A pragmatic analysis of the speech act of criticizing in university teacher-student talk: The case of English as a lingua franca

Dina Abdel Salam El-Dakhs, Fatima Ambreen, Maria Zaheer and Yulia Gusarova

Abstract

The current study examined the realization of the speech act of criticizing by university teachers in their talk with students. To this end, role-plays were conducted with 60 university teachers (30 males and 30 females) at a private Saudi university which is characterized by its multicultural academic staff, and, hence, where English is used as a lingua franca. Recordings were transcribed and analyzed using an adapted version of Nguyen’s (2005Nguyen, Thi T. M. 2005 “Criticizing and Responding to Criticism in a Foreign Language: A Study of Vietnamese Learners of English.” PhD thesis. University of Auckland 2005 https://​researchspace​.auckland​.ac​.nz​/handle​/2292​/36, 2013 2013 “An Exploratory Study of Criticism Realization Strategies Used by NS and NNS of New Zealand English.” Multilingua 32 (1): 103–130. CrossrefGoogle Scholar) model of criticism strategies. The results showed the teachers’ preference for indirect over direct criticism strategies and their minimal use of modifiers, particularly internal ones. It was also found that the influence of the teacher’s gender or years of teaching experience was small while the severity of the situation was a critical factor in the choice of appropriate strategies. The results were interpreted in relation to the existing literature and the theoretical model of politeness.

Keywords:
Publication history
Table of contents

1.Introduction

The current study examines the realization of the speech act of criticizing, which can be defined as “an illocutionary act whose illocutionary point is to give negative evaluation of the hearer’s (H’s) actions, choice, words and products for which he or she may be held responsible” (Nguyen 2005Nguyen, Thi T. M. 2005 “Criticizing and Responding to Criticism in a Foreign Language: A Study of Vietnamese Learners of English.” PhD thesis. University of Auckland 2005 https://​researchspace​.auckland​.ac​.nz​/handle​/2292​/36, 7). This speech act often aims to express the speaker’s (S’s) dissatisfaction with or dislike of H’s action or to urge the H to improve his/her future actions to match the S’s requirements or expectations. The current study examines the speech act of criticizing through focusing on the realization of criticism by university teachers in their interactions with students. Talk in this institutionalized academic setting is expected to reflect the values underpinning the educational culture of the discourse (Hiraga and Turner 1996Hiraga, Masako K., and Joan M. Turner 1996 “Differing Perceptions of Face in British and Japanese Academic Settings.” Language Sciences 18 (3–4): 605–627. CrossrefGoogle Scholar) and typifies participants’ actions when shaping interactions (Araújo 2012Araújo, Antonia D. 2012 “Academic Genres in University Contexts: An Investigation of Students’ Book Reviews Writing as Classroom Assignments.” In International Advances in Writing Research: Cultures, Places, Measures, ed. by Charles Bazerman, Chris Dean, Jessica Early, Karen Lunsford, Suzie Null, Paul Rogers, and Amanda Stansell, 319–333. New York: Parlor Press e WAC Clearinghouse.Google Scholar). In the university context, teachers carefully consider a number of variables when opting to criticize the students’ behavior. Among these variables are the institutional policies, the students’ benefits and development, the teacher’s prior knowledge of the student, the severity of the situation, the culture of the institution and the teacher’s interpersonal relationship with the student (Cao 2005Cao, Jia. “A Pragmatic Analysis of the Speech Act of Criticism in Primary and Junior High School Chinese Lecturer-Student Talk.” Master’s thesis, Northeast Normal University 2005https://​www​.dissertationtopic​.net​/doc​/875784; Hiraga, Fujii and Turner 2003Hiraga, Masako K., Yoko Fujii, and Joan M. Turner 2003 “L2 Pragmatics in Academic Discourse: A Case Study of Tutorials in Britain.” Intercultural Communication Studies 12 (3): 19–36.Google Scholar; Hyland and Hyland 2001Hyland, Fiona, and Ken Hyland 2001 “Sugaring the Pill: Praise and Criticism in Written Feedback.” Journal of Second Language Writing 10: 185–212. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). Hence, the teacher’s choice of the appropriate criticism strategies is quite complicated as “teachers often have to weigh their choice of comment to accomplish a range of informational, pedagogic and interpersonal goals simultaneously” (Hyland and Hyland 2001Hyland, Fiona, and Ken Hyland 2001 “Sugaring the Pill: Praise and Criticism in Written Feedback.” Journal of Second Language Writing 10: 185–212. CrossrefGoogle Scholar, 187).

Another important characteristic of the current study is the use of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF). The current study was conducted in a private Saudi university where English is the medium of instruction. The university is characterized by its multicultural faculty members who possess high command of English. This situation parallels the widespread use of ELF in real life as it has become the language of choice in a variety of international settings (Riekkinen 2010Riekkinen, Niina 2010 ““This is not criticizing, but….” Softening Criticism: The Use of Lexical Hedges in Academic Spoken Interaction.” Helsinki English Studies 6: 75–87.Google Scholar). Traditionally, ELF was considered a learner language with deviant language use in comparison with how native speakers use the language. However, learning a foreign language is different from learning English as a global lingua franca. In regular language learning, learners often aspire to the native speaker models to improve their performance while ELF is used for global communication, whether with native or non-native speakers. In the ELF context, the deviations ELF speakers may produce are considered as linguistic innovations born out of a legitimate ELF development (Widdowson 1994Widdowson, Henry G. 1994 “The Ownership of English.” TESOL Quarterly 28 (2): 377–389. CrossrefGoogle Scholar) and ELF is slowly being recognized as a variety of the English language on its own right (e.g., Howatt and Widdowson 2004Howatt, Anthony P. R., and Henry G. Widdowson 2004A History of English Language Teaching (second edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar; Riekkinen 2010Riekkinen, Niina 2010 ““This is not criticizing, but….” Softening Criticism: The Use of Lexical Hedges in Academic Spoken Interaction.” Helsinki English Studies 6: 75–87.Google Scholar; Widdowson 1994Widdowson, Henry G. 1994 “The Ownership of English.” TESOL Quarterly 28 (2): 377–389. CrossrefGoogle Scholar) that is worthy of investigation with little or no reference to a native speaker model. The current study views ELF as a legitimate variety of English and considers Cogo and Dewey’s (2006)Cogo, Alessia, and Martin Dewey 2006 “Efficiency in ELF Communication: From Pragmatic Motives to Lexico-Grammatical Innovation.” Nordic Journal of English Studies 5 (2): 59–93. CrossrefGoogle Scholar argument that ELF speakers are content-oriented and thus their language often lacks interactional features, such as hedges, and Mauranen’s (2003)Mauranen, Anna 2003 “The Corpus of English as Lingua Franca in Academic Settings.” TESOL Quarterly 37 (3): 513–26. CrossrefGoogle Scholar claim that ELF users are particularly sensitive and co-operative language users because of their lack of familiarity with the interlocutors’ cultures.

