System 45 (2014) 92e102

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Learner investment, identity, and resistance to second
language pragmatic norms
Hye Yeong Kim
Department of English Language and Literature, Sungkyunkwan University, Seoul, Republic of Korea

a r t i c l e i n f o

a b s t r a c t

Article history:
Received 23 April 2012
Received in revised form 11 March 2014
Accepted 3 May 2014
Available online 3 June 2014

This study examined how the investment in identity of English as a second language (ESL)
learner guides pragmatic choices. Findings show that the participants in this study often
made pragmatic choices in hopes of a better return for their social identity. Aspects of
individual learners' backgrounds, such as age and length of stay in the target country as
well as interlocutors' age and power were found to closely relate to learners' pragmatic
decisions. However, learners' own evaluations of these factors did not lead to certain fixed
pragmatic choices. Rather, more significant for pragmatic choice were learners' decisions
about investment based on constant negotiations between conflicting identities and
pragmatic norms in relationships with others. These findings call for greater sensitivity
toward learner subjectivity by both researchers and educators to understand learner's
pragmatic decisions and their performance.
© 2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Second language learning
Learner investment
Learner resistance

1. Introduction
Learners' failures in the field of pragmatics are often assumed to derive from a lack of awareness of the target language's
norms or a low motivation to learn the foreign or second language's (L2) pragmatics (Kasper, 1992; Thomas, 1983). However,
to assume this would neglect the possibility that learners may intentionally deviate from target language norms in order to
express a particular social identity and position in relation with others. The lack of attention to sociocultural contexts and
learner identity when discussing learner interlanguage pragmatics (ILP) is problematic in that pragmatic decisions reflect the
cultural and personal views of the learners regarding target practices and the extent to which learners are willing to conform
to them (Thomas, 1983). Therefore, the current study explores how English as a second language (ESL) learners' investment in
their social identity guides their pragmatic choices and examines the extent to which L2 learners exercise their agency,
thereby resisting target-language norms.

2. Pragmatic research and learner investment
Many observational and developmental studies have examined L2 learners' pragmatic ability (e.g., Bardovi-Harling &
Mahan-Taylor, 2003; Rose & Kasper, 2001), often comparing it to native speakers' pragmatics, the model which L2
learners are expected to follow. Such studies assume that all learners strive to achieve native-like competence; however, such
an assumption neglects the role of individuals in the language-learning process (Kasper & Schmidt, 1996). For example,

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H.Y. Kim / System 45 (2014) 92e102


