Local Pragmatic Norms in Students’ English: An Identity to Unleash

(A presentation paper originally; left as such)


English is now a global language shared by people all over the world, the existence of which—by definition—can no longer be rendered to any one nation or group claiming it to be their native language. Citing McArthur (1992), Li writes, “…English is the possession of every individual and every community that in any way uses it, regardless of what any other individual or community may think or feel about the matter” (1999: 1).

Considering the different needs that Asia-Pacific learners have in learning English and the different function that English serves in the Asia-Pacific Region, Li strongly suggests that at least three points below be accommodated in the region English curriculum to be specified at the levels of phonology, lexis and grammar, as well as elements of communicative competence all aimed at training learners to develop language functions needed for both inter- and intra-group communication, especially across national boundaries.

Dwelling on the above taking the context of Indonesia based on Antoni and Radiana (2001), Antoni and Gunawan (2005), and Antoni and Zuraida (2010), this paper firstly seeks to discuss the meaning and nature of pragmatic norms. Then it reveals the local pragmatic norms of various kinds students usually incorporate into their English and English use, giving examples of the case. It next argues to what extent these local pragmatic norms can or can not be justifiably adopted. Finally it proposes ways to best deal with these local pragmatic norms at their occurrences.

Local Pragmatic Norms in Students’ English: Points to Ponder

To begin, we can not necessarily expect anymore that English-as-a-foreign-language (EFL) learners will come in contact with their American counterparts. They will only get to use their English with their teachers, and friends within their own community (be it their school, society, and country), the farthest being region, or world, but not necessarily America. To quote Li, the assumption that teaching English should go with teaching the Anglo-American sociolinguistic norms governing the language use

“…has been increasingly called into doubt, especially by advocates of New Varieties of English (NVEs, cf. D’souza 1997, Kachru 1989a). The main argument is that, given that NVEs are typically learned and used in local and neighboring communities, there is really no room for Anglo-Americanism, a point already asserted by Kachru (1976) well over two decades ago…” (1999: 2).

Secondly, adult learners, who make up the majority of learners learning English in the region, have already been equipped with—what Li quotes Agar (1995) terming—“languaculture”, that is, the learners’ L1 language culture which has shaped their values, belief system, and behaviors. These will undoubtedly clash with the English pragmatic norms and values that those learners have to adopt when learning the language. Honna and Takeshita (1995) assert that, thus, many people in the world are learning English not to assimilate themselves to the Anglo-American norms of behavior, but to acquire a working command of the language of wider communication and whereby to express their national identity and personal opinions. In other words, no one is forced to abandon his or her native culture and behave Anglo-American in order to acquire proficiency in English.

Thirdly, more often than not, given an established system of values, beliefs, and behaviors, learners consciously resort to transferring their L1 pragmatic norms and cultural values to English out of fear of losing their identity rather than adopting English pragmatic norms and cultural values and developing a new identity in the language. Citing works of some scholars, Li writes that this pragmatic transfer occurs in the areas of politeness strategies, turn-taking, topic confusion, making requests, refusing, using terms of address, complaining, and offering apologies.

Cross-Cultural Understanding: How It Should Be Taken to Mean Now

In the past, cross-cultural understanding meant that foreigners learning English had to know how English is used, i.e., spoken and written, following its own pragmatic norms and cultural values, which sounds unfair because it is one-sided.

Now, in EFL learners’ encounter with their counterparts of either American/English or any given (non-English speaking) country, the point is that understanding, suspension of judgment, cognitive curiosity, respect, open-mindedness, sensitivity, equality, empathy, etc. crucial for intercultural/cross-cultural understanding should come from both sides. Put in a simple way, an Indonesian EFL learner speaking with his or her American friend (especially in America) should know how to use the language employing American sociolinguistic norms to his or her utmost. Yet, his or her American counterpart is also expected to understand why and how his or her Indonesian friend uses English the way he does. This is especially so if the given place is Indonesia.

