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“Appropriacy refers to whether a word is suitable for the context it is being used in. It is an important aspect of language but an extremely complex one, as decisions about how to say things depend on understanding exactly what is right for the context and the culture. It is also a big part of one’s sociolinguistic competence.” So it says on the BC website

I’ve been wondering about this for a week or so, because I was party to an interesting little interaction during lunch between a teacher and two students. The general conversation was about Spain. Here it is more or less verbatim:

Teacher: Have you ever been to Spain, X?
Student X: (looking up from dinner plate with hooded eyes) Of course – many times. (low, slow monotone and then the eyes drop back to the dinner plate)
Student Y: In Spain was business or holiday? (head on one side, looking interested)
Student X: (once more raising eyes lazily to look at interlocutor) Of course holiday. What else?
Student Y: (shuffles in chair, drops eyes and addresses lunch.)
Teacher: Gosh you’re really lucky, X. I have never been to Spain on holiday. I would love to. Y, you live in Spain. If I come, can I visit you? (looks at Student Y)
Student Y: Of course – it will be pleasure for me.

The expression that alerted me was “of course”. The way student X employed it was inappropriate and his tone made it sound dismissive and arrogant. Student Y’s use was entirely appropriate and his tone, warm and friendly. Student X has a high B2 English level. Student Y is at best high A1. Is appropriacy cultural? Can it be taught? Do some people “just know” what is appropriate because they are socially adept?

Who is the better communicator? Who has the better interpersonal skills? Which would you choose as a linguistic competence – high accuracy or high appropriacy?I know which of these students I would prefer to visit…or teach again.


3 responses »

  1. I know in Greek you could say ‘vevaios’ for ‘of course’ in both those cases and it wouldn’t sound snotty – more like ‘yeah, sure!’. Maybe X was a speaker of a language with a similar usage? Or just an arrogant bastard.

    • It was the flat low monotone, hooded lids and deeply disapproving eyes that made it so dismissive. The second option would work too.

  2. I’ve never used the term appropriacy. 🙂 I do agree with you and some of my students focus on accuracy. They don’t consider the context nor the culture. That’s why it’s good to expose students with real life conversations and materials so they learn culture.


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