research based on relatively positivist paradigms explored the differences between individual learners as a variable related to
L2 learning and use, examining factors such as age, gender, and attitude toward a language, in addition to cognitive, social, and
affective factors (e.g., Cook, 2001; Ehrlich, 1997; Kim, 2000; Takahashi, 2005). Although studies examining various learner
variables have focused primarily on differences among individuals, this approach has been contested because learners are
viewed as stable and impervious to context variation, despite evidence that language learning is socially contextualized and
often co-constructed (Rose & Kasper, 2001).
Norton (1997) introduced the notion of investment in her criticisms of the traditional view, which depicted learners as
unitary, fixed, and ahistorical entities. Investment is an extended notion of motivation, but with emphasis on the contextual,
social, and historical nature of the target language used by learners. According to Norton (2000), “a learner's motivation to
speak is mediated by other investments that may conflict with the desire to speakdinvestments that are intimately connected to the ongoing production of the learners' identities and their desires for the future” (p. 120). As such, Norton suggests
that, when learners invest in the target language, they do so expecting a good return that will benefit their cultural capital
through a wide range of symbolic and material resources. In other words, when learners speak and practice the target
language, they are not just exchanging information with others, but are also constantly organizing and reorganizing their
identities and their relationships with others. Accordingly, investment in the target language equates to investment in a
learner's own identity.
However, investment in a languagedand subsequently in an identitydmay not be easy, considering the numerous options from which to choose. Norton views learners' identities as unitary, but multiple. The multiple identities can conflict with
each other at times, causing learners to struggle with change over time (Norton, 1995; Weedon, 1987). Thus, learners' investment in using a target language can be changeable, depending on the relationship with interlocutors and the identities
the learners wish to present at a given moment. Language offers a tool through which a person negotiates a sense of self
within different contexts at different times.
The theoretical notion of investment focuses on the dialectical relationship between ILP and learner identity. Language
learning involves the social identity of the learner as a member of groups, cultures, and societies. Learner subjectivities may
conflict within an individual learner or between people and may also be constantly negotiated and co-constructed in
interactional contexts (Ochs, 1993). Seen from this perspective, L2 learners are active agents who would use L2 to not only
position themselves in a particular context and invest for their benefit rather than passively following the norms given to
them, but also to position themselves as social relations would define them. Therefore, depending on the identity in which
they want to invest for a given discourse, their language use may vary. Language use can of itself affect learners' interactions
with others, their experiences within the L2 community, and their attitudes regarding L2 and identity. Considering that
pragmatics encompass various sociocultural contexts and norms, the reciprocity between learner investment and ILP requires
more attention. Thus, further research into pragmatics and examination of educational practices are warranted.
3. Learner resistance
Few studies have documented the ILP of learners to demonstrate how they express identity, manifest resistance in social
contexts, or negotiate such complicated ideas. Siegal (1996) studied a white professional woman named Mary who was
learning Japanese as an L2 in Japan. Siegal highlighted the importance of discussing “the intersection of language, culture,
society (and all that reflects and creates power relations, such as nationality, race, gender, social class, and age), history, and
the learner's position in that society” (p. 376). Ultimately, Siegal demonstrated the connection between society and the
learner by using the theoretical construct of subjectivity (Weedon, 1987).
Siegal (1996) documented a conversation between Mary and her professor, demonstrating how Mary manipulated conversations to save face within that particular conversational interaction by using topic control, hesitancy, modality, and
honorific language. Unfortunately, her attempts to appear polite were unsuccessful due to her inappropriate use of the verbal
auxiliary modal desho and her incorrect intonations. Desho is an epistemic marker indicatingdamong other thingsdthat the
recipient knows the propositional information. Mary used it to express a polite stance, but it could have been face-threatening
because of the polysemy of this form; however, the inappropriateness of her pragmatics was not viewed as a failure by her
advisor, who had low expectations for foreigners. After all, Mary was engaged in the social interaction that takes management
of one's face. Mary and her professor negotiated her position and co-constructed her identity through their language use.
Thus, this example demonstrates how Mary's societal positions as a woman, student, researcher, teacher, and foreigner in
Japan either helped or hindered her language-learning experiences in Japan. Furthermore, her self-position was co-created by
both herself and others throughout her learning experiences.
Although Siegal (1996) analyzed an incident in which Mary attempted to portray herself in a favorable light to her advisor,
it is not clear how Mary would have made pragmatic choices in other contexts. For example, would she make the same
pragmatic decision in speaking with her friends as she would with a professor whom she did not know? Would she express
her identity differently in other speech acts? Such questions underscore the need to gain greater insights into learner ILP,
which requires a more systematic investigation of the factors that influence learner ILP.
The relationship between learner social identity and ILP use was examined more systematically by Ishihara (2006), who
gathered data from seven advanced-level learners of Japanese as a foreign language to determine which L2 characteristics
such learners were most likely to follow or resist and their reasons for doing so. Her study focused on the speech acts of
requests, refusals, and responses to compliments, analyzing the performance of elicitation tasks, stimulated recall interviews,


H.Y. Kim / System 45 (2014) 92e102

and follow-up e-mail correspondence. She found that learners' resistance to target norms is quite common, although most
often, learners are willing to emulate the target norms. Several of the learners showed resistance to the target norms,
conveying their identities regarding keigo1 and gendered language because they perceived these language expressions to
manifest both a social hierarchy and unequal levels of power. Interestingly, learners' ILP use was not always stable; rather, ILP
use shifted depending on the interactions of learners with other people as well as the learners' attitudes toward the target
norms at various times and in varying situations.
Ishihara's (2006) study is meaningful because it shows exactly how learners' social identity relates to ILP use. She provided
a case for the emergence of resistance to target norms for learners in both language use during elicitation tasks and the
explanations that show learner agency. Furthermore, her study challenged several common assumptionsdnamely, the assumptions that one common pragmatic norm exists for a target language, that learners' divergent pragmatic usage indicates
pragmatic failure, and that learners always willingly accommodate to target-language norms.
Thus, as these existing studies demonstrate, learners' attitudes and identities can influence their pragmatic choices
(Ishihara, 2006; LoCastro, 2001; Siegal, 1996). Learners may also choose divergence as a strategy for maintaining their
identities or as an alternative to total conformity to the L2 norms (Ishihara, 2006; Kasper & Schmidt, 1996). Although a
growing number of studies (e.g., Ishihara, 2006; LoCastro, 2001) have explored the relationship between learners' identity
and ILP, the number of such studies remains relatively small. Moreover, most studies on learner subjectivity thus far have only
described isolated instances of the expression of social identities and consequently have failed to demonstrate how learners
make such decisions within the various contexts in which multiple contextual factors coexist. Do learners always choose
divergence from a certain target norm? Why do some contexts make learners feel the need to opt out, while others lead
learners to accommodate the new target norms? The factors that lead a learner to deviate from the target norms by
expressing their social identities are not fully understood. As such, the sociocultural influences, contextual factors, and L2
features that influence learners' investment in using pragmatic norms of the target language need further systematic
investigation. Collective findings concerning the types of language that would demonstrate learners' differing investments in
various circumstances would help both researchers and teachers to understand learner deviance from target-language norms
more precisely.
Therefore, this study attempts to identify which factors influence learners' investment in using pragmatic norms within a
target language, thereby leading to accommodation and resistance to target-language norms. More specifically, the relationship between the resistance to target-language norms and the different learner-related factors (e.g., learner's age and
length of stay) are examined. The current study also explores the ways in which differing sociolinguistic features and
conversational situations contribute to non-native speakers' (NNS) resistance to target-language norms by posing the
following research questions:
1. To what extent do ESL learners resist the target-language's pragmatic norms?
2. How is the learner's background related to his or her resistance to target-language norms?
3. What kinds of features contribute to NNS resistance to target-language norms?

