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The most noticeable feature that distinguishes human beings from animals is their (human beings) ability to communicate with each other in different contextual situations. Due to the flexibility and arbitrariness of language, people might use similar words and expressions in different contextual situations with different meanings. Wolfram and Estes (2006) explain that, "The relationship between the sounds that make up a given word and the meaning or meanings associated with this word is essentially arbitrary. That is, there is no one 'true' name for a given object or idea" (p. 60). Also, people might have the capability to use different sounds and symbols to contact with other people in different cultures. Yet, it is important that both parties - sender and receiver - understand the meanings of these sounds and symbols to communicate.
Nevertheless, sometimes, people fail to communicate because of the barrier of failing to decode meanings of sounds uttered. For example, if two people from different cultures, who speak English, converse, they might not understand one another. A non-native speaker might understand the Englishman, saying, "It's not my cup of tea" that the Englishman is talking about a cup of tea that does not belong to him. In this regard, Andrews (1993) said, "One of the most basic reasons human beings bother to communicate with each other is to impart some kind of meaning" (p. 10). Thus, this work is trying to shed some lights on the importance of understanding meaning of words in order to understand others' intentions, focusing, mainly, on denotative and connotative meaning.
II. Literature Review
1. Word as Carrier for Meaning
Talking about "word" and "meaning" forces me first to find definitions for "word" and see how words collocate with meaning. Rosenblatt (1994) see that words "point to something outside themselves, often to something that has a separate existence in real life" (p. 33). Moffett (1992) discussed, "Words stand for concepts, and concepts grow as youngsters grow" (p. 33). Garrison (1985) emphasized, "Semanticists, who study meaning, remind us that 'the word is not the thing,' not the reality, just as 'the map is not the territory,' not the actual ground" (p. 42). Dewey (1997) sees that a word "is an instrument for thinking about the meaning which it expresses" (p. 178).
Aitchison (2003) defines "word" as "a minimum free form, that is, the smallest form that can occur by itself" (p. 56). This definition, in fact, does not specify the main function of a word as a carrier of meaning as Postman (1985) does, saying, "Words have very little to recommend them except as carriers of meaning. The shapes of written words are not especially interesting to look at" (p. 50). Therefore, we cannot divorce a word from its meaning. Another issue that Aitchison does not refer to in her definition is that a word gives meaning only when it is in a context. Postman (1985) refers to this point, showing that the meaning of a word is distorted when it is taken away from its context (p. 73).
Goodman (1986) believes that people can set symbols together to form words when representing something, but the meanings of such words are given by users of these words (p. 13). Crystal (2006) clarifies this idea, saying, "Words have no life of their own. It is people who have life, and it is they who give life to words. Or death. And as people, and their societies, never stand still, neither do words. Change is the norm. The only words that do not change any more are dead ones" (p. 149). Also, Hoffman (1994) emphasized, "We ascribe meaning to each thing around us: things have no meaning until we give them meaning, and then they are only what we mean them to be" (p. 58).
Bixby (2000), also, believes that words do not have meanings. Rather, people give meanings to the words they use. Hence, meanings of words change according to users of these words (p. 62). Sometimes, people use a word with different meanings in different social context. So, it is meaning that gives the word its shape. In this regard, Orwell (1981) explained, "What is above all needed is to let the meaning chooses the word, and not the other way about" (p. 169). For example, Helenquin (2011) presented an example about one word having more than one meaning. The sentence "She didn't take his tip" is ambiguous because the word "tip" might mean "money or change" or "advice." So, away from its context, this sentence might mean "She did not take his advice" or "She did not take his money" (para. 2).
Similarly, Evans (2009) provides two examples about the different meanings of the same word in different contextual situations. The word "expired" in the sentences "On May 1st my grandfather expired" and "On May 1st my driving license expired" has different meanings according to its use and function in different contexts. The word "expired" in the first sentence is used to mean "passed away," but the same word in the second sentence is used to mean "become invalid" (p. 14). This example gives us a good indication that using words is a technique. Each word has at least one semantic feature that makes it distinguished from any other words, even when these words have the same sounds and shape (Signorile, 1994, p. 220). Thus, Degani and Tokowicz (2010) explained, "Word recognition rarely occurs without context. This context ultimately determines which meaning is appropriate" (p. 1273).
