Think about the different cultural spaces in which you participate (clubs, churches, converts and so on). Select one of these spaces and reflect on how you enter and leave it. In doing so, answer the following questions
1. Why are you given entry into such spaces? Is it based on your particular identities? How you are dressed?
2. Who is denied entry into this space?
3. What factors determine whether a person has access to this specific space?
This assignment helps you to accomplish the following module learning objective:
Define cultural space
SOCIAL SCIENCE PERSPECTIVE ON LANGUAGE
Language and Perception
Language and Thought: Metaphor
Cultural Variations in Communication Style
Influence of Interactive Media Use on Language
and Communication Style
Slang and Humor in Language Use
After reading this chapter, you
should be able to:
INTERPRETIVE PERSPECTIVE ON LANGUAGE
Variations in Contextual Rules
CRITICAL PERSPECTIVE ON LANGUAGE
Discourse and Social Structure
The “Power” Effects of Labels
MOVING BETWEEN LANGUAGES
Translation and Interpretation
LANGUAGE AND IDENTITY
Language and Cultural Group Identity
LANGUAGE POLITICS AND POLICIES
LANGUAGE AND GLOBALIZATION
1. Define the Sapir–Whorf
2. Explain the nominalist,
relativist, and qualified
relativist positions on language
3. Describe the role of metaphor
in understanding intercultural
4. Identify cultural variations in
5. Give examples of variations in
6. Explain the power of labels.
7. Understand the challenges of
8. Explain the difference between
translation and interpretation.
9. Understand the phenomenon
of code switching and
10. Discuss the complexities of
216 Part II / Intercultural Communication Processes
I communicate with my friends around the world, like my friends from Germany
and from Venezuela—I keep in touch with them by WhatsApp or Facebook, and
sometimes Instagram. For the most part, I feel English is a power language, since
a lot of people speak English or at least know it somewhat. So when I message my
friends, they can understand me, but there are a lot of times when I talk with them,
I have to use basic English because they don’t understand some words, especially
slang. Another thing is my friends from Venezuela are only three hours ahead of us
but my German friends are eight hours ahead, and they usually want to talk after
they finish their school work and dinner—which is the middle of the night for me.
Here in America it seems that everyone is on their phones all the time.
As our student, Monica discovered, language is a central element in intercultural
communication, whether face-to-face or online. There are often challenges, like understanding slang, and the issue of power is always present—why does Monica use English
rather than German or Spanish in communicating with her friends? In online communication, timing and time zones can also be a challenge. Recent communication technologies and global health concerns highlight another important challenge of language—it is
constantly changing. Consider the words that have become part of English (and other
languages): clickbait, selfies, podcasts—all created because of technology; social distancing, contactless delivery, super spreader, flatten the curve, quarentini—created or used
more commonly during the pandemic; other words enter the English language from
our interaction with other cultures: avatar, tsunami, sudoku. Some of these words may
remain in use while others may disappear when no longer relevant.
How can we begin to understand the important role of language in intercultural
communication in today’s world, with more people on the move and technological connectivity to every corner of the earth? First, the sheer number of languages
spoken in the world today, approximately 6500 is staggering. Experts estimate that
800 languages are spoken in New York City alone (Strochlic, 2018). How can people
possibly communicate given all these different languages? Is intercultural communication easier online or face-to-face? Do we use language differently online? What are the
difficulties in interpreting and translating? Should everyone learn a second or third
language? In this chapter, we focus on language-related issues in verbal communication processes; the next chapter focuses on the nonverbal elements.
The social science approach generally focuses on individual aspects of language in
relation to intercultural communication, the interpretive approach focuses on contextual
uses of language practices, and the critical approach emphasizes the relations between
discourse and power. This chapter uses a dialectical perspective to explore how language
works dynamically in intercultural contexts. With the personal–contextual dialectic, we
can consider not only how language use operates on an individual level but also how it
is influenced by context. We also use the static–dynamic dialectic to distinguish between
language and discourse, to identify the components of language, and to explore the
relationship among language, meaning, and perception. Although it may seem that the
components of language are static, the use of language is a dynamic process.
In this chapter, we also explore cultural variations of language and some of the barriers presented by these variations. Then we discuss the relationship between language
POINT of VIEW
FRENCH LANGUAGE WATCHDOGS SAY ‘NON’ TO GENDER NEUTRAL
As you read the following news report, consider the underlying assumptions
about language use and perception. Which of the positions (nominalist?
relativist?) is represented by the “middots move”? by the French Prime Minister?
Perhaps in reaction to news stories of sexual harassment, there has been a recent
move in France to be more inclusive in language, to refer to both genders in the plural
form—inserting “middots” in gendered words.
“For example, the word for a mixed-gender group of readers is usually written
as lecteurs, even if the women outnumber the men, rather than with the feminine
plural, lectrices. Using inclusive writing, the word would be written as lecteur·rice·s.”
However, the French prime minister, Édouard Philippe (along with the language
watchdog, the Académie Française) is appalled at the idea, and he has banned the
practice on all official texts: “The masculine [form] is a neutral form, which should be
used for terms liable to apply to women.” The Académie agrees, saying that the “punctuated ‘aberration’ would make French too complex, putting it ‘in mortal danger.’”
Many ministries, university and trade union continue to use the gender-neutral
form, because “the French language must keep up with changing times.”
The debate continues.
Source: From https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/nov/21/no-more-middots-french-pm
and power, and between language and identity, and examine issues of multilingualism,
translation, and interpretation. Finally, we look at language and identity, language policies and politics, and globalization.
SOCIAL SCIENCE PERSPECTIVE ON LANGUAGE
The social science perspective focuses on the individual aspects of language use: language perception and thought, the way cultural groups use language in different ways,
and the barriers presented by these variations. People around the world speak many
different languages and some scholars think that the particular language we speak
influences how we see the world. Before we address the question of how to reduce
language barriers in intercultural communication, we need to ask the following questions: Do speakers of Japanese, Chinese, Arabic, and other languages actually perceive the world differently, depending on the particular language they speak? Or do
we all experience the world in the same way but have different ways of expressing our
experiences? We tackle these questions in the next section.
218 Part II / Intercultural Communication Processes
My co-worker, Nam, who moved to the US from Vietnam with his parents when he was
a child, talked with me about his difficulties with learning English. He indicated that
he learned English about 10 years ago and that the first difficulty he encountered while
learning English was the way we structure our words while forming sentences. He indicated to me that in English we have more “continuous tense” sentences compared to
Vietnamese or Chinese. For example, the straight translation of Vietnamese to English
without the reordering of words would turn “The phone rang while I was taking a bath”
into “I had a bath when the phone rang.”
Language and Perception
The view that
perception is not
shaped by the
one speaks. (Compare
position and qualified
position The view
that the particular
the structure of the
their perception of
reality and cultural
position and qualified
assumption that language shapes our
ideas and guides our
view of social reality.
This hypothesis was
proposed by Edward
Sapir, a linguist, and
his student, Benjamin
Whorf, and represents the relativist
view of language and
The question of how much of our perception is shaped by the particular language we
speak is at the heart of the “political correctness” debate. We can address these questions from two points of view: the nominalist and the relativist.
The Nominalist Position According to the nominalist position, perception is not
shaped by the particular language we speak. Language is simply an arbitrary “outer
form of thought.” Thus, we all have the same range of thoughts, which we express in
different ways with different languages. This means that any thought can be expressed
in any language, although some may take more or fewer words. The existence of different languages does not mean that people have different thought processes or inhabit
different perceptual worlds. After all, a tree may be an arbre in French and an arbol in
Spanish, but we all perceive the tree in the same way.
The Relativist Position According to the relativist position, the particular language we speak, especially the structure of that language, determines our thought
patterns, our perceptions of reality, and, ultimately, important cultural components (see
Figure 6-1). This position is best represented by the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis—
proposed by Edward Sapir (1921), a linguist, and his student, Benjamin Whorf (1956),
based on their research on Native American languages. According to the Sapir–Whorf
hypothesis, language defines our experience. For example, there are no possessives
(his/her/our/your) in the Diné (Navajo) language; we might conclude, therefore, that
the Diné think in a particular way about the concept of possession. Another example
is the variation in formal and informal forms. Consider that English speakers do not
distinguish between a formal and an informal you (as in German, with du and Sie, or
in Spanish, with tu and usted). In Japanese, formality is not simply noted by you, it
is part of the entire language system. Nouns take the honorific “o” before them, and
verbs take more formal and polite forms. Thus, “Doitsu-go ga dekimasen” [I—or you,
he, she, we, they—don’t speak German] is more polite and formal than “Doitsu-go ga
dekinai.” Does this mean that English, German, and Spanish speakers think about
formality and informality differently?
Chapter 6 / Language and Intercultural Communication 219
Language is an important
aspect of intercultural communication. The
particular symbols used in any language
are arbitrary and communicate meaning only when used in particular contexts.
(David Rubinger/Getty Images)
As a final example, note that some languages are gendered and others are
not. Thus, in English you could tell your friend, “I had dinner with a neighbor
last night,” and the friend would not know if the neighbor was male or female.