4. Methodology
4.1. Participants
Thirty Korean students at a large public Midwestern university in the United States participated in this study. Their ages
ranged from 24 to 50 years old. Thirteen of the participants were females; the remainder were males. All participants had
been in the United States for periods ranging from six months to nine years, all were native speakers of Korean with ESL
qualifications, and all had studied English for six years in middle school and high school. Most had studied English in order to
pass standardized tests (e.g., TOEFL, TOEIC, GRE). Some participants had also attended English conversation classes for a short
period while still in Korea. All participants were studying in graduate-level programs, majoring in various subjects.
4.2. Instrumentation
Data were collected using multiple sourcesdnamely, questionnaires, discourse-completion tests (DCTs), interviews, and
role-plays. Some researchers have argued that DCTs do not always yield natural data (Aston, 1993; Bardovi-Harlig & Hartford,
1993) since DCTs often ask learners to articulate what they believe would be appropriate responses, rather than eliciting
natural conversational interactions. In addition, DCTs may not reflect pragmatic features that are specific to oral interactive
discourse, for example, the dynamics of a conversation, turn-taking, shared histories between interlocutors, or paralinguistic
and non-paralinguistic elements (Johnston, Kasper, & Ross, 1998; Kasper, 2000). As such, observing authentic conversations

Thirty years old was used as the cut-off point to split the participants into two groups, each of which contained 50% of the participants. The cut-off point
might be criticized as arbitrary; however, other centiles are not intrinsically more valid for a cut-off point than the 50th. The cut-off point was used to
describe a general tendency in the responses of the two age groups.

