Intercultural Miscommunication: Impact on ESOL Students and Implications for ESOL Teachers

Article excerpt

Intercultural miscommunication occurs when there is a breakdown in communication between speakers of two different cultures and languages due to cultural differences and/or sociolinguistic transfer. Intercultural miscommunication has tremendous impact on ESOL students' academic learning at North American schools. This paper examines the nature of intercultural communication, the causes of intercultural miscommunication, and its impact on ESOL students. It also suggests instructional implications for teachers to help their ESOL students avoid being misunderstood by their North American peers and teachers.

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The number of English-to-speakers-of-other-languages (ESOL) students has more than doubled since 1980s and has recently grown significantly at North American schools (Canadian Bureau for International Education, 2010; U.S. Department of Education, 2008). Research in both second language education and English for Academic Purposes (EAP) has begun to show that ESOL students' insufficient English language proficiency, coupled with their unfamiliarity with the North American culture has prevented them from communicating effectively with North Americans in their cross-cultural learning (Bontrager, Birch, & Kracht, 1990; Huang, 2005; Huang & Foote, 2010; Huang & Kathleen, 2009; Huang & Klinger, 2006; Huang & Rinaldo, 2009; Leung & Berry, 2001). The questions of what is the nature of intercultural communication, why intercultural miscommunication occurs, how it impacts ESOL students, and what ESOL teachers can do to help avoid intercultural miscommunications in the classroom merit closer examination.

This paper first describes the relationship between culture and language. It then discusses the nature of intercultural communication. Following that, it examines the causes of intercultural miscommunication and its impact on ESOL students. It finally suggests instructional implications for ESOL teachers.

Culture and Language

There is a very close relationship between culture and language. Culture plays an immeasurable role in language use because it encompasses the way a language is structured and used (Liddicoat, 2008). Kuo and Lai (2006) believe that "culture not only changes people's values and habits, but also affects people's language and behavior" (p. 5). Further, they indicate that a language adapts to the current culture by the introduction of new vocabulary through "pop culture" and the development of slang words in the passage of time.

Specifically in relation to language, culture is not just a marginal part of language; but rather has a central relationship with language (Chang, 2002; Crago, Eriks-Brophy, Pesco & McAlpine, 1997; Liddicoat, 2009). Communication is the use of a culturally based code in a culturally shaped context to develop and understand a culturally shaped meaning (Liddicoat, 2009). This view relays the message that culture is not simply a factor in the communication system affecting the competence and success of communication, but rather the central component of the communication system. It is difficult to see the culture embedded in a language when intracultural communication is taking place because values, beliefs, and topics are shared. However, the study of intercultural communication leads researchers to find that each lexical and grammatical item of a language has a cultural background within this item and this idea is very broad and complex (Liddicoat, 2009).

Intercultural Communication

Many early second language acquisition studies were based on the accuracy of language use that focused on the phonological, lexical and grammatical systems of a language. However, second language instruction and learning began to shift the focus to communicative competence or the sociocultural rules of speaking that focuses on using language appropriately (Chang, 2009). In other words, learners need to focus on when to speak, in what matter to speak and to whom, all skills that can be difficult to master when transferring sociocultural rules from their first language. …