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Foundations of Language: Cross-Cultural Differences


In the present paper, I would like to bring forward the issues related to the diverse spectrum of today’s linguistic canvas in the world. Today, more than ever before, the rapid advancement in technological invention, has made the contact of a great number of people possible who come to interact with each other on the front of a business, academia, and so on. There, it is noticeable that English has taken place as a major language of contact of lingua franca.

Connected with the same issue of English being the lingua franca for a great many people worldwide, is the immense growth of the Teaching English industry or English as a Second Language (ESL) or English as a Foreign Language (EFS). In both these heads, although English teaching has boomed, there is much to be explored concerning complex processes that are present when a person is speaking English as a second or foreign language.

One of the complex, yet very important areas of investigation in Second Language Acquisition (SLA) research is the investigation of the changes that occur when cross-cultural communication takes place between people. Although their language is the same (English), the cultural touch that they bring to the communication is that of their mother tongue.

Thus the following paper examines the pros and cons of cross-cultural differences that take place in communication among people belonging to diverse cultures; it then moves onto discuss the teaching strategies that should be made use of with regard to the teaching of communication with an insight into cross-cultural issues.

Conversation Strategies

Conversation, whether ordinary or institutional, can be defined as “talk-in-interaction” (Schegloff, 1989) that must be negotiated with others to be effective (Berry & Englert, p. 1, 2005). Looking back to the history of communication strategies, we find that it was in the late 1970s when four studies were done and which prepared the ground for the study of conversation or communication strategies. It is regarded as “a new area of research within applied linguistics: Selinker’s (1972) classic article on interlanguage introduced the notion of strategies of L2 communication.” Then Varadi and Tarone (1980; 1977) “elaborated on Selinker’s notion by providing s systematic analysis of [communication strategies] introducing many of the categories and terms used in subsequent [communication strategies] research. And then Savignon came up with a pioneering language teaching that followed a communicative teaching approach, “which, for the first time, included student training in [communicative strategies]” (Zoltan, p. 55, 1995). Since then much research has been done in order to identify and classify the communication or conversation strategies. However, looking at the theoretical perspectives on conversation, we find that “The implicit rules and strategies that facilitate normal conversation were first described by Grice (1975, 1978), who proposed that conversation is governed by one overarching rule: the cooperative principle”. According to this principle, participants make a “good faith” effort to contribute to and collaborate on the conversation as it proceeds” (C. Graesser, C., Kreuz, R. J., Person, N. K., & Zwaan, R. A., p. 162, 1995).

Michael O’Connell (p. 1, 2006) discusses the conversation strategies as “the techniques that help the speaker and listener keep a conversation going to its natural and desired conclusion. They are the skills that supplement the linguistic and sociolinguistic skills most text focus on grammar, vocabulary, and usage”. He further notes that to develop competence in conversation, the learners must learn the words, phrases, and other such conventions as are used while two speakers engage in the active conversation, that is to say, give-and-take situation in which the speakers are actively engaged.

As such, the conversation strategies involve a number of tactics, strategic moves, and learned knowledge so that a conversation can move along with a balance on both sides of the engaged speakers for example “to get more information, make comparisons, correct someone politely, agree and disagree, summarize, rejoinders, clarifications, follow-up questions, getting a response, expressing probability, interrupting,” and so on (O’Connell, p. 1, 2006).

In the context of ESL/EFL, now teaching English has to be depended on the research of other such areas as sociolinguistics, pragmatics because these areas have emerged due to the immense contribution that has been made to teaching English as a second or foreign language. One such area is cross-culture communication. It is when people from different cultures participate in active communication.

In the last part of the paper, I would discuss the research that brings into account the various grounds on which the issue of cross-cultural communication can be adequately handled.