The current study represents an addition to the literature for a number of reasons. First, studies on the speech act of criticizing are relatively rare in comparison with other speech acts (Nguyen 2013 2013 “An Exploratory Study of Criticism Realization Strategies Used by NS and NNS of New Zealand English.” Multilingua 32 (1): 103–130. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Nguyen 2005Nguyen, Thi T. M. 2005 “Criticizing and Responding to Criticism in a Foreign Language: A Study of Vietnamese Learners of English.” PhD thesis. University of Auckland 2005 https://​researchspace​.auckland​.ac​.nz​/handle​/2292​/36), such as apologizing (e.g., Chang 2016Chang, Yuh-Fang 2016 “Apologizing in Mandarin Chinese: A Study on Developmental Patterns.” Concentric: Studies in Linguistics 42 (1): 73–101.Google Scholar; El-Dakhs 2018 2018 “Saying “Yes” and “No” to Requests: Is it the Same in Egyptian and Saudi Arabic?Language and Dialogue 8 (2): 235–260. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; González-Cruz 2012González-Cruz, María-Isabel 2012 “Apologizing in Spanish.” Pragmatics 22 (4): 543–565. CrossrefGoogle Scholar), complimenting (e.g., Cai 2012Cai, Ying 2012 “A Study on Compliment Response Strategies by Chinese College Students.” Journal of Language Teaching and Research 3 (3): 543–549. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; El-Dakhs 2017El-Dakhs, Dina A. S. 2017 “The Compliment Response Strategies of Egyptian Arabic-English Bilinguals.” Language and Dialogue 7 (3): 388–413.Google Scholar; Guo, Zhou & Chou 2012Guo, Hong-jie, Qin-qin Zhou, and Daryl Chow 2012 “A Variationist Study of Compliment Responses in Chinese.” International Journal of Applied Linguistics 22 (3): 347–373. CrossrefGoogle Scholar) and requesting and refusing (e.g., El-Dakhs 2018 2018 “Investigating the Apology Strategies of Saudi Learners of English: Foreign Language Learning in Focus”. Pragmatics and Society 9 (4): 598–625. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Farenkia 2015Farenkia, Bernard M. 2015 “Invitation Refusals in Cameroon French and Hexagonal French.” Multilingua 34 (4): 577–603. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Morkus 2014Morkus, Nader 2014 “Refusals in Egyptian Arabic and American English.” Journal of Pragmatics 70: 86–107. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). Second, examining university teachers’ oral criticism is under-researched. Most earlier studies addressed the provision of critical feedback on peers’ or students’ written work in institutional settings (e.g., Araújo 2012Araújo, Antonia D. 2012 “Academic Genres in University Contexts: An Investigation of Students’ Book Reviews Writing as Classroom Assignments.” In International Advances in Writing Research: Cultures, Places, Measures, ed. by Charles Bazerman, Chris Dean, Jessica Early, Karen Lunsford, Suzie Null, Paul Rogers, and Amanda Stansell, 319–333. New York: Parlor Press e WAC Clearinghouse.Google Scholar; Diani 2017 2017 “Criticism and Politeness Strategies in Academic Review Discourse: A Contrastive (English-Italian) Corpus-based Analysis.” Kalbotyra 70: 60–78. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Hyland 2004 2004Disciplinary Discourse: Social Interactions in Academic Writing. London: Longman.Google Scholar; Hyland and Hyland 2001Hyland, Fiona, and Ken Hyland 2001 “Sugaring the Pill: Praise and Criticism in Written Feedback.” Journal of Second Language Writing 10: 185–212. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Itakura and Tsui 2011Itakura, Hiroko, and Amy B. M. Tsui 2011 “Evaluation in Academic Discourse: Managing Criticism in Japanese and English Book Reviews.” Journal of Pragmatics 43 (5): 1366–1379. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Salager-Meyer and Alcaraz Ariza 2004Salager-Meyer, Françoise, and Maria Á. Alcaraz Ariza (2004) Negative Appraisals in Academic Book Reviews: A Cross-linguistic Approach. In Intercultural Aspects of Specialized Communication, ed. by Christopher N. Candlin and Maurizio Gotti, 149–172. Bern: Peter Lang.Google Scholar). This constitutes an intriguing gap in the literature because examining teacher-student interaction can contribute to relevant theoretical underpinnings and pedagogical implications. Third, in addition to examining the realization strategies of criticism in university teacher-student talk, the current study also explored the influence of gender and years of teaching experience on teachers’ criticism behavior. Hence, the study results will also shed light on the role of two important social factors (i.e., gender and years of teaching experience) on university teachers’ criticism patterns.

The current study draws on the face-saving perspective of politeness by Brown and Levinson (1978Brown, Penelope, and Stephen Levinson (1978) “Universals in Language Usage: Politeness Phenomena”. In Questions and Politeness: Strategies in Social Interaction, ed. by Esther N. Goody, 56–310. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar, 1987 1987Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar) and a number of other relevant studies on the speech act of criticizing in its analysis of results. Hence, the two following sections of the current research article present an overview of Brown and Levinson’s (1978Brown, Penelope, and Stephen Levinson (1978) “Universals in Language Usage: Politeness Phenomena”. In Questions and Politeness: Strategies in Social Interaction, ed. by Esther N. Goody, 56–310. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar, 1987 1987Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar) model and a review of related literature on the politeness theory (Brown & Levinson 1978Brown, Penelope, and Stephen Levinson (1978) “Universals in Language Usage: Politeness Phenomena”. In Questions and Politeness: Strategies in Social Interaction, ed. by Esther N. Goody, 56–310. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar, 1987 1987Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar) as well as the speech act of criticizing. This is followed by a restatement of the study research questions and a description of the methodology and results. Finally, results are interpreted, pedagogical implications proposed and conclusions drawn.

2.Literature review

2.1Brown and Levinson’s politeness theory

Brown and Levinson’s (1978Brown, Penelope, and Stephen Levinson (1978) “Universals in Language Usage: Politeness Phenomena”. In Questions and Politeness: Strategies in Social Interaction, ed. by Esther N. Goody, 56–310. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar, 1987 1987Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar) model of politeness draws on Goffman’s (1967Goffman, Erving 1967Interactional Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior. New York: Double Day.Google Scholar, 319) concept of “face” defined as “the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself.” Viewing “face” as a person’s public self-image, Brown and Levinson (1987 1987Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar, 66) considered “face” as “something that is emotionally invested, and that can be lost, maintained, or enhanced and must be constantly attended to in interaction.” Brown and Levinson (1987) 1987Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar further distinguished two types of face that people work jointly to preserve in interactions; positive face and negative face. Positive face refers to one’s desire to be appreciated and approved of while negative face reflects one’s desire to enjoy freedom of action without being impeded upon.

According to Brown and Levinson (1987 1987Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar, 70), “certain kinds of acts intrinsically threaten face, namely those acts that by their nature run contrary to the face wants of the addressee and/or the speaker.” For example, the speech act of criticizing in the current study threatens both the positive and negative face of the student. As Cao (2005)Cao, Jia. “A Pragmatic Analysis of the Speech Act of Criticism in Primary and Junior High School Chinese Lecturer-Student Talk.” Master’s thesis, Northeast Normal University 2005https://​www​.dissertationtopic​.net​/doc​/875784 explains, criticizing jeopardizes the hearer’s desire to be appreciated and approved of by calling his/her actions into question. Criticizing also threatens the hearer’s negative face through attempting to impose a change of action on the hearer. Since it is in the best interest of interlocutors to maintain each other’s face, face-threatening acts (FTAs) are either avoided (if possible) or a number of other redressive strategies are employed to soften the potential destructive effect of FTAs. Brown and Levinson (1987) 1987Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar specify 5 super-strategies. The first strategy, referred to as “bald-on-record” reflects an unambiguous/ direct act which performs the FTA with maximum efficiency regardless of the hearer’s face wants. The second and third strategies are also on-record, but include face-work. Positive politeness, on the one hand, enhances the interlocutor’s feeling of appreciation and approval while negative politeness, on the other hand, minimizes any imposition on the interlocutor. The fourth strategy is classified as off-record since it involves FTAs that are expressed ambiguously and indirectly to reduce the speaker’s commitment to the FTA and allow room for negotiation of meaning. Ambiguity here includes metaphors, irony, hints, rhetorical questions, understatements, etc. The last politeness strategy is to prioritize harmony of interpersonal relationships by avoiding FTAs altogether.

It is worth noting that Brown and Levinson’s (1978Brown, Penelope, and Stephen Levinson (1978) “Universals in Language Usage: Politeness Phenomena”. In Questions and Politeness: Strategies in Social Interaction, ed. by Esther N. Goody, 56–310. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar, 1987 1987Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar) model has received a lot of criticism because it disregards the larger linguistic context (Hayashi 1996Hayashi, Takuo 1996 “Politeness in Conflict Management: A Conversation Analysis of Dispreferred Messages from a Cognitive Perspective.” Journal of Pragmatics 25: 227–255. CrossrefGoogle Scholar), claims that the direct relationship between face and politeness is universally valid (Baron 2002Baron, Anne 2002Acquisition in Interlanguage Pragmatics: How to do Things with Words in a Study Abroad Context. Philadelphia, PA: J. Benjamins.Google Scholar) and solely focuses on the self rather than social relationships in interaction (Spencer-Oatey 2000Spencer-Oatey, Helen (ed) 2000Culturally Speaking: Managing Rapport through Talk across Cultures. London: Continuum.Google Scholar). More criticism was expressed by the proponents of postmodern or discursive politeness (e.g., Eelen 2001Eelen, Gino 2001A Critique of Politeness Theories. Manchester: St Jerome Publishing.Google Scholar; Mills 2003Mills, Sara 2003Gender and Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Watts 2003Watts, Richard J. 2003Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar) who criticized the model for its inability to account for impoliteness as well as politeness (Eelen 2001Eelen, Gino 2001A Critique of Politeness Theories. Manchester: St Jerome Publishing.Google Scholar) and being concerned with the model person rather than taking that person into account in relation to others (Watts 2003Watts, Richard J. 2003Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar), among other things. Despite this criticism, the current study employs Brown and Levinson’s (1978Brown, Penelope, and Stephen Levinson (1978) “Universals in Language Usage: Politeness Phenomena”. In Questions and Politeness: Strategies in Social Interaction, ed. by Esther N. Goody, 56–310. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar, 1987 1987Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar) model because it offers an incisive description of linguistic strategies (e.g., Locher 2006Locher, Miriam A. 2006 “Polite Behavior with Relational Work: The Discursive Approach to Politeness.” Multilingua 25 (3): 249–267. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Pizziconi 2003Pizziconi, Barbara 2003 “Re-examining Politeness, Face and the Japanese Language.” Journal of Pragmatics 35: 1471–1506. CrossrefGoogle Scholar) and has proved easy and flexible to use, particularly in the examination of a speech act.

