“Communication is a two-way street”: Instructors’ perceptions of student apologies

Dongmei Cheng


Speech act studies are increasingly likely to use retrospective verbal protocols to record the thoughts of participants who produced targeted speech acts (e.g., Cohen & Olshtain, 1993). However, although communication is always a two-way street, little is known about the recipients’ perceptions of speech acts. In academic communication at universities, it is critical for students to gain awareness of the socio-cultural norms as well as knowledge of appropriate linguistic forms in interacting with instructors. Therefore, gathering perceptual information from instructors, the recipients of many speech acts such as apologies, serves an important role in realizing successful student-instructor communication. Targeting instructors’ perceptions, two forms of an online survey were created via surveygizmo.com, with one including 12 spoken apologies and the other including 12 emailed apologies. An equal number of native (NS) and nonnative English speaking (NNS) students produced these apologies. The 150 instructors who responded to the survey gave significantly higher ratings to apologies made by NS students than to those made by NNS students. An analysis of instructors’ explanations after the ratings showed that both sociopragmatic and pragmalinguistic knowledge (Thomas, 1983) were valued in the successful realization of apologies, with the majority of instructor explanations addressing the sociopragmatic aspects of apology productions. In their comments on highly-rated student apologies, instructors appreciated the fact that students took responsibility in apologizing, offered worthy explanations, and delivered the messages with minimum grammatical mistakes. Poorly rated apology messages did not contain sufficient or valid evidence, inconvenienced the instructors through inappropriate requests, and usually had multiple grammatical mistakes. This study provides useful source of information to be used in university classrooms that can orientate novice learners towards socio-cultural expectations and appropriate lexical markers to be employed in making successful apologies in academic settings.

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