Cross-Cultural Communication

Cross-cultural communication is increasingly becoming the norm of the world today. It is due to the development in the means of communication and transportation. The physical and communicative mobility for purposes like business, education, politics, and so on have brought a mass of people from different cultures into contact. And there is what appears to be the sensitivity of communication. For example, today many expatriate managers have to do business in a different culture; and “The need for cross-cultural training (CCT) increases as physicians encounter more culturally diverse patients” (Rosen; Spatz et al., 2004). Hence, the need for cultural studies has increased and it focuses on bringing the knowledge that can be made use of when it comes to teaching communication. Haslett (1987) informs us that “Different cultures have different sociolinguistic rules and assumptions underlying their communicative behavior.” As such, “children adopt participation structures from their home environment.” The author further notes that “different cultural groups, such as America Indians, Hawaians, and Alaskan Indians, have differing communicative strategies from those used in the mainstream educational system. These differences may constrain the amount and quality of learning available to these students” (p. 242).

Carbaugh (1990) informs us of the three major areas that contribute to the cross-cultural issues in communication. These he calls the fundamental problems. The first of the problems is that of “Shared identity” or group membership. This means that a person coming from a different culture has a different symbolic meaning, the common sense of their identity hinged on their culture; they also have a sense of the environment in which their identity is “creatively played out”; and then they also have a sense of union in which a certain group of people is united through some degree of cultural identity similar to each other (p. 5). Therefore, this is quite natural that such a person will face communication barriers among a different set of people who share a different identity with some other people. They both bring into their communication different symbolic, self, and social behaviors which may be alien to the other person.

The other problem that creates the cross-cultural communication barriers is, in the words of Carbaugh (1990), the problem of “common meaning”. He calls it a more general problem because in this case the meaning of different cultural values, norms, and ethos are exposed by the general public in an environment. And the third issue or problem is that of “dialectical tensions” (p. 5). In this way, the conceptual understanding brings forth a number of different areas to investigate when it comes to cross-cultural communication.

The concept thus includes identities based on various criteria including gender and occupation (Teamsterville male), race (Black), ethnicity generally (Osage), and some more broadly geographic and national in scope (Israeli, American). The theoretical point is an organization of particular discursive practices as they position identities, as they situate the communication of personhood, within an identifiable context or socio-cultural (including political, economic, and historical).

Thus, three broad areas emerge that are important to be kept under examination while dealing with cross-cultural communication. These are norms of a culture, that is, the creation of moral order through communication; forms, that is, interactional shapes used to coordinate, conceptualize, and evaluate social life; and cultural codes, that is, the range of common meanings used by participants to look for ways which are mutually intelligible (Carbaugh, p. 7, 1990),

However, Haslett (1987) brings forward the issue of understanding the communicative contexts. According to him, there is agreement among scholars on the importance of contextual influences on conversation; there is little agreement “about how communicative contexts should be described and studied” (p. 85).

First of all, he argues that a theory of context is sorely needed so that problems of communication can be solved. He quotes the following scholars to support his point.

Magnusson ( 1981a) cogently argues that environmental influences on an individual’s behavior are always mediated by situations (contexts). A clear theory of situations is necessary to adequately account for human behavior. In particular, Magnusson ( 1981b) points out that a theory of situation (context) is required because: (1) different situations offer different opportunities for action, growth, and feedback; (2) situations influence human behavior; and (3) understanding situational influences enables us to modify situations so that interaction is facilitated. (Haslett, p. 86, 1987).

To understand all this literature that focuses on the comprehension of cross-cultural communication and the solution of it, we can take the case of the Asian students who come from a different world to study to an English-speaking country, say, the United States of America or the United Kingdom.

In this regard, Liu (2001) tells us that when Asian students come to the United States of America, they contact a different culture that is American culture. “When Asian students meet Americans, two different cultures meet. This can be characterized by cross-cultural organizational value dimensions, such as collectivism versus individualism or interdependent versus independent self-construal”. According to the author, there are four individual-level factors that have been investigated and brought forward on the canvas of cross-cultural communication understanding. These four factors are (1) motivational orientations (Adler, 1997), (2) individual expectations (Ward, 1996; Ward & Kennedy, 1994), (3) cultural and interaction-based knowledge about the host culture (Krishnan & Berry, 1992), and (4) personality attributes (Ward, 1996; Ward & Kennedy, (p. 221).