2.2The speech act of criticizing

Earlier studies on the speech act of criticizing have been carried out from different perspectives, such as genre, intercultural/cross-linguistic, cross-disciplinary and diachronic (see Salager-Meyer and Lewin (2011)Salager-Meyer, Françoise, and Beverly Lewin (eds) 2011Crossed Words: Criticism in Scholarly Writing. Bern: Peter Lang. CrossrefGoogle Scholar for sample articles from these perspectives). However, the current review of literature classifies earlier studies into two broad categories of written and oral criticism. Under the written domain, a number of studies were conducted on the evaluative language in the genre of book reviews (e.g., Alcaraz-Ariza 2002Alcaraz-Ariza, María Á. 2002 “Evaluation in English-medium Medical Book Reviews.” International Journal of English Studies 2 (1): 137–153. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Diani 2009Diani, Giuliana 2009 “Reporting and Evaluation in English Book Review Articles: A Cross-Disciplinary Study.” In Academic Evaluation: Review Genres in University Settings, ed. by Ken Hyland and Giuliana Diani, 87–105. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Moreno and Suárez 2008Moreno, Ana I., and Lorena Suárez 2008 “A Study of Critical Attitude across English and Spanish Academic Book Reviews.” Journal of English for Academic Purposes 7: 15–26. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). For example, a cross-disciplinary study was conducted by Hyland (2004) 2004Disciplinary Discourse: Social Interactions in Academic Writing. London: Longman.Google Scholar who investigated how the evaluative language of “praise” and “criticism” was used in 160 book reviews representing different disciplines. Clear disciplinary variations emerged with respect to the extent to which reviewers employed the target speech acts and their preferred terms of expression.

Other studies on book reviews adopted a cross-linguistic approach (e.g., Araújo 2012Araújo, Antonia D. 2012 “Academic Genres in University Contexts: An Investigation of Students’ Book Reviews Writing as Classroom Assignments.” In International Advances in Writing Research: Cultures, Places, Measures, ed. by Charles Bazerman, Chris Dean, Jessica Early, Karen Lunsford, Suzie Null, Paul Rogers, and Amanda Stansell, 319–333. New York: Parlor Press e WAC Clearinghouse.Google Scholar; Itakura and Tsui 2011Itakura, Hiroko, and Amy B. M. Tsui 2011 “Evaluation in Academic Discourse: Managing Criticism in Japanese and English Book Reviews.” Journal of Pragmatics 43 (5): 1366–1379. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Salager-Meyer and Alcaraz Ariza 2004Salager-Meyer, Françoise, and Maria Á. Alcaraz Ariza (2004) Negative Appraisals in Academic Book Reviews: A Cross-linguistic Approach. In Intercultural Aspects of Specialized Communication, ed. by Christopher N. Candlin and Maurizio Gotti, 149–172. Bern: Peter Lang.Google Scholar) or focused on the use of politeness strategies (e.g., Diani 2017 2017 “Criticism and Politeness Strategies in Academic Review Discourse: A Contrastive (English-Italian) Corpus-based Analysis.” Kalbotyra 70: 60–78. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Valor 2000Valor, María L. G. 2000 “The Pragmatics of Positive Politeness in the Book Review.” RESLA (Spanish Journal of Applied Linguistics) 14: 145–159.Google Scholar). Cross-linguistically, Araújo (2012)Araújo, Antonia D. 2012 “Academic Genres in University Contexts: An Investigation of Students’ Book Reviews Writing as Classroom Assignments.” In International Advances in Writing Research: Cultures, Places, Measures, ed. by Charles Bazerman, Chris Dean, Jessica Early, Karen Lunsford, Suzie Null, Paul Rogers, and Amanda Stansell, 319–333. New York: Parlor Press e WAC Clearinghouse.Google Scholar, for example, reported more similarities than differences in the book reviews produced by Brazilian and American graduate students in the Linguistics and Education areas. This was interpreted in terms of the influence of genre as the students appropriated their writing preferences to accomplish the genre purpose for classroom use despite the fact that some students had little experience with writing reviews. As for the use of politeness strategies, Valor (2000)Valor, María L. G. 2000 “The Pragmatics of Positive Politeness in the Book Review.” RESLA (Spanish Journal of Applied Linguistics) 14: 145–159.Google Scholar highlighted the use of compliments as a positive politeness strategy in book reviews to maintain a harmonious relationship with the reviewee and to redress criticism. Similarly, Diani (2017) 2017 “Criticism and Politeness Strategies in Academic Review Discourse: A Contrastive (English-Italian) Corpus-based Analysis.” Kalbotyra 70: 60–78. CrossrefGoogle Scholar explored mitigation strategies in English and Italian book reviews and shed the light on the cultural influences on the use of mitigation strategies.

Studies on written communication also included research into the feedback of teachers and students at an academic setting. Hyland and Hyland (2001)Hyland, Fiona, and Ken Hyland 2001 “Sugaring the Pill: Praise and Criticism in Written Feedback.” Journal of Second Language Writing 10: 185–212. CrossrefGoogle Scholar analyzed two teachers’ summary comments at the end of their ESL students’ assignments over a complete proficiency course. It was found that praise was most frequently employed, often as a softener for criticisms and suggestions. The frequent use of mitigation strategies in the form of hedges, questions and personal attribution to redress criticism and suggestions was also noted. The researchers highlighted the value of mitigation in enhancing effective teacher-student relationships, but also pointed out that such indirectness potentially led to incomprehension and miscommunication. Likewise, Lü (2018)Lü, Linqiong 2018 “Role of Email in Intercultural Communication of Criticism in a Chinese English Curriculum Reform Context.” English Language Teaching 11 (2): 193–207. CrossrefGoogle Scholar examined the use of emails by Chinese undergraduates to communicate pedagogical criticism to their western teachers. It was found that students tended to express their criticism directly and even sometimes used bald critical statements and a balance was observed between the use of positive and negative politeness strategies. The researchers concluded that the email represented a safe, polite and effective channel for students to express their critical views, and that people behave differently in computer-mediated from face-to-face communication as computer-mediated communication may buffer the negative feelings associated with unpleasant topics.

Other studies on the speech act of criticizing examined oral communication. For example, Farnia and Abdul Sattar (2015)Farnia, Maryam, and Hiba Q. Abdul Sattar 2015 “A Sociopragmatic Analysis of the Speech Act of Criticism by Persian Native Speakers.” International Journal of Humanities and Cultural Studies 2 (3): 305–327.Google Scholar revealed the preference of native speakers of Persian for direct over indirect strategies of criticism when job performance, food, homework and research papers are criticized. They also highlighted the participants’ use of mitigation devices to achieve politeness. Two other studies analyzed the evaluative language of judges in televised talent competitions. Chen and Rau (2015)Chen, Yang-lien, and Victoria Rau (2015) “Compliments and Criticisms Given by Judges on a Singing Competition Series in Taiwan.” Studies in English Language & Literature 35: 1–19.Google Scholar focused on selected episodes of singing competitions in Taiwan, and found that the most common patterns were direct compliments, compliments followed by criticism and indirect criticism. Direct criticism was still employed as judges represent mentors to the candidates and can provide guidance to enhance their performance, but it only accounted for 11% of patterns. As for Tang (2016)Tang, Chihsia 2016 “Managing Criticisms in US-based and Taiwan-based Reality Talent Contests: A Cross-linguistic Comparison.” Pragmatics 26 (1): 111–136. CrossrefGoogle Scholar, evaluative communication was compared between a US-based talent competition and a Taiwan-based talent competition. The noted differences, including a higher frequency of indirect criticisms in the Taiwanese Chinese sub-corpus and the Taiwanese Chinese’s higher use of heavily redressed direct criticism, were interpreted in terms of the Taiwanese Chinese’s strong cultural tendency to emphasize group harmony and interpersonal relationships whereas Americans often preferred utilizing explicit codes to maximize their speech clarity.

