Selasa, 02 November 2010

Failure in Intercultural Communication : Pragmatics Analysis

Oleh : Darmayenti, M.Pd (Dosen Lingusitik Jur. BSI FIBA)

In daily communication, we find many people fail to interpret and gain the meaning between interlocutors. In other words, they may be unable to use language effectively in order to achieve a specific purpose and to understand language in context. As Rintell & Mitchell (1989) point out, it can cause misunderstandings or create offence when speakers can understand only the literal meaning of words and do not know the rules of use for interpreting those words.

Intercultural communication sometimes breaks down in real-life conversations, not because of the speaker’s errors in syntax, or their inaccurate pronunciation in the target language, but because of their pragmatic incompetence, which leads to pragmatic failure.

Pragmatic failure belongs to the field of cross-cultural pragmatics, a new branch of pragmatics which has developed rapidly in the past twenty years. Several research studies about pragmatic failure in speech acts have been conducted in EFL classroom settings in China (He & Yan, 1986; Hong, 1991; Gu, 2003; Chen, 2005; Zhang, 2005), but few have been done on Chinese Learners of English in the target language community. On the basis of a literature review and a small-scale, exploratory study in the host environment, The purpose is to gain a better understanding of the phenomena in order to make recommendations on how to raise the pragmatic awareness, and develop the pragmatic ability of speakers in community.
Related to the explanation above, in this article will explain briefly the overview of the critical concepts and causes of failure in intercultural communication situation. Furthermore, there are three main concepts will be discussed. Those are pargmalinguistics failure, sociopragmatic failure, and pragmatic failure. This idea is inspired by the research which had been conducted by Lin (2008). Lin (2008) conducted the research in English daily communication in China. In this case, this analysis will be compared with Indonesian conversation in some daily setting of communication. It is hoped that this explanation will give new concept to the readers.
The concept of pragmatic failure was first proposed by Jenny Thomas (1983) to define the inability to understand what is meant by what is said. Ziran He (1997) points out that pragmatic failure is not the general performance errors in using words or making sentences, but those mistakes which fail to fulfil communication because of infelicitous style, incompatible expressions and improper habit. Qian (1997) explains that although the speaker uses sentences which are grammatically correct, they unconsciously violate the norms of interpersonal relationships and social norms in speech, or take no notice of time, hearer and context. For example, ‘Where are you going?’ is cordial greeting form among the Chinese, but if used to show friendliness to native English speakers; it is likely to be regarded as an intrusion of privacy. This sitution also occurs in daily conversation in Indonesian people, for instance, the utterance “where are you going” is just a greeting to show friendliness. So, it can be sum up that this aspect between Chinesse and Indonesian culture is the same. Wolfson (1983, 62) points out, ‘In interacting with foreigners, native speakers tend to be rather tolerant of errors in pronunciation or syntax. In contrast, violations of rules of speaking are often interpreted as bad manners since the native speaker is unlikely to be aware of sociolinguistic relativity.’
There are two principal types of pragmatic failure in the literature, namely pragmalinguistic failure and sociolinguistic failure. Pragmalinguistic failure:
…occurs when the pragmatic force mapped by S onto a given utterance is systematically different from the force most frequently assigned to it by native speakers of the target language, or when speech act strategies are inappropriately transferred from L1 to L2.(Thomas 1983, 99)
Hong’s study (1991) shows pragmalinguistic failure is closely linked with language itself, referring to the case that learners unconsciously transfer native expressions into English ignoring their pragmatic meaning, or use other inappropriate expressions of the target language.
Sociolinguistic failure, in contrast, is closely related to cultures defined by Thomas (1983:99) as ‘…social conditions placed on language use’ stemming from ‘…cross-culturally different perceptions of what constitutes appropriate linguistic behaviour.’ It involves lack of awareness of the conventions and the socio-cultural norms of the target language, such as not knowing the appropriate registers and topics or taboos governing the target language community.
These two types of pragmatic failure cannot always be distinguished as they are closely connected and overlapping. An inappropriate utterance may be regarded as pragmalinguistic failure from one angle, or sociolinguistic failure from another angle; correct interpretation of the failure relies on an understanding of different contexts, intentions and interlocutors (He, 1997).
Pragmatic failure is mostly categorized and analyzed according to different communicative acts such as greeting, addressing, responding to compliments, and accepting invitations. Different from the previous studies, mainly based on the theoretical framework of Thomas (1983), the model in this paper for the categorization of pragmatic failure will be shown and analyzed with examples from literature in the following section.