However, if you were speaking French, you would have to indicate the gender of
your neighbor: voisine (female) or voisin (male). The same is true for the many
other “gendered” languages, including Spanish, German, and Russian. In these
languages, not only are people gendered, but also inanimate objects—the clock,
the bridge, the chair, and so forth—are all either masculine or feminine. And
while speakers of gendered languages obviously know that inanimate objects do
not really have biological sex, the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis would suggest that
using gendered language can shape the feelings and associations speakers have
concerning objects around them. Thus, this hypothesis would support “political
220 Part II / Intercultural Communication Processes
The process of
moderate view of
Sees language as a
tool rather than a
prison (compare with
and relativist position).
correctness”—the notion that language is powerful, shapes our perception, e.g.,
gender fluid persons asking to be referred to as “they” rather than “him” or “her.”
A nominalist position would argue that the language used doesn’t impact how we
perceive a person’s gender identity (see Point of View, p. 217).
The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis has had tremendous influence on scholarly thinking about language and its impact on everyday communication. It questions the basic
assumption that we all inhabit the same perceptual world, the same social reality.
However, the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis has been critiqued by a number of studies
that challenge the connection between language and how we think (Deutscher, 2010).
For example, if according to Sapir–Whorf, language structures thought, then language
must precede and only subsequently influence thought. This raises the question whether
it is possible to think without language. Studies of children’s language acquisition seem
to suggest that language and thought are so closely related that it is difficult to conclude
that one initiates influence over the other—not supporting the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis.
Findings from studies of cross-cultural differences in language suggest similar conclusions. The question here is, do different language groups perceive the world completely
differently? The answer, according to most experts is—probably not. So even if there is
no single word for the “foot” in Japanese, it does not mean that Japanese and English
speakers would perceive a foot in very different ways.
Given these and findings from other studies, most contemporary language experts
advocate a middle ground, the qualified relativist position, suggesting that while not a
“prison,” the language habits that our culture has instilled in us from the time we first
learn to speak probably does shape our perceptions and orientation to the world and
the people and objects we encounter (Deutscher, 2010). This view allows for more freedom than the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. As you read the research findings that follow,
you may see the wisdom of the qualified relativist position.
Language and Thought: Metaphor
One way of thinking about the relationship between language and thought is to look
at metaphors. A metaphor is an expression where a word (or words) is used outside
of its normal conventional meaning to express a similar concept (Lakoff, 1992). For
example, “you are my sunshine.” Although an individual cannot literally be sunshine,
comparing someone to sunshine expresses a particular positive meaning. Experts used
to think that metaphors are about language, or literary writing, not useful for understanding everyday speech. A famous cognitive scientist and linguist George Lakoff
disagrees and proposes that metaphors are part of thinking, one way we organize our
thoughts, in everyday living. In fact, metaphors are “a major and indispensable part
of our ordinary conventional way of conceptualizing the world, and that our everyday
behavior reflects our metaphorical understanding of experience” (p. 203).
Understanding a culture’s metaphors, then, helps us understand something about the culture itself. Consider the English metaphor of likening love to a
journey: Our relationship has hit a dead-end street. Look how far we’ve come. It’s been a long,
bumpy road. We’re spinning our wheels. Our relationship is off the track. These are ordinary,
everyday English expressions. They are not poetic, nor are they necessarily used for special
rhetorical effect, but for reasoning about our relationships (Lakoff, 1992, p. 205).
Chapter 6 / Language and Intercultural Communication 221
Metaphors can also be a useful way to understand other cultures. Some metaphors are universal, like the metaphor of an angry person as a pressurized container,
for example (Kövecses, 2005). Consider these English phrases: “His pent-up anger
welled up inside him. Billy’s just blowing off steam. He was bursting with anger. When I
told him he just exploded.” Other languages have similar expressions. The universality
of the metaphor may rest in the universal human physiology—since physical bodily
changes actually occur when we are angry (blood pressure rises, pulse rate increases,
In English, metaphors for happiness seem to center on a feeling of being up,
light, fluid in a container (She was floating on air, bursting with happiness). However,
the Chinese have a metaphor that does not exist in English—that happiness is flowers in the heart. Experts suggest that metaphors reflect cultural beliefs and values; in
this case, the metaphor reflects the more restrained Chinese communication style,
whereas the English metaphor of “happiness is being off the ground” reflects the relatively expressive English communication style (Kövecses, 2005, p. 71).
Cultural Variations in Communication Style
What else do we need to understand in order to reduce the language and verbal
barriers in intercultural communication? In addition to cultural differences in metaphor use, social science scholars also identify differences in the way people use
language in everyday conversations. By this, we mean that even if people are speaking the same language, there can be misunderstandings due to differences in communication style.
Communication style combines both language and nonverbal communication. It
is the metamessage that contextualizes how listeners are expected to receive and interpret verbal messages. A primary way in which cultural groups differ in communication style is in a preference for high- versus low-context communication. A high-context
communication style is one in which “most of the information is either in the physical
context or internalized in the person, while very little is in the coded, explicit, transmitted
part of the message” (Hall, 1976, p. 79). This style of communication emphasizes understanding messages without direct verbal communication. People in long-term relationships often communicate in this style. For example, one person may send a meaningful
glance across the room at a party, and his or her partner will know from the nonverbal
clue that it is time to go home.
In contrast, in low-context communication, the majority of meaning and information
is in the verbal code. This style of communication, which emphasizes explicit verbal messages, is highly valued in many settings in the United States. Interpersonal communication textbooks often stress that we should not rely on nonverbal, contextual information.
It is better, they say, to be explicit and to the point, and not to leave things ambiguous.
However, many cultural groups around the world value high-context communication.
They encourage children and adolescents to pay close attention to contextual cues (body
language, environmental cues), and not simply the words spoken in a conversation
(Gudykunst & Matsumoto, 1996).
William Gudykunst and Stella Ting-Toomey (2003) identify two major dimensions of communication styles: direct versus indirect and elaborate versus understated.
style The metamessage that contexualizes how listeners are
expected to accept
and interpret verbal
meaning of a message
that tells others how
they should respond
to the content of our
on our relationship to
style of communication in which much
of the information
is contained in the
contexts and nonverbal cues rather than
in words. (Compare
in which much of
the information is
conveyed in words
rather than in
nonverbal cues and
222 Part II / Intercultural Communication Processes
POINT of VIEW
ultural differences in communication style can have important implications in
business and political negotiations. Consider the rocky trade negotiations over
tariffs between Chinese and Americans. At one point, Americans assumed initial phases were completed, and were ready to move on, only to discover that the Chinese disagreed! Business scholars Akgunes and Culpepper, explain that for high-context
Chinese, negotiations are never final, but rather a starting point, a way to build solid
trusting relationships over long extended periods of time, to be revisited every now and
then. The Columbia University business professor Shang-Jin Wei describes their attitude toward negotiations as “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” This cultural
practice presents huge challenges for low-context Americans, who believe that the written contract or legal document is what counts and holds no ambiguity.
Another cultural difference relevant for trade negotiations concerns direct and
indirect styles. Global business consultant Sue Bryant points out that Chinese executives, preferring an indirect style, will often avoid giving a straight answer in order to
save the other person’s face. “The worst thing you can do in negotiations with Chinese colleagues is to go out of your way to prove a point, regardless of the effect it has
on others” (Bryant, 2019).
Americans, who tend to be very direct and literal, find this confusing and frustrating.
Sources: From A. Akgunes & R. Culpepper (2012). Negotiations between Chinese and Americans:
Examining the cultural context and salient Factors.The Journal of International Management Studies,
From S. Bryant (2019, July 17). Identifying cultural differences and similarities: China vs. the US.
From S.-J. Wei (2019, May 14). Why the US and China see negotiations differently, Columbia Business School, https://www8.gsb.columbia.edu/articles/chazen-global-insights/why-us-and-china-see
Direct Versus Indirect Styles This dimension refers to the extent to which speakers
reveal their intentions through explicit verbal communication and emphasizes lowcontext communication. A direct communication style is one in which verbal messages reveal the speaker’s true intentions, needs, wants, and desires. An indirect style
is one in which the verbal message is often designed to camouflage the speaker’s true
intentions, needs, wants, and desires (Gudykunst, Ting-Toomey, & Chua, 1988). Most
of the time, individuals and groups are more or less direct depending on the context.
Many English speakers in the United States favor the direct speech style as the
most appropriate in most contexts. This is revealed in statements like “Don’t beat
around the bush,” “Get to the point,” and “What exactly are you trying to say?”
Although “white lies” may be permitted in some contexts, the direct style emphasizes
honesty, openness, forthrightness, and individualism.
However, some cultural groups prefer a more indirect style, with an emphasis on
high-context communication. Preserving the harmony of relationships has a higher
priority than being totally honest. Thus, a speaker might look for a “soft” way to
communicate that there is a problem in the relationship, perhaps by providing
Chapter 6 / Language and Intercultural Communication 223
contextual cues, which again has relevance for the Chinese American trade negotiations, since Chinese tend to prefer a more indirect style (see Point of View, p. 222).
Some languages have many words and gestures that convey the idea of “maybe.”
For example, three Indonesians studying in the United States were invited by their
advisor to participate in a cross-cultural training workshop. They did not want to
participate, nor did they have the time. But neither did they want to offend their professor, whom they held in high regard. Therefore, rather than tell him they couldn’t
attend, they simply didn’t return his calls and didn’t show up at the workshop.