Other studies on oral communication of criticism focused on the development of interlanguage pragmatics. For example, Nguyen (2005Nguyen, Thi T. M. 2005 “Criticizing and Responding to Criticism in a Foreign Language: A Study of Vietnamese Learners of English.” PhD thesis. University of Auckland 2005 https://​researchspace​.auckland​.ac​.nz​/handle​/2292​/36, 2013 2013 “An Exploratory Study of Criticism Realization Strategies Used by NS and NNS of New Zealand English.” Multilingua 32 (1): 103–130. CrossrefGoogle Scholar) found that EFL (English as a Foreign Language) and ESL (English as a Second Language) language users criticized and responded to criticism very differently from native speakers of English. The comparison highlighted the influence of negative transfer on the learners’ performance while it failed to show any positive influence for the learners’ increased language proficiency on their pragmatic competence. Of more relevance to the current study is Hiraga, Fuji and Turner (2003)Hiraga, Masako K., Yoko Fujii, and Joan M. Turner 2003 “L2 Pragmatics in Academic Discourse: A Case Study of Tutorials in Britain.” Intercultural Communication Studies 12 (3): 19–36.Google Scholar who examined the difficulties Japanese students studying in Great Britain faced with pragmatic understanding in tutorial sessions with British tutors. Differences in the power distance between teachers and students in the two cultures had an impact on communication. While British tutors paid attention to students’ face, reflecting an egalitarian perspective of students as full members of the discourse community, students’ face was not often attended to as much as the teacher’s in the Japanese context because authoritarian interaction was more common in the Japanese context with students not granted a membership status in the academic community.

Few other studies on teacher-student interaction were carried out outside the domain of interlanguage pragmatics. Comparing tutor-student interaction in British and Japanese academic contexts, Hiraga and Turner (1996)Hiraga, Masako K., and Joan M. Turner 1996 “Differing Perceptions of Face in British and Japanese Academic Settings.” Language Sciences 18 (3–4): 605–627. CrossrefGoogle Scholar showed that while British students primarily dealt with their own face wants, Japanese students showed more concern for the positive face of the tutor. It was also noted that negative face was highly attended to in the British context with both tutors and students carefully addressing the negative face of each other and the students particularly taking care of their own. In the Japanese context, however, neither tutors nor students seemed to attend to each other’s negative face or that of their own. The results were interpreted in terms of the British tutors’ view of their students as members of the academic discourse community and the more hierarchical and authority-based relationship between students and teachers in the Japanese context. Similar cultural influences were noted by Cao (2005)Cao, Jia. “A Pragmatic Analysis of the Speech Act of Criticism in Primary and Junior High School Chinese Lecturer-Student Talk.” Master’s thesis, Northeast Normal University 2005https://​www​.dissertationtopic​.net​/doc​/875784 who highlighted that lecturers’ criticism to students is perfectly justified in the Chinese context while students, who are assigned an inferior status in the social hierarchy, are expected to submit to lecturers’ instruction and show lecturers due respect and obedience. Of special interest to the current study is Riekkinen (2010)Riekkinen, Niina 2010 ““This is not criticizing, but….” Softening Criticism: The Use of Lexical Hedges in Academic Spoken Interaction.” Helsinki English Studies 6: 75–87.Google Scholar who examined the use of hedges in doctoral defenses when criticism was given by native speakers of English versus speakers of ELF. It was noted that ELF speakers used hedges differently than native speakers of English in terms of what expressions are used and how frequently they are used. However, these differences did not result in any communication problems.

The current study fits in the domain of oral communication as it examined the realization of the speech act of criticizing by university teachers to their students through 10 role-plays. More specifically, the current study aimed to address the following research questions:

  1. How do university teachers realize the speech act of criticizing in their talk with students?

  2. How does gender influence university teachers’ realization of the speech act of criticizing in their talk with students?

  3. How does increased years of teaching experience influence university teachers’ realization of the speech act of criticizing in their talk with students?

3.Methodology

3.1Participants

A total of 60 faculty members were recruited from a private Saudi university for the purpose of the study. The participants were gender-balanced consisting of 30 females and 30 males. The female participants ranged in age between 28 and 54 (Mean: 40.36) and in years of teaching experience between 4 and 36 (Mean: 14.36). They belonged to 9 nationalities; 5 Lebanese, 5 Saudis, 5 Egyptians, 5 Pakistanis, 4 Indians, 3 Malaysians, 1 Korean, 1 Singaporean and 1 South African. As for men, they ranged in age between 30 and 50 (Mean: 38) and in years of teaching experience between 3 and 30 (Mean: 14.3). They came from 14 countries; 5 Jordanians, 5 Egyptians, 5 Pakistanis, 3 Malaysians, 2 Indians, 2 Nigerians, 1 Slovak, 1 French, 1 Spanish, 1 Yemeni, 1 Palestinian, 1 Saudi, 1 Algerian and 1 Tunisian. All participants had spent a minimum of seven months of service at the private Saudi university where the study was conducted. The longest years of service for the participants at the Saudi private university was 17 years while the mean was 5 years of service.

3.2Data collection

Data were collected through 10 role plays (see Appendix A) that included everyday situations university teachers are likely to face with their students, such as late attendance of class, attempt to cheat at an exam, submitting a partially plagiarized assignment, responding rudely to the faculty member, etc. The participants were directed to read the scenarios and respond in the manner they would naturally do with their students. Since male and female students are taught separately at the target university, male faculty members responded as if they were addressing their male students while female faculty members imagined speaking to their female students. It was decided to collect data through role-plays, not the more commonly used written Discourse Completion Task, in order to increase the authenticity of data. Faculty members would produce more natural speech in role-plays. Afterwards, recordings got transcribed for the purpose of data analysis. The researchers are aware though that ethnographic data collection would offer yet a higher level of authenticity, but opted for the use of role-plays in order to examine the criticism strategies within the same situations across all participants. Additionally, the use of role-plays was more feasible due to the difficulty of arranging repeated visits to classrooms for data collection. It is worth noting that the use of English as the medium of instruction is enforced by a university policy, and, hence, even the Arabic-speaking teachers who participated in the study completed the role-plays in English as they would do in their classrooms.

3.3Data coding

Data coding was based on an adapted version of Nguyen’s (2005Nguyen, Thi T. M. 2005 “Criticizing and Responding to Criticism in a Foreign Language: A Study of Vietnamese Learners of English.” PhD thesis. University of Auckland 2005 https://​researchspace​.auckland​.ac​.nz​/handle​/2292​/36, 2013 2013 “An Exploratory Study of Criticism Realization Strategies Used by NS and NNS of New Zealand English.” Multilingua 32 (1): 103–130. CrossrefGoogle Scholar) coding scheme of the speech act of criticizing. The scheme included two main categories of criticism; i.e., direct criticism, which explicitly points out the problem with H’s choice/actions/work/products/ etc., and indirect criticism, which implies the problems with H’s choice/actions/work/products, etc. Each category included a number of subcategories. For example, the strategy of disapproval, which involves describing S’s negative attitude towards H’s choice, etc., fell under direct criticism while the strategy of correction, which involves fixing errors and asserting specific alternatives, came under indirect criticism. Context here definitely played a central role to decide whether an utterance is direct or indirect. In addition to these two main categories, it was acknowledged that participants may opt out and/or attempt to soften criticism using external (e.g., sweeteners and disarmers) and/or internal (e.g., downtoners and understaters) modifiers (Nguyen 2005Nguyen, Thi T. M. 2005 “Criticizing and Responding to Criticism in a Foreign Language: A Study of Vietnamese Learners of English.” PhD thesis. University of Auckland 2005 https://​researchspace​.auckland​.ac​.nz​/handle​/2292​/36, 2013 2013 “An Exploratory Study of Criticism Realization Strategies Used by NS and NNS of New Zealand English.” Multilingua 32 (1): 103–130. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). Appendixes (B) and (C) include detailed descriptions of all categories with their characteristics and sample utterances. Coding was limited to verbal behavior. Analysis of non-verbal criticism (e.g., Trees and Manusov 1998Trees, April R., and Valerie Manusov 1998 “Managing Face Concerns in Criticism: Integrating Nonverbal Behaviors as a Dimension of Politeness in Female Friendship Dyads.” Human Communication Research 24 (4): 564–583. CrossrefGoogle Scholar) was not addressed as it falls beyond the scope of the current study.

4.Results

This section is divided into three subsections as per the study research questions.

4.1How do university teachers realize the speech act of criticizing in their talk with students?

Table 1 shows the percentages of criticism strategies in terms of opting out, direct criticism and indirect criticism. The university teachers preferred the use of indirect strategies which represented 53.3% of the responses. The most frequent micro-strategies were demanding change (10.7%), indicating a standard (9.7%), requesting change (8.6%), advising change (7.1%), asking or presupposing (6.7%) and giving hints (5.2%). As for the direct strategies, which represented 43.1% of the responses, it is noted that the less direct the micro-strategy was, the more frequently it was used. For example, the extremely direct strategies of negative evaluation and disapproval account for 9.6% while showing the consequences of action and identifying the problem represented 22.9% and 10.4% respectively. Regarding opting out, it represented only 3.6% of the responses.

