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Thursday, 5 July 2012

"Dear teacher, I want to know what is the deadline?"

As a lecturer, e-mail is a great issue for me. Students are encouraged to use this medium, but more often then not they don't get the style right. This is because the norms of linguistic behaviour in computer-mediated interactions are not quite established yet, in particular in a situation which requires a more formal approach via a rather informal medium. Students would also need to be aware of the politeness conventions of addressing a lecturer and have pragmatic competence to use language the right way. 

I know this is a serious problem for non-native students, but the messages I get on a daily basis make me see red. Apparently, I am not alone: Maria Economidou-Kogetsidis did a research on the "pragmatic failures  in non-native speakers' e-mail requests to the faculty".

An interesting finding of her study is that students were overtly direct when they requested information, but used less direct strategies when they requested materials, etc. A high number of e-mails in the study contained imperatives, direct questions and want statements (very similar to my experience) - which then led to the e-mails being negatively evaluated, and the professors not complying with the requests.

An important lesson for students to learn from this study is that a "please" alone is not enough to mitigate the force of the direct statements and imperatives, and that openings and closing - in particular "thank you" is very important if they would like a faculty member to comply with their request. 

Although in most institutions e-mail interaction is not explicitly regulated (except perhaps the maximum reply time) it would be very important for students to realise that their language use must be status-congruent to reflect the hierarchical difference between themselves and their professors. 
If they do not use the appropriate address, greetings and closings, if they do not use an appropriate level of mitigation and their language is too direct, their e-mails "may sometimes verge on impoliteness". 

So what shall I reply to this student?

Dear surname:

I want know what's the deadline?

Thank you very much.

The article:
Economidou-Kogetsidis, M. (2011). “Please answer me as soon as possible”: Pragmatic failure in non-native speakers’e-mail requests to faculty. Journal of Pragmatics, 43(13), 3193-3215.

1 comment:

  1. I was excited to locate your blog! Just created a link to it from my own, where I've also written about student email etiquette ( and email requests in general (