An international student from Tunisia told Judith and Tom that he had been in
the United States for several months before he realized that if someone was asked for
directions and didn’t know the location of the place, that person should tell the truth
instead of making up a response. He explained that he had been taught that it was
better to engage in conversation, to give some response, than to disappoint the person
by revealing he didn’t know.
Different communication styles are responsible for many problems that arise
between men and women and between persons from different cultural groups.
These problems may be caused by different priorities for truth, honesty, harmony, and
conflict avoidance in relationships, and can have significant implications in personal as
well as in business and political contexts.
Elaborate Versus Understated Styles This dimension of communication styles refers
to the degree to which talk is used. The elaborate style involves the use of rich, expressive language in everyday talk. For example, the Arabic language has many metaphorical expressions used in everyday speech. In this style, a simple assertive statement
means little; the listener will believe the opposite.
In contrast, the understated style values succinct, simple assertions, and silence.
Amish people often use this style of communication. A common refrain is, “If you
don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Free self-expression is not
encouraged. Silence is especially appropriate in ambiguous situations; if one is unsure
of what is going on, it is better to remain silent.
The exact style falls between the elaborate and the understated, as expressed
in the maxim “Verbal contributions should be no more or less information than is
required” (Grice, 1975). The exact style emphasizes cooperative communication and
sincerity as a basis for interaction.
Differences between elaborated and understated styles can present challenges in
international political negotiations. Compare the two speeches of President Obama
and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddaffi in 2011, when President Obama sent troops to
help manage a citizen uprising in Libya (see Figure 6-2). Obama explained his reason
for sending in a very concise dispassionate manner:
We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi—a city nearly the size of Charlotte—could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and
stained the conscience of the world.
It was not in our national interest to let that happen. I refused to let that
happen. And so nine days ago, after consulting the bipartisan leadership of
Congress, I authorized military action to stop the killing and enforce UN
Security Council Resolution 1973.
224 Part II / Intercultural Communication Processes
Libyans in the capital city of Tripoli celebrate after toppling
their government in summer 2011. (Francisco Leong/AFP/Getty Images)
Gaddafi addressed his people in a long, 75-minute speech, full of metaphors, and
in a more indirect and elaborated style:
I am bigger than any Rank, I am a Revolutionary, I am the Bedouin from oasis that
brought victory to enjoy it from generation to generation. Libya will remain at the
top and will lead Africa and South America. We cannot hinder the process of this
revolution from these greasy rats and cats. I am paying the price for staying here
and my grandfather, Abdus Salam Bomanyar, who fell a martyr in 1911. I will not
leave the country and I will die as a martyr in the end. https://docs.google.com
While some analysts were quick to point out that Gaddafi was prone to extreme
language and not held in high regard by many Arab leaders, other experts point
to the particular challenges of the Arab language as it is spoken today. Each
Arab country region has its own local dialect, making communication within the
Arab world a distinct challenge. A former British ambassador to Libya notes that
Gaddafi’s personal speaking style was in a Libyan dialect and clearly reflected his
Bedouin background—where elaborated speech is commonplace, people talk for
hours at a time, and Gaddafi’s speeches regularly went on for three or four hours at
a stretch (Miles, 2011).
Chapter 6 / Language and Intercultural Communication 225
Influence of Interactive Media Use on Language
and Communication Style
Some experts wonder about the influence of communication technologies on
communication style. In general, e-mail, text messaging, and especially Twitter
emphasize low-context, direct and understated written communication. In these
media, precision, efficiency, and making sure that the meaning is clearly conveyed
are priorities. However, these interactive media provide many ways to send contextual information along with our words; we add emojis, gifs, and stickers to our
texts as well as photos and videos in order to convey more emotional meanings
to our messages. For example, emojis are often used to fine-tune our messages, to
enhance or adjust our messages or more subtly—to express irony (Hu et. al., 2017).
Thus, it’s possible that non-native speakers may have difficulty in interpreting the
subtlety of emoji use.
Not everyone adopts or uses all available technologies. Business experts
report that in many countries where high-context, indirect communication is preferred, even though digital communication is prevalent and available (and used in
marketing), some business people prefer face-to-face contact or telephone (especially for initial contacts) or use video conferencing more than e-mail and text
messaging in order to incorporate more contextual information (http://www
.aperianglobal.com). For example, in Kenya, many people have cell phones, young
people use social media, texting is common as it is quicker and cheaper than a
phone call, and conducting financial transactions via phone is common. However, most Kenyans prefer face-to-face communication versus virtual communication in business contexts, especially when dealing with serious issues (Virtual
communication in Kenya, 2020). Similarly, while China is a huge telecom market
and the majority of its population is online, technology has not replaced face-to-face
communication. This is still an essential piece to developing and maintaining interpersonal relationships, so important there.
Moreover, people may adopt the technologies in their own style. For example, high-context communicators may prefer videoconferencing rather than e-mail
because video and audio allow for more contextual cues. However, while they may
prefer the “richer” communication technologies, there is some evidence that they
may be perceived as less than competent by more direct, low context communicators, that “the typically indirect communication style in China can also lead to misunderstandings during virtual encounters.” Thus experts recommend that “lean”
media may be more desirable in some cases or followup after a virtual interaction
(http://www.aperianglobal.com; Bazarova & Yuan, 2013). In addition to highlighting
cultural differences in language, interactive media also have an enormous impact on
slang and humor, discussed in the following section.
Slang and Humor in Language Use
Another cultural variation in language use that can present barriers is slang.
According to language expert Tom Dazell (2005), slang is generally wittier and
cleverer than standard language. It’s inventive and creative and serves an important
226 Part II / Intercultural Communication Processes
function—it establishes a sense of community identity among its users, often in
opposition to standard language users. Slang, then, can be perceived as a barrier to
those outside the language group. Slang is particularly important for youth cultures;
it’s almost imperative to invent slang that belongs to each generation and is unintelligible to parents and other adults. International students struggle to learn slang
(see Point of View, p. 227), as well as parents and grandparents who are mystified
by the language of their children. What makes it particularly challenging is the fact
that slang is dynamic and can be fleeting: here today, gone tomorrow, largely due to
social media influence.
Communication accommodation theory (CAT) suggests that there is an optimum use of slang by an outsider accommodating to the slang of a particular culture.
Using too much slang, or using it in inappropriate contexts, can sound awkward to the
“native” listener, like when your parents try to use your slang or foreign students use
lots of slang, but make mistakes in grammar and pronunciation.
Humor can be another cultural language variation that presents challenges,
even when two cultural groups speak the same language. For example, some say that
British humor is nuanced and subtle and often relies on irony, whereas American
humor tends to be more obvious and straightforward—much like U.S. Americans
themselves. However, these differences don’t seem to present much of a barrier—
comedy TV sitcoms have been adapted between the two countries for many years
(e.g., The Office).
Trying to use humor in a foreign language can be really challenging because the
basis of humor is so often linked to particular cultural experiences (or history). For
example, understanding Chinese sarcasm requires a thorough understanding of Chinese
history and politics; sarcasm is often used in a very subtle way to criticize someone (often
politicians) without losing face. So one way to mock present politicians is by criticizing an ancient Chinese emperor who was evil because he killed scholars and oppressed
the peasants. A foreigner might not get the true humor (sarcasm) at all, but Chinese
listeners would understand (www.quora.com/How-is-Chinese-sarcasm-different
-from-Western-sarcasm). The best advice to cultural outsiders or language learners is to
use humor and slang fairly sparingly, if at all.
Another type of humor that presents a barrier in intercultural communication is humor at the expense of another. For example, individuals sometimes mock
another’s accent or language use—a situation encountered by one of our students,
I am extremely proud of my Mexican heritage, and I usually feel offended when my
identity is not respected. I have a slight accent and occasionally when I go out and
mispronounce something people crack jokes. They think that it is all in good humor
but it can be offensive.
As he goes on to say, it’s especially hurtful because the humor usually reflects (and
perpetuates) negative stereotypes:
People connect too many stereotypes to Hispanics; society must learn to stop
stereotyping minorities. When this happens then everyone can truly be united and
respected, without preconceived notions based off a person’s race.
POINT of VIEW
nowing another language isn’t necessarily enough to communicate well.
Consider all the slang used by speakers in every language. Here’s some U.S.
American slang from a website for students trying to learn English (and these
are just the beginning of the alphabet)!
Amped: I’m so amped for tonight’s game.
Basic: Let’s get out of here. This party is basic.
Bro: What’s up, bro?
Chill: We’re done with exams, so let’s just chill tonight.
Cray (or cray cray): The new Beyonce album is cray.
Ditch: I had to ditch study group because my dad called.
Dude: Hey dude, how’s it going?
Epic: Did you see that movie? So epic.
Source: From https://shorelight.com/student-stories/a-guide-to-american-college-slang-words
British English slang terms—How many of these do you know?
Arse over elbow
Source: From https://www.effingpot.com/chapters/slang/
These different uses of language communicate different things to their culturally
disparate audiences. As they also demonstrate, it is not easy to interpret language use
from other people’s perspectives.
Taking a dialectical perspective, though, should help us avoid stereotyping specific groups (such as Arabic or English speakers) in terms of communication style.
We should not expect any group to use a particular communication style all the time.
