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The impacts of teacher-student power relationshipon the learning of negative speech acts Wang Jinba Yuncheng University


The power disparity between language teachers and their students is often a critical factor in the students’ willingness to participate in teacher-student interaction in the classroom, particularly with regard to potentially negative speech acts such as disagreeing or refusing. Based on the questionnaire conducted on 16 Chinese students of English in Monash University, this paper attempts to explore three questions: 1) Are Chinese students of English as reluctant to use disagreeing statements as they may seem to teachers? 2) what are some reasons for reluctance to use disagreeing strategies in the language classroom? 3) how can teachers encourage students to learn to use negative speech acts more effectively?

1. Introduction
  • According to Brown & Levinson (1987): A negative speech act such as a disagreement can be expressed in numerous ways, depending on whom one is speaking to. Their studies have shown that people tend to be considerably more indirect when using negative speech acts with interlocutors of higher power than when speaking to equals. If disagreeing with a friend or a colleague, one may simply say: “That’s not right.” But if the disagreement is with, say, one’s boss, one is likely to be considerably more circumspect because of the desire to avoid the damaging consequences of offending the interlocutor. It stands to reason, then, that power inequality between teachers and students also begets indirectness in the language learning classroom.
This study collects data from 16 Chinese learners of English (CLE) in Monash University and tries to probe into the relationship between Chinese learners of English and their teachers and how the power disparity between them can inhibit the students’ learning and use of negative speech acts such as disagreeing. It also provides some tentative suggestions on how to surmount this inhabitation.
2. The study
  • 2.1 Subjects
  • The sample participants consisted of 16 Chinese learners of English (9 females, 7 males) from English Language Center, Monash University, Australia.
  • 2.2 Research questions
  • This paper will explore three questions:
  • 1) Are Chinese learners of English as reluctant to use disagreeing statements as they may seem to teachers?
  • 2) What are some of the reasons for their reluctance to use disagreeing in the language classroom?
  • 3) How can teachers encourage students to use negative speech acts more effectively?
2.3 Data-collection Methods
  • This study collected data from 16 Chinese learners of English in Monash University. Three instruments were devised for this purpose:
  • 1) Weekly task sheet ---- every week over ten weeks, the participants indicated various partners with whom they had had disagreements during the previous week, and reported what these disagreeing conversations had been about and how severe they had been.
2) Discourse completion task--- the participants reported on how they believed they would express a disagreement in a number of power-equal and power-unequal situations.
  • 3) Role-play--- the participants acted out disagreement situations, taking both power-equal and power-unequal roles such as teacher-student, friend-friend, boss-employee etc. these situations were recorded on both audio and video in order to collect data about non-verbal aspects of disagreement.
2.4 Results
  • 2.4.1 Indirectness in disagreements

The literature, such as Beebe & Takahashi (1989), suggests that: Chinese learners of English are not truly reluctant to use disagreeing speech acts; they are not as obsequious and circumspect as conversational wisdom would have us believe.

2.4 .2 Sophisticated language in disagreement
  • The participants in this study were all studying full-time in English Language Center, Monash University, Australia, and they were exposed to new and more complex language every day. Did they choose to employ this language in their disagreements with native speakers? Sometimes they did attempt to use newly-learned disagreement strategies, but other times they did not, preferring instead to refer to more basic, formulaic strategies which they had previously internalized
3. Discussion: reasons for the students’ disagreeing in classroom situations

Three reasons are tentatively discussed here: power inequality, linguistic deficiency and lack of cultural understanding

