Abstract: Conversational Implicature Theory is an important pragmatic concept which plays an instructive role in English listening comprehension. With the help of this theory, students can understand the implicatures through the literal meaning so as to improve their English listening ability.
Key words: Conversational implicature; Cooperative principle; Listening comprehension
In communication, it is not uncommon to see that a large amount of information is not conveyed directly. The speaker means more than what the words or phrases in the utterances might mean by themselves. The listener then has to make inferences about what is said in order to arrive at an interpretation of the speaker’s intended meaning. The additional conveyed meaning is called an implicature. In English listening comprehension, students are often required to infer what is implied or conveyed by the speakers in a conversation. In reality, what students are required to do is to understand the conversational implicatures. This paper discusses the application of conversational implicature theory to English listening comprehension so as to help students understand the conversational implicatures through the literal meaning and improve their English listening ability.
Ⅱ. Conversational Implicature Theory
Implicature is a technical term in the linguistic
branch of pragmatics
coined by Paul Grice
. It refers to what is suggested in an utterance, even though not expressed or strictly implied by the utterance. Take the following dialog for example.
Mary: Let’s go for a walk.
Tom: The ground is still wet.
From the literal meaning, it seems that Tom is saying something unrelated to Mary’s invitation while from the context we can infer what Tom really means is that the ground is still wet and he doesn’t want to take a walk. Conversational implicatures are typical examples of more being conveyed than said.
Ⅲ. Cooperative principle
Before focusing on the interpretation of conversational implicatures, some basic cooperative principle should first be introduced. The Cooperative Principle was proposed by Paul Grice, who pointed out that to ensure the progress of a conversation and the understanding of each other, both of the speaker and the listener must observe some basic rules, that is, the cooperative principle.
The cooperative principle: Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.
1. Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange).
2. Do not make your contribution more than is required.
Quality Try to make your contribution one that is true.
1. Do not say what you believe to be false.
2. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.
Relation Be relevant.
Manner Be perspicuous.
1. Avoid obscurity of expression.
2. Avoid ambiguity.
3. Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).
4. Be orderly.
These maxims are generally adhered to in communication. We assume that people usually provide enough needed information, tell the truth, try to be relevant and as clear as they can. The speaker and the listener are normally cooperating with each other in a conversation and trying to understand each other.
However, in some cases, people don’t observe all the maxims of the cooperative principle in communication for various purposes, thus leading to the conversational implicatures. Therefore, conversational implicatures derive from the speaker flouting some of the maxims. In order to understand the speaker, the listener will have to infer from the implicatures since the speaker means more than what he says literally.
Ⅳ. Application of Conversational Implicature Theory to English Listening Comprehension
In English listening comprehension, students are often required to infer what is implied or conveyed in a conversation beyond the literal meaning. The common question forms are
What does the man\ woman mean?
What does the man\ woman imply?
What can you learn\know\ infer from the conversation?
What does the man\ woman think of …?
How does the man\ woman feel?
According to Paul Grice, conversational implicatures are caused by the violation of the maxims of the cooperative principle. So long as students find out what maxims are flouted by the speaker, they can infer what the speaker implies in what he says literally. The following are cases in which the speakers violate the maxims of the cooperative principle and thus cause the conversational implicatures to be inferred.
1) Implicatures caused by the violation of Quantity Maxim
W: What would you like? Tea or coffee?
M: Coffee would keep me awake the whole night.
Question: What does the man mean?
A. He would like to keep awake.
B. He would like tea.
C. He would like coffee.
D. He would like neither.
In this conversation, the man could have told the woman what he would like exactly but he didn’t give enough information, so he flouted the maxim of quantity. The woman then had to infer the implied meaning that he preferred tea to coffee as coffee would keep him awake the whole night.
W: What do you think of Mary and Betty?
M: Mary is kind.
Q: What does the man imply?
A. Both Mary and Betty are kind.
B. Betty is kind.
C. Mary may not be kind.
D. Betty may not be kind.
In this conversation, it is clear that the woman wants the man’s comment on both Mary and Betty, while the man only comments on Mary. He doesn’t give as much information as she wants, so he violates the maxim of quantity, which leads to the implicature that Betty may not be so kind as Mary.
2) Implicatures caused by the violation of Quality Maxim
W: Could you be quiet, David? Steven is in the room. You’ll wake him up.
M: I see, but I don’t think he’ll wake up. He’s sleeping like a log at the moment.
Q: What does David say about Steven?
A. Steven is sleeping soundly.
B. Steven is like a log.
C. Steven wants David to wake him up later.
D. Steven likes to make a noise.
From the conversation we can know that the man flouts the maxim of quality as Steven can’t be a log. Here the comparison of Steven to a log conveys the implied meaning that Steven is sleeping soundly.
W: Jim, I can see that you simply couldn’t give up smoking.
M: Nonsense. Smoking is the easiest thing in the world to give up. I’ve done it hundreds of times.
Q: What can we learn from this conversation?
A. The man couldn’t give up smoking.
B. The man found it easy to give up smoking.
C. The woman believed that the man could give up smoking.
D. The man wanted to convince the woman that he could give up smoking.
Actually if the man’s response is just “nonsense”, we will be quite clear that the man can give up smoking. But when he adds that smoking is the easiest thing in the world to give up and he has done it hundreds of times, we can see he flouts the maxim of quality, for he is saying something untrue. It is easy to infer that he can’t give up smoking.
3) Implicatures caused by the violation of Relation Maxim
W: Have you completed your assignment?
M: My computer is infected with a virus.
Q: What does the man imply?
A. He’s unable to finish his homework.
B. He can’t give the woman his computer.
C. He’s to remove the virus.
D. He’s infected with some disease.
The man is supposed to give the answer “yes or no” instead of telling something seemingly unrelated, so it is obvious that he flouts the maxim of relation. By analyzing his answer, we can easily infer that he hasn’t finished his assignment as his computer doesn’t work.
W: Did you find the book for your reading assignment in the library?
M: It closed before I got there. I had no idea that it closes so early on weekends.
Q: What does the man mean?
A. He didn’t get the book he needed.
B. He had no idea where the book was.
C. The library is closed on weekends.
D. He was not allowed to check out the book.
Instead of telling the woman whether he has found the book in the library, he told her that the library was closed before he got there. Obviously, he flouts the maxim of relation. The implicature is that he didn’t get the book as the library was closed.
4) Implicatures caused by the violation of Manner Maxim
M：How did Tom do in the exam?
W: He wrote letter by letter the question.
Q: What does the woman imply?
A. Tom wrote letters in the exam.
B. Tom did well in the exam.
C. Tom failed in the exam.
D. Tom’s handwriting was good.
From the conversation, it can be inferred that the woman didn’t tell the man directly that Tom did badly in the exam. She flouted the maxim of manner by failing to say something briefly and clearly as she was unwilling to tell the bad news directly.
W: What did you say just now?
M: I said I L-O-V-E you.
Q: What can we know from the conversation?
A. The man didn’t know how to pronounce the word.
B. The man spelt a word.
C. The man was teaching the woman a word.
D. The man said he loved the woman.
The man in the conversation wanted to express love for the woman but he said L-O-V-E, not love. He flouted the maxim of manner as he was shy to say the word love directly.
Nowadays more and more emphasis is put on students’ ability to infer important information from seemingly unrelated or meaningless utterances in listening comprehension. The conversational implicature theory serves as an instructive tool which helps students figure out the additional implied meaning in conversations. It is suggested that students should attach more importance to the application of the conversational implicature theory to English listening comprehension, and try to expose themselves as much as to western cultures and customs so as to improve their pragmatic abilities.
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