Table 1.Percentages of criticizing strategies
Strategy Sum Percentage
Opting out 46   3.6%
Negative evaluation  49   3.8%
Disapproval  74   5.8%
Expression of disagreement   0 0%
Identification of problem 133  10.4%
Statement of difficulties   0 0%
Consequences 291  22.9%
Direct criticism 547 43.1%
Correction   0 0%
Indicating standard 124   9.7%
Preaching  39 3%
Demand for change 136  10.7%
Request for change 110   8.6%
Advice about change  91   7.1%
Suggestion for change   7   0.5%
Expression of uncertainty  15   1.1%
Asking/Presupposing  86   6.7%
Other hints  67   5.2%
Indirect criticism 675 53.3%

Table 2 shows the university teachers’ preferences per situation. In four situations, the teachers produced more direct than indirect strategies. The percentage of direct strategies from the total number of strategies employed by teachers was (56.9%) when the teacher discovered the students’ act of plagiarism in situation 10, (56.2%) when the student cheated in situation 7, (51.9%) when the student missed the deadline for assignment submission in situation 3 and (49.1%) when the student came late to class in situation 1. Four other situations showed a remarkably high use of indirect strategies. This was shown when the student received a low grade in situation 4 (69.5%), forgot the study materials in situation 2 (64.3%), used the cell phone in class in situation 8 (63%) and submitted a poor assignment in situation 6 (61.5%). As for opting out, three situations showed higher use of strategy than the average for the accumulative situations. These situations were the ones when the student was rude (6.8%), arrived late to class (5.6%) and used the cell phone (5.5%).

Table 2.Percentages of criticizing strategies per situation
Situation Opting out Direct criticism Indirect criticism
Sum Percentage Sum Percentage Sum Percentage
1 7   5.6% 61 49.1% 56   45.3%
2 1    .9% 45 34.8% 83   64.3%
3 3    .5% 66 51.9% 58   45.6%
4 4   3.2% 35 27.3% 89   69.5%
5 8   6.8% 53 44.1% 59   49.1%
6 3   2.1% 55 36.4% 93   61.5%
7 1 1% 63 56.2% 48   42.8%
8 6   5.5% 35 31.5% 70 63%
9 8 7% 48 41.7% 59   51.3%
10 5   3.3% 86 56.9% 60   39.7%

Table 3 shows that the use of modifiers, whether external or internal ones, was minimal. Only 167 external and 62 internal modifiers were produced. External modifiers constituted almost three quarters of the total number of modifiers with grounders (e.g., Please, read these materials because my lecture is directly linked with that) (33.6%) being the most frequent, followed by disarmers (e.g., You’re late again, but I think that’s because of the traffic jam.) (15.2%), sweeteners (e.g., Your writing is generally good, but this part seems directly copied from the source.) (13.5%) and steers (e.g., I have some comments about your assignment) (10.4%) respectively. As for internal modifiers, the most frequent was cajolers (e.g., You know, you need to fix this problem.) (14.8%). Table 4 shows the use of modifiers per situations. With the small number of modifiers used, no significant patterns proved worthy of description. It is obvious though that the highest number of external modifiers was used in the situations where the student forgot the study materials (situation 2), received a low grade (situation 4) and forgot to prepare for class (situation 9).

Table 3.Percentages of modifiers
Strategy Sum Percentage
Steer  24  10.4%
Sweeteners  31  13.5%
Disarmers  35  15.2%
Grounders  77  33.6%
External modifiers 167 72.9%
Understaters   5   2.1%
Hedges   0 0%
Downtoners  16   6.9%
Cajolers  34  14.8%
Subjectivizers   7 3%
Internal modifiers 62 27.1%
Table 4.Percentages of modifiers per situation
Situation External modifiers Internal modifiers
Sum Percentage Sum Percentage
1 14   82.3%  3   17.7%
2 30   78.9%  8   21.1%
3 14 70%  6 30%
4 25   69.4% 11   30.6%
5  5 50%  5 50%
6 17   73.9%  6   26.1%
7  4 50%  4 50%
8 18   81.8%  4   18.2%
9 27   79.4%  7   20.6%
10 13   61.9%  8   38.1%

4.2How does gender influence university teachers’ realization of the speech act of criticizing in their talk with students?

In order to examine the influence of gender on the teachers’ criticism strategies, a T-test11.A T-test is a type of inferential statistics which is used to demonstrate if there is a significant difference between the means of two groups which may be related in certain features. was run to compare the averages of the two genders in order to identify any differences and show how statistically significant these differences are. As shown in Table 5, men produced significantly more negative evaluations, advice for change and other hints while women demanded change significantly more frequently.

Table 5.T-test results – influence of gender
Strategy Gender Mean SD T Sig (2-tailed)
Negative evaluation Female  .4333  .72793 −2.558 .013
Male 1.2000 1.47157
Demand for Change Female 2.7333 1.61743  2.506 .015
Male 1.8000 1.24291
Advice about Change Female  .9000  .84486 −3.831 .000
Male 2.1333 1.54771
Other Hints Female  .7333  .98027 −2.507 .015
Male 1.5000 1.35824

These findings, however, underwent some change when the T-test was conducted per situation because choosing the most appropriate politeness strategy is situation-dependent (Holtgraves 1992Holtgraves, Thomas 1992 “The Linguistic Realization of Face Management: Implications for Language Production and Comprehension, Person Perception, and Cross-cultural Communication.” Social Psychology Quarterly 55 (2):141–159. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). First, men produced more grounders when students came late to class, more advice for change when students forgot their materials, did not meet the deadline, behaved rudely and submitted partially plagiarized assignments, more hints when students attempted to cheat, more negative evaluations when students behaved rudely, attempted to cheat and did not prepare for class and more direct criticisms when students did not prepare for class. As for women, they produced significantly more hints when students received low grades, more disapprovals when they did not prepare for class, more demands for change when students submitted poor assignments and more questions when students did not prepare for class. Women also opted out more often when students received low grades.

Table 6.T-test results – influence of gender per situation
Situation Strategy Gender Mean SD T Sig(2-tailed)
1 Grounder Female  .0000 .00000 −2.112 .039
Male  .1333 .34575
2 Advice about change Female  .0333 .18257 −2.047 .045
Male  .2000 .40684
3 Advice about change Female  .0000 .00000 −2.408 .019
Male  .1667 .37905
4 Opting out Female  .1333 .34575  2.112 .039
Male  .0000 .00000
Other Hints Female  .1333 .34575  2.112 .039
Male  .0000 .00000
5 Negative evaluation Female  .0667 .25371 −2.408 .019
Male  .3000 .46609
Disapproval Female  .2667 .44978  2.633 .011
Male  .0333 .18257
Advice about change Female  .1333 .34575 −2.131 .037
Male  .3667 .49013
6 Demand for change Female  .3667 .49013  2.530 .014
Male  .1000 .30513
7 Negative evaluation Female  .0000 .00000 −2.112 .039
Male  .1333 .34575
Other hints Female  .0333 .18257 −2.633 .011
Male  .2667 .44978
9 Negative evaluation Female  .0000 .00000  2.112 .039
Male  .1333 .34575
Direct criticizing Female  .5667 .81720  2.167 .034
Male 1.0333 .85029
Asking/Presupposing Female  .2000 .40684  2.047 .045
Male  .0333 .18257
10 Advice about change Female  .0000 .00000 −2.112 .039
Male  .1333 .34575

The influence of gender was also examined through comparing the combination patterns of strategies as shown in Table 7. Among the noted differences are that the opting out strategy ranked 1st for women with 10% while it ranked 2nd for men with 5%. A reverse pattern was noted for the indication of ill consequences which ranked 1st for men with 9% and second for women for 6.7%. It was also noted that demanding change on its own represented 4.7% of the patterns by women while it did not represent a frequent pattern for men who preferred requests for change (2.3%) and advice for change (2.3%) instead. Some similarities across gender were also observed. For example, indicating ill consequences by itself stood at 4% for women and 3.3% for men. Similarly, identifying problems with indicating ill consequences represented 4.3% for women and 3% for men.

Table 7.Percentages of combination patterns of strategies
Females Males
Combination pattern Percentage Combination pattern Percentage
Opting out 10% Consequences 9%
Consequences    6.7% Opting out 5%
Consequences + Demand for Change  5% Consequences + Standard   3.3%
Demand for Change    4.7% Identification of Problem + Consequences 3%
Identification of Problem + Consequences    4.3% Consequences + Other Hints 3%
Consequences + Indicating Standard  4% Request for Change   2.3%
Asking/Presupposing    3.7% Advice about Change   2.3%

4.3How do increased years of teaching experience influence university teachers’ realization of the speech act of criticizing in their talk with students?