Instead, we might recognize that style operates dynamically and is related to context,
historical forces, and so on. Furthermore, we might consider how tolerant we are when
we encounter others who communicate in very different ways and how willing or able
we are to alter our own style to communicate better.
Part II / Intercultural Communication Processes
INTERPRETIVE PERSPECTIVE ON LANGUAGE
The interpretive perspective focuses on an in-depth understanding of communication
use in context and how communication practices may vary from one cultural context
Variations in Contextual Rules
A dialectical perspective reminds us that the particular communication style we use
may vary from context to context. Think of the many contexts in which you communicate during the day—classroom, family, work, and so on—and about how you alter your
communication to suit these contexts. You may be more direct with your family and
less direct in classroom settings. Similarly, you may use high-context informal communication in interaction with friends and more low-context formal with your professors.
These same cultural variations can apply to written communication. You probably
write in more formal language when communicating with professors by e-mail than
when texting to your friends.
Many research studies have examined the rules for the use of socially situated
language in specific contexts. They attempt to identify contexts and then “discover” the rules that apply in these contexts for a given speech community. For
example, several studies examined gender differences in the interpersonal communication “rules” of text messaging for men and women in India. In one study,
through in-depth interviews, Indian women reported receiving negative reactions
from parents, extended family members, husbands, and male friends when sending or reading text messages in their presence. The study also revealed the creative
strategies used by Indian women to deal with these limitations placed on them by
others: storing phone numbers of male friends under female names, erasing all
text messages daily, and communicating through social media rather than texting.
The study concludes that these differential “textiquettes” (text messaging rules)
for women and men in India reflect the unequal power relations between men and
women in India, and that women texting represents a threat to male patriarchy
A related study examined the communication patterns involved in the common practice of “nagging” in U.S. American family contexts (Boxer, 2002).
Nagging (repeated requests by one family member to another) usually concerns
household chores and is often a source of conflict. More importantly, the communication practice seems to be related to issues of gender, power, and control.
To be more specific, men are rarely perceived as the naggers; in this study, only six
of the seventy sequences involved men nagging women. The researcher suggests
that this is because they are perceived as having more power and, therefore, able
to successfully request and gain compliance from another family member without resorting to nagging. This also means that children can have power (if they
refuse to comply with a request despite lacking status), and parents can lack
power despite having status. If our styles constrain how we request and respond to
requests, then by nagging we lose power. Without power, we are forced into nagging, and so it seems a vicious cycle.
Chapter 6 / Language and Intercultural Communication 229
Other studies compare communication styles used by different speech communities. For example, researchers have examined how communication style varies from generation to generation. One study, based on interviews with 40 gay
men of various ages, investigated how communication with younger men contributed to older men’s positive self-concept. They discovered that older men: (1) had
a more refined and nuanced verbal communication style, sensitive to nonverbal
cues, contrasted to younger men’s more blunt expressive style—maybe because
they came of age in a time when it was more difficult to be out and so communicated “in code”; (2) were more oriented to face-to-face communication, seeing
this as more genuine and nuanced, whereas younger men were oriented to online/
mediated communication—e.g., with sexual hookup apps and texting; and (3) saw
their more masculine expression as positive—in contrast to their perceptions of
younger men’s somewhat feminine style (Hajek, 2018).
People communicate differently in different speech communities. Thus, the context in which the communication occurs is a significant part of the meaning. Although
we might communicate in one way in one speech community, we might change our
communication style in another. Understanding the dynamics of various speech communities helps us see the range of communication styles.
CRITICAL PERSPECTIVE ON LANGUAGE
A critical perspective on language suggests that, in order to use language effectively in
intercultural encounters, we need to understand the role of power and power differentials in these encounters. Recall that discourse refers to language in use. This means
that all discourse is social. The language used—the words and the meanings that are
communicated—depends not only on the context but also on the social relations that
are part of that interaction. For example, bosses and workers may use the same words,
but the meanings communicated are not always the same. A boss and a worker may
both refer to the company personnel as a “family.” To the boss, this may mean “one
big happy family,” whereas to a disgruntled employee, it may mean a “dysfunctional
family.” To some extent, the disparity is related to the inequality between boss and
worker, to the power differential.
In Chapter 2, we introduced communication accommodation theory. There are
different ways that people accommodate or resist accommodating, depending on the
situation. One such theory that encompasses various approaches is co-cultural communication, which we examine next.
The co-cultural communication theory, proposed by communication scholar Mark
Orbe (1998), describes how language works between dominant and nondominant
groups—or co-cultural groups. Groups that have the most power (white, male, cisgender) consciously or unconsciously formulate a communication system that supports
their perception of the world. This means that co-cultural group members (ethnic
minorities, women, LGBTQ indivdiduals) must function in communication systems
groups that exist in a
national culture, such
as African American
or Chinese American.
230 Part II / Intercultural Communication Processes
CO-CULTURAL COMMUNICATION ORIENTATIONS
Source: From M. Orbe, & T. Roberts, “Co-Cultural Theorizing: Foundations, Applications & Extensions,” Howard Journal Of Communications, 23 (4), 2012: 295–296.
that often do not represent their experiences. Nondominant groups thus find themselves in dialectical struggles: Do they try to adapt to the dominant communication
style, or do they maintain their own styles?
There seem to be three general answers to the question of how co-cultural groups
can relate to the more powerful (dominant) groups: they can communicate nonassertively, assertively, or aggressively. Within each of these communication postures,
co-cultural individuals may emphasize assimilation—trying to become like the dominant group—or they can try to accommodate and adapt to the dominant group. They
can also try to remain separate from the dominant groups as much as possible. These
three sets of orientations result in nine types of communication strategies (Table 6-1).
The strategy chosen depends on many things, including preferred outcome, perceived
costs and rewards, and context.
The point here is that there are both costs and benefits for co-cultural members when they choose which of these strategies to use. Because language is structured in ways that do not reflect their experiences, they must adopt some strategy
for dealing with the linguistic framework. For example, if Mark wants to refer to
his relationship with Kevin, does he use the word boyfriend, friend, r oommate,
husband, partner, or some other word? If Mark and Kevin are married, he might
Chapter 6 / Language and Intercultural Communication 231
choose to refer to Kevin as his husband in some contexts; in others (e.g., Thanksgiving dinner with disapproving family, or at work), he may choose a different
term, depending on how he perceives costs and benefits in each situation. Let’s
look at how these strategies might work, and the costs and the benefits of each.
Assimilation Strategies The three assimilation strategies are nonassertive, assertive,
and aggressive. Nonassertive strategies emphasize trying to fit and be accepted by
the dominant group. Such strategies might emphasize commonalities (“I’m not that
different”), be self-monitoring and, above all, avoid controversy. There are potential
costs to this approach because these co-cultural individuals may feel they cannot be
honest about themselves and may also feel uncomfortable reinforcing the dominant
group’s worldview and power.
A co-cultural individual taking an assertive assilimation strategy may downplay
co-cultural differences and try to fit into the existing structures but also let people
know how she or he feels from time to time. However, this strategy can promote an
us-versus-them mentality, and some people find it difficult to maintain this strategy
for very long.
Aggressive assimilation strategies emphasize fitting in, sometimes going to
great lengths to prove they are like members of the dominant group. Sometimes
this means distancing themselves from other members of their co-culture, mirroring (dressing and behaving like the dominant group), hoping they are not seen as
“typical” of members of that co-culture. However, other members of that co-culture
may accuse this individual of acting white, or “straight.” Thus, these strategies
involve constantly negotiating position with the dominant group while being isolated from one’s own co-cultural group.
Accommodation Strategies Nonassertive accommodation strategies emphasize
blending into the dominant culture but tactfully challenging the dominant structure to
recognize co-cultural practices. For example, a Jewish co-worker may want to put up
a menorah near the company’s Christmas tree as a way of challenging the dominant
culture. By gently educating the organization about other religious holidays, the cocultural member may be able to change their presumptions about everyone celebrating Christmas. Using this strategy, the co-cultural individual may be able to influence
group decision making while still showing loyalty to the larger organization’s goals.
The cost of this strategy may be that others feel that she or he is not pushing hard
enough to change larger structural issues in the organization. Also, this strategy does
not really promote major changes in organizations to make them more inclusive and
reflective of the larger society.
Assertive accommodation strategies try to strike a balance between the concerns
of co-cultural and dominant group members. These strategies involve communicating
self, doing intragroup networking, using liaisons, and educating others. For example,
Asian American co-workers may share information about themselves with their coworkers, but they also share information about words that are offensive, such as Oriental and slope.
Aggressive accommodation strategies involve moving into the dominant structures and then working from within to promote significant changes—no matter how
232 Part II / Intercultural Communication Processes
high the personal cost. Although it may seem as if co-cultural workers who use
these strategies are confrontational or self-promoting, they also reflect a genuine
desire to work with and not against dominant group workers. For example, a disabled co-worker may consistently remind others that facilities need to be more
accessible, such as door handles, bathrooms that can accommodate wheelchairs,
and so on. Co-cultural members with this orientation may periodically use assertive as well as aggressive accommodation strategies and so may be perceived as
genuinely committed to the larger group’s good. However, co-cultural members
who consistently use aggressive accommodating strategies may find themselves
alienated from both other co-cultural members and from dominant group colleagues for being too confrontational.