Rosenblatt (1995) agrees with Evans, Signorile, and Degani and Tokowicz in that meanings of words are captured according to the positions and functions of these words in the context. She said, "The same text will have a very different meaning and value to us at different times or under different circumstances" (p. 35). Also, Karl (1994) explained, "Without the larger context, we often get a distorted sense of the meaning of a sound bite's imagery - whether the imagery represents an event or a person. All of this refers to the physical context of an image" (p. 199).
Karl's quotation leads me to discuss an important point in word and meaning, that is, reference and sense. Gottlob Frege, the German philosopher who presented reference and sense in 1892, sees that reference and sense are two different concepts of meaning. Reference is an indication to the object it refers, while sense is how it is referred to that object (Sense and Reference, 201 1, para. 1). Kozulin (1986) explained, "Modern linguistics distinguishes between the meaning of a word, or an expression, and its referent, i.e., the object it designates. There may be one meaning and different referents, or different meanings and one referent" (p. 130).
In fact, some words in a sentence might make confusion when they have the same reference and different senses. For example, Rowe and Levine (2006) presented the following example:
In the statement 'Dr. Eisenlauer is our resident archaeologist' both the phrase 'Dr. Eisenlauer' and the phrase Our resident archaeologist' refer to the same person; therefore, they have the same concrete referent. But the sense of each phrase is different; therefore, it is not like saying 'Dr. Eisenlauer is Dr. Eisenlauer' or 'Our resident archaeologist is our resident archaeologist', (p. 154)
Watson (1988) sees that it is not only important to know the meaning or the reference of a word, but it is also important to know the relationship of the meaning of a word with meanings of all words in the context (p. 7). Ong (1982) explains this idea, stating:
The word in its natural, oral habitat is a part of a real, existential present. Spoken utterance is addressed by a real, living person to another real, living person or real, living persons, at a specific time in a real setting which includes always much more than mere words. Spoken words are always modifications of a total situation which is more than verbal. They never occur alone, in a context simply of words, (p. 100)
Generally speaking, people use meaningful sounds and symbols in form of words to convey meaning in different cultural contexts. Hence, meaning is what distinguishes words from any other sounds as Kozulin (1986) expresses, saying. "A word without meaning is an empty sound" (p. 212). It is worth mentioning that as language changes over time, meanings of words change, too. Meanings of words change from time into time, from one speaker into another, and from one cultural context into another. In this vein, Crystal (2006) discussed, "Language changes. Words change. Our feelings about words change. And not just over long periods of time. It need only take a day" (p. 3). Also, Hayakawa and Hayakawa (1990) emphasized, "The meaning of words also changes from speaker to speaker, from hearer to hearer, and from decade to decade" (p. 49).
However, though people use words to clarify and explain their ideas and expressions through meaningful utterances, they, sometimes, tend to make their words unclear and vague to audience. Thus, people might use words either as a way of communication or a way of malcommunication (Elbow, 2000, p. 16). For example, politicians and advertisers play with meanings of words to convince audience of a specific idea. In contrast, they play with meanings of words and expressions used to persuade others to see things and facts from different perceptions.
Therefore, Hall (1973) said, "Just as we can learn to embody feelings by being aware of the whole family of a word, and by using language that appeals to the senses, so we can misuse words to fool ourselves and other people" (p. 31). There are hidden meanings behind words that give power to these words (Kozulin, 1986, p. 222). These hidden meanings, as Lutz (1996) believes, change words into behaviors (p. 178). For that reason, Cann, Kempson, and Gregoromichelaki (2009) recommend that meanings of words be clear and accessible if people seek to use words as tools for expressing facts, emotions, thoughts, and ideas (p. 1).
Crystal (2006) symbolizes words as children in that both need to take care of. Words are like children who we are proud of and we need to be worried about. We need to search about them. We need to know about words because they are dangerous when they are misused or misunderstood. We need to understand when and why words change their meanings in different cultural contexts (p. 6). Crystal (2006) gives a description to words, saying, "Words, like guns, can be loaded. And, like guns, they can threaten, hurt, and wound. They can even kill - relationships and reputations. There are always risks, when we use words" (p. 127).
