Inaugural Seminar: Key Issues in Intercultural Communication Research and Pedagogy (27-28 May 2010)


(in order of presentation)


Cross-cultural communication and applied linguistics in late modernity

Dr Alan Firth, Newcastle University, UK


Over the last decade, applied linguistics has been undergoing radical shifts – impacting theories, epistemologies, and methods. Consequently, some of AL’s key concepts – e.g., second/foreign language competence, ‘target’ language, ‘the learner’, ‘normativity’ and ‘standards’ – have been increasingly subjected to sustained critique and reappraisal. These developments are, arguably, a result of recent changes in geo-politics, the accessibility and widespread deployment of new media, and the impact of a post-structural wave of ideas that has swept across the social sciences. It should therefore come as no surprise that areas such as ‘English as a lingua franca’, ‘sociocultural studies’, ‘discourse and identity’, ‘Conversation Analysis and SLA’, and (some versions of) ‘cross-cultural communication’ have, in the same period, gained a firm foothold within the field of AL, for each area is – potentially at least – suffused with themes, theories and questions that lie at the heart of a late-modern/post-structural AL. In this presentation I explore some of the implications of these developments, in particular those relating to cross-cultural communication’s relatively recent entry into AL, and discuss some of the ways in which both AL and CCC might, or might not, mutually reinforce one another.

Interculturality: the (missing) language link in Intercultural Communication

Zhu Hua,  Birkbeck College, University of London


Traditional intercultural communication studies are predominantly concerned with providing a cultural account for mis- or non-understanding in interaction or different styles of communication. These studies often assume that in intercultural interaction, cultural values determine speakers’ discourse strategies and cultural differences are a source of intercultural miscommunication. In contrast, interculturality, as an emerging research paradigm, represents a line of investigation that departs from these traditions. It problematises the notion of cultural differences and investigates the interplay between language use and cultural differences by asking the following questions:

  • What is culture?
  • What is the nature of cultural differences?
  • Are cultural differences a given fact? 
  • Who attributes cultural differences to the participants under investigation? 
  • Are ‘cultural differences’ always relevant to or the source of mis- or non-understanding in intercultural interaction?
  • What analytical method is most suitable for analysing mis- or non-understanding in interaction?
  • What interactional resources do participants in intercultural interaction make use of in establishing and negotiating their socio-cultural identities and how?

This presentation will begin with a brief critical review of a number of dominant themes in the field of Intercultural Communication, paying particular attention to their (in some cases, missing) language link.  It will then use empirical data to demonstrate what Interculturality studies can offer to the field both in terms of our understanding of cultural differences and pedagogical implications. 

Negotiating Intercultural Border Zones in an Employment Preparation Class for Canadian Immigrants

Mabelle P. Victoria, The Open University


There has been a wealth of studies from a variety of disciplines that explore the complex relations between language, communication and culture. However, many of these investigations tend to focus on how cultural differences contribute to misunderstanding and communication failures. The present study seeks to focus on the communication strategies and resources that participants in intercultural context use to negotiate meaning and achieve interactional goals. This is not to underestimate the potential challenges and difficulties that might arise in intercultural encounters; but rather to narrow the gap between the things that go right and things that go wrong.

Drawing from discourse analysis and ethnography, this research analyzes naturally occurring audio-recorded data taken from an employment preparation class for Canadian immigrants.

Classroom interactions, lunch time conversations and informal chats amongst participants are unpacked. Observation and interview notes are used to give an in-depth analysis of talk-in-interaction. Preliminary findings illustrate how group members subvert institutional classroom discourse, challenge politeness conventions and create ‘negotiated’ cultural norms and relational identity. Data excerpts also illustrate how they overcome communication difficulties through the extensive use of alignment devices, repair strategies and face work.

Misunderstandings in Sino-Japanese Intercultural Communication: Implications for the East-West Divide

Joshua Borden, Birkbeck, University of London


Categorizations of cultures by ‘cultural patterns’ (e.g., Hofstede 1980, etc.) often place English speaking Western cultures at one end of a scale and East Asian cultures on the other.  While such classifications can be very helpful for certain purposes, they can also be dangerously misleading by failing to recognize significant differences in communicative patterns between cultures that do not fit within the specific classification criteria and measurement process.

The presenter will discuss how his research on Sino-Japanese intercultural communication (between university students from Taiwan and Japan) and related research in the field suggest that the cultural profiles within the ‘Eastern pole’ is a much more heterogeneous group than popularly considered. The presenter will share how communicative and pragmatic styles between members of the two groups sometimes differed in the data, and how those differences might have contributed to larger misunderstandings during episodes of intercultural communication.

Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture’s Consequences: Intercultural Differences in Work-related Values. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

An investigation of the interpersonal dimension of email exchange in an intercultural educational setting: questions of power and culture?

Richard Hitchcock. University of Portsmouth


The theory of politeness put forward by Brown and Levinson in the 1970s and 1980s has underpinned much of the research in the area of interpersonal communication. Their notion of a universal principle of cooperation and politeness, for example, informed much of the Cross-Cultural Speech Act Realization Project (CCSARP), carried out by Blum-Kulka and others in the 1980s. It has, however, been argued by Locher and Watts (2005), that Brown and Levinson’s theory is more akin to a theory of facework, whereby face-threatening acts (FTAs) are mitigated, their preferred terminology being ‘relational work’.

This study looks at one of the most common FTAs: requests. Whilst previous studies (House and Kasper, 1987; Blum-Kulka and Olshtain, 1986; Achiba, 2003; Kobayashi and Rinnert, 2003) have investigated phenomena such as the likelihood and potential consequences of cross-cultural pragmatic transfer, it is the all-important affective response of the recipient to the request that serves as the focus for this research. Further departures from several of the previous studies include the use of authentic data embedded in email, itself a medium of communication still in its relative infancy with regard to linguistic and pragmatic conventions.

The data is derived from analysis of emails sent by students (Home and International/EU) to their lecturers, as well as, eventually, information gathered through focus groups and individual interviews. The aim of the enquiry is to identify features of cross-cultural pragmatic transfer and, more importantly, to ascertain whether mismatch between student emails and lecturer expectations has implications regarding the response to the request as well as the lecturer’s disposition towards the sender.

Key Note Speaker 2

Intercultural communication as intersubjective communication in a multilingual research project

Professor Karen Risager, Roskilde Universitet, Denmark


The lecture will deal with the multidimensional communication situation in a multilingual research project about language and cultural learning among adult immigrants during their first years in Denmark. The immigrants have diverse life histories and language backgrounds, and so have the research group and the various groups of research assistants. The project included a number of individual interviews in 8 different languages. The lecture will focus on the subjects and their linguacultures and discourses in the perspective of transnational mobility, a perspective that is relevant not only for the immigrants in question, but also for all the other people involved. The research project as a whole, consisting of an inter-university research group, a group of informants, a group of bilingual research assistants and a group of bilingual validators, is seen as an encounter over time between a number of subjects situated differently in relation to another and having different language profiles, an encounter in which the ‘intercultural’ communication is always constituted in power relations, but in some cases it is direct and interpersonal, in others it is indirect and based on mediated interpretations.    

Looking for patterns or for variety? Using research data to train university students and staff for intercultural classroom encounters

Dr. Doris Dippold, University of Surrey


This paper explores issues regarding the management of relationships in culturally diverse university classrooms as well as questions regarding research design and the adaptability of research data for training purposes.

A pilot study was conducted, using video-recordings of classes in three different subject areas and follow-up interviews with tutors and students. Its aim is to identify the expectations tutors and students bring to the classroom regarding the management of relationships and to what extent these expectations are guided by orientation to cultural or other frameworks. Moreover, it aims to explore how participants’ expectations are managed in classroom interaction and how participants perceive of the encounters.

Preliminary analysis of data based on Spencer-Oatey’s (2000) approach of rapport management and interactional sociolinguistics shows that tutors’ beliefs about teaching and tutor-student relationships shape classroom interactions in an encounter in which students are the less powerful stakeholders. However, questions remain regarding the generalisability of the data. Which observations can be attributed to ‘culture’? How can we avoid undue categorisation of participants and observed pragmatic features? How can we make the results of our research useful to train students for effective communication in culturally diverse classrooms when interactional sociolinguistics, the approach used for data analysis, looks for variety within the data rather than for patterns across a data set?

Can adult modern foreign language learners acquire intercultural communicative competence via their study?