To solve the cross-cultural communication problem, according to Liu (2001), adaptive cultural transformation is very important. He explains: Adaptive cultural transformation is a multidimensional, multifaceted process that is generally influenced by system-level, individual-level, and interpersonal-level factors. System-level factors are the elements in the host environment that influence newcomers’ adaptation to the new culture (Kim, 1991, 1995).” (p. 221). According to the author, these factors include: (1) the socioeconomic conditions of the host culture; (2) the attitude of the host culture with regard to either cultural assimilation or cultural pluralism; (3) the social environment of local institutions such as universities and colleges as there are the first-hand contact places for a person from outside the local culture; (4) the host culture’s seeing two different people together; (5) and finally “the cultural distance between the two cultures” (p. 221).

All these factors contribute to the sense of culture in Asian students who might undergo psychological and other severe disorders. However, if these factors are appropriately dealt with, these problems can be solved.

Cross-cultural conversations are very complex phenomena and need an extensive understanding in order to be solved. The knowledge regarding issues when different cultures come into contact is very useful when it comes to teaching English to a student from a different culture. In the next part of the paper, I would like to examine how to teach conversation with such huge complexity that the cross-cultural investigation brings forth.

Teaching and Cross-Cultural Communication

Teaching a second language today, with the immense work done on cultural issues, needs more advanced tools and techniques to address the issue of cross-cultural communication. It cannot be simply done “via mechanical devices and fixed response formats appeared to belong to a very restricted perspective on both the nature of language and the process of acquisition” The reason is the complexity and findings of latest research that reveal that there is more to teaching a second language than simply doing the fill-in-the-blank and “repeat after me” exercises (Yule, p. 29. 1997).

To Chamberlain (2005), if there are cultural differences between educators and culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students, the situation can lead to negative effects on the education of such learners. He informs us that with regard to the teaching of CLD, much of the literature in this area has focused on the over-representation of certain cultural groups. This also includes biased assessment practices that consequently lead to over-representation. Probing deep into the issue he observes that “Language is central to culture, but culture is much broader than language” and that “Language is the tool we use to communicate, so obviously students who do not understand the language of the classroom will have great difficulty learning” (p.1). Here, for teachers, it is very important to develop consciousness about culture. According to Chamberlain, before it can be realized that culture dynamically influences different aspects of education, it is the first and foremost duty of educators to believe that such differences of culture do exist.

This involves moving toward a true desire to listen to and accept others’ viewpoints and experiences. To some extent, it involves stepping back from one’s belief system to try to understand another’s belief system. Developing cultural consciousness is a prerequisite for all recommendations that follow; if we are not able to see that cultural differences exist, all other recommendations become moot. (p. 1, 2005).

In addition to the above, it is very important to develop an understanding of second language acquisition (L2) and of the problems that students can undergo while acquiring and L2. Chamberlain (p.1, 2005) cites Ortiz, Yates, and Garcia (1990) who “provided a framework that addresses the competencies needed by teachers to appropriately serve second-language learners”. This framework includes the following areas to be worked on by the teacher:

  1. knowledge and skills in linguistics;
  2. knowledge and skills in cultural foundations;
  3. knowledge and skills in assessment;
  4. knowledge and skills in instructional planning;
  5. knowledge and skills in instruction, curriculum;
  6. knowledge and skills in counseling, and school-community relations.