H.Y. Kim / System 45 (2014) 92e102


may be the best way to study learner subjectivity (Wolfson, 1981). However, gathering naturalistic data also involves certain
disadvantages (Cohen, 1996; Kasper, 2000; Kasper & Dahl, 1991). In particular, the data may not yield sufficient pragmatic
features for analysis. In addition, speech situations may not be comparable across all participants. In the current study,
observing all speech acts in all conversational contexts chosen for analysis was not possible, because the goal was to understand how learner subjectivity varies in varying contexts, rather than simply reporting isolated incidences. Given that such
an approach required a data source that allowed for the manipulation of contextual factors across items, both DCT and roleplay methodologies were used to elicit the learners' language use and thoughts.
In this study, DCTs allowed for the manipulation of contextual factors across items to analyze how the factors affected
language use (e.g., the level of power, distance, and speech acts). The DCTs also helped obtain sets of an entire conversational
interaction, including the openings and closings of conversations. DCTs in the current study focused specifically on the speech
acts of requests, compliments, and responses to compliments in discourse. They contained 12 different pragmatic situations
(see Appendix) in terms of speech acts and the relationships of interlocutors with reference to their ages, social distance, and
power. The researcher read the situation with the participants to help them understand each individual situation. For each
DCT, participants were asked to complete the conversation as they usually would in that given situation. Once participants
had completed the conversations, they were asked whether they thought Americans would conduct the conversations
differently than they had. The participants shared any thoughts they might have had about how Americans might have acted
differently in the same circumstances.
In addition to DCTs, role-plays were conducted with seven volunteers to gather more interactive and spontaneous responses. Although not considered the same as naturally occurring conversations, role-plays are believed to provide more
naturalistic data than DCTs, by eliciting “full operation of the turn-taking mechanism, impromptu planning decisions
contingent on interlocutor input, and hence negotiation of global and locals” (Kasper & Dahl, 1991, p. 228). The role-plays
utilized the same scenarios as the DCTs.
Once participants had completed DCTs and role-plays, the researcher interviewed each of the participants about the
answers and responses provided to each situation. These in-depth interviews were used to explore the insider perspectives of
learners, thereby examining the connection between learners' subjectivity and their pragmatic choice, as elicited though DCTs
and the role-plays. The combination of DCTs and detailed interviews is considered to be a useful approach for tapping into
learners' knowledge and thinking (Golato, 2003). The researcher asked questions aimed at determining why the participants
had answered the way they did and whether they felt any tension in regard to their perceived target-language norms. In
seeking cases of deliberate divergence from perceived target-language pragmatic norms, the researcher asked learners to
identify items in which their L2 responses differed pragmatically from those of native norms. Finally, a general questionnaire
was used to collect information about learners' backgrounds, including age, gender, prior education, motivation for learning
English, and general perceptions about target-language norms.
4.3. Procedure
The researcher met individually with each participant. Participants completed the questionnaires first, followed by the
DCTs, and finally, the open-ended interview, which lasted approximately 30 min. For the role-plays, participants interacted
with a native speaker of English who had been trained to act as the interlocutor in the situation described by the researcher.
All interviews and role-plays were audiotaped and subsequently transcribed for analysis.
4.4. Analysis
In accordance with the study's focus, the major findings were based on a qualitative analysis of interviews and DCTs. In
order to find instances of intended accommodation or divergence, the analysis focused on those items in which learners
indicated an awareness of target-language norms as well as discrepancies between target-language norms and L1 norms in
participants' DCT responses, as well as during role-plays and interviews. In other words, cases wherein learners displayed
their divergence from the target form due to their lack of knowledge were not included in the analysis.
Situations leading to learners' resistance to target-language norms were identified by examining learners' responses
during interviews and their additional comments on DCTs. Various pragmatic norms in both English and Korean along with
specific examples will be discussed, in the Section 5. The frequency, percentage, and distribution of each DCT response and
in the role-plays were then computed to develop an overview of the responses. Responses of learners who showed
resistance were further analyzed in terms of individuals' characteristics (e.g., age, gender, and length of stay in the United
States). Because the aim of the study was not simply to count instances of particular responses, but also to develop a more
comprehensive understanding of how complex factors influence learner investment, the constant comparative method
(Merriam, 1998) was employed to identify patterns across participants' responses on DCTs, role-plays, and interviews in
terms of their identity and deliberate pragmatic choice. In particular, this qualitative analysis focused on how learners
experienced discrepancies between two pragmatic norms and what caused learners to opt for intentional accommodation
or resistance to certain target-language norms. Through this cross-case analysis, themes emerged, thereby demonstrating
the complexity of the means by which learners negotiate identities and invest in the use of the target-language's pragmatic


H.Y. Kim / System 45 (2014) 92e102

5. Findings
This section discusses each speech-act situation that created tension in participants' pragmatic language choices, along
with the reference choices that created the most learner resistance to target-language norms across the spectrum of DCT
situations. Furthermore, this section examines the relationship among various backgrounds and the pragmatic decisions of
learners in each situation. After investigating the patterns of pragmatic choices in different contexts, relevant examples were
selected to illustrate the emergent theme across participants, as well as to describe the relationship between learner investment and deliberate pragmatic choices.
5.1. Responses to compliments
The act of giving compliments did not create much tension for learners in terms of pragmatic choices; however, learners did
show tension when responding to compliments. Participants did not express any tension when complimenting others, because
they did not notice any major differences between the American and Korean ways of complimenting. However, when responding
to compliments, learners used different strategies and reported inner struggles when choosing pragmatic norms. In contrast to
findings from previous studies, which indicated that Asian students often would not accept or reject compliments in order to
retain an appearance of modesty (e.g., Saito & Beecken, 1997), participants in the current study did not demonstrate a strong
appearance of modest behavior across similar situations. All participants responded to compliments by first saying “Thank you.”
These initial responses alone might be believed to indicate that learners adopt target-language norms without much tension.
However, interviews revealed that some learners did not feel comfortable directly accepting compliments by saying
“Thank you.” These learners employed additional expressions in such a way as to express their identity as a modest learner or
Korean. One learner stated that she attempted to emulate the target-language norms, but still felt uncomfortable responding
in the American way:
I learned that “thank you” was the correct way to respond in America. So, I respond to compliments by saying “Thank
you,” but it makes me feel embarrassed. I am afraid that I appear cheeky. So, I automatically say additional things to
appear humble … sometimes, I hope they [interlocutors] only hear the second parts of my utterances, not the “thank
you” part.
Indeed, as this example illustrates, most learners (87%) were aware of the differences between L1 and the target-language
norms and adopted the latter, feeling pressure from the L2 community. One participant expressed her pressure to follow the
L2 norm by remembering her American friends, who once mocked her modest response. Since the learner “realized that
modest response could be a target of mockery rather than something to be praised,” she has tried to use a simple “Thank you”
in response to compliments. However, learners often employed additional semantic formulae to show humility, which made
them feel truer to themselves (e.g., “You're so kind to say that to me”.). In this way, learners negotiated between the L1 and
target-language norms, finding a middle ground that made them feel more comfortable.
The interviews further revealed that learners had used additional semantic formulae to negotiate conflicting social identities.
The entire utterance was analyzed using semantic formulae (for semantic categories, see Herbert, 1989; Saito & Beecken, 1997).
The response types to compliments differed depending on learners' age and interlocutors. Learners younger than 30 years1 old
seldom added semantic formulae to indicate humility, often using only “Thank you” in response to compliments from professors
(64%) and friends (61%). In contrast, participants 30 years old and older used “Thank you” alone, less often in response to compliments from professors (50%) and friends (30%). They included humble expressions after their “Thank you” more often than did
younger learners. In addition, older learners tended to diminish themselves or raise the status of their friends by adding negative
expressions (e.g., “But I made lot of mistakes”) or positive expressions (e.g., “You will do much better than me”).
Based on existing literature, participants were expected to act more humbly toward their professors than their friends;
however, the results indicated that participants used humble expressions more often with their friends than with their
professors. As Table 1 shows, participants did not use negative formulae with their professors as often as they did with their
friends; rather, they responded simply by saying “Thank you.” The difference in strategies is even more apparent in older
participants' responses. Older participants employed negative formulae only 23% of the time in response to professors, but
used negative formulae 47% of the time and avoidance 11% of the time in response to friends. Such results may indicate that
older participants are more sensitive to layers of status differences and their multiple identities in adopting target-language
norms, than younger participants who adopted target-language norms at similar rates in both contexts. The difference between the two age groups may suggest that the younger learners are more flexible, open-minded, and interested in learning
Table 1
Types of responses to compliments.