This understanding equally needed on the part of the American friend is best described by Wolfson’s (1988) example in which an American host might judge his Korean guests a bunch of slobs out of their slurping very strongly the soup served, not knowing anything about this attitude in Korea. Actually, “his bad feeling about those well-meaning Korean would automatically turn to appreciation if he knew that slurping was meant to be a compliment for the delicious soup” (p. 56). In the words of Li, “…given the active role of English in international communication, it is also important for native speakers of English… to be aware of such norms” (that is, taking the above example, those of how non-native speakers of English speak, act, and behave the way they do with reference to their own norms and standards; additional comment mine [citing Kachru 1983, 1989b]).

Indonesian English: Does It Exist at All?

Only little attempt has so far been made as to investigate if Indonesian English shows any sign of beginning to emerge at all. Among others is a seminar on specific English for Indonesians conducted on June 25, 2001 at Maranatha Christian University Bandung. But no firm standing was confirmed as to whether Indonesian English exists, apart from some signs given that may suggest its early existence in some still-localized context.

Aziz (2001) contends that there are three areas in which the possible future Indonesian English may have its features: grammar, lexis, and discourse. For grammar, he gives three examples, one of which is I go to Bali last month, to indicate that Indonesian English will be devoid of tense concept as Indonesian does not have it. For lexis, he gives the example of reformation that people use in place of reform. And for discourse, he gives two examples, one of which is As we know that people often use to start a conversation.

Observed Phenomenon

What is observed in reality, that is, how learners use their English indeed testifies to the above standing contended by Aziz (2001).

The following are excerpts from students’ language taken from Antoni and Radiana (2001), Antoni and Gunawan (2005), and Antoni and Zuraida (2010):

1.  presentate (in place of present)

2.  I am agree

3.  Excuse me, Sir, I want to go to the bathroom

4.  Teacher      : Why late now?

Student       : Sorry Sir, I have to take my mother to the hospital

5.  Teacher      : You don’t like durians, right?

Student       : Yes, Sir (that is, yes, Sir, I don’t)

6.  (When delivering a presentation) In this presentation, I want to explain

7.  (In a conversation class, when creating a dialogue)

A: Hi, where are you going?

B: Hi. I am going to the market. What about you?


8.  (When delivering a presentation) Firstly, I want to thank God for the opportunity given to me to present this essay…

9.  I am flu

10. (When ending a presentation) I am sorry if I made mistakes in my presentation. Mistakes are from me, the truth is from God…

Local Pragmatic Norms in Students’ English: Extent to Which This is Possible

Adopting Aziz’ (2001) areas in which signs of Indonesian English may be traced, we can easily say that students’ presentate, I am agree, I have to take my mother to the hospital, and I am flu are examples of mistake in grammar; students’ I want to go to the bathroom, I want to explain…, are examples of mistake in lexis; and students’ where are you going?, I want to thank God for the opportunity given to me to present this essay…, I am sorry if I made mistakes in my presentation. Mistakes are from me, the truth is from God…are examples of ‘mistake’ in discourse strategies.

The question is: which ones are to be corrected and which are to be understood as pragmatically typical of Indonesian and therefore to be tolerated? I would argue that mistakes in grammar and lexis must be corrected no matter how easily they persist to occur. Given the above examples, the teacher should explain that the correct forms are present, I agree, I had to take my mother to the hospital (the use of past tense), I am having a flu (the use of have a + illness), and I need to go to the bathroom and I would like to explain…(the use of want vis a vis need and would like).

As for the ‘mistake’ in discourse strategies, depicted in students’ where are you going?, I want to thank God for the opportunity given to me to present this essay…, I am sorry if I made mistakes in my presentation. Mistakes are from me, the truth is from God…, they should be understood as typically pragmatic (that is, of Indonesian—even Asian—norms and values of culture) and therefore tolerated and accepted. But the teacher should explain that it is not commonly spoken by native speakers of English. The teacher should continue explaining that educated native speakers of English will understand it and students should therefore not feel uneasy about it.