Uwe Baumann, Department of Languages, The Open University


The focus of this presentation are adults learning a modern foreign language at the Open University. It reports the findings of a study undertaken with two cohorts of adult students of German. Since both adult language learners and distance language learners are underrepresented in research, the aim of the study was to investigate the extent to which these adult learners are able to enhance their intercultural communicative competence through their study. The project drew on a mixed methodology of quantitative and qualitative research methods, it is based on Byram’s concept of intercultural communicative competences and its five savoirs (Byram, 1997). The findings show evidence of the acquisition of the five different savoirs which define intercultural communicative competence – albeit to varying degrees. On the basis of this research it might, especially for adults, be beneficial to add a sixth dimension to the framework to represent the varied life experiences that these learners bring to their study.  The presentation will also demonstrate that using a mixed research methodology, combining quantitative data gathering (through questionnaires) with qualitative techniques (semi-structured interviews) is effective in the particular context of distance language learning. 

Intercultural Communication & Code-switching in Exogamous Spousal Talk

Yvonne Chi, Birkbeck College, University of London


This paper aims to investigate the language choice in the communication of exogamous couples and how cultural identity influences their language choices. Linguistic research has a strong focus on the knowledge of children, rather than on the couples (Piller, 2002, p.28). Despite some discussions of conflict in relationships suggesting that less power wives would perceive more accurately the behaviours of higher power husbands, it is fundamental to note that the meaning of gender is socially and culturally constructed (Acitelli, et al 2005; Pavlenko, 2001). Additionally, Tannen argued neither silence nor volubility is a self-evidence sign of powerlessness or domination (1993, p.176). Language choices are made depending on different domains, different contexts, and also differs with different interlocutors. By means of employing the participant observation as well as semi-structured interviews with two spousal groups residing in Taiwan and UK, the researcher will disclose the main factors influencing the linguistic use and the pattern in terms of code switching, particularly in the disagreement.

A pilot study involving six couples in England has been implemented. The participants include various ethnic groups: British, French, and Italian, with partners from Taiwan. It reveals that the cultural-specific and the identity, as well as the language itself are intertwined.     

–         Acitelli, L., Douvan, E., & Veroff J. (2005) Perceptions of Conflict in the First Year of Marriage: How Important are Similarity and Understanding? in Dragon W. & Duck S. (Eds) Understanding Research in Personal Relationships. London: SAGE

–         Pavlenko, A. (2001). Bilingualism, Gender, and Ideology. International Journal of Bilingualism. 5:2, p.117-151.

–         Piller, I. (2002). Bilingual Couples Talk: The discursive construction of hybridity. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

–         Tannen, D. (1993). Gender and Discourse. New York: Oxford University Press.

Methodological Choices for the Study of Intercultural Communication: The belt and braces of a multi-method approach

Jules Winchester, University of Sussex


This paper aims to highlight the desirability of a multi-method approach in the IC study under discussion (Winchester 2007).  It does this by exploring the theoretical considerations underpinning the choice of a multi-method approach and by demonstrating, with data examples, how this approach can work in practice.

It was the aim of the study in question to examine the effects of culture on the linguistic politeness styles in English of a number of Japanese women who had lived in Britain for varying lengths of time.  It was held that an assessment of the links between participants’ linguistic expressions of the psychological variable of the self concept and the behavioural outcome of linguistic politeness styles, as related to the participants’ orientations to the cultural constructs of individualism and collectivism, was the best way to examine this. 

It was deemed desirable to adopt a multi-method approach to data collection and analyses (Gudykunst and Lee 2003; Li 2003). A largely qualitative approach was combined with quantitative elements, through use of ethnographic interviews, questionnaires and counting techniques.  This combination of approaches served to validate the findings as well as compensate for the weaknesses of any one particular method.

Key words: multi-method approach, qualitative, quantitative, ethnographic interviews, questionnaires, counting techniques

Gudykunst, W.B., Lee, C.M. (2003). Assessing the validity of self-construal scales; A response to Levine et al. Human Communication Research 29 (2): 253-274.

Li, H.Z. (2003). Inter- and intra-cultural variations in self-other boundary: A qualitative-quantitative approach. International Journal of Psychology 38 (3): 138-149.Winchester, J. (2007). Japanese Women in Britain: Linguistic Politeness Styles and Self Concepts in an Intercultural Context. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Roehampton University, London

Key Note Speaker 3

‘Discourse and Intercultural Language Education’

Professor John Corbett, University of Glasgow, UK


This presentation will offer a survey of the field of intercultural communication and intercultural language education and raises issues for practitioners of applied linguistics. The talk will review topics such as cultural value systems and communicative styles, and the educational response to the perceived need to re-orient one’s values in the arena of intercultural communication. The presentation is intended to help clarify and address some of the challenges faced by researchers and teachers of intercultural communication in the era of ‘supercomplexity’.



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