This paper investigates how foreign language learners use discourse markers (such as so, well, you know, I mean) in English speech. These small words that do not contribute much, if anything at all, to the propositional content of a message but modify it in subtle ways, are often considered among the last elements acquired in a foreign language. This contribution reports on close scrutiny of a corpus of English-spoken interviews with Belgian native speakers of Dutch, half of whom are undergraduates majoring in Commercial Sciences and half of whom are majoring in English Linguistics, and sets it off against a comparable native speaker corpus. The investigation shows that the language learners exhibit a clear preference for “operative discourse markers” and neglect or avoid “involvement discourse markers”. It is argued that in learner speech the former take on functions typically fulfilled by the latter to a greater extent than in native speech, and that in some cases the learners revert to a code-switching strategy to cater for their pragmatic needs, bringing markers from Dutch into their English speech. Finally, questions are raised as to the place of such pragmatic devices in foreign language learning.
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