The Application of Cooperative Principle
to English Language Teaching
As one of the most important language, English plays an irreplaceable part in the world culture exchange; therefore, the effect of learning English is self-evident. However, in those countries who regard English as a second language, English learning mainly depends on the teacher’s explanation, as a result, English language teaching (ELT) is more important in those non-English countries.
Chinese started English learning very early. In the traditional English class, most of the teachers occupy the central position and focused on how to make students get a high mark in examination rather than actual communication. Due to the deep influence of traditional education, the phenomena that the teacher acts as the center part of the class activity did not completely change. In most cases, teachers keep saying the whole class and the students study passively, which leads to the fact that students lack power in English learning and short of study efficiency. Thus there is less communication and interaction totally even between teachers and students or the interaction during students. Linguists proposed a lot of relevant theories, which is a great help to English language teaching and the Cooperative Principle is one of them.
American linguist Grice put forward Cooperative Principle in the 1960s. The principle was introduced into English language teaching rapidly, and achieved good results. It plays a great part in breaking up the traditional teaching concepts. As an important theory in pragmatics, the theory of Cooperative Principle was first introduced to China by Hu Zhuanglin in 1980, and gradually became the mainstream of study of communication at home.
On the basis of the theory of Cooperative Principle, this thesis aims to make clear the following two points: First, is it necessary to introduce Cooperative Principle into English language teaching? Second, How to apply it to ELT? In this thesis, a brief introduction is made at first to help clarify the understanding of Cooperative Principle. Then the thesis
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illustrates the necessity of the application of Cooperative Principle to ELT. Finally, some strategies concerning the application of Cooperative Principle are put forward to help teachers have a deep understanding of this principle and help students advance their English learning interests.
2.0 An Introduction to Cooperative Principle
The Cooperative Principle, abbreviated as CP, is followed reasonably not compulsorily. Since the theory of Cooperative Principle serves as one of the central analytical elements and theoretical foundation for this thesis, it is necessary for us to have a comprehensive understanding of this principle.
2.1 Notion of Cooperative Principle
Grice, an America philosopher of language, was the first person who proposed the theory of Cooperative Principle on a speech at Harvard University in 1967. The basic assumption of Grice’s theory is that any conversation, whether written or spoken, is a joint effort of the speaker and the addressee, and both of them have to follow certain rules in order to communicate effectively. Based on the assumption that interlocutors cooperate with each other in most circumstance, a general principle which the participants of a conversation are expected to observe runs as follows: “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” (Grice, 2002:26).
According to Grice (Grice, 2002), a speaker communicates what his or her words say not by encoding them linguistically, but by providing evidence of his or her intention to express them. As he points out, if someone cares about the goals or directions set by the participant in a connection or general transaction, he will be expected to have an interest in the case and participate in further actions. The common interest in a communication is very important. If one side in a conversation lacks interest, when the conversation continues, the other side will be misled, and the conversation will be influenced.
2.2 Maxim of Cooperative Principle
To specify the Cooperative Principle further, Grice breaks it down further into more
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detailed and explicit sub-maxims by borrowing from the German philosopher Immanual Kant’s four categories, namely, the maxim of quantity, quality, relation and manner. According to Grice, the content of each maxim is as follows:
1. Quantity maxim
a. Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of
b. Do not make your contribution more informative than that is required.
2. Quality maxim
Try to make your contribution one that is true.
a. Do not say what you believe to be false.
b. Do not say what for which you lack adequate evidence.
3. Relation maxim
4. Manner maxim
a. Avoid obscurity of expression.
b. Avoid ambiguity.
c. Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).
d. Be orderly.
(Grice, 2002: 26-27)
In a word, the principle requires the conversation to be precisely informative, truthful, relevant and explicit. It is interesting and important to note that while conversation participants nearly always observe the Cooperative Principle, they do not always observe these maxims strictly. Assuming that the Cooperative Principle is at work in most conversations, we can see how hearers will try to find meaning in utterances that seem meaningless or irrelevant.
2.3 Development of Cooperative Principle
Compared with Grice’s Cooperative Principle, Horn reduced Grice’s maxims and
proposed the following two principles:
1. The Q-principle (Hearer-based): Make you contribution sufficient, and say as much
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as you can (given R).
2. The R-principle (Speaker-based):
Say no more than you must (given Q).
(Horn, 1984: 13).
Horn’s two principles and the theory of a division of pragmatic labor explain a variety of linguistic phenomena, but they still have inadequacies.
Levinson thinks the understanding and calculating of implicatures can be achieved according to three principle — Q-principle, I-principle and M-principle. They are on the base of Grice’s two maxims of quantity and manner. Q-principle and I-principle derives from the first and second sub-maxims of Grice’s maxim of quantity respectively. And the
maxims of quality are kept originally as in Horn’s theory. He does not subsume the second
maxim of quantity under a principle of relevance as Horn does. His ideas are formulated like this:
Speaker’s maxim: Do not provide a statement that is informational weaker than
your knowledge of the world allows, unless providing a stronger statement would
contravene the I-principle.
Recipient’s corollary: Take it that speaker made the strongest statement would
consistent with what he knows.
