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 PhD_Business Language and Culture 
 MA_Cultural Studies on European Integration 
 BA_Western Society and Culture 
 MA_Intercultural Communication 
Lecture 4_Language and Intercultural Communication

Update April 13, 2020

Learning Objectives:

  • raises awareness of the imperatives of studying language and intercultural communication in today’s globalized, interconnected world;

  • provides a concise history of the multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary field of language and intercultural communication, focusing on the contributions of scholars in the USA, Europe and East Asia;

  • call for more indigenous, localized research.


Reading Material:

Extracts from the paper entitled "Linguistics and Intercultural Communication" written by Piller (2007):


Our times are often referred to as the ‘new world order’ with its ‘new economy’. What this means is that capitalism has been restructured on a global scale, and people of widely different cultural and linguistic backgrounds have been thrown into contact

more than ever before. Cultural and linguistic contact may occur in the flows of information and mass media, as well as in the flows of actual people in migration  and tourism. Given the ubiquity of cultural and linguistic contact, mergers and hybrids, it is unsurprising that there should be a strong interest in Intercultural Communication, both outside and inside academia. Linguistics as a discipline makes two key contributions to the study of Intercultural Communication. (i) It is the key contribution of discourse analysis and anthropological linguistics to take culture as empirical and cultural identity, difference and similarity as discursive constructions. (ii) Intercultural Communication by its very nature entails the use of different languages and/or language varieties and  sociolinguistics, particularly bilingualism studies, illuminates the differential prestige of languages and language varieties and the differential access that speakers enjoy to them.


Language in 'Intercultural Communication'

For a linguist, a large part of the Intercultural Communication literature makes surprising reading. Part of the surprise results from the limited to nonexistent attention to language and languages, as if language and languages were a negligible or at best minor aspect of communication. Some of the most widely read textbooks in Intercultural Communication have their disciplinary bases in Business Studies, Communication Studies, Management Studies and Psychology (e.g. Rogers and Steinfatt 1999; Harris and Moran 2000; Gudykunst and Mody 2001; Hofstede 2001; Martin et al. 2001; Martin and Nakayama 2003; Chaney and Martin 2004; Jandt 2004, 2006; Reynolds and Valentine 2004; Ting-Toomey and Chung 2004; Lustig and Koester 2005;Varner and Beamer 2005). These texts tend to give short shrift to language and languages (usually one chapter out of around twelve). Now, a linguist would consider natural language the most important aspect of human communication, and I cannot help feeling that this may be more than professional prejudice. The neglect is such that it has even been started to be noticed in these disciplines themselves. Vaara et al. (2005: 59), for instance, observe that ‘[n]atural languages have received very little attention in organization and management studies.’

What is more, the content of what little consideration there is of language issues can be of the ‘weird and wonderful’ kind. Typically, ‘the language chapter’ invokes the ‘Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis’ and the concept of linguistic relativity, stating that our language influences the way we see the world, and that our language makes different aspects of reality salient to us. I will provide a detailed example although I do not wish to single out these particular authors for criticism because I consider the example to be fairly typical. Chaney and Martin (2004: 96) provide a table that matches ‘verbal style’ with ‘ethnic group’. For ‘Germans’ they offer the following entry: ‘In the German language, the verb often comes at the end of the sentence. In oral communication, Germans do not immediately get to the point.’ This entry suggests that having the verb at the end of the sentence says something about when ‘the point’ is being made. However, such a claim conflates syntax and pragmatics. The position of the verb in German is purely a matter of syntax: the verb is the second constituent in a main clause and the last one in a subordinate clause. In contrast, the position of ‘the point’ is a matter of pragmatic choice and may be located anywhere in a sentence and across syntactic boundaries. Another example comes from the entry for ‘Japanese’: ‘The word “yes” has many different meanings.’ The implication of such an entry is that such polysemy and polyfunctionality are special to Japanese, while they are in fact a characteristic of all natural languages (Harris 1998). Just like in Japanese and any other language, English words, too, can be used to mean the exact opposite of their ‘real’ (i.e. their core or dictionary) meaning: think of the ‘start-button’ many of us need to press to shut down --- that is, ‘end’ --- our Microsoft Windows computers.

The relativity of linguistic structure is obvious to anyone who knows more than one language. Whether such structural differences also point to cognitive differences --- for instance, do we see the world differently depending on the position of the verb in our main language or languages? --- is a matter of debate. However, the focus on formal relativity in much of the cross-cultural and intercultural communication literature tends to obscure a much more fundamental relativity, namely that of function: we do different things with language, as the following example nicely illustrates:

Community differences extend to the role of languages in naming the worlds they help to shape or constitute. In central Oregon, for example, English speakers typically go up a level in taxonomy when asked to name a plant for which they lack a term:‘some kind of bush’; Sahaptin speakers analogize:‘sort of an A’, or ‘between an A or a B’ (A and B being specific plants);Wasco speakers demur: ‘No, no name for that,’ in keeping with a cultural preference for precision and certainty of reference. (Hymes 1996: 45)

