterance. Trosberg describes eight major levels of directness (See Table 1). The most direct requests are formed using an imperative verb as in "Give me your pen." At the opposite end of the spectrum are indirect requests that merely hint that the hearer should do something for the speaker. For example, a speaker who says, "It's cold in here" could imply that the hearer should do something about the cold such as close the door or turn on the heat. Indirect requests are ambiguous because the utterance itself does not have to be a request. A speaker stating that "It's cold in here" could merely be describing the physical conditions of a room without expecting a hearer to take action.

Table 1: Request Strategies (Presented at Levels of Increasing Directness) Situation: Speaker Requests to Borrow Hearer's Car

Category 1 Indirect request I have to be at the airport in half an hour. Str. 1 Hints (mild) My car has broken down. (strong) Will you be using your car tonight? Category 2 Conventionally indirect (hearer-oriented conditions) Str. 2 Ability Could you lend me your car? Willingness Would you lend me your car? Permission May I borrow your car? Str. 3 Suggestory formulae How about lending me your car? Category 3 Conventionally indirect (Speaker-based conditions) Str. 4 Wishes I would like to borrow your car. Str. 5 Desires/needs I want/need to borrow your car. Category 4 Direct requests Str. 6 Obligation You must/have to lend me your car. Str. 7 Performatives (hedged) I would like to ask you to lend me your car. (unhedged) I ask/require you to lend me your car. Str. 8 Imperatives Lend me your car. Elliptical phrases Your car (please) (Trosberg, 1995, p. 205)

What perhaps seem like obvious questions to arise from this discussion and that are major questions for pragmatic researchers are the following: If hints are ambiguous, why would a speaker use one instead of making a direct request? And How does a hearer know that a request has been made via a hint?"

The answer to the first question is often given with reference to Brown and Levinson's (1987) theory of politeness. In their widely-influential work, Brown and Levinson posit that individuals make decisions about what to say based on their need to protect face, or to maintain a positive image in front of others. There are two types of face that they deem important: negative face and positive face. Negative face is defined as an individual's desire to be unimpeded in his or her actions. Positive face is an individual's wish to have his or her wants to be...

Research from the past decade has shown that understanding the meaning of words and utterances (i.e., abstracted symbols) engages the same systems we used to perceive and interact with the physical world in a content-specific manner. For... more

Research from the past decade has shown that understanding the meaning of words and utterances (i.e., abstracted symbols) engages the same systems we used to perceive and interact with the physical world in a content-specific manner. For example, understanding the word "grasp" elicits activation in the cortical motor network, that is, part of the neural substrate involved in planned and executing a grasping action. In the embodied literature, cortical motor activation during language comprehension is thought to reflect motor simulation underlying conceptual knowledge [note that outside the embodied framework, other explanations for the link between action and language are offered, e.g., Mahon, B. Z., & Caramazza, A. A critical look at the embodied cognition hypothesis and a new proposal for grouding conceptual content. Journal of Physiology, 102, 59-70, 2008; Hagoort, P. On Broca, brain, and binding: A new framework. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9, 416-423, 2005]. Previous research has supported the view that the coupling between language and action is flexible, and reading an action-related word form is not sufficient for cortical motor activation [Van Dam, W. O., van Dijk, M., Bekkering, H., & Rueschemeyer, S.-A. Flexibility in embodied lexical-semantic representations. Human Brain Mapping, doi: 10.1002/hbm.21365, 2011]. The current study goes one step further by addressing the necessity of action-related word forms for motor activation during language comprehension. Subjects listened to indirect requests (IRs) for action during an fMRI session. IRs for action are speech acts in which access to an action concept is required, although it is not explicitly encoded in the language. For example, the utterance "It is hot here!" in a room with a window is likely to be interpreted as a request to open the window. However, the same utterance in a desert will be interpreted as a statement. The results indicate (1) that comprehension of IR sentences activates cortical motor areas reliably more than comprehension of sentences devoid of any implicit motor information. This is true despite the fact that IR sentences contain no lexical reference to action. (2) Comprehension of IR sentences also reliably activates substantial portions of the theory of mind network, known to be involved in making inferences about mental states of others. The implications of these findings for embodied theories of language are discussed.