Speaker’s maxim: the maxim of minimization.
Recipient’s corollary: the Enrichment Rule. Amplify the informational content of
the speaker’s utterance, by finding the most specific interpretation, up to what you
judge to be the speaker’s intended point.
Speaker’s maxim: Do not use a prolix or marked expression without reason.
Recipient’s corollary: If the speaker used a prolix or marked expression M, he did
not mean the same as he would have had used the unmarked expression U —
specifically he was trying to avoid the stereotypical associations and I-implicatures of
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(Levinson, 1984: 401-402)
2.4 Violations of Cooperative Principle
Grice’s maxims help people understand each other not only when they are followed, but also when they are not. As a matter of fact, in real conversational practice, speakers always violate one or more maxims of Cooperative Principle for specific conversational needs. Sometimes, when speakers want to transform some information to listeners, they often use the indirect way rather than the direct way, leaving some zone for the latter to imagine, to think and to guess the intention of the speaker. Grice has concluded the following four ways that interlocutor may fail to fulfill a maxim:
1. He may quietly and unostentatiously violate a maxim; if so, in some cases he will be
liable to mislead.
2. He may opt out from the operation both of the maxim and of the Cooperative
Principle; he may say, indicate, or allow it to become plain that he is unwilling to
cooperate in the way the maxim requires. He may say, for example, I cannot say more;
my lips are sealed.
3. He may be faced by a clash: he may be unable, for example, to fulfill the first
maxim of Quantity without violating the second maxim of Quality.
4. He may flout a maxim; that is, he may blatantly fail to fulfill it. On the assumption
that the speaker is able to fulfill the maxim and to do so without violating another
maxim (because of a clash), is not opting out, and is not, in view of the blatancy of his
performance, trying to mislead, the hearer is faced with a minor problem: how can his
saying what he did say be reconciled with the supposition that he is observing the
overall Cooperative Principle.
(Grice, 2002: 28-29)
Although speakers flout the Cooperative Principle in order to convey special meanings, the communication between speaker and hearer can still be achieved, because there is an unwritten cooperative relationship between them. It is the cooperative relationship that makes the communication possible. Without this cooperative relationship, the communication will fall into difficulties and meaning convey will be stopped.
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Doubtlessly, these four maxims can effectively guide the communication and explain all kinds of violations of maxims in conservation. For examples,
A: Where is Xiao Li?
B: He has gone to the library. He said so when he left.
In the sense, the first part of B’s answer is enough for A’s question. But by adding the
second part, the speaker may implicate that he is not sure whether Xiao Li has really gone to the library.
3.0 The Necessity of Cooperative Principle in ELT
stEnglish as a foreign language has been prosperous since the entrance to the 21
century and made a great progress. Much attention has been paid to the development of intercultural communicative competence in China. ELT is more and more emphatic on the development of intercultural communicative competence and became an extremely important part in teaching. The aim of ELT is to develop students’ communicative
competence, which aims at appropriate application of linguistic forms in social communication.
As we all know, most Chinese students have a good mastery of linguistic knowledge. They have an extensive vocabulary, and they are familiar with grammatical rules and good at structure analysis. However, they lack communicative competence, for example, when they are asked to answer a question, they cannot answer in English or when they communicate with other in English, and they cannot express their idea in English very well. In teaching and learning English, students must be concerned with the use of the language because their goal is to possess communicative competence. Now, with the advancement of the quality education, more and more teachers have noticed the deficiency in traditional ELT and they attempted to apply some new methods to ELT, such as task-based teaching method and content-based teaching method and etc. Some of the methods have already been proved successful. However, there are still many problems unsolved which affect the ELT activities. In traditional English class, teachers always act as a controller and leader in class activity. The teacher-oriented educational system made students lack of study interest
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and lack of interaction with teachers and classmates, so it is more necessary to change the traditional teaching concept and apply the Cooperative Principle to ELT.
Grice’s Cooperative Principle is the fundamental rule which provides guidance for conversational communication. It is known that language communication will take place
under the condition that there be both speakers and listeners in daily life. The essence of language teaching process is a kind of language communication but the communicative activities is carried on a special place — classroom. There exist three main
communicative modes in teaching process: the teacher-oriented, the student-oriented, and discussion between teachers and students or among students. The aim of ELT is to make students master the knowledge that they have learned maximally in limited time and get the best teaching effect. In order to achieve a good teaching effect and complete each teaching activity, teachers and students who participate in the process should follow the Cooperative Principle maximally.
4.0 The Application of Cooperative Principle to ELT
Although the Cooperative Principle got a great development, the traditional teaching methods are not abolished thoroughly. It is necessary to innovate the traditional teacher-oriented education system, and establishes a student-oriented one. Based on Grice’s Cooperative Principle, teachers should be conscious of cultivating students’ sense
of cooperation. Creating free, active class atmosphere will be helpful for teacher to develop students’ potential of English language learning and strengthen the friendly cooperation and communication between teachers and students and among the students. So the application of Cooperative Principle seems essential for us to deal with the value of theories of conversational implicature in ELT. This part will illustrate the concrete application of Cooperative Principle to ELT, based on the analysis of the four basic language skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing.