Note that Dell Hymes does not make sweeping statements about English, Sahaptin and Wasco speakers per se but about those in a specific place, central Oregon. If we take the concept of functional relativity seriously, it becomes clear that sweeping assertions about languages and their speakers such as the ones quoted above (‘German speakers do not immediately get to the point’;‘[in Japanese], the word “yes” has many different meanings’) are quite meaningless, as ‘English’, ‘German’ or ‘Japanese’ may be quite different entities from each other, and for their diverse speakers. For instance, as a speaker of English, I can write a paper about Intercultural Communication for the Blackwell Language and Linguistics Compass addressing an international student audience --- I could not use any of my other languages for this purpose, least of all Bavarian, the oral dialect of my childhood. So, ‘English’ and ‘Bavarian’ are different-order categories (see de Swaan 2001, for a model of the different categories of languages). At the same time, ‘English speakers’ are a huge group, and use ‘English’ in many different ways for many different purposes – relatively few write academic journal articles, for instance.

Above I argued that culture is often an a priori assumption in ‘Intercultural Communication’. The same is true for language: ‘English’, ‘German’, ‘Japanese’, etc., are all a priori assumptions that have their origin in the same source as the frequent identification of ‘culture’ with ‘nation’ and/or ‘ethnicity’ --- namely the stronghold that nationalism has on us. ‘To speak of the language, without further specification, as linguists [and writers on Intercultural Communication] do, is tacitly to accept the official definition of the official language of a political unit’ (Bourdieu 1991: 45). This trap --- to base research in Intercultural Communication on a range of a priori assumptions about ‘culture’ and ‘language’ --- can only be avoided by a commitment to studying language, culture and communication in context.

Empirical Intercultural Communication as it is conducted in the tradition of interactional sociolinguists as pioneered by John Gumperz (1982a,b) has studied actual face-to-face interactions between people with different kinds of background knowledge for a long time, and isolated contextualization cues as a key variable in misunderstandings. Contextualization cues are those aspects of our communication that relate what we say to the context or that signal how we expect what we say to be interpreted: ‘[...] signaling mechanisms such as intonation,speech rhythms,and choice among lexical, phonetic, and syntactic options [...] said to affect the expressive quality of a message but not its basic meaning’(Gumperz 1982a:16). We tend to think of these signals as fairly universal (e.g. ‘surely, you can’t misinterpret a smile?’) but they are not (e.g. a smile can be a sign of friendliness or of embarrassment). This is particularly important to bear in mind as interaction must be conducted in a specific language, and participants in an interethnic encounter oftentimes have unequal proficiency levels. Numerous studies have shown that misunderstandings predominantely result from limited proficiency in one or more of the languages of the participants in the interethnic encounter, especially the dominant language, including limited awareness of different contextualization cues (e.g. Bremer et al. 1996; Birkner and Kern 2000; Roberts 2000; Roberts et al. 2005). Roberts et al. (2005: 473), for instance, found in a study of 232 general practice consultations in four inner London medical practices that lack of proficiency in the languages involved in the encounters was the main problem in medical encounters in this multilingual community:

Twenty percent of all the consultations we filmed contained misunderstandings caused by language/cultural differences, where talk itself is the problem. These misunderstandings related to issues of language and self-presentation rather than culturally-specific health beliefs. This challenges the literature on culture and ethnicity which exoticises patients from linguistic minorities. (italics in the original; my underlining)

In summary, Intercultural Communication needs a more sophisticated understanding of natural language processes, particularly multilingual interactions, as it has been developed in interactional sociolinguistics and related ethnographic approaches in order not to mistake language problems for cultural problems.



Intercultural Communication is a vibrant field of study that is based in widely circulating discourses about culture and cultural difference. The frequent overlap between the voice of the researcher and the discourses in which it is embedded also make it a deeply problematic field. Linguistics can make at least two contributions to this field: from the perspective of interactional sociolinguistics and bilingualism studies, we need to insist that natural language is the prime mode in which ‘Intercultural Communication’ takes place. The analysis of linguistic interaction, particularly between speakers with different kinds of linguistic trajectories and resources, always involves a consideration of the resources available to those speakers and the actual verbal and nonverbal detail of their interactions. Research in interactional sociolinguistics has shown that, when misunderstandings arise, ‘culture’ is not even particularly likely to be implicated. At the same time, ‘culture’ is so ubiquitous that interactants may very well be orienting towards it, even if they never mention it. Discourse analysis has an important contribution to make to retrace these ‘forgotten contexts’ (Blommaert 2005) of ‘culture’ by identifying discourses where ‘culture’ is indeed important, whether explicitly or more implicitly, and to ask by whom, for whom, in which contexts, for which purposes. The key question of Intercultural Communication must shift from reified and inescapable notions of cultural difference to a focus on discourses where ‘culture’ is actually made relevant and used as a communicative resource.


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