There are some aspects that makes the interlocutors fail in gaining the purpose of the communication that they holding. Based on the research that there are three aspects make the communication fail. Those are Inappropriate transfer of expressions, Inappropriate transfer of speech act strategies and Inappropriate use of target language expressions. Those aspects will be explained as follows:

Inappropriate Transfer of Expressions
Based on the research that had been conducted by LIn (2008), it could be found that some Chinese students might translate an utterance from their first language into the target language. At the lexical level, they might take it for granted that the Chinese words are equivalent to those of English in cultural connotation and then transfer the habit of Chinese language use into intercultural communication contexts.
Example 1
Situation: The drug stores in a town are usually open on Sundays. An English visitor didn’t know that, so he asked the Chinese guide.

Visitor: Are the drug stores open on Sundays?
Guide: Of course.
(The visitor seemed embarrassed.)
(Lin, 2005, 58)
This situation can also be seen between two interlocutors in Indonesian communication, such as:
According to Thomas (1983), ‘Of course’ indicates enthusiasm in a Chinese context, meaning ‘Yes, indeed it is’ in English, but in the example it would be abrupt and impolite because it seems to imply that the English native speaker is ignorant or stupid, and only an idiot would ask such a question.
Situation: In the morning, a grandma is sweeping out the yard. Other grandma greets her.
Grandma 1 : Are sweeping out the yard? (lagi nyapu mak!)
Grandma 2 : yea.
Based on ths conversation between grandma 1 and 2 can be seen that utterance is silly question since that the second grandma has seen what the grandma 1 is doing. That utterance just as a greet one. So, it can be concluded that the Chinese and Indonesian culture on this aspect is the same.

Inappropriate Transfer of Speech Act Strategies

Austin (1962, 145) defines speech acts as all things we do with words when we speak. Production of words or of sentences is considered as the performance of speech acts. Based on the research that some Chinese learners might not use English expressive ways and mechanically apply the conventionalized L1 communicative strategies to the target language as the following examples show.
Example 2
Situation: A Chinese student was at a native speaker’s home.

ENS: What would you like to drink? Tea or coffee?
C : No, no, no. No trouble, please.
(The host did not serve him anything to drink.)

(Xia et al, 1995, 152, cited in Wang, 2004, 9)

In Chinese culture when the host offers something to drink or eat, the guest will usually refuse at first by saying ‘no’ whether s/he would like to take it or not. Then the host must keep on asking the guest to accept the offer until s/he accepts it. In contrast, the native English speaker generally expects that the guest will give a truthful reply, and does not serve any drink or food if the guest says ‘no’. As a result,the Chinese guest’s improper reply left him thirsty because the strategy he subconsciously used is not appropriate in the target language.
This act can also be found in Indonesian culture. When someone offers something to do or to eat, speakers usually refuse for the first time. However, that expression is a kind of platitude. Eventhough she or he feel hungry or even starving.
Example 3
ENS: Thanks a lot. That’s a great help.
C : Never mind.
(Gu, 2003, 87)

Chinese speakers usually respond to others’ thanks by saying ‘Mei Guan Xi’, but it can be expressed in English by ‘It doesn’t matter.’, ‘Never mind.’ or ‘That’s all right.’ In English, these expressions are not always interchangeable. Example 3 shows that the Chinese learner didn’t respond to the compliment appropriately.
However, this attitude can also be found in Indonesian conversation. They often reply that expression with “all right, nevermind, okey”.

Inappropriate Use of Target Language Expressions

The meaning of linguistic forms used to perform certain speech acts may change when they are translated literally from Chinese to English. When Chinese people don’t know the exact meaning of a certain word or expression, they may regard the literal meaning as its connotation and use it in the context improperly.
Example 4

Situation: The conversation was between a female college student of English and a male American student of literature. They had known each other for some time. (After a talk with each other for a moment)

ENS: Bye!
C : Wait a moment, please. Have you seen my letter?
ENS: …
C : The letter?
ENS: What?
C : Letter?
ENS: I think I’ve lost it.
C : Oh, you break my heart!
ENS: (embarrassed) What?
(Both felt embarrassed)
(Wang, 2004, 7)
This example shows that the Chinese learner of English was not aware of the association between ‘break one’s heart’ and love affairs, which put both of them in an embarrassing situation. Wang (2004) reports that the Chinese student learnt later that the phrase is often used when someone is deserted by their lover, but she thought that it meant ‘make somebody feel sad and disappointed’.
It can be also seen in teenagers commnuication in Indonesia, for instance,
Girl : how about my last message?
Boy : I have deleted it.


There are some causes make the communication fail in China. Those are Cultural and value judgements, Taboo topics, Inadequate comprehension of utterances, and Pragmatic failure due to social factors. Those aspects will be explained as follows:

Cultural And Value Judgements

In intercultural communication, being unaware of each other’s respective social and cultural tradition, the interlocutors may participate in the communication with their own cultural values and use their own cultural systems to interpret the new situations they experience.
Example 5
Situation: An American teacher was talking to a Chinese student.