Separation Strategies Nonassertive separation strategies are often used by those
who assume that some segregation is part of everyday life in the United States.
This is generally easier for the dominant group than for co-cultural members. Some
co-cultural individuals regard segregation as a natural phenomenon but also use
subtle communication practices to maintain separation from the dominant group.
Perhaps the most common strategy is simply avoiding interactions with dominant
group members whenever possible. Thus, gay people may spend their social time
with other gay people. Or women may prefer to use professional women’s services
(having a female doctor, dentist, and attorney) and socialize with other women. The
benefits are obvious but the cost is that they cannot network and make connections
with those in power positions.
Assertive separation strategies reflect a conscious choice to maintain space
between dominant and co-cultural group members. One benefit is that it promotes
co-cultural unity and self-determination, but it also means trying to survive without
having access to resources controlled by the dominant group. Aggressive separation
strategies (attacking and sabotaging others) are used by those for whom co-cultural
segregation is an important priority and entails confronting pervasive, everyday,
assumed discriminatory practices and structures. The cost may be that the dominant group retaliates against this open exposure of the presumed way of doing
Again, when confronted with various situations, dominant and co-cultural
group members need to think carefully about how they wish to respond. There are
benefits and costs to all of the decisions made. A real-life example of this framework
is a recent study investigating communication strategies used by Black female airline pilots (a co-cultural group) to navigate the white male ranks of legacy airline
pilots. It turns out that these female pilots used a variety of strategies, including
assimilation (e.g., extensively preparing for every flight/eventuality), accommodating (e.g., increasing visibility by dressing in full uniform with pilot stripes visible),
and separation (e.g., choosing to sometimes not hang with the male pilots off-duty).
In addition, the researchers identified a new strategy: “strategic alliance building,”
where the female pilots strategically interacted to gain the support from respected
male pilots, which in turn helped them gain the deserved respect from other pilots
(Zirulnik & Orbe, 2019). There are no easy answers; the pilots could have chosen
other strategies, e.g., when confronting some hostility from others—with a different
Chapter 6 / Language and Intercultural Communication 233
set of costs and benefits. It is important to consider what verbal communication
strategies you may want to use when interacting in intercultural communication
An extension of co-cultural theory–dominant group theory–identifies four types
of strategies that dominant group members use in responding to the concerns of cocultural group members: (a) strategies that reinforce their privilege, (b) strategies
that reflect an awareness of their privilege, (c) strategies that express support for cocultural groups, and (d) strategies that disrupt practices of oppression. Of course,
as we emphasized in Chapter 5, individuals identities are complex and can include
membership in both co-cultural and dominant groups (Razzante, 2018; Razzante &
Discourse and Social Structure
Just as organizations have particular structures and specific positions within them,
societies are structured so that individuals occupy social positions. Differences
in social positions are central to understanding intercultural communication. For one
thing, not all positions within the structure are equivalent; everyone is not the same.
When men whistle at an attractive woman walking by, it has a different force and
meaning than if women were to whistle at a man walking by.
Power is a central element, by extension, of this focus on social position. For
instance, when a judge in court says what he or she thinks freedom of speech means,
it carries much greater force than when a neighbor or a classmate gives an opinion
about what the phrase means. When we communicate, we tend to note (however
unconsciously) the group membership and positions of communication participants.
To illustrate, consider the previous example. We understand how communication
functions, based on the group membership of the judge (as a member of the judicial
system) and of the neighbors and classmates; we need to know nothing about their
Groups also hold different positions of power in the social structure. Because
intercultural contact occurs between members of different groups, the positions of the
groups affect communication. Group differences lend meaning to intercultural communication because, as noted previously, the concept of differences is key to language
and the semiotic process.
The “Power” Effects of Labels
We often use labels to refer to other people and to ourselves. Labels, as signifiers,
acknowledge particular aspects of our social identity. For example, we might label
ourselves or others as “male” or “female,” indicating sexual identity. Or we might
say we are “Canadian” or a “New Englander,” indicating a national or regional
identity. The context in which a label is used may determine how strongly we feel
about the label. On St. Patrick’s Day, for example, someone may feel more strongly
about being an Irish American than about being a woman or a student or a Texan.
Sometimes people feel trapped or misrepresented by labels. They might complain, “Why do we have to have labels? Why can’t I just be me?” These complaints
social positions The
places from which
people speak that are
and thus embedded
about gender, race,
class, age, social roles,
sexuality, and so on.
234 Part II / Intercultural Communication Processes
Growing up in Pakistan, my first languages were Urdu and Gujarati and learning English was a struggle when I came to the U.S. Grammar was especially difficult for me
and I would often say things like “I ranned there” or “I supposed” (I was supposed to).
One of the things one can do when trying to speak with someone who does not speak
English fluently is be sensitive and not treat them like they’re dumb. When I first came to
America people would talk to me very loudly as if I were completely incapable of understanding.
My native language is Spanish. Since I was a little kid, I’ve been learning English so I
already knew the language when I moved to the U.S. However, even to this day, I have
trouble understanding slang. I feel uncomfortable when situations arise where I don’t
understand what is being said because of slang. . . . I think that when speaking with
someone from another culture, specifically with someone who speaks (American) English
as a second language, one must be more considerate toward that person’s needs; e.g.,
speaking slower, repeating oneself if necessary, explaining and/or avoiding slang terms.
belie the reality of the function of discourse. It would be nearly impossible to communicate without labels. People rarely have trouble when labeled with terms they
agree with—for example, “man,” “student,” “Minnesotan,” or “Australian.” Trouble
arises, however, from the use of labels that they don’t like or that they feel describe
them inaccurately. Think about how you feel when someone describes you using
terms you do not like.
Labels communicate many levels of meaning and establish particular kinds of
relationships between speaker and listener. Sometimes people use labels to communicate closeness and affection for others. Labels like “friend,” “lover,” and “partner”
communicate equality. Sometimes people intentionally invoke labels to establish a
hostile relationship. Labels like “deplorables” and “anchor babies” intentionally communicate inequality. Sometimes people use labels that are unintentionally offensive
Many times, these labels are spoken without any knowledge or understanding
of their meanings, origin, or even current implications and can demonstrate prejudicial feelings (Cruz-Janzen, 2002). For example, many descendants of Spanishspeaking people living in the United States reject the term “Hispanic” since it
was a term mandated by the U.S. government and never used by the people themselves. Similarly, “Oriental” is a term rejected by many Asians and Asian Americans, and “homosexual” communicates negative characteristics about the speaker
and establishes a distance between the speaker and listener. Similarly, many indigenous people reject the term “Native American”—saying that it is only used by
white people—preferring their more specific tribal name or the terms “American
Chapter 6 / Language and Intercultural Communication 235
Indian” or “Indian.” Many prefer “First Nations” people—to underscore the fact
that tribes are in fact nations, recognized by the U.S. government (Bird, 1999).
And you can probably think of many other labels (“bitch,” “ho,” “faggot,” etc.)
that are sometimes casually uttered that could be considered offensive by the
Discourse is tied closely to social structure, so the messages communicated
through the use of labels depend greatly on the social position of the speaker. If
the speaker and listener are close friends, then the use of particular labels may
not lead to distancing in the relationship or be offensive. But if the speaker and
listener are strangers, then these same labels might invoke anger or close the lines
of communication. Cultures change over time, as do languages. It is important
that you stay aware of these changes as much as possible so you do not unintentionally offend others. Regardless of the intentions of the speaker, negative labels
can work in small but powerful ways: Each utterance works like a grain of sand in
sedimentary rock or like one roll of snowball going down a hill—small in itself but
said over and over serves to reproduce systems of sexism, racism, homophobia,
and the like.
Furthermore, if the speaker is in a position of power, then he or she has potentially an even greater impact. For example, when politicians use discourse that
invokes racist, anti-Semitic, or other ideologies of intolerance, many people become
concerned because of the influence they may have. These concerns have been
raised recently over anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, anti-Islam comments by many
of the leaders of the growing right-wing populism in Europe, for example, Austria’s
Norbert Hofer of the Freedom party, France’s Marine Le Pen of the National Rally,
Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski of the Law and Justice party, and others (Europe and
Right-Wing Nationalism, 2019). Similar concerns have arisen over the political discourse of U.S. President Donald Trump and others that openly and explicitly voice
anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant views, and Minnesota representative Ilhan Omar also
criticized for anti-semitic and anti-Israel remarks. Of course, political office is not the
only powerful position from which to speak. Fundamentalist Christian leaders have
caused concern with their anti-LGBTQ discourse, and celebrities like actors Mel
Gibson, YouTube stars PewDiePie, and Jack Maynard have been criticized for racist,
homophobic, and/or anti-semitic discourse.
MOVING BETWEEN LANGUAGES
Why do some people choose to learn foreign languages and others do not? Given the
choice, some people, particularly in the United States, do not feel the need to learn
a second language. They assume that most people they encounter either at home or
abroad will be able to speak English (see Figure 6-3). Or perhaps they feel they have
been successful so far without learning another language, so why start now? If the
need arises in a professional context, they can always hire an interpreter. In fact, a
recent survey of Canadian and U.S. professionals concluded that a foreign language
236 Part II / Intercultural Communication Processes
French/English stop sign.