In order to address the influence of increased years of teaching experience on the realization of criticism, a Pearson Correlation test22.The Pearson Correlation test is a statistical measure of the linear correlation between two variables. was run to measure the statistical relationship, or association, between the two variables. The results shown in Tables (8) and (9) revealed minimal influence. Overall, the more experienced the professors were, the more likely they steered and produced external modifiers. When the test was run per situations, however, some further differences emerged. The more experienced professors were, the less they demanded change when students came late to class, asked questions when students behaved rudely, advised change when students did not prepare for class and identified the problem in cases of plagiarism. The more experienced the professors were, the more they provided hints when students missed deadlines, produced cajolers when students behaved rudely, steered when students used the cell phone in class and produced external modifiers when students did not prepare for class or submitted partially plagiarized assignments.

Table 8.Pearson correlation test results – influence of years of teaching experience
Strategy R Sig
Steer .300 .020
External modifiers .297 .021
Table 9.Pearson correlation test results – influence of years of teaching experience per Situation
Situation Strategy R Sig
1 Demand Change −.264 .041
3 Other Hints  .300 .020
5 Asking/Presupposing −.260 .045
Cajolers  .308 .017
8 Steer  .388 .002
9 Advice about Change −.275 .033
External modifiers  .297 .021
10 Identification of Problem −.280 .030
External modifiers  .279 .031

5.Discussion

An important finding of the current study is the university teachers’ preference for indirect (53.3%) over direct criticism (43.1%) strategies. Within the indirect strategies, preference was mainly for those that reflect minimal imposition, such as requesting (8.6%) and advising (7.1%) change, asking/presupposing (6.7%) and other hints (5.2%). These strategies convey the message of criticizing, but allow the students at least theoretically to accept or reject the change, provide reasons or ignore the hints (Riekkinen 2010Riekkinen, Niina 2010 ““This is not criticizing, but….” Softening Criticism: The Use of Lexical Hedges in Academic Spoken Interaction.” Helsinki English Studies 6: 75–87.Google Scholar). Even when teachers opted for the more assertive indirect strategy of indicating a standard, reference was often made to institutional policies regarding late arrival to class, plagiarized assignments, attempting to cheat, etc. This minimizes the imposition from the teachers since the imposition is institutional. When teachers employed direct strategies, the extremely direct strategies of negative evaluation and disapproval were used at the minimum whereas less direct ones were preferred. Reference was also often made to institutional penalties (e.g., failing a course for plagiarism, being marked absent on the academic portal for arriving too late to class, etc.) and policies (e.g., disrespect is not allowed in this university). These preferences clearly show that teachers were trying to soften the content of the criticism for the sake of enhancing teacher-student relationship and balance the informational and pedagogic aspects with the interpersonal dimension (Hyland and Hyland 2001Hyland, Fiona, and Ken Hyland 2001 “Sugaring the Pill: Praise and Criticism in Written Feedback.” Journal of Second Language Writing 10: 185–212. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). As explained earlier, the faculty members in the study context are highly qualified and trained university professors who must be fully aware of the value of maintaining positive interpersonal relationships with students to enhance the learning process.

Teachers’ attempt to soften their criticism is documented in earlier studies (e.g., Hiraga, Fuji and Turner 2003Hiraga, Masako K., Yoko Fujii, and Joan M. Turner 2003 “L2 Pragmatics in Academic Discourse: A Case Study of Tutorials in Britain.” Intercultural Communication Studies 12 (3): 19–36.Google Scholar; Hiraga and Turner 1996Hiraga, Masako K., and Joan M. Turner 1996 “Differing Perceptions of Face in British and Japanese Academic Settings.” Language Sciences 18 (3–4): 605–627. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Hyland and Hyland 2001Hyland, Fiona, and Ken Hyland 2001 “Sugaring the Pill: Praise and Criticism in Written Feedback.” Journal of Second Language Writing 10: 185–212. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Riekkinen 2010Riekkinen, Niina 2010 ““This is not criticizing, but….” Softening Criticism: The Use of Lexical Hedges in Academic Spoken Interaction.” Helsinki English Studies 6: 75–87.Google Scholar) but teachers seem to differ in their preferred strategies. Teachers in the current study preferred the use of indirect strategies and the less direct strategies from the direct ones. However, teachers (n = 60 responding to 10 situations each) showed little use of modifiers whether externally (n = 167) or internally (n = 62). Other studies demonstrated different preferences. For example, teachers used questions and suggestions similar to the current study in Hyland and Hyland (2001)Hyland, Fiona, and Ken Hyland 2001 “Sugaring the Pill: Praise and Criticism in Written Feedback.” Journal of Second Language Writing 10: 185–212. CrossrefGoogle Scholar, but also frequently used hedges (internal modifier) and praise (external modifier). Similarly, teachers in Riekkinen (2010)Riekkinen, Niina 2010 ““This is not criticizing, but….” Softening Criticism: The Use of Lexical Hedges in Academic Spoken Interaction.” Helsinki English Studies 6: 75–87.Google Scholar showed a strong use of hedges. The minimal use of hedges in the current study may be interpreted in two ways. First, the teachers in the current study teach EFL learners and may thus wish to ensure the clarity of their messages by avoiding internal modifiers, which may not be well-noticed by EFL learners (Hyland 2000Hyland, Ken 2000 “Hedges, Boosters and Lexical Invisibility: Noticing Modifiers in Academic Texts.” Language Awareness 9 (4): 179–197. CrossrefGoogle Scholar) or may even cause incomprehension and miscommunication (Hyland and Hyland 2001Hyland, Fiona, and Ken Hyland 2001 “Sugaring the Pill: Praise and Criticism in Written Feedback.” Journal of Second Language Writing 10: 185–212. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). Second, the different use of modifiers may be a general characteristic of ELF as noted in Riekkinen (2010)Riekkinen, Niina 2010 ““This is not criticizing, but….” Softening Criticism: The Use of Lexical Hedges in Academic Spoken Interaction.” Helsinki English Studies 6: 75–87.Google Scholar who showed that ELF teachers used hedges differently from native speakers without causing any communication problems.

The teachers’ preferences in the current study support that the choice of appropriate strategies is situation-dependent (Holtgraves 1992Holtgraves, Thomas 1992 “The Linguistic Realization of Face Management: Implications for Language Production and Comprehension, Person Perception, and Cross-cultural Communication.” Social Psychology Quarterly 55 (2):141–159. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Brown and Levinson 1987 1987Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). Contrary to the general pattern of findings, teachers in the current study produced more direct than indirect strategies for situations of plagiarism (56.9%), cheating (56.2%), missing deadlines (51.9%) and coming late to class (49.1%). The severity of these situations may have called for this tendency. Paying attention to the severity of the situation was also obvious when teachers used higher percentages than average of indirect strategies when students received low grades (69.5%), forgot the study materials 64.3%), checked their cell phones in class (63%) or submitted relatively poor assignments (61.5%). Teachers also used the highest number of external modifiers in less severe situations, such as forgetting the study materials, or in situations that are particularly sensitive to students, such as the student receiving a low grade.

In terms of politeness, it is clear that teachers in the current study are particularly sensitive to their students’ face. As explained earlier, it is extremely important to maintain good rapport with their students. Face-work in the current study was mainly represented in reducing imposition on the students’ negative face. This was achieved through the use of indirect strategies (negative politeness strategies) and rhetorical questions and hints (off-record strategies). Additionally, bald-on record strategies (e.g., negative evaluation and disapproval) were kept to the minimum. The results may reflect the increasing emphasis in teacher-training programs on the importance of providing constructive feedback that catalyzes, coaches, inspires confidence (Sadler 1998Sadler, Royce 1998 “Formative Assessment: Revisiting the Territory.” Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy and Practice 5 (1): 77–84. CrossrefGoogle Scholar), involves students in their own teaching and learning (Hattie and Timperley 2007Hattie, John, and Helen Timperley 2007 “The Power of Feedback.” Review of Educational Research 77 (1): 81–112. CrossrefGoogle Scholar) and allows for dialogue between students and teachers in a way that promotes thinking and reflection (Black, Harrison, Lee, Marshall and William 2002Black, Paul, Christine Harrison, Clare Lee, Bethan Marshall, and Dylan Wiliam 2002Working inside the Black Box: Assessment for Learning in the Classroom. London: King’s College.Google Scholar).

