Children acquire communication skills within a socially and culturally influenced context. Communication professionals need to be aware of the ways cultural differences influence communication. This article describes the influence of cultural backgrounds on communication patterns along a continuum of behaviors. The purpose is to review relevant literature as an operating framework for professionals providing services to children and families from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds.
Interacting in situations that are culturally unfamiliar and unclear can be challenging. In our changing world, however, such situations will become more commonplace. To deliver our services, we professionals must become more culturally adept in our interactions. This article is a beginning step in defining the cultural continua that may influence the content and use of language, describing ways to interpret cultural communication behaviors, learning how to interact in culturally congruent ways, and applying this knowledge to clinical practice. Another article in this journal includes case examples of communicative interactions between caregivers and children in diverse cultures (Vigil & Hwa-Froelich, this issue).
Although language acquisition theories are universal, understanding how culture influences communication development is important. Three theories have been proposed to explain how children learn to talk: the information processing theory, the pragmatic theory, and the social interaction theory. According to the information processing theory, the function of communication, or the communicative goal of the speaker, motivates the development of language structure (Bates & MacWhinney, 1982, 1987). The pragmatic theory of language acquisition is based on the belief that communicative functions and the situational context are the driving forces behind language acquisition (Austin, 1962; Bruner, 1986; Searle, 1969). The social interaction theory is founded on the belief that the interaction between the child and caregiver, inclusive of biological and environmental influences, is responsible for the acquisition of language (Snow, 1981). Common elements of these theories are the interaction of communicative functions and the influence of the child's social world, social relationships, and communicative interactions. Thus children learn from adults or more competent siblings such skills as verbal and nonverbal communicative behaviors; right and wrong production and use of words, sentences, and discourse; and polite and impolite ways to communicate. Because the rules for communicative competence are socially generated and culturally influenced, what may be appropriate communicative competence for the mainstream culture of the United States may be inappropriate for other cultures and languages.
Cultural constructs that govern individuals' beliefs and values are often reflected in communicative interactions. The social codes or cultural frameworks for communicative interchanges modeled and taught to us as children often guide our actions and interactions (Agar, 1994; Goffman, 1986). Cultural differences are promoted through child socialization practices and supported through social interactions.
Culture is transmitted from one generation to the next in several ways. First, it is transmitted through the socialization of children (Vygotsky, 1986; Wertsch, 1985). Cultural philosophy, values, and beliefs are communicated through both verbal and nonverbal means. Cultural values are shared from one generation to another through parenting practices that teach social and communicative behaviors. Second, cultural values are communicated through the media, policies, laws, and the philosophies or pedagogy of such institutions as schools (Vygotsky, 1986; Wertsch, 1985). To understand cultural variations in communicative interactions, we must understand …