About the prerequisites of harmonizing conversation and cross-cultural underpinnings, however, Liu (2001) comes up with a basic framework that he advocates for the Asian students. First of all, he regards the Asian students as a group of people who need to be lifted up, helped by the host culture, when it comes to cross-culture contact which bears challenge for them like a culture shock that they undergo in the host culture. According to him: how to overcome culture shock in American classrooms is the first and foremost task faced by ESL teachers, content teachers, and American peers. According to Furnham (1988), culture shock involves (1) a sense of identity loss and deprivation with regard to values, status, profession, friends, and possessions; (2) identity strain as a result of the effort required to make a necessarily psychological adaptation; (3) identity rejection by members of the new culture; (4) identity confusion, especially in regard to role ambiguity and unpredictability; and (5) identity importance as a result of not being able to cope with the new environment. (p. 223).

However, according to Haslett (p. 233, 1987), the work of such researchers as Hymes, Gumperz, Cook, and Green has yielded considerable insight into classroom communication processes through naturalistic investigation in the area of “constitutive ethnography” of sociolinguistics. As such according to this method, he entitles both the teachers and the students to interact actively to control the classroom communication. He recommends the following guidelines so that classroom activity can be contextually interpreted. They should:

  1. Monitor classroom activity by observing participants’ physical orientation and proximity.
  2. Pay attention to differences in social meanings.
  3. Understand and follow speaking rights and obligations.
  4. Be cooperative (follow Grice’s cooperative maxim).
  5. Be available for classroom activities.
  6. Be aware of different patterns of interaction (p. 234).

In this way, much of the cross-cultural issues while communicating and teaching communication in the classroom can be addressed rightly bringing the students of other cultures to a level where they can feel the ease of communication and can, thus, learn more actively than without these strategies.


By examining the areas of communication/conversation strategies, cross-cultural differences, and the teaching of conversation in the situation of cross-cultural communication contact, this paper has highlighted the areas that need to be addressed when it comes to solving the issues of cross-cultural problems among students of different cultures coming to a country where another language is the code of communication.

The understanding of their culture is one of the important areas for the teachers or ESL/EFL to have a good idea of. Moreover, it is important for the teachers to have a proper understanding of not only their own language and culture but also of the students’ language and culture. This is necessary because such issues as identity shock, cultural complexities, communication breakdowns share a great deal to hinder the process of education acquisition of these students.

As such, it is the duty of the teachers to critically make use of the knowledge of sociolinguistics and pragmatics in their teaching. The need to perform actively in a culturally diverse classroom is very important and seems to be growing rapidly as the number of culturally diverse students increases in the classes of a different culture where the language and culture are not in harmony with that of the students come from.

Last but not least, it is also much too important that the teachers should also make the students participate actively in the classroom. Both share and both progress.


Berry, R. A. W., & Englert, C. S. (2005). Designing conversation: book discussions in a primary inclusion classroom. Learning Disability Quarterly, 28(1). Council for Learning Disabilities.

C. Graesser, C., Kreuz, R. J., Person, N. K., & Zwaan, R. A. (1995). Pragmatics and pedagogy: conversational rules and politeness strategies may inhibit effective tutoring. Cognition and Instruction, 13(2), 162-168.

Carbaugh, D. (1990). Cultural Communication and Intercultural Contact. In D. Carbaugh (Ed.). Hillsdale, NJ: Chamberlain, S. P. (2005). Recognizing and responding to cultural differences in the education of culturally and linguistically diverse learners. Intervention in School & Clinic, 40(4), (pp. 195+).

Dornyei, Z. (Spring, 1995). On the teachability of communication strategies. TESOL Quarterly, 29(1), pp. 55-85.

Haslett, B. (1987). Communication: strategic action in context. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. (pp. 220-250).

Liu, J. (2001). Asian students’ classroom communication patterns in U.S. universities: an emic perspective. Westport, CT: Ablex. Place of Publication, (pp. 215-225).

O’Connell, M. (2006). (Book Review) Conversation strategies: 29 pair and group activities for developing communicative competence by David Kehe and Peggy Dustin Kehe. 2007. Web.

Rosen, J., & Spatz, E. S. et al. (2004). A new approach to developing cross-cultural communication skills. 2007. Web.

Yule, G. (1997). Referential communication tasks. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. (pp. 20-45).

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