The current results also revealed interesting insights regarding ELF. Earlier studies on criticism mainly highlighted EFL and ESL learners’ preferences for direct criticism strategies (e.g., Lü 2018Lü, Linqiong 2018 “Role of Email in Intercultural Communication of Criticism in a Chinese English Curriculum Reform Context.” English Language Teaching 11 (2): 193–207. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Nguyen 2013 2013 “An Exploratory Study of Criticism Realization Strategies Used by NS and NNS of New Zealand English.” Multilingua 32 (1): 103–130. CrossrefGoogle Scholar) while ELF teachers in the current study manipulated indirect strategies successfully to fulfil their goals. This finding lends support to the treatment of ELF as a language variety of English rather than an ill-formed or illegitimate version. The teachers in the current study were highly proficient speakers of English who used the language to communicate with non-native speakers. Their purpose was global communication using English as a lingua franca. Hence, their language choices need not be compared to a native speaker’s model, but should be examined as a language variety on its own (Howatt & Widdowson 2004Howatt, Anthony P. R., and Henry G. Widdowson 2004A History of English Language Teaching (second edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar; Riekkinen 2010Riekkinen, Niina 2010 ““This is not criticizing, but….” Softening Criticism: The Use of Lexical Hedges in Academic Spoken Interaction.” Helsinki English Studies 6: 75–87.Google Scholar; Widdowson 1994Widdowson, Henry G. 1994 “The Ownership of English.” TESOL Quarterly 28 (2): 377–389. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). The current results also support Cogo and Dewey’s (2006)Cogo, Alessia, and Martin Dewey 2006 “Efficiency in ELF Communication: From Pragmatic Motives to Lexico-Grammatical Innovation.” Nordic Journal of English Studies 5 (2): 59–93. CrossrefGoogle Scholar argument that ELF often lacks interactional features, such as hedges, and tends to be more content-driven. This can be explained in terms of Mauranen’s (2003)Mauranen, Anna 2003 “The Corpus of English as Lingua Franca in Academic Settings.” TESOL Quarterly 37 (3): 513–26. CrossrefGoogle Scholar claim that ELF speakers are sensitive and cooperative language users. It is assumed that the ELF teachers in the current study seemed to avoid the use of modifiers because EFL learners generally tend to miss modifiers (Hyland 2000Hyland, Ken 2000 “Hedges, Boosters and Lexical Invisibility: Noticing Modifiers in Academic Texts.” Language Awareness 9 (4): 179–197. CrossrefGoogle Scholar) and miscomprehend indirect feedback (Hyland and Hyland 2001Hyland, Fiona, and Ken Hyland 2001 “Sugaring the Pill: Praise and Criticism in Written Feedback.” Journal of Second Language Writing 10: 185–212. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). The ELF teachers’ choices thus aimed to enhance the learners’ understanding.

In addition to examining the use of criticism strategies, the current study also addressed two important social factors; i.e., gender and years of teaching experience. Few significant differences were noted for both factors. As for gender, the main differences were that men produced significantly more negative evaluations, advice for change and hints while women tended to demand change more frequently. Differences were noted across situations, but without a clear pattern. For example, men produced more negative evaluations when students behaved rudely, cheated or did not prepare for class. Men advised for change more frequently when students forgot their materials, missed the deadline, behaved rudely or plagiarized. Women demanded change more frequently when students submitted poor assignments and opted out more often when students received low grades. The influence of the years of teaching experience was also minimal as the general pattern was for more experienced teachers to produce more steers and external modifiers. In certain situations, other results showed. For instance, the more experienced the teachers were, the less they demanded change from late students, the less they asked questions to rude students, the less advice they provided for those who did not prepare for class and the less they identified the problem in cases of plagiarism.

The minimal influence of these social factors can be best explained in terms of the focus of the current study on university teacher-student talk. As Araújo (2012)Araújo, Antonia D. 2012 “Academic Genres in University Contexts: An Investigation of Students’ Book Reviews Writing as Classroom Assignments.” In International Advances in Writing Research: Cultures, Places, Measures, ed. by Charles Bazerman, Chris Dean, Jessica Early, Karen Lunsford, Suzie Null, Paul Rogers, and Amanda Stansell, 319–333. New York: Parlor Press e WAC Clearinghouse.Google Scholar pointed out, participants tend to appropriate their actions to the conventions socially constructed by their discourse community. Hence, faculty members tend to behave in accordance with the social patterns of their community in terms of standard practices as per teacher training programs, institutional policies regarding instructional standards and regulations and the values underpinning the educational culture. In such institutionalized academic settings, harmonious practices are more commonly used. This was clear in the British tutors’ versus Japanese tutors’ behaviors in Hiraga and Turner (1996)Hiraga, Masako K., and Joan M. Turner 1996 “Differing Perceptions of Face in British and Japanese Academic Settings.” Language Sciences 18 (3–4): 605–627. CrossrefGoogle Scholar and Hiraga, Fuji and Turner (2003)Hiraga, Masako K., Yoko Fujii, and Joan M. Turner 2003 “L2 Pragmatics in Academic Discourse: A Case Study of Tutorials in Britain.” Intercultural Communication Studies 12 (3): 19–36.Google Scholar when the British applied more egalitarian practices while the Japanese exercised a more authoritarian approach. Similarly, although in a different context, American and Brazilian graduate students appropriated their writing preferences to write the classroom assignment of book reviews regardless of their experience with writing in this particular genre. What may have further contributed to the relatively homogenous behavior is that the mean for years of service at the same university was 5 years, a period that supports effective acculturation to the conventions and standard practices in the institution.

6.Conclusion

The current study examined the criticism strategies employed by university teachers in teacher-student talk in a context where English is used as a lingua franca. In this context, ELF teachers effectively manipulated criticism strategies to convey their messages while maintaining good interpersonal relationships with students. Communicating with non-native speakers and possessing excellent command of English, the ELF teachers’ production was interpreted within their context, not through comparisons with native speakers’ production. For example, the teachers’ minimal use of modifiers was regarded as a legitimate feature of the ELF variety which suited the needs of the EFL learners’ relatively poor command of English and their potential misunderstanding of indirect or modified messages. The ELF teachers also showed adequate sensitivity to politeness in their preference of indirect criticism strategies over direct ones and also in their tendency to use strategies of little directness among the cohort of direct criticism strategies. Great sensitivity was also shown to the students’ negative face through reducing imposition on students and expressing criticism in a manner that allows them even theoretically to be the decision takers.

The influence of the teachers’ gender and years of teaching experience, two seemingly important social variables, was surprisingly minimal in the current study. This finding was relatively unexpected, particularly since university education in the current study is separate for the two sexes with a campus for male students and teachers and another campus for female students and teachers. However, the general context of the study seemed to greatly reduce the effect of such social variables as teachers, in this institutionalized academic setting, seemed to conform to the conventions of the academic community with reference to the culture of the place, institutional policies and standard pedagogical practices. The teachers’ strong tendency to appropriate their behavior to the conventions and social patterns of the academic setting regardless of their gender or years of teaching experience was further enhanced by their teaching experience and their relatively long years of service at the same university (mean: 5 years). It must be noted though that the severity of the situation showed a strong influence in the current study. In fact, the teachers’ criticism behavior was extremely situation-dependent. Teachers’ choices of direct/indirect criticism strategies greatly varied along the severity continuum (e.g., cheating at the strong end and forgetting the study materials towards the other end).

The current study highlights the importance of carefully considering the situation and general context in pragmatic analyses of speech acts. The realization of speech acts is often situation-dependent and the general context of the study, such as the university setting in the current study, tends to typify the participants’ contributions in interactions and may minimize the influence of other frequently examined social variables, such as gender. Careful consideration of the situation and context is also recommended in politeness research since preference for certain politeness strategies over others may reflect the situated linguistic behavior of the target institutionalized academic or professional settings. The current study also supports the use of English as a lingua franca as a legitimate variety of the English language that is worthy of investigation. ELF speakers with a high command of English, as is the case in the current study, should not be pooled together with language learners. Additionally, it is recommended for teacher-training programs to benefit from research in the area of speech acts. Novice teachers can benefit a great deal from training on the effective use of relevant speech acts, such as providing and responding to criticism, giving instructions and handling complaints. Finally, further research on the speech act of criticizing within specific contexts is recommended. It will also be helpful to further examine the use of English as a lingua franca in the world of academia and how politeness management may vary across cultures and contexts.

Funding

The researchers thank Prince Sultan University for funding this research project through the research group [Language Learning and Teaching Research Group RG-CH-2016/11/11].

Acknowledgements

The researchers thank the article anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments on an earlier version of the article.

Notes

1.A T-test is a type of inferential statistics which is used to demonstrate if there is a significant difference between the means of two groups which may be related in certain features.
2.The Pearson Correlation test is a statistical measure of the linear correlation between two variables.

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Appendix A.Study: Examining university teacher-student talk

Instrument: Role-play

Dear Faculty Member,

Participation in this role-play is voluntary, so please feel free to refuse participation if you don’t wish to take part in the study.