4.1 Cooperative Principle in Listening
With the development of linguistic theories, people’s goal in teaching listening has
been renewed constantly. There are few important skills in English listening
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comprehension: listening to the details, the key words, figures and specific information; listening to substance but not specific arguments; deducting some view according to implicated knowledge, view or judgment; forecasting before or during the process of listening. In English listening comprehension, Cooperative Principle can help inference and forecast the correct answers. In English listening, the Cooperative Principle always functions with the violation of its four maxims. Violating the Cooperative Principle in the process of conversation can produce the meaning out of the literal in listening comprehension, so in many cases, just listening to the literal meaning of the materials cannot get the right answers. Therefore, knowing some knowledge about Cooperative Principle is very useful in listening. Here are some examples showing the violation of the four maxims of Cooperative Principle in listening conversation.
Ex.1: A: Are you able to find the type of ink cartridge I need for my printer?
B: Well, yes I do, you should visit that new office building because they have hundreds of printer cartridges, all you had never want to say or buy, and my son works here, you know, he is a very intelligent man.
On example 1, the conversation is between a manager and his secretary in their office. Instead of just saying “Yes”, we can easily find that the secretary violates the maxim of quantity, because she provides much more information than the manager actually needs. The implication of her utterances is that she would like to introduce her son to the manager.
Ex.2: A: What will you do if you fail the exam?
B: I will eat my hat.
Q: What does the mean by saying that?
On example 2, B violates the maxim of quality because the hat cannot eat. So we can guess that B is confidence to the exam and get the answer.
Ex.3: A: Did you look in the encyclopedia?
B: The library closed before I could get what I wanted.
Q: What does B mean?
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On example 3, B violated the maxim of relation. Although B did not answer the question directly, we can conjecture the answer.
Ex.4: A: Tom is much a noisy man, isn’t he?
B: I saw a fantastic movie yesterday.
On this example, B’s answer violates the maxim of quality and manner. From the
answer we can know that B did not want to talk more about Tom’s topic.
These examples talked above explain how to deal with listening by applying Cooperative Principle and its violation of maxims. In some contexts, the situation is against just one maxim, but in many times, the violation of the maxims often emerge at the same time, like Ex4. It causes more difficulties in students’ comprehension. So we should
be careful to identify the implied meaning of the speakers when listening to a conversation. 4.2 Cooperative Principle in Speaking
Compared with listening comprehension, the application of Cooperative Principle in speaking is reflected more in course design. A good teacher must design a pleased course according to the four maxims of Cooperative Principle. In course design, the specific requirements of the four maxims are shown as follows:
1. According to the maxim of quantity, design conversational activities and oral English content. Generally, the class content should be organized to catch up with conversational topics or specific conversational function. On one hand, the vocabulary, sentences structure and expression skills which are related to the topic will be beyond the class’ accommodation. On the other hand, not all content that teacher show in class will be used in practical communication. So, teacher should focus on teaching requirements and the ability of acceptance when setting teaching content.
2. According to the maxim of quality, create conversational communicative situations close to reality. The purpose of oral English teaching is to encourage students to speak, which should take the quality as creed, providing students more chance to speak and make them feel communicative atmosphere. The teacher should pay attention to the authenticity of the oral materials and choose some topics which students like and which can stimulate students’ interest, making them full of confidence. It can not only increase the students’
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knowledge, but also help to achieve the purpose of language training.
3. Based on the maxim of relation, layout oral activities related to teaching theme, students’ knowledge accumulation and conversational intention. The process of oral English teaching should be closed to conversational topics. When students’ needs are
associated with their communicative intentions, they will be more outstanding; but if not, they will lose the consciousness of autonomous communication, and could not attain the teaching aim.
4. According to the maxim of manner, the class should be concise, clear, and organized. In oral class, too complex and circuitous language can prevent students from receiving information directly. In oral training process, teacher should observe and listen carefully, keep warm, sensitive and tolerant. As the going says, “the sauce is better than the
fish”. If the activity can not go well, the teacher should be witty and flexible to make sure the teaching activity achieves a good effect.
Besides, the teacher can organize more communicative activities that make students have the opportunities to experience the applicability of the knowledge they have learnt, such as role-pay, topic discussion, and group debate and so on, which can make class interesting and lively. Role-playing activities are those in which students are asked to imagine who they are in different situations and act accordingly. Most students like to play games, so role-playing will undoubtedly stimulate their interests. They will focus on the knowledge as well as the activities.
4.3 Cooperative Principle in Reading and Writing
As a complex cognitive process, reading comprehension requires higher skills and competence. If teachers pay more attention to the knowledge of cultural background, the teachers will feel tired, and the students will feel bothered, too. The reason why teachers feel tired is that they spend amount of time to prepare the class and repeat the lecture again and again to make students understand easier. However, students bother just because they know less about those knowledge and they cannot absorb so much information timely. The application of Cooperative Principle to reading teaching can not only help students understand the generalized conversational implicature through the conventions of linguistic
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