Pragmatics and TOEFL iBT Listening: Understanding Purpose and Function

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A friend asks you, “Have you ever thought about joining a health club?” A professor says, “You will need to consult the writing center concerning your writing assignment?” When John tells Susan that he came to school by bike, Susan says, “Oh, so you DO have a bicycle.” What do these three examples have in common? All involve the subtle uses of language and imply something that was not said directly. In the first example, the speaker may be suggesting that you are fat. In the second example, the professor is suggesting that your writing is less than satisfactory. In the last example, Susan is surprised that John has a bicycle since she originally believed that he did not have a bicycle.

Understanding these subtle uses of language is important to TOEFL iBT listening which will often ask you to answer questions involving pragmatic understandings. These types of TOEFL iBT questions will not ask you about the main ideas or details of a listening passage. Rather, pragmatic questions will ask you about the speaker’s purpose or attitude toward a particular subject. For example, “Why does the man say….?” Or “What does the speaker mean when he or she says this?” are examples of pragmatic questions. Fortunately, you are allowed to listen again to part of the listening passage before answering.

Some students, focusing more on the main ideas and details, are confused when confronted with these questions. Therefore, they are unable to accurately infer the speaker’s purpose or attitude is toward a particular subject. Other students, especially ones with limited listening comprehension proficiency, will not be able to answer these types of questions accurately. Three tips will help you to develop your TOEFL iBT listening pragmatic competence.

1) To improve in this area, you should pay a lot of attention to the context surrounding the conversation. The tone of voice, the social relationship of the speakers, the location of the conversation, and the words spoken should all be considered as you draw a conclusion about the speaker’s attitude or purpose toward a particular subject. 2) Remember that you will not have to pull the answer out of thin air. 3) Finally, avoid TOEFL iBT answers that focus on the literal meaning of what was said. Instead, choose answers which focus on what was implied by the speaker.

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Michael Buckhoff’s “7 Step System to Pass the TOEFL iBT

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