The aim of this study is to examine the university teacher-student talk. The data are collected through role-plays that will be recorded and later transcribed. The participants’ identities will be kept strictly confidential. No special reward is offered for participation in the study. Your participation will, however, be highly appreciated by the researchers to help advance scientific research.

Procedure

You will read 10 scenarios which should make you criticize your student, especially that their wrong behavior has been repeated. You must respond in natural spoken English as you would do in real life while actually talking to your students. In case you feel that you would not say anything in real life, please say so and explain your reason(s).

Now, you will be reading one scenario at a time and then have your response to your student in natural spoken English recorded.

Situation (1)

Your student has arrived 15 minutes late to class again.

Situation (2)

Your student has forgotten to bring his/her study materials to class again. The materials are needed for class work.

Situation (3)

Your student did not submit the assignment by the deadline again.

Situation (4)

Your student has again received a low grade on the test. He/She does not seem to be exerting enough effort to improve their grades.

Situation (5)

Your student has again replied rudely to your comments in class. He/She generally adopts a disrespectful attitude in class.

Situation (6)

Your student submitted an assignment in poor shape and quality. The student has repeatedly disregarded your layout specifications and does not seem to be putting enough effort into the work.

Situation (7)

Your student is trying to cheat at an exam. You warned him/her against this behavior before, but he/she is still trying to look into his/her colleague’s answer paper.

Situation (8)

Your student is repeatedly checking the cell phone during the lecture. This seems to completely distract your student and make him/her miss the class content.

Situation (9)

Your student was instructed to prepare for the lecture through reading certain parts of the textbook before coming to class. The student has again not prepared for the lecture as instructed.

Situation (10)

Your student has submitted a partially plagiarized assignment. You had warned him/her against plagiarism once before and your plagiarism policy had been shared with the whole class.

Appendix B.Nguyen’s (2005Nguyen, Thi T. M. 2005 “Criticizing and Responding to Criticism in a Foreign Language: A Study of Vietnamese Learners of English.” PhD thesis. University of Auckland 2005 https://​researchspace​.auckland​.ac​.nz​/handle​/2292​/36, 2013 2013 “An Exploratory Study of Criticism Realization Strategies Used by NS and NNS of New Zealand English.” Multilingua 32 (1): 103–130. CrossrefGoogle Scholar) coding scheme of the speech act of criticizing (adapted)

Type Characteristics Example
1. Opting Out
2. Direct Criticizing Explicitly pointing out the problem with H’s choice/ actions/ work/ products/ etc.
a. Negative evaluation Usually expressed via evaluative adjectives with negative meaning or evaluative adjective with positive meaning plus negation. Umm that’s not really a good sentence.”
b. Disapproval Describing S’s attitude towards H’s choice, etc. I don’t like the way you write that ah “I’m convinced about the idea” or “in my opinion.”
c. Expression of disagreement Usually realized by means of negation word “No” or performatives “I don’t agree” or “I disagree” (with or without modal) or via arguments against H. I don’t really agree with you.”
d. Identification of problem Stating errors or problems found with H’s choice, etc. You had a few spelling mistakes.”
e. Statement of difficulties Usually expressed by means of such structures as “I find it difficult to understand….” “It’s difficult to understand….” I find it difficult to understand your idea.”
f. Consequences Warning about negative consequences or negative effects of H’s choice, etc. for H himself or herself or for the public. Someone who doesn’t agree with you (.) would straight away read that and turn off.”
3. Indirect Criticizing Implying the problems with H’s choice/ actions/ work/ products, etc.
a. Correction Including all utterances which have the purpose of fixing errors by asserting specific alternatives to H’s choice, etc. And you put “their” I think t-h-e-r-e
b. Indicating standard Usually stated as a collective obligation rather than an obligation for H personally or as a rule which S thinks is commonly agreed upon and applied to all. Theoretically, a conclusion needs to be some sort of a summary.”
c. Preaching Usually stated as guidelines to H, with an implicature that H is incapable of making correct choices otherwise. The following statement is meant to help you. You see, anyone can have an opinion, but the issue is whether they can back it up.”
d. Demand for change Usually expressed via such structures as “you have to,” “you must,” “you are required to,” “you need,” or “it is necessary.” You must pay attention to grammar.”
e. Request for change Usually expressed via such structures as “will you…..?,” “can you…?,” “would you….?” Or imperatives (with or without politeness markers), or want statement. I still want you to consider some points.”
f. Advice about change Usually expressed via the performative “I advise you…,” or structures with “should” with or without modality I mean conclusion should have some sort of improvement.”
g. Suggestion for change Usually expressed via the performative “I suggest that…” or such structures as “you can,” “you could,” “it would be better if,” or “why don’t you,” etc. It could have been better to put a comma.”
h. Expression of uncertainty Utterances expressing S’s uncertainty to raise H’s awareness of the inappropriateness of H’s choice, etc. Are there several paragraphs ah not sure about the paragraphs.”
i. Asking/ presupposing Rhetorical questions to raise H’s awareness of the inappropriateness of H’s choice, etc. Did you read your writing again after you finish it?
j. Other hints Including other kinds of hints that did not belong to (h) or (i). May include sarcasm. I prefer a writing style which are not too personal.”

Appendix C.Nguyen’s (2005Nguyen, Thi T. M. 2005 “Criticizing and Responding to Criticism in a Foreign Language: A Study of Vietnamese Learners of English.” PhD thesis. University of Auckland 2005 https://​researchspace​.auckland​.ac​.nz​/handle​/2292​/36, 2013 2013 “An Exploratory Study of Criticism Realization Strategies Used by NS and NNS of New Zealand English.” Multilingua 32 (1): 103–130. CrossrefGoogle Scholar) coding scheme of modifiers (adapted)

Type Characteristics Example
1. External modifiers
a. Steer Utterances that S used to lead H onto the issue he or she was going to raise Ah I have some comments about your writing.”
b. Sweeteners Compliments or positive remarks paid to H either before or after a criticizing to compensate for the offensive act. There are quite good relevant ideas that you presented (.) ah but..”
c. Disarmers Utterances that S used to show his or her awareness of the potential offences that his or her speech might cause H. You had a few spelling mistakes (.) but I think that’s because you’re writing too quickly, (.) nothing too major.”
d. Grounders The reasons given by S to justify his or her intent I think “is” is better than “are” there because traffic ah single?
2. Internal modifiers
a. Understaters Expressions that describe or represent (something) as being smaller or less important than it really is. I think it’s a bit salty for me, the soup.”
b. Hedges Mitigating word or construction used to lessen the impact of an utterance. You are making kind of a statement with the pants though.”
c. Downtoners Words or phrases which reduce the force of another word or phrase. Yes, I mean it might be but it still seems to me at the moment that perhaps it’s not a good idea.
d. Cajolers Flattery or insincere expressions to persuade someone to do something. you knowyou see
e. Subjectivizers Expressions of subjective opinion that lower the assertive force of an act. I think ” “ I feel ” “ I guess ” “ I believe ” “ I suppose

Address for correspondence

Dina Abdel Salam El-Dakhs

Linguistics Department

College of Humanities, Prince Sultan University

P.O. Box No. 66833 Rafha Street

Riyadh 11586

Saudi Arabia

ddakhs@psu.edu.sa

Biographical notes

Dina El-Dakhs is an Associate Professor at the Linguistics Department, College of Humanities, Prince Sultan University, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She is also the College Research Director and the Leader of the Language Learning and Teaching Research Group. She has extensive experience in teaching and coordinating Applied Linguistics and English language courses. She has presented at various conferences worldwide and published in international journals. Her research interests comprise Second Language Acquisition, Psycholinguistics, Pragmatics and Discourse Analysis.

Fatima Ambreen received her Master in English Literature from the University of Kashmir, India, CELTA from the Cambridge University and fellowship from the Academy of Higher Education, UK. She is currently working in Prince Sultan University, Saudi Arabia. Her research interests include second language acquisition and socio-linguistics.

Maria Zaheer received her Master in Applied Linguistics from the University of Central Lancashire, UK with additional qualifications of TESOL and PTLLS. She is currently lecturer at Prince Sultan University and her research interests include digital teaching and innovative learning. Her recent publication is The Effects of Form-Focused Instruction on the Learners’ Accuracy of Written Production (2014, awej). She is also the recipient of multiple awards for her research in teaching methods and development workshops.

Yulia Gusarova holds a Master’s degree in English and TESOL from Blagoveshchensk State Pedagogical university, Russia, and currently serves as a lecturer at the Deanship of Educational Services, English Department at the College of Humanities, Prince Sultan University, Saudi Arabia. She is also a member of the Language Learning and Teaching Research Group. Her research interests lie in Second Language Acquisition, Discourse Analysis, Pragmatics and Psycholinguistics.