The Imitation Game- Pragmatics and reported speech

One of the courses I loved back at Uni was pragmatics: how much more is being “said” than uttered, how linguistic politeness works…I have always found all that extremely useful as a teacher; and even outside the classroom, ocasionally, something might strike me, and it all comes back to me (be it in signs, ads, films…).

I recently watched The Imitation Game, a British / American biopic about mathematician Alan Turing, played by Benedict Cumberbatch (BBC’s Sherlock). The film is likely to win many awards; Cumberbatch is receiving accolades for his performance…The reason why I bring up the subject today is because I feel that parts of the film may hold special value to English teachers / graduates.

The way the film depicts Turing, he could be said to show some traits of Asperger’s syndrome. I won’t get into that debate, as long as a film is just a representation, and not reality. But for our purposes, the striking feature is that the character does tend to take utterances in interactions quite literally, that is, he refuses to cooperate in communication (he fails to observe Grice’s Cooperative Principle – CP-), as you can see in the following clip:

Turing’s colleague politely invites him to stop working and go for lunch (“We’re going to get some lunch“). But Turing misreads his statement as a mere piece of information (we’re having lunch), neglecting the implicature behind the sentence (the invitation). He unintentionally refuses to cooperate in the interaction. He only seems to decode the meaning= invitation when it is properly phrased (“Would you like to come to lunch with us?”).

Imitation Game1

Likewise, when his youngest colleague, in an attempt to avoid conflict, goes off-topic and asks “Who’s hungry” (when what he really means is “Let’s go”), Turing takes the question literally, and answers honestly “I am”, failing to recognise the implicature behind the boy’s question (the suggestion to leave). The funny thing is that Turing himself shows his (linguistic) politeness by requesting some soup (“Can I have some soup?”), which is quite risky: his colleagues might have been intentionally literal (might have refused to decode the request) and said “Yes, you can, but we’re not going to bring it”. Instead, they flaunt all of Grice’s maxims, and just leave.

Imitation Game2

How could you use this clip in the classroom? Off the top of my head, it might be the springboard for an activity related to politeness in English (for example, how British culture tends to minimise the impact of a request and maximise the benefit produced by other people’s actions); or, more typically, to illustrate Reported Speech.

This is just a very improvised proposal, I haven’t put much thought into it; but it might inspire you to come up with something much better:


These are sentences taken from the clip, do you remember them? Who said each sentence?

  • We’re going to have some lunch
  • Would you like to come to lunch with us? 
  • Who’s hungry?
  • Let’s go for lunch
  • Can I have some soup, please? 
  1. What are the characters really saying? (What do they really mean? What do they want other people to do?)
  2. Could you write the dialogues (both questions and answers) in a more cooperative,  or in a clearer way?
  3. Report what everybody said a) in the original dialogue / b) in the new dialogue you wrote. How different are both versions?


Aside from that, and still thinking in terms of classroom use, the film exhibits lots of RP pronunciations (Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode’s, among others), as well as Allen Leech’s (Downton Abbey) Irish accent.

You can watch the subtitled trailer here:

3 comments on “The Imitation Game- Pragmatics and reported speech

  1. Pingback: Assessment Literacy (2) | Competencia lingüística y comunicativa

  2. Pingback: Bletchley Park | Competencia lingüística y comunicativa

  3. Pingback: Listening- Alan Turing to feature on the 50 GBP note | natalialzam

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