Positive semantic formulae

Negative semantic formulae

Avoidance semantic formulae

Only thank you













H.Y. Kim / System 45 (2014) 92e102


the target norms than older learners. However, younger generations of Koreans appear to operate under different pragmatic
norms than the older generation, possibly because the younger generations in Korea have adopted pragmatic norms that have
been influenced by Western culture, even before the learners have arrived in the United States.
Generally speaking, it appears that learners feel more pressure to use the target-language norm when the interlocutors are
in power and when learners are concerned about their position in the discourse. In other words, learners were not simply
exchanging information with interlocutors, but were also creating a sense of who they are and how they stand in relation to
others and society. In particular, learners chose to follow the target norm if they perceived it was a better investment for their
social identity in the target community, even though it may conflict with their ethnic identity. The following excerpt for this
study illustrates such investments by an old learner:
I feel comfortable when I act humble. However … I do not want my professor to think that I am disagreeing with him.
Moreover, I do not want my professors to believe I am not good. Therefore, I just say “Thank you.”
This excerpt demonstrates that participants accepted compliments without denying them when the situation involved a
compliment from a person in power or referred to a student's intelligence, making the student feel the importance of
recognizing the compliment. In contrast, when participants were talking with their friends, they were not necessarily worried
about their talents being recognized or having to disagree with their interlocutors. Instead, their concerns were more about
their social relationships with interlocutors, in which they were primarily concerned about not being perceived as arrogant.
Thus, when responding to compliments in this context, they felt comfortable adopting their L1 norms. They also used humble
expressions when speaking to people with less power and less social distance, although adopting L1 norms was likely to lead
to a conflict in communication rather than helping their social relationships, which was the primary intention (Odlin, 1989).
5.2. Requests
The most favored request strategies across situations were conventionally indirect (embedded request) strategies (91%).
Although participants (80%) used L2 pragmatic speech acts that were successful in most situations, some participants clearly
indicated their intention to resist target-language norms in certain cases. In particular, some participants (20%) used much
more direct (imperative requests) strategies (e.g., “Go” or “Be quiet”) in situations where interlocutors were young, while
using more indirect strategies (e.g., “Could you..?” or “I wonder”) in situations with older interlocutors. Participants also more
frequently used commands or direct requests with younger interlocutors. For example, when having to ask a group of loudly
playing children to leave, the participants made their request directly by saying, “Hey, go to the playground!” or “Be quiet,
kids. Go find some other place.” Applying direct request strategies to children may not be pragmatically inappropriate according to American pragmatic norms; however, it is not necessarily a successful application of target-language norms. Given
that these participants showed their ability to use more polite and indirect forms in situations with older people, the
application of direct request forms to younger interlocutors appears to indicate that they intentionally chose different forms
to position themselves as older interlocutors in such contexts.
Furthermore, during the interviews, these participants indicated that their preference for L1 norms guided these pragmatic decisions. For example, Min-Jung2da mother of twodstated in her interview:
At the shopping mall, I saw the [American mothers] saying, “Would you like to have cereal, honey?” to their children …
We [Korean mothers] don't use such polite forms with children in Korea. I would lose dignity as a mother [if I used
polite forms with children] … I think it is a little unnatural to use polite forms toward children. I think it can spoil
children if you show too much respect. I would rather say “Go to bed!” than “Would you like to go to bed?” to children.
According to Min-Jung, when confronted with a conflict between two pragmatic norms, she did not want to adopt the L2
norm due to her preference for the subject position of the Korean mother. Although some learners' pragmatic choices for
younger interlocutors were not incorrect from the viewpoint of L2 pragmatic norms, during the interviews, some participants
confirmed that they felt tension between L1 norms and their perceived target-language norms. Min-Jung ultimately decided
to express her subjective position as a Korean mother by maintaining the traditional relationship between adults and children. Thus, some learners expressed their values and culture by intentionally choosing L1 norms. Finally, another important
factor in affecting how learners expressed their social identities was the interlocutor's age.
5.3. Use of titles
The use of titles demonstrated the layers of politeness and how participants positioned themselves in their relationships
with others. Across various speech-act situations, participants often used titles when opening a conversation. In particular,
when participants did not personally know the interlocutor and the interlocutor was in a position of power, participants most
often (75% of the time) used a title to attract the interlocutor's attention: “Excuse me” was used 26% of the time as an alerter,
while “professor” was the most commonly used title for a professor and “doctor” was the second most common choice,
followed by “sir.” In part, the professor title appeared to be a transfer from participants' first language (i.e., Korean), in which