Concerning that, Kirkpatrick (2000) asserts that speakers of a new variety of English will want to preserve their identity, and the reflection of their pragmatic and cultural norms in the local variety of English is an important way of doing this. He renders an example of English-translated Minang dialogue, provided by Rusdi Thaib, an ex PhD student at Curtain University, Perth, Australia who is a Minang.

A female (A, aged 40) wants to invite a friend (B, aged 41) to a wedding party. A goes to B’s house.

A: (knocks at the door). Assalamua’alaikum

B: Wa’alaikum salaam. Please come in

A: Are you alone?

B: Yes. I am always alone during the day

A: Where are your children?

B: My son is helping his father in the rice field and my daughter is studying at school

A: What are you growing at the moment?

B: Rice. Earlier we grew chilli. What about your children?

A: Oh, he is still in Jakarta. I haven’t heard from him for months now. But I believe the saying ‘no news is good news’

B: What is he doing in Jakarta?

A: He is a tailor in Tanggerang. He works for his uncle

B: Has he married?

A: Yes. He married a Javanese girl

B: That’s good

A: Oh, what I would like to tell you is this…do you know Hassan’s daughter?

B: I vaguely know her

A: She is going to marry Chairil’s son. The wedding party will be next Friday. We hope you can come

B: Insyaallah I will come

A: I think I should be off now. Assalamu’alaikum

B: Wa’alaikum salam

Kirkpatrick contends that this kind of dialogue, in which one does not directly get to point of what he or she wants to say, but instead talks about something else before he or she hits the point, might well represent a cultural norm typical of Asian people at large and so should not be considered as peculiar. It should in fact be seen as appropriate given the context of the region.

Implication on English Teaching in the Region

Teachers of English should know what aspects of students’ English must be considered as mistakes and therefore corrected before they persist to happen, and what aspects of it must be understood pragmatically and consequently accepted. This will require teachers who are not only verbally proficient, but also pragmatically (that is, especially, local-pragmatically) competent. And for this purpose “…trained non-native speaking teachers of English (NNST) are better qualified to teach English than monolingual native speakers are, provided of course that their own level of English is of sufficient standard and that they have had relevant training…” (Kirpatrick in Proceeding of Seminar on Specific English for Indonesians 2001: 12).


English is now owned by any country which uses it in ways appropriate to its own context. In the context of Indonesia—and Asia at large—this means that local pragmatic norms and cultural values may be incorporated and color the kind of English used in the region. Such a use is justified by the fact that the language will be used mostly among the people in the region, not necessarily with the native speakers of the language. Even when it is used with the native speakers, they should also know that we use English in our own way and respect the practice.


Antoni, F. & Radiana, I (2001, September). “Common mistakes students make and what it may suggest we should do to fix the problem: an account of advanced 4 students’ essay-writing workdrafts.” Paper presented at the LIA International Conference, Jakarta.

Antoni, F. & Gunawan, M. H. (2005, December). “Incorporating local pragmatic norms into TEFL as a way both to put more meaning to it and to respect local cultures: how feasible?” Paper presented at the 53rd TEFLIN Int’l Conference, Yogyakarta.

Antoni, F. & Zuraida, I. (2010, April and June). “Teaching Our Very Own English: Ideas on Making It Not Look Foolish.” Paper presented at the LIA International Conference, Bali and at the MELTA International Conference, Malaysia.

Aziz, A. (June 2001). “Speech act realizations as the basic distinctive features of (future) Indonesian English.” Paper presented at Seminar on Specific English for Indonesians, Bandung.

Honna, N. and Yuko Takeshita. (1995). On Japan’s Propensity for Native Speaker English: A Change in Sight. Asian Englishes. Available online here.

Kirkpatrick, A. (June 2001). “New approaches for English language teaching: implication for the curriculum and for teacher selection.” Paper presented at Seminar on Specific English for Indonesians, Bandung.

Li, David C.S. (1999). Incorporating L1 Pragmatic Norms and Cultural Values in L2: Developing English Language Curriculum for EIL in the Asia-Pacific Region. Asian Englishes. Available online here.

Proceeding. (June 2001). Seminar on Specific English for Indonesians, Bandung.

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