ENS: Your English is excellent.
C : No, no! My English is very poor, and it is far from being perfect.
(Ma, 2004, 40)

In the example above, the Chinese learner used polite and modest expressions of accepting a compliment in Chinese. S/he had transferred the Chinese appropriate politeness strategy of self-denigration to English as a way of showing modesty. This kind of response may be perceived as embarrassing because it implies that the native English speaker’s compliment is questionable.
In Indonesia context, that exprression also can be found, such as, when someone has a new dress. (your dress is very beautiful). The listener oftens respons ( this is just a bad dress).

Example 6
Situation: After a Chinese person stayed in her Canadian friend’s house, she was ready to leave.

Chinese: ‘I’m sorry I took up you too much time.’
Canadian friend: No, you didn’t.
(Wang, 2000, 57)

Wang reports that the Canadian friend thought what the Chinese said was not true and responded to her carefully and immediately by saying ‘No, you didn’t’. The Chinese person wanted to express politeness, but being unfamiliar with Chinese culture, her friend did not understand the pragmatic meaning. ‘Thank you. I really appreciate your time.’ would have been appropriate in this context.
Taboo Topics

What is considered an act of politeness in Chinese culture might be regarded as intrusion upon a person’s privacy by an English native speaker. To show warmth and concern is regarded as a polite act in Chinese culture. That is why when two Chinese meet each other even for the first time, they might ask about each other’s age, marital status, children, income and the price of an item. In contrast, in Western culture it may be regarded as impolite to ask a person such questions which are considered too personal in public.
This situation is also found in daily communication in Indonesia. When some goes back home from somewhere (long time to leave th village), she or he is often asked about amount of children ( how many chidren do have?, do you have built the house?, what is your job now?, etc)
Example 7
Situation: A Chinese student was at her friend’s house.
Chinese : Look! What a beautiful vase you’ve got here.
ENS : I got it last week. And it was made in China.
Chines : The design is marvellous. And the shape, too. How much did you pay for it?
ENS : Oh, I bought it at the China Exhibition. It’s not expensive. But I don’t know if the exhibition is still on.
(Song & Fu, 2003, 63)

In Song & Fu’s (2003) study, when the subjects were asked to identify the inappropriate expression and improve it in the above scenario, the result showed that some of their subjects exhibited a low sensitivity to the improper expression contained in it and could not identify the problem. It is generally considered impolite to ask an acquaintance among the professional classes the price of an item directly in the English-speaking country.
Inadequate Comprehension of Utterances

In intercultural communication, some Chinese learners may know the literal meaning of an utterance, but may fail to understand its contextual meaning, or fail to accurately understand the speaker’s intended force.
Example 8
Situation : The conversation was between a Chinese high school female teacher of English and a female visitor from America. They met at Tian’anmen Square for the first time.
Visitor: Nice to meet you.
Chinese: Nice to meet you, too.
(After chatting for a while)
Visitor: Nice meeting you.
(The Chinese teacher continued talking.)
Visitor: Sorry, we have to go.
(Wang, 2004, 11)
In this example, the English native speaker wanted to end the conversation by saying ‘Nice meeting you’, but the Chinese teacher of English did not understand the discoursal force of the sentence and continued talking.

Pragmatic Failure due to Social Factors

Thomas (1983) points out that ‘sociopragmatic’ judgements concern the size of imposition, cost/benefit, social distance, and relative rights and obligations. Chinese learners of English may sometimes use speech act realization strategies irrespective of social factors such as social status, degree of imposition, and time and space when the interaction takes place. Thus, they may appear to be behaving in a pragmatically inappropriate manner.
Example 9
Situation: Chinese non-English major sophomores asked a professor in the United States to buy and mail a dictionary for them. Some of their requests are as follows.
I want you to buy the dictionary.
Buy the dictionary for me and I will be happy.
You can buy the dictionary for me.
I expect that you can deliver the dictionary to me.
(Xu, 2001, 32)

Xu (2001) reports that the expressions above were very direct. There was a great social distance between the students and the professor, and they had no right to force the professor to do anything for them, but some students failed to choose proper strategies to soften the force of the face threatening act. The non-target-like request strategies are indicative of the students’ pragmalinguistic incompetence, which resulted in their inappropriate sociopragmatic use.