All names are pseudonyms.


H.Y. Kim / System 45 (2014) 92e102

students are expected to call their professors by that title. Thus, participants did not indicate any tension using a title as L1
norms and the target-language norm did not conflict in these situations.
However, some learners stated that conflicts existed between how they speak and the perceived target norm in situations
in which interlocutors were in a powerful position and also socially close to the participant, such as with a professor known
personally. In such situations, other responses were used. Only 22% of participants called their professors by their first name,
while another 50% of participants used titles. The remaining 28% used other types of alerters, such as, “Excuse me.” One of the
participants shared her struggles regarding how to address professors:
I never call my professors by their first or last names … I tried one time to follow their [American] waydI called my
professor “Brian!” As soon as I called him that without using the title “doctor,” I felt my heart pounding. I was afraid
that he might have been offended.
Such inner struggle related to addressing professors without titles was a common topic during interviews with participants. One participant, Dongi, responded that he initially felt aversion to calling his professor by his first name because the
participant understood the option to be a norm that needs to be followed only by native speakers, not by L2 learners.
Now, I call my advisor by his first name. However, I could not do it at first. I felt awkward. I felt like I was pretending as if
I were a cool American … I do not speak English well. Everyone knows I am from Korea. Isn't it awkward to pretend as if
I were American? … After I tried it a couple of times, I realized that my professor really meant it when he told me that it
was okay to call him by his first name.
This excerpt further demonstrates that language is the place in which one's sense of self is constructed, yet it is also a site of
struggle. Dongi believed that following an L2 pragmatic option was a way to act as if he were American, rather than a way to
speak L2 successfully. Thus, some learners believe that adopting perceived target-language norms does not help them stay
true to themselves. Accordingly, they remain uncertain about which norms to follow.
As learners struggle with conflicting norms, some come to understand the emic view of target-language norms. Finding
shows that the longer the participants had lived in the United States, the more often they called their professors by their first
names. Indeed, 33% of participants who had lived in the United States for more than four years called professors with whom
the students felt a closer connection by their first names only, whereas because of conflicting values, none of the participants
who had been in the United States for less than three years called their professors by their first names. Thus, the length of stay
in the target culture appears to be an important factor in learners' pragmatic decisions, something which may indicate that
learners learn the true meaning of target-language norms and gain an emic view of pragmatic norms, as they gain experience
during their stay in the target country.
6. Discussion
The study sought to answer several research questions, as previously discussed. In addressing the first research question,
learners in this study preferred to learn target-language norms and adopt them. Their responses indicated that they were
highly motivated to learn English and were willing to use the target-language forms as long as they knew them. However, the
findings also suggested that they made pragmatic choices in order to invest in certain identities rather than being motivated
to use the target-language form all the time. Learners' pragmatic choices at times appeared to accommodate the targetlanguage norms at the surface level, yet subsequent interviews with the participants demonstrated that these decisions
were made as a result of constant inner struggles between conflicting pragmatic norms. Participants selected pragmatic
norms in a way that positioned them in social relations and ultimately enabled them to invest in their social identities. This
finding corresponds with the theoretical notion of investment delineated by Norton (1997; 1995). The different language
choices made by language learners indicate that they chose the pragmatic norms in the hopes of good returns, such as
recognition of talent by their professors or respect from their children.
Regarding the second research question, although the varying decisions were based on learners' individual evaluation of
each complex situation, the extent to which learners experienced conflicts in accommodating L2 or expressing their ethnic
identity were found to differ across age groups in regard to the speech act of responding to compliments. Learners' age and
length of stay have often been examined as variables for predicting learners' pragmatic development. It is believed that early
arrivals and longer stays lead to more native-like strategies (Kim, 2000) based on the assumption that learners are always
willing to follow target-language norms and that those who arrive at a later age cannot produce L2 pragmatics successfully,
even if they desire to do so. However, the current study may explain, in part, why older learners may adopt differing L2
pragmatic options, since the findings indicated that these learners are more conscious of their multiple identities, value
certain social identities, and exercise their agencies differently than younger learners do. In addition, it is possible that the
younger generation might operate L1 pragmatic norms differently than the older generation.
Finally, although the third research question suggested that power and social distance are influential factors leading to
certain patterns of pragmatic choices, the results indicated that learners' pragmatic choices were not fixed within seemingly
similar situations, in terms of power and social distance. In fact, learners' pragmatic choices were even at times contradictory
within similar contexts. A learner's investment in one or another identity appears to be more influential in his or her
pragmatic choices. In other words, complex factors (e.g., their background, relationship with interlocutors, and purpose of the
speech acts) are important for learners when making pragmatic choices. However, the evaluation of these factors does not