(T. K. Nakayama)
was not essential in doing business abroad and that language was not that crucial
(Varner & Beamer, 2011). In a similar survey, U.S. students said they SHOULD learn
another language but didn’t really see it as necessary; a few were adamant that no
American should need to know a foreign language—because of the prevalence of English as a worldwide language (Demont-Heinrich, 2010).
While the advantage of being an English speaker may make it easier for Americans
to travel overseas, there may be some downsides. As shown in the Point of View on
p. 237, some think that being monolingual makes Americans less cosmopolitan and
more provincial—compared to others we’re competing against in the current global
economy. The fact is that a person who only knows one language may be understood
by others, but that person can never understand what others are saying in their own languages and will always have to rely on translators and are more likely to misunderstand
what others are saying. Perhaps more importantly, such people miss the opportunity to
learn about a culture. As we have described it, language and culture are so inextricably
POINT of VIEW
PARLEZ-VOUS ANGLAIS? YES, OF COURSE
Almost everyone in Europe’s cities speak English! Most European students now
study English for years. Europeans are now binge-watching English-language
TV shows and movies, and multicultural work teams converse in almost native
sounding English. All good for us U.S. Americans and Brits, right? NYTimes
writer, Pamela Druckerman is not so sure. While she admits some benefits
(traveling is easier for English speakers, social movements can spread faster
worldwide [remember Greta Thunberg’s speeches—in English]), she also
describes the downsides, for us:
“Universities in the United States should watch out.” U.S. college students will soon
find out that the best European schools offer increasingly more and more undergraduate and graduate degrees taught in English, all for a fraction of the cost of a U.S.
education. “In 2009, there were about 55 English B.A.s offered in Continental
Europe; by 2017, there were 2,900.”
“We’re a target.” Now that almost everyone everywhere speaks very good English,
English-speaking societies become easier to manipulate. Investigators pointed out
that the young Russians recruited by the Kremlin before the 2016 U.S. elections spoke
such good English that they mostly passed for Americans on social media.
“Natives are losing their competitive edge.” A few jobs still require perfect English,
but in most businesses worldwide, speaking basic English is a basic requirement—like
being able to use Microsoft Word—a skill that everyone has.
And finally, the most important downside, “Crucially, the ubiquity of English lulls us
Anglophones into thinking that it’s O.K. to be monolingual.” She insists that it’s not,
that she’s been at dinners in Amsterdam, for example, where the conversation is in
perfect English, as long as she’s at the table, but the minute she leaves the table, “they
switch back to Dutch. If all we know is English, we won’t know what the rest of the
world is saying about us.”
Adapted from: P. Druckerman (2019, August 10). Parlez-Vous Anglais? Yes, of Course. nytimes.com
intertwined that to learn a new language is to gain insight into another culture and
another “way of thinking and feeling of people who speak and write a language that
is different from ours. . . . and so to learn to empathize with them” (Anderson, 2016).
Language acquisition studies have shown that it is nearly impossible for individuals to
learn the language of a group of people they dislike. For instance, Tom was talking to
a student about meeting the program’s foreign language requirement. The student said,
“I can’t take Spanish. I’m from California.” When Tom said that he did not understand
what she meant, she blurted that she hated Mexicans and wouldn’t take Spanish under
any circumstances. As her well-entrenched racism suggested, she would indeed never
238 Part II / Intercultural Communication Processes
While some learn a foreign language in order to compete in global markets or to
navigate the increasingly global village, more personal imperatives also drive people
to learn languages. For example, while our student Katarina already speaks three languages (English, Spanish, and Serbian), she is not satisfied with this. She says, “With
an expanding world, Americans have to be more aggressive in their pursuit of cultural
knowledge. I feel that learning a fourth language, specifically Chinese, would greatly
benefit me in my job prospects as well as in my ability to communicate with more of
Many people use foreign languages to escape from a legacy of oppression in their
own languages. Consider the case of Sam Sue, a Chinese American born and raised
in Mississippi, who explains his own need to alter his social reality—often riddled by
stigmatizing stereotypes—by changing the way he speaks:
Northerners see a Southern accent as a signal that you’re a racist, you’re stupid,
or you’re a hick. Regardless of what your real situation is. So I reacted to that by
adapting the way I speak. If you talked to my brother, you would definitely know he
was from the South. But as for myself, I remember customers telling my dad, “Your
son sounds like a Yankee.” (Lee, 1991, p. 4)
ability to speak two
languages fluently or
at least competently.
ability to speak more
than two languages
fluently or at least
Among the variations in U.S. English, the southern accent unwittingly communicates
many negative stereotypes. Escaping into another accent is, for some, the only way to
escape the stereotypes.
People who speak two languages are often called bilingual; people who speak
more than two languages are considered multilingual. Rarely do bilinguals speak both
languages with the same level of fluency. More commonly, they prefer to use one
language over another, depending on the context and the topic. Sometimes entire
nations are bilingual or multilingual. Belgium, for example, has three national languages (Dutch, German, and French), and Switzerland has four (French, German,
Italian, and Romansh). Fifty percent of the world’s population is bilingual (Mathews,
2019) and although we lag far behind, the United States has a growing number of
bilinguals and multilinguals. According to a recent report, the number of people who
speak a language other than English has more than doubled in the last three decades.
The 10 most popular languages in the United States are:
10. Haitian Creole (https://www.accreditedlanguage.com/languages/the-10-most
Chapter 6 / Language and Intercultural Communication 239
On either the individual or the national level, multilinguals must engage in language negotiation. That is, they need to work out, whether explicitly or implicitly,
which language to use in a given situation. These decisions are sometimes clearly
embedded in power relations. For example, French was the court language during the
reign of Catherine the Great in 18th-century Russia. French was considered the language of culture, the language of the elite, whereas Russian was considered a vulgar
language, the language of the uneducated and the unwashed. Special-interest groups
in 21 states (including Arizona, Utah, and Alabama) have statutes declaring English
the official language. These attempts reflect a power bid to determine which language
will be privileged.
Sometimes a language is chosen as a courtesy to others. For example, Tom joined
a small group going to see the fireworks display at the Eiffel Tower on Bastille Day
one year. (Bastille Day is a French national holiday, celebrated on July 14, to commemorate the storming of the Bastille prison in 1789 and the beginning of the French
Revolution.) One woman in the group asked, “Alors, on parle français ou anglais?”
[“Are we speaking French or English?”]. Because one man felt quite weak at English,
French was chosen as the language of the evening.
An interesting linguistic phenomenon known as interlanguage has implications for the teaching and learning of other languages. Interlanguage refers
to a kind of communication that emerges when speakers of one language are
speaking in another language. The native language’s semantics, syntactics, pragmatics, and phonetics often overlap into the second language and create a third
way of communicating. For example, many English-speaking female students of
German might say, “Ich bin ein Amerikanerin,” which is incorrect German but is
structured on the English way of saying, “I am an American.” The correct form
is “Ich bin Amerikanerin.” The insertion of “ein” reveals the English language
In his work on moving between languages, Tom has noted that this creation of
other ways of communicating can offer ways of resisting dominant cultures. He notes
that “the powerful potential of translation for discovering new voices can violate and
disrupt the systemic rules of both languages” (Nakayama, 1997, p. 240). He gives the
example of “shiros,” which is used by some Japanese Americans to refer to whites.
Shiro is the color white, and adding an s at the end is the English grammatical way to
pluralize words. Tom explains,
Using the color for people highlights the overlay of the ideology of the English language onto Japanese and an odd mixing that probably would not make sense to
people who speak only English or Japanese, or those who do not live in the spaces
between them. (p. 242n)
Different people react differently to the dialectical tensions of a multilingual
world. Some work hard to learn other languages and other ways of communicating,
even if they make numerous errors along the way. Others retreat into their familiar
languages and ways of living. The dialectical tensions that arise over different languages and different systems of meaning are played out around the world. But these
dialectical tensions never disappear; they are always posing new challenges for intercultural communicators.
interlanguage A kind
that emerges when
speakers of one
language are speaking
in another language.
The native language’s
and language styles
often overlap and
create a third way of
240 Part II / Intercultural Communication Processes
Translation and Interpretation
process of producing a
written text that refers
to something said or
written in another
source text The
original language text
of a translation. (See
also target text.)
target text The new
language text into
which the original
language text is
translated. (See also
process of verbally
expressing what is said
or written in another
equivalency An issue
in translation, the
condition of being
equal in meaning,
value, quantity, and
Because no one can learn all of the languages in the world, we must rely on translation and interpretation—two distinct but important means of communicating across
language differences. The European Union (EU), for example, has a strict policy of
recognizing all of the languages of its constituent members. Hence, many translators
and interpreters are hired by the EU to help bridge the linguistic gaps.
Translation generally refers to the process of producing a written text that
refers to something said or written in another language. The original language text
of a translation is called the source text; the text into which it is translated is the
Interpretation refers to the process of verbally expressing what is said or written
in another language. Interpretation can either be simultaneous, with the interpreter
speaking at the same time as the original speaker, or consecutive, with the interpreter
speaking only during the breaks provided by the original speaker.
As we know from language theories, languages are entire systems of meaning
and consciousness that are not easily rendered into another language in a wordfor-word equivalence. The ways in which different languages convey views of the world
are not equivalent, as we noted previously. Consider the difficulty involved simply in
translating names of colors. The English word brown might be translated as any of
these French words, depending on how the word is used: roux, brun, bistre, bis, marron, jaune, and gris ( Vinay & Darbelnet, 1977, p. 261).