Power inequality:
  • Traditionally, the relationship between teacher and student in China is inherently unequal. According to French and Raven (1958): in China teachers are deemed as “expert power” over students. Teachers are specialists with information and skills which the students require in order to achieve their own aims. Teachers also have the power to reward or punish their students depending on their conducts. They may give a poor or failing grade, or withhold help or advice. The potential negative consequences may deter students from attempting to disagree with their teachers, or may compel them to resist their disagreeing strategies to the simplest and safest, rather than those that are complex and have yet to be internalized.
On the other hand, teachers in China are generally regarded as “having the floor” in the classroom milieu. The teacher is the main talker and disseminator of information, while the students’ primary task is to listen and learn. Although it is being more students to gain and hold the floor during classes, they continue to exhibit a degree of hesitance in speaking up, especially when preparing to deliver a negative affective speech act with potentially detrimental consequences for face maintenance.
Cultural ability
  • In china, students are learning English as a foreign language from their Chinese teachers. They share their teacher’s culture. But they have fewer sources of exposure to the target culture. So when communicating with native-speaker teachers, Chinese students tend to have a limited understanding of their teacher’s culture. Such deficiency in target culture knowledge readily gives rise to pragmatic deficiency--- the lack of ability to judge what degree of directness is appropriate for a given set of social conditions. An overt-direct disagreement increases the possibility of face-loss for the teachers and the students, which is known as sociopragmantic failure. Thus cultural dissimilarity may be a critical cause for students’ reluctance to use negative speech, such as disagreeing, or even debating, etc.
Linguistic ability

In a large degree, the majority of L2 or foreign language learners by default have a limited linguistic ability. Because of this deficiency, they are at a disadvantage when communicating in English, especially with native-speaker teachers. Added to this is the problem of potential face-loss which is a great concern for Chinese people. Therefore, making linguistic errors in front of the teachers or the classmates increases the risk of losing esteem.

4. Suggestions: enabling students to learn to use negative speech acts

It is important to seek to circumvent the power distance between teacher and student. This is far from a simple task, because the power inequality is culturally ingrained and the approach of “let’s all be equals” may not be successful for this reason. Nevertheless, it is possible to stimulate an egalitarian mood through the use for certain classroom tasks which lend themselves to practicing negative speech acts. Such tasks allow students to interact with one another in power-equal / power-unequal situations. role-plays are useful for this purpose because the status of the two speakers can be altered at will: students can act out a situation in which they are playing the role of friends, and then they may perform the same situation in power-unequal roles. They may then discuss the difference in language.

Teachers may also organize group discussions, especially in high-ability classes. For example, a well-known debate is that participants imagine themselves in a balloon which is losing altitude or a life-boat sinking in shark-infested waters, and discuss which of them is to be thrown over the side in order to save the others. Participants can take on various roles such as group chair, or may represent sub-groups.
4. Conclusion
  • The study suggests that Chinese learners of English, despite stereotypes to the contrary, are quite capable of performing the speech acts of disagreeing with native speakers. However, the likelihood is that they are much more secure doing so with power-equal interlocutors than with power-unequal ones. This may have ramification in the English learning classroom, where students are often reluctant to use disagreeing strategies or to challenge the teachers due to the inherent power disparity between themselves and their teacher, as well as due to linguistic deficiency and lack of cultural awareness.
It has been suggested that the power differential in the language classroom can be over-ridden by fostering an understanding of the use of the status inequality, through interaction with students outside the classroom setting, and through the use of role-playing and discussion tasks which permit students to perform various power roles in simulated, consequence-free situations.
Essentially, anything teachers can do to reduce the disparity is likely to be beneficial in enabling students to use negative speech acts effectively. In their future interactions with English speakers, they will inevitably have to disagree with as assessment by somebody else, or have someone disagree with one of their own assessments. It is imperative, then, that they are equipped to deal with these situations appropriately, to minimize the risk of communicative failure and possible face-loss on both sides.
The language classroom is the ideal starting-point for such training because it offers students the opportunity to study and practice in a controlled environment, how to manage the production and interpretation of negative speech acts. Such study prepares the students for future interactions with native speakers, and encourages more equal and free-flowing interaction between teachers and students in the language classroom itself. Without such training, the likelihood is that students will simply continue to operate on the principle: “just agree with everything the teacher says”.