H.Y. Kim / System 45 (2014) 92e102


predict pragmatic choices; rather, learners' decisions about which identity to invest in and how to appear to others after
evaluating the context are more important predictors.
The findings from this study provide numerous insights into how learners make pragmatic decisions; they also prompt a
call for more research into understanding learners' agency and developing greater sensitivity among educators toward
learners' multiple identities. The current study found that learners choose L1 norms even when they are aware of L2 pragmatic norms, suggesting that their agency should be respected in the L2 classroom provided that the choice of L1 norms
comes from a full knowledge of the consequences of the choice. Teachers also need to be clear about the conventional
pragmatics of the target community, just as learners should not be forced to follow the target language norms just for the sake
of conformity. To apply this pedagogy effectively, teachers need to examine what has affected learner ILP.
The results of this study also focus attention on the manner of teaching pragmatics. Incidences of learners' misperception
of target norms, leading to pragmatic deviances, suggest that teachers need to help learners understand the meaning of the
target language forms within the context of the target culture and its cultural acceptability. Most students in this study had
learned their L2 pragmatic norms through observation and by asking their friends. Such a process may lead to a misunderstanding of the target-language norms. Educators need to help learners acquire an emic understanding of all target norms
(Ishihara, 2006).
7. Conclusion
This study has demonstrated numerous ways in which factors such as social power, distance, and types of speech act, can
influence ESL learners' pragmatic decisions. As the data indicated, participants were willing to accommodate the overall
target-language norms while simultaneously being aware of different identities imposed by the L2 community and exercising
their agency in ways to position and maintain their identity, rather than choose allegiance to either norm. Such findings call
for greater sensitivity toward learners' differing approaches to investment and their identities. By paying closer attention to
the role of learners' subjectivity in their ILP applications, a more successful strategy for research and pedagogical practice can
be designed. In particular, the intention of learners' utterances may not be fully understood at the superficial level. Thus,
learners' ILP needs to be more carefully examined. Additional research on the role of learner subjectivity in different contexts
is required to inform pragmatic research and further advance pedagogical practices.
1. Keigo is honorific and can be categorized into three forms: the polite form, desu/masu; the respectful form, sonkeigo; and
the humble form, kenjougo. To use keigo successfully, it is necessary to utilize complex linguistic structures and understand
sociocultural norms.

Appendix. Discourse-completion test
Please read each situation carefully. While you read, think about what you would say in each situation. When deciding
what you would say, you may want to think about speakers of English you know personally and imagine how you would
interact with them. Answer what you would say in the blanks in each conversation. If you think most English speakers would
say something differently from you, please write what you think they would say in that situation. You can add your thoughts
in Korean at any time.
Situation 1. You are in a job interview to be an RA for Adam Walker, a professor whom you DO NOT KNOW personally. He
mentions something about your country, but he seems to have the wrong information. How would you disagree with him?
You arrive at Andrew' office. There are two people in the office. You are to find which one is Adam Walker and start the
conversation. What would you say?
You: __________________________
Professor: Yes. Come on in. Are you XX (your name)?
You: Yes. I am. Nice to meet you.
Professor: Nice to meet you.
You come from Korea, right?
You: Yes. I am from Korea.
Professor: I have been in Korea once. It was a fun trip. Seoul was very big and crowded.
I felt that people were busy. Oh. By the way, they all seemed angry.
They did not smile at all. I said hello to a person on the street and he looked at me in a funny way.
Unfortunately, I met many impolite people during that trip.
What would most English speakers say (if different) above?


