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Doctoral dissertation project of Christina Rath

Developing Second Language Pragmatics. Internal and external modification in requests and complaints (working title)

Learning a second language (L2) is common practice nowadays. The more surprising it is that we are still a long way from understanding how second and foreign languages are acquired and why many learners fail to communicate effectively even though they have a good grammatical and lexical command of the target language. Learner difficulties can arise from (socio)pragmatic differences between first and second language as well as the pragmalinguistic complexity of particular L2 forms. Areas where learners deviate from native speaker norms are lexical and syntactic modifiers and supportive moves used to mitigate or aggravate speech acts (Could you possibly lend me 10$ vs. Lend me 10$). As modification devices are typically employed to soften the force of face-threatening acts and smooth the conversational interaction, their lower frequency in L2 production might result in pragmatic failure and - as a consequence thereof - intercultural misunderstanding. The current PhD project investigates longitudinally the pragmatic development of adult Syrian Arabic learners of German over 12 months in the second language context. The study is situated in the field of Interlanguage Pragmatics and further draws on research from Second Language Acquisition, Speech Act Theory and Politeness Theory. The approach taken is speech act based – with a focus on how L2 learners use and develop internal and external modification in requests and complaints. Production and perception of the chosen speech acts as well as the influence of socio-cultural and contextual parameters on the development of the two pragmatic sub-competencies will be taken into account. More specifically, the aim of the study is to examine the extent to which learners' development concerning the perception and production of speech act modification is interconnected. The doctoral thesis further outlines a program of research that integrates the study of grammatical and linguistic development with the study of the acquisition of pragmatic competence. By analyzing the development of the grammatical forms relevant for pragmatic production (e.g. syntactic mitigators in requests), it will be attempted to shed light on the relation of grammar and pragmatics during different acquisitional stages and to determine linguistic factors that affect pragmatic development. The research bases its discussion on a triangulation of quantitative and qualitative methods.


Short biography

Christina Rath is currently pursuing her PhD in Linguistics at the Institute of German Studies. Since April 2017, she is a scholarship holder at the a.r.t.e.s. Graduate School. Christina studied German, English, Educational Studies and European Cultural Studies at the University of Cologne and University College London. She worked as a student assistant at the Chair for English Historical Linguistics (University of Cologne) and received her 1st State Examination (equivalent to MA degree) in 2015. Christina has taught undergraduate classes on German as a Second Language at the University of Adelaide (DAAD scholarship, 2015-2016) and at a community college in Cologne. Her PhD study follows Syrian Arabic learners of German over a one-year period in the second language context and aims at getting a better understanding of the development of pragmatic competence in the second language. The project reflects her current research interests in Second Language Acquisition, Interlanguage Pragmatics (in particular acquisitional pragmatics), Speech Act Theory and Linguistic Politeness. Her supervisors are Prof. Dr. Schumacher, Prof. Dr. Bongartz (both University of Cologne) and Prof. Dr. Barron (Leuphana University of Lüneburg).

Contact: rathc0(at)smail.uni-koeln.de



“Developing Second Language Pragmatics”, 20 November 2017, Linguistics PhD Colloquium (Prof. Anne Barron), Leuphana University of Lüneburg.

“Sprechaktverarbeitung”, 23 January 2017, Empirische Linguistik (Prof. Petra Schumacher), University of Cologne.


Teaching experience

Summer semester 2018

Introductory seminar “Introduction to German linguistics”, 4h, Institute for German Language and Literature, University of Cologne


Cover photo: Pragmatic competence plays a key role in today’s era of globalization and transculturalism where communication across cultural frontiers is an everyday phenomenon. (Photo: Lisa Speicher) // Portrait photo: Patric Fouad