Issues of Equivalency and Accuracy Some languages have tremendous flexibility in
expression; others have a limited range of words. The reverse may be true, however,
for some topics. This slippage between languages is both aggravating and thrilling for
translators and interpreters. Translation studies traditionally have tended to emphasize issues of equivalency and accuracy. That is, the focus, largely from linguistics,
has been on comparing the translated meaning with the original meaning. However,
for those interested in the intercultural communication process, the emphasis is not
so much on equivalence as on the bridges that people construct to cross from one
language to another.
Many U.S. police departments are now hiring officers who are bilingual because
they must work with a multilingual public. In Arizona, like many other states, Spanish
is a particularly important language. Let’s look at a specific case in which a police detective for the Scottsdale (Arizona) Police Department explained an unusual phrase:
Detective Ron Bayne has heard his share of Spanish phrases while on the job. But
he recently heard an unusual expression.
A suspect said, “Me llevaron a tocar el piano” [They took me to play the
“I knew it couldn’t mean that,” said Bayne, a translator for the Scottsdale
Police Department. “But I had no idea what it really meant.” (Meléndez,
2002, p. B1)
This slang term, popular at the time with undocumented aliens, highlights the differences between “street” Spanish and classroom Spanish. It also points to the
These students describe the best strategies for communicating with someone who is
trying to learn a foreign language:
I think it’s important to be patient with people. When I was in Tanzania trying
to learn Swahili and trying to not use English, everyone was so helpful. Every
time I made a mistake they would correct me in a positive way. They would not
be rude or judge how bad it was. This was very constructive for me. It helped
me have a positive outlook that I really could learn the language.
It’s important to speak in short, simple sentences. For example when
I was visiting my Aunt Josephina (from Mexico), usually around the holidays when lots of cooking is involved, I would ask her, “Can I help you
with that?” rather than “Would you rather I help cook or should I just wait
and do the dishes after?” A longer sentence with multiple questions usually
wound up with a questionable smile. Second, I also find that “using visual
aids to support what you are saying—for example, write down key words or
numbers, or use simple gestures” like pointing to specific things. And third,
of course, speaking slowly and being patient with the person you are speaking to who is not fluent in English. Showing frustration is only going to
embarrass and ultimately leads them to pull back and stop communicating
Source: From Carrie, excerpt from “Students Voices: It’s important to . . . all together” Original work.
importance of context in understanding meaning. In this context, we know that
the police did not take a suspect to play a piano. Instead, this suspect was saying
that the police had fingerprinted him. The varieties of expression in Spanish reflect
social class and other differences that are not always communicated through translation or interpretation.
Yet the context for interpreters and translators must also be recognized. The need
for Spanish speakers in the U.S. Southwest represents only the tip of the “linguistic
iceberg.” The continuing “war on terror” has created another need for translators and
interpreters who are fluent in Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Punjabi, Pashto, and Dari. The
changing context for intelligence work has changed the context for translators and
interpreters as well, to say nothing of the languages that are highly valued. These
issues, although beyond the scope of equivalency and accuracy, are an important part
of the dynamic of intercultural communication.
The Role of the Translator or Interpreter We often assume that translators and interpreters are “invisible,” that they simply render into the target language whatever they
242 Part II / Intercultural Communication Processes
POINT of VIEW
ranslation can create amusing and interesting intercultural barriers. Consider
the following translation experiences:
▪▪ When McDonald’s brought its big Mac to France, it translated to the name
“Gros mec” which actually means “big pimp”
▪▪ Frank Perdue’s Chicken hit Spanish markets, its tagline “It takes a strong
man to make a tender chicken” to “it takes an aroused man to make a chicken
▪▪ Coors’ “Turn it loose” campaign in Spain was translated to “you will suffer from
▪▪ Clairol didn’t realize when it marketed its “Mist Stick” curling iron in Germany
that “mist” is slang for manure in German
▪▪ Schweppes campaign tried to sell Italian consumers “toilet water” instead of
▪▪ Hunt-Wesson introduced its baked beans in French Canada as “Gros Jos” not
realizing that’s slang for “big breasts”
▪▪ KFC mistakenly translated its “Finger-lickin good” tagline to “eat your fingers
off” in Chinese
▪▪ “Got Milk” campaign was less successful among Latinos since the literal
translation was “Are you lactating?”
Source: From K. Weinmann (2011, October 17), “13 Slogans that got hilarious when they were
lost in translation.” Available at http://www.businessinsider.com/13-hilarious-slogans-lost-in
hear or read. The roles that they play as intermediaries, however, often regulate how
they render the original. Tom believes that it is not always appropriate to translate
everything that one speaker is saying to another, in exactly the same way, because the
potential for misunderstanding due to cultural differences might be too great. Translation is more than merely switching languages; it also involves negotiating cultures.
Writer Elisabeth Marx (1999) explains,
It is not sufficient to be able to translate—you have to comprehend the subtleties
and connotations of the language. Walter Hasselkus, the German chief executive of
Rover, gave a good example of this when he remarked: “When the British say that
they have a ‘slight’ problem, I know that it has to be taken seriously.” There are
numerous examples of misunderstandings between American English and British
English, even though they are, at root, the same language. (p. 95)
It might be helpful to think of translators and interpreters as cultural brokers who
must be highly sensitive to the contexts of intercultural communication.
Chapter 6 / Language and Intercultural Communication 243
We often assume that anyone who knows two languages can be a translator
or an interpreter. Research has shown, however, that high levels of fluency in two
languages do not necessarily make someone a good translator or interpreter. The
task obviously requires the knowledge of two languages. But that’s not enough.
Think about all of the people you know who are native English speakers. What
might account for why some of them are better writers than others? Knowing
English, for example, is a prerequisite for writing in English, but this knowledge
does not necessarily make a person a good writer. Because of the complex relationships between people, particularly in intercultural situations, translation and
interpretation involve far more than linguistic equivalence, which traditionally
has been the focus (see Point of View, p. 242).
With the continued growth and progression of translation apps such as Google
Translate, iTranslate 3 (voice to voice), Say hi (voice to text), and Textgrabber (reads
signs and menus and translates), many people wonder if we soon will no longer need
to teach foreign languages in schools. Language educators think not, and give several
reasons: (1) Instant translators aren’t always accurate, as you probably already know.
(2) Instant translation ignores context, so the sarcastic comment you mean to be a
joke is put through an instant translator, the translation might come across as serious
or even offensive—distorting your meaning. (3) Of course, instant translation tools do
not know all the idioms and slang of most languages, so if you try looking for a “chill”
restaurant, you might end up at a place that blasts air conditioning.
While the field of translation studies has much to contribute to intercultural communication, foreign language programs are being eliminated at an alarming rate; a
record 651 disappeared in past three years. The decline started with recession and
decreasing college enrollment and is continuing, due to fewer language requirements
and more emphasis on STEM courses. Perhaps also the worldwide spread of English
as lingua franca (Johnson, 2019) (see Point of View, p. 237).
LANGUAGE AND IDENTITY
In the previous chapter, we discussed cultural identity and its complexities. One part of
our cultural identity is tied to the language(s) that we speak. As U.S. Americans, we are
expected to speak English. If we travel to Nebraska, we assume the people there speak
English. We expect Russians to speak Russian, Koreans to speak Korean, and Indonesians to speak Indonesian. But things get more involved, as we noted in Chapter 4, when
we consider why Brazilians speak Portuguese, Congolese speak French, and Australians
speak English. The relationship between language and culture becomes more complicated when we look at the complexity of cultural identities at home and abroad.
Language and Cultural Group Identity
When Tom was at the Arizona Book Festival recently, a white man held up a book
written in Chinese and asked Tom what it was about. “I don’t read Chinese,” Tom
replied. “Well, you should,” he retorted and walked away. Two assumptions seem to be
244 Part II / Intercultural Communication Processes
at work here: (1) Anyone who looks Asian must be Chinese, and (2) Asian Americans
should be able to speak their ancestral languages. This tension has raised important
identity questions for Asian Americans. Writer Henry Moritsugu (1992), who was
born and raised in Canada and who later immigrated to the United States, explains:
There is no way we could teach our children Japanese at home. We speak English. It wasn’t a conscious effort that we did this. . . . It was more important to be
accepted. . . . I wish I could speak the language better. I love Japanese food. I love
going to Japanese restaurants. Sometimes I see Japanese groups enjoying themselves at karaoke bars . . . I feel definitely Western, more so than Asian. . . . But we
look Asian, so you have to be aware of who you are. (p. 99)
The ability to speak another language can be important in how people view their
Many Chicana/os also have to negotiate a relationship to Spanish, whether or not
they speak the language and 76% of Latinos ages 18–33 say they speak only English at
home or “very well” (Krogstad, 2016). Communication scholar Jacqueline Martinez
It has taken a long time for me to come to see and feel my own body as an ethnic
body. Absent the capacity to express myself in Spanish, I am left to reach for less
tangible traces of an ethnic self that have been buried under layers of assimilation
into Anglo culture and practice. . . . Yet still there is a profoundly important way in
which, until this body of mine can speak in Spanish, gesture in a “Spanishly” way,
and be immersed in Spanish-speaking communities, there will remain ambiguities
about its ethnic identification. (p. 44)
Although some people who migrate to the United States retain the languages
of their homelands, many other U.S. American families no longer speak the language of their forebears. Historically, bilingualism was openly discouraged in the
United States. Writer Gloria Anzaldúa (1987) recalls how she was discouraged from
I remember being caught speaking Spanish at recess—that was good for three
licks on the knuckles with a sharp ruler. I remember being sent to the corner of
the classroom for “talking back” to the Anglo teacher when all I was trying to
do was tell her how to pronounce my name. If you want to be American, speak
“American.” If you don’t like it, go back to Mexico where you belong. (p. 53)
Even today we often hear arguments in favor of making English the official language of
the nation. The interconnections between cultural identity and language are indeed strong.