H.Y. Kim / System 45 (2014) 92e102

Situation 2. You attended a presentation by Tim Lewis, a professor whom you DO NOT KNOW personally. The presentation
was good. Right after the presentation, you bump into him in the elevator and compliment him on his presentation. What
would you say to him?
Professor: Yes?
Professor: Thank you.
What would most English speakers say (if different) above?
Situation 3. You really have to take this course (TESL5900) in order to graduate, but you learn that the course is already full.
So, you decide to ask the professor, Tim Lewis, whom you DO NOT KNOW personally, to allow you to take this course. What
would you say to convince this professor to grant you permission to participate in his course?
The professor is working at his desk. The desk faces the wall, and he does not know you are there.
Professor: Yes. Come on in. You are here because of TESL5900. Right?
You: Yes. I am. Nice to meet you.
Professor: Nice to meet you, too.
You: ___________________________________
Professor: Well … The course is already full.
Professor: hmm.. Why don't you take it next semester? It will be open next semester too.
Professor: Then, why didn't you register a little earlier before the class is filled? It was open until last Friday.
Professor: OK. I will give you permission.
What would most English speakers say (if different) above?
Situation 4. You are in a job interview to be an RA for a professor whom you DO NOT KNOW personally. You show your sample
writing to him. After he reads it, he says “Your writing is pretty good.” How would you respond to him?
Professor: How long have you been in the graduate program?
You: About 2 years.
Professor: I read your sample writing. I was impressed. Your writing is really good.
You: ____________________________.
What would most English speakers say (if different) above?
Situation 5. You are at the bus stop waiting for a bus in a quiet neighborhood. You and another female student have been
waiting alone at this bus stop for 20 min. She has a beautiful dog with her. The dog wants attention from you. What would you
say to the female student?
You: ____________________________________________.
What would most English speakers say (if different) above?
Situation 6. You are studying in your room. Suddenly, a group of children you DO NOT KNOW personally come and sit
just under your window. They have been singing, chatting, and laughing there for more than an hour. You cannot
concentrate on your reading anymore. You want to ask them to leave. How would you get their attention and ask them to
You: ____________________________________.
Children: What?
You: ___________________________________.
What would most English speakers say (if different) above?

H.Y. Kim / System 45 (2014) 92e102


Situation 7. At a restaurant you order a steak to be cooked medium. However, the waiter brings you a rare steak. He insists it is
medium. What do you say to the waiter?
You: _____________________________.
Waiter: Yes. How can I help you?
You: ____________________________.
Waiter: Let me see. Here the steak is considered medium. The outside is gray-brown and the middle is pink. It is medium.
You: ______________________________________________.
Waiter: All right. I will be back with another steak.
This time I will cook it how you like it.
What would most English speakers say (if different) above?
Situation 8. You are in a class taught by Andrew Cohen, a professor you KNOW WELL. During the class, an interesting discussion topic comes up. The professor suggests that the students survey people about the topic and turn in the survey results
by tomorrow night. However, you think the assignment is not fair for an international student like yourself. You don't know
many Americans to survey, and you have to work in the evening, so you will not have enough time to finish the assignment by
tomorrow night. What would you say to the professor?
Professor: This is a very interesting topic, isn't it?
Here is an idea. Go home and talk with people and gather what they are thinking about it. And …
You: _______________________.
Professor: Yes? Do you have a question?
What would most English speakers say (if different) above?
Situation 9. You read your professor's paper in class. You think the paper is excellent. What would you say to him?
You: __________________________________________________
What would most English speakers say (if different) above?
Situation 10. Your mother will be visiting from out of town, and you want to pick her up at the airport. However, her flight
arrives at 3:00 PM, and you have a class taught by your advisor that lasts until 5:00 PM. How would you ask your advisor to let
you out of class early?
You: _________________________________________
What would most English speakers say (if different) above?
Situation 11. You are waiting for a doctor in a hospital. You are wearing shoes you bought during a sale. A female
student whom you DO NOT KNOW PERSONALLY, sitting next to you says “I like your shoes.” How would you response
to her?
A student: I like your shoes.
What would most English speakers say (if different) above?
Situation 12. You are babysitting a four-year-old boy who is your friend's son. He has been too energetic all evening. You want
him to go to sleep because you are tired, and it is already 11:45 PM. What do you say to the boy?
You: ________________________________
Boy: NO! I don't want to go to sleep.
What would most English speakers say (if different) above?
Aston, G. (1993). Notes on the interlanguage of comity. In G. Kasper, & S. Blum-Kulka (Eds.), Interlanguage pragmatics (pp. 224e250). New York: Oxford
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