Improve Your Workplace English Blog

Find insightful blog posts aimed to improve conversation skills both at work and in your daily life. Check back often for more lessons to help you continuously learn how to improve your English speaking skills.

Using Language in Social Contexts (Pragmatics)

Are you ever at a loss for words or unsure what to say in unfamiliar situations where you need to make a request, ask permission to do something or greet someone you meet for the first time? If so, the issue may not be the spoken English you’ve been taught.

While many language training programs focus on proficiency in the four English language skills: speaking, listening, reading and writing, one aspect of communication that is often not covered is something called ‘pragmatics’ or social language. This refers to a person’s ability to use and change their language for a number of different purposes; for example, to ask for permission or help, to greet or part, or disagree with others depending on the audience/ listener(s) and the situation or context, while following “rules for conversation”.

These “rules” are determined by the speakers’ and listeners’ culture.

In different cultures, the ‘accepted ways’ to, for instance, discuss controversial topics, vary. In some, it may be appropriate to interrupt other speakers and change topics abruptly; in others, people discuss these topics in a diplomatic way and one person waits until another has finished speaking before he/she talks or introduces a new topic.

Another example: in a meeting of senior executives, the chairperson might say, “This meeting is now closed,” whereas in a less formal meeting, a team leader might say, “Let’s call it a day.” Both statements are made at the end of a meeting, yet the context is different, so the speakers modify their language accordingly. The situation and the audience determine what language is appropriate.

Native speakers may find it easy to adjust their language in different situations for different audiences; such as in job interviews or performance reviews; however, non-native speakers must first interpret the situation or context (Who is my audience? Is this situation formal or informal?) and secondly, think of what to say (What kind of language is culturally appropriate?).

Not only do speakers have to adjust their spoken language; they must also adjust their non-verbal and body language (eye movement, facial expression, posture, arm and hand gestures, tone and volume of voice).

Why does using social language appropriately matter?

Problems with “pragmatics” can lower social acceptance. Native speakers often interpret inappropriate use of social language as rude behaviour rather than a ‘gap’ in language learning, whereas they usually consider pronunciation errors a language learning problem.

How can internationally-trained professionals overcome these challenges?
First, they should look for training courses in communications that cover pragmatics, and focus on conversation, listening and speaking skills.

Second, they should read newspapers, particularly editorials and regular columns.

Third, watch the news and shows with live debates on television like “The Fifth Estate”.


Collocation is the habitual grouping of a particular word or words with another word or words; particularly nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. They are word ‘partnerships’ and unlike idioms, the individual words in a collocation contribute to the overall meaning.

The way words combine in collocation is key to language use. Using collocations leads to effective communication. Collocations are like chunks of speech that make it easier to express complete ideas. Understanding and learning collocation improves vocabulary skills and helps with the acquisition of correct pronunciation: fixed expressions provide you with the stress pattern of the phrase as a whole.

Examples are spare time, spare change, get married and go bankrupt.

Happy New Year, Happy Anniversary, Happy Birthday and Merry Christmas are all collocations. Although ‘happy’ and ‘merry’ are synonyms, we do not say Merry New Year or Merry Birthday or Happy Christmas.

Collocations are exact. House work is not the same as home work; nor are overhang and hangover or look over and overlook the same.

There are several types of collocation, including:

  1. Noun and verb
  2. Verb and noun
  3. Noun and noun phrase
  4. Adjective and noun
  5. Adverb and Adjective
  6. Verb and Adverb /Adverb and Verb
  7. Verb + expression with preposition

Examples of each type are:

  1. The dog began to bark when it saw the cat moving.
  2. Snow was falling as our plane took off.
  3. The man was convicted of committing murder.
  4. Amy always does her homework in the evening after washing the dishes.
  5. The students gave their teacher a round of applause.
  6. The first hint that a storm was imminent was a clap of thunder.
  7. His doctor ordered him to get regular exercise.
  8. The Titanic sank on its maiden voyage.
  9. Cheating on his final law exam was an utterly stupid thing to do.
  10. Are you fully aware of the implications of your action?
  11. Mary whispered softly in John’s ear.
  12. I vaguely remember that it was growing dark when we left the house.
  13. We had to return home early because we had run out of money.
  14. When Jane heard about her friend’s death, she burst into tears.

Effective Teamwork

The best definition of effective teamwork is “a group of people who work together cohesively, toward a common goal, creating a positive working atmosphere and who support each other to combine individual strengths to enhance team performance.

Understanding and identifying team roles is important for successful teamwork: team members need to value and respect each type of individual and role.

Team members who are action-oriented are more focused on tasks than people, have a lot of ‘drive’ and like to see results. They are good at turning ideas into action and deliver on time.

Team members who are people-oriented include co-ordinators and team workers. Co-ordinators are confident and clear about goals. They are good at delegating activities, motivating and involving people. They promote effective decision-making. Team workers are co-operative, diplomatic and ‘mild-mannered’. They listen to others’ opinions, try to avoid conflict and seek harmony in the team.

Team members who are ideas-oriented are creative and imaginative. They are bored by routines and do not always ‘play by the rules’. They have a different way of looking at things and are good at solving difficult problems.

All these team ‘roles’ are necessary for effective teamwork and each team member must value the skills and strengths of the others.

Team members need to be able to communicate clearly and explain their own ideas as well as listen carefully to others, ask questions to clarify others’ ideas and emotions and be sensitive to non-verbal communication.

Effective teamwork requires:

  • Open communication where members feel free, and are encouraged, to express their ideas and to disagree constructively
  • Mutual respect for the contribution of other team members
  • Active listening
  • Co-operation and blending of each others’ strengths
  • Placing group goals above personal satisfaction and/or recognition
  • Sharing of information and ideas
  • Identifying conflicts and obstacles to success and resolving problems co-operatively as they occur
  • Building consensus and facilitating group discussion
  • The overall goal is achieving a “win-win” solution which achieves the objectives of the team.

The expression ‘esprit de corps’ is a perfect phrase for teamwork; it means the co-operative spirit of a group whose members want to succeed and who are invested in the direction taken and results achieved collectively.


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