Another intersection between identity and language occurred in 2006, when a
controversy arose over the release by some Latino pop stars of a Spanish version of
the U.S. national anthem (“Star Spangled Banner”), with somewhat different lyrics
(“The time has come to break the chains”), called Nuestro Himno (Our Anthem). For
the song’s producer and singers, it was about trying to help engage immigrants, as a
tribute to the United States. For others, the national anthem was a symbol of unity
that should be sung only in English. Here, we see the importance of contexts. What
many people don’t know is that the national anthem was translated into Spanish (and
Chapter 6 / Language and Intercultural Communication 245
many other languages) by the Bureau of Education and has been available in those
languages since 1919—with no controversy until the issue becomes related to the current immigration debate (Goldstein, 2006).
What about the challenges facing cultural groups whose languages are nearing extinction? Although millions of people speak Chinese, Japanese, and Spanish, some languages
are spoken by only a handful of people. Consider that every 14 days, one of the world’s
nearly 7,000 languages “dies” (Strochlic, 2018). Linguists say that each language is a
unique lens, a unique way of viewing the world, and they are increasingly concerned about
what is being lost when a language goes extinct. What knowledge is lost forever? In Tuvan
(spoken in Republic of Tuva, in southern Siberia), for example, the past is always spoken of
as ahead of one, and the future is behind one’s back. It makes total sense if you think of it
in a Tuvan sort of way: If the future were ahead of you, wouldn’t it be in plain view? When
language disappears so does significant aspects of cultural diversity. “The disappearance of
a language deprives us of knowledge no less valuable than some future miracle drug that
may be lost when a species goes extinct. Small languages, more than large ones, provide
keys to unlock the secrets of nature, because their speakers tend to live in proximity to
the animals and plants around them, and their talk reflects the distinctions they observe”
(Rymer, 2012). Many Native American tribes are currently working to save their tribal
languages, but they face enormous challenges. Yet it is their culture and identity that
are at risk.
The languages we speak and the languages others think we should speak can
create barriers in intercultural communication. Why might some U.S. Americans
assume that someone whose ancestors came from China continues to speak Chinese,
whereas someone whose ancestors came from Germany or Denmark is assumed to no
longer speak German or Danish? Here, again, we can see how identity, language, and
history create tensions between who we think we are and who others think we are.
Code switching is a technical term in communication that refers to the phenomenon
of changing languages, dialects, or even accents. People code switch for several reasons, as shown in Point of View (p. 250).
Linguistics professor Jean-Louis Sauvage (2002) studied the complexity of code
switching in Belgium, which involves not only dialects but languages as well. He
explains the practical side of code switching:
For example, my house was built by a contractor who sometimes resorted to
Flemish subcontractors. One of these subcontractors was the electrician. I spoke
Dutch to him but had to use French words when I referred to technical notions that
I did not completely understand even in French. This was not a problem for the electrician, who knew these terms in Dutch as well as in French but would have been
unable to explain them to me in French. (p. 159)
Given the complex language policies and politics in Belgium, code switching takes on
particularly important political meaning. Who code switches and who does not is a
frequent source of contestation.
code switching A
technical term in
that refers to the
dialects, or even
246 Part II / Intercultural Communication Processes
In her work on code switching of Black women, communication scholar Karla
Scott (2013) discusses how choice of language style is often strategic as Black women
in predominantly white environments are called on to constantly “shift” between
white and Black vernacular style, “changing outward behavior, attitude, and tone, and
adopting an alternate pose or voice—without thinking” (p. 315). Through discussions
in focus groups with 30 Black women, she found that their primary communicative
goals were to dispel stereotypes and be seen as competent. This often involves code
switching, as one participant describes it, “In communicating with people, I work
very hard at using code switching. So I talk proper English that I learned in school,
especially in the classroom or around people I attend school with. And I’m learning
to avoid certain behaviors, such as resting my hand on my hip or roll my eyes, when in
certain environments” (Scott, 2013, p. 320).
There are similar examples of code switching between English and Spanish, as
increasing numbers of U.S. Americans speak both languages. Scholar Holly Cashman
(2005) investigated how a group of bilingual women code switched during a game of
lotería (Mexican bingo). She makes the point that code switching does not just demonstrate linguistic competence but, as in Scott’s (2000) study, also communicates important information about ethnic identities and social position. Throughout the game, the
women’s choices to speak Spanish and/or English demonstrated various identifications
and social places. When they preferred to speak Spanish, they were identifying inclusively with both English and Spanish speakers. In correcting other’s language choices,
they were also identifying as not just bilingual, but as arbiters of the spoken language.
And in rejecting others’ corrections of their language use, they were also asserting certain identifications, as when one woman in refusing another’s correction of her Spanish
“categorizes herself as ‘Chicana,’ bringing about a bilingual, oppositional social identity,
and rejecting the social structures previously talked into being” (p. 313).
This discussion of code switching and language settings brings up the question of
how does a bilingual person decide which language to speak in a setting where there
are multiple languages spoken? Is it rude to switch between two languages when some
people in the room only understand one language? As our student Liz describes (in
the Student Voices box on the following page), this is not always an easy question
to answer. A helpful theory here is communication accommodation theory (CAT),
discussed in Chapter 2. As you might remember, this theory posits that in some situations individuals change their communication patterns to accommodate others—
depending on the situation and the attitude of the speaker toward other people. So,
for example, if the situation is a neutral one and the speaker feels positively toward
others, they will more likely accommodate others. This seems to be the case in Liz’s
family. Her father instructed her to accommodate everyone in the situation. Liz’s
experience at a recent party was different. Here, the Serbian speakers did not want
to accommodate Liz. At the Salsa party, she tried to accommodate everyone, but it
was difficult and her friends did not follow her lead. What is important to remember
is that the outcome of accommodation is usually a positive feeling. However, in some
situations (like high threat) speakers may not want to accommodate, may even want
to accentuate their linguistic differences, or perhaps, as in Liz’s Salsa party experience, the effort of accommodating is too challenging.
Is it rude to code switch between languages when someone in the room
only understands one of the languages?
Growing up in a household that predominately spoke Spanish was challenging when I brought friends over. Not everyone in my family spoke English and
not all of my friends spoke Spanish. For as long as I can remember, my father
expected me to translate everything that my friends and I said when family
members were around us, even if they were not a part of the conversation. My
father instilled the importance of respecting people around me by ensuring that
everyone was included in the conversation, and to be sensitive to those around
me who do not understand the language by giving them a general idea of what
was being said.
The first time that I really thought about this was when I attended a dinner at a friend’s house. All of the people, excluding myself, were from Serbia.
When one of the guests realized that I did not speak Serbian, she said, “Oh, so
we will have to speak English all night?” My immediate reaction was that I did
not think that everyone had to adjust to my needs. After all, this was their time
to share food and conversations in their language.
However, I recently went Salsa dancing with a friend who did not speak
Spanish. Knowing that most of the people around us were bilingual, I asked
people if they could speak in English so that we did not exclude my friend.
Most people would start speaking in English, but then break out into conversations in Spanish, which frustrated me. I ended up interpreting conversations for
him and felt bad that he was excluded from the conversation. As I apologized to
him, my friend said, “Don’t feel bad. It is my fault that I do not speak Spanish.”
Reflecting on these situations, I wondered when is it appropriate to code
switch between languages when someone in the room only understands one of
the languages? Why did I not think it was offensive in a situation where I was
the one who did not understand and offensive when it was a friend of mine who
LANGUAGE POLITICS AND POLICIES
Nations can enact laws recognizing an official language, such as French in France or
Irish in Ireland (despite the fact that more Irish speak English than Irish). Some nations
have multiple official languages. For instance, Canada has declared English and French
to be the official languages. Here in the United States, there is no official national language, although English is the de facto national language. Yet the state of Hawai’i has
two official languages, English and Hawaiian. Other U.S. entities have also declared
official languages, such as Guam (Chamorro and English), New Mexico (English and
Spanish), and Samoa (English and Samoan). Laws or customs that determine which
248 Part II / Intercultural Communication Processes
Laws or customs that
determine when and
where which language
will be spoken.
language is spoken where and when are referred to as language policies. These policies
often emerge from the politics of language use. As mentioned previously, the court of
Catherine the Great of Russia used not Russian but French, which was closely tied to
the politics of social and economic class. The history of colonialism also influences language policies. Thus, Portuguese is the official national language of Mozambique, and
English and French are the official national languages of Cameroon (see Figure 6-4).
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