The above section has presented some examples of failure in doing communication that Chinese students committed in intercultural communication, and has briefly analyzed how these cases of pragmatic failure came into being. This section will identify and sum up three factors causing pragmatic failure. It should be pointed out that there is some overlap in these factors. Those are cultural differences, pragmatics transfer, and lack of pragmatics knowledge.
Cultural Differences

A culture is a complex set of shared beliefs, values and concepts which enables a group to make sense of its life and which provides it with directions for how to live. Chen & Starosta (1998, 54) state that culture not only provides the foundation for the meanings we assign to our perceptions, it also determines how we choose to expose ourselves to and direct our attention toward specific kinds of messages and events. Our verbal communication styles reflect and embody the beliefs and worldviews of our culture (Chen & Starosta, 1998:147). Cultures vary from country to country, and also differ among various groups within a country. Culture divergence interferes in language use and may lead to negative transfer.In an investigation of the reception and production of pragmatic routines by foreign language students of English, finds that the use of pragmatic routines by learners living in the target speech community for one year or under is generally characterised by strong L1-culture transfer.
It state that Chinese culture is referred to as a collectivistic culture emphasizing conformity to group norms and harmonious interpersonal relationship.It indicates that, in contrast, countries such as Great Britain and the United States belong to an individualistic culture stressing the self and personal achievement, and as a result equal or horizontal relationships are highly valued. However, we do not suggest that Chinese are a homogeneous cultural group or that every Chinese person is a typical Chinese. The same is true in other countries. When we acknowledge individual differences, people from these two different cultural contexts have their own shared cultural values, beliefs and communicative preferences. Where there is a lack of awareness of cultural distinctiveness, the home culture is looked on as the norm, the target language culture as deviant. A second language learner’s understanding of conceptualizations and constructs in second culture is fundamentally affected by his or her culturally defined worldviews, beliefs, assumptions and presuppositions. In intercultural communication, the occurrence of culture conflicts and inappropriate speech acts is inevitable.

Pragmatic transfer

Research has shown that English learners’ pragmatic knowledge in their native language significantly influences their comprehension and production of pragmatic performance in English. Negative pragmatic transfer involves utilizing the sociolinguistic rules of speaking in one’s native speech community when interacting within the host speech community (Wolfson, 1989). Potential L1 transfer by more direct strategies and non-conventionally indirect forms. Yu (2004) conducted an empirical study of the compliment response behaviour of two groups of Chinese learners of English compared with that of native Chinese and English speakers in order to determine how they responded to compliments in different situations. Compliment responses by the learners in Taiwan were more likely to be rejections than acceptances. The English behaviour of the English learners in Taiwan and in the United States reflected native language communicative styles and a transfer of L1 socio-cultural strategies. Clearly, deviating from what is considered the norm in the host speech community could lead to a communication breakdown.

Lack of Pragmatic Knowledge
As has been shown above, inadequate pragmatic knowledge can lead to miscommunication. In China, He & Yan (1986) carried out an initial quantitative research study on the pragmatic failure of Chinese students in communication in English. Its results show that lack of pragmatic knowledge is the main cause of pragmatic failure for Chinese learners. The subsequent studies of some other researchers indicate that Chinese learners with good grammatical competence do not necessarily develop their pragmatic competence in English, which can prevent them from communicating effectively with native English speakers.
It can be concluded that the deficit of pragmatic competence in EFL participants with reference to a possible lack of input and also to an overemphasis on grammatical issues. Although much effort has been made to improve the teaching of English in China by both Chinese and foreign teachers, the traditional grammar-translation method, with careful explanation of word meaning and usage followed by drilling and mechanical exercises, is still widely used in many contexts all over the country. It is commonplace for teachers to deliver a lesson by analyzing sentence structures, explaining lexis and answering questions on grammar. Correctness of the language form is the most important thing to students and teachers (Guo, 2004). Although some course-books are compiled with an introduction to cultural knowledge, some teachers may focus more on the explanation of language points, and seldom integrate cultural knowledge and pragmatic rules with the teaching of linguistic forms. As a result, there may be occurrences of pragmatic failure and a lack of cultural and pragmatic knowledge among the students. The results from this exploratory study indicate that Chinese students seem to lack competence in using English appropriately in a certain social context.

From what has been discussed above, it can be understood that what intercultural pragmatic failure is and what the potential causes of pragmatic failure are. Language learners must not only acquire the correct forms and sounds of the target language, but also the knowledge of how language is pragmatically used in the target culture.It is important to develop Chinese learners’ pragmatic competence in the EFL classroom so as to increase their intercultural communicative competence in English.
In order to successfully interact with people from other cultures, there are some aspects to be considered. Namely, we have to understand our own and others’ cultural values, norms, customs and social systems. English teachers should integrate the target culture into English learning, not only including values, beliefs, customs and behaviours of the English-speaking countries, but also the cultural connotations of words, phrases and idioms.
Last, it can be suggested for English students who will conduct the linguistics research, it is better to analyze the social aspect in communication, especially in Indonesia context.

1 komentar:

  1. Even the field of communications could benefit from the workings of a failure analysis since this would enable them to think of a better approach the next time around.