As children grow, words grow, too. People create new words when they need, and they give these words several meanings according to their functions and uses. People, sometimes, use old words with new meanings (Andrews, 1993, p. 69). For example, people now use the word "Google" to mean "search" though searching might be done by other Websites. So, why people choose the word "Google," not "Yahoo," "Gmail," or "Hotmail" to mean "searching"? Also, "Google" might be used in some other functions besides searching. People see that "Google" is the best Website for searching, and "searching" is the most important function in "Google." Thus, they use this word to create a new meaning for the word.
In fact, people give and understand meaning of a word according to how they feel and interact with it. They see that the meaning of a word fulfills its function as long as other people interact with the word positively or negatively (Lakoff & Johnson, 2003, p. 224). They continue saying, "Meaning is not cut and dried; it is a matter of imagination and a matter of constructing coherence" (p. 227). Whereas Lutz (1996) sees that meaning of a word is flexible and changeable. People should see meaning of a word not as a still thing, but as a result of a contextual situation that gives the word its temporary meaning (p. 80). Also, Bobda (2009) believes that a word has several meanings according to the users of this word. Meanings change in different cultural contexts (p. 375).
Alfred Kortzybski [Polish 1879-1950] believes that people live in a double life: internal and external. People live in the internal world, which is called intensional, in the form of ideas, emotions, feelings, and thoughts. People, also, live in the external world, which is called extensional, through being parts of the community in the reality. Most people misunderstand the extensional world because they suffer and confuse in their intensional world (Potter, 1974, p. 19). Potter (1974) emphasized, "Our tendency to confuse words with things is the result of our having grown up confusing the intensional and extensional worlds. As we learned about one, we learned about the other" (p. 46).
Alfred Kortzybski symbolized ideas, words, and images in head and ways of using them in reality as map and territory. He sees that if a person wants to have a long trip, he needs a map. And if this person gets incorrect map, he will get lost. The same can be said about intensional world and external world. If someone gets incorrect intensional world, he will lose the external world. The result is that that person becomes lost, angry, confused, and frightened (Potter, 1974, pp. 19, 20). Potter presented an interesting idea about map and territory, saying:
We tend to use what we expect to see. In other words, when looking at new territories, we are inclined to see what the maps in our heads say will be there. For example, when you first turned the page and saw the words in the triangle, what did you see, 'Keep to the right' or 'Keep to the the right'? If you're like most people, you didn't notice the two the's. [He presented a triangle of 'Keep to the the right'] (p. 32)
To conclude this part, meaning of a word or a sign in one context might change in another context. For example, seeing a soft drink sign in a hot day in mid of July for a thirsty man does not give the same meaning and feeling when the same man sees this sign in the early morning of a cold day in December (Potter, 1974, p. 33). In this vein, Johnson (1946) wondered, "Strangely enough, two things that are different may also be the same, and two things that are the same may also be different. Whether they will be the same or different ... depends on the way we are set to react to them" (p. 36). For example, the word "foxy" has different meanings in different cultural contexts. The British use the word "foxy" to mean "cunning" or "tricky"; in American and Australian cultures, the word "foxy" might be used to mean "sexy," namely when it is used about women (Nesi, 1995, pp. 276, 277).
2. Denotative Meaning and Connotative Meaning
It is essential that users of language, namely learners of a second language, distinguish between two types of meanings at the level of words: denotative and connotative. Denotative meaning refers to the referential, objective, and cognitive meaning. It is called the dictionary meaning. Connotative meaning, in contrast, refers to associational, subjective, and affective meaning. It refers to the effect of a word on people in different cultures. About this, Garrison (1985) said "Words have denotation (meaning or definition) and connotation (suggestion, overstore). They have sound, color, rhythm. Many words can mean close to the same thing; others can sound alike but mean different things" (p. 42).
It is then that meaning of a word that is located by the users of this word in their cultural context. Of course, we can never ignore the fact that people may get meaning of a word from a dictionary. But a dictionary gives meaning of a word in a particular time and particular situation used by a particular person. The dictionary meaning might not be applicable to other situations or time or by other users (Potter, 1974, p. 48). For this point, Elbow (1998) stated:
Words cannot contain meaning. Only people have meaning. Words can only have meaning attributed to them by people. The listener can never get any meaning out of a word that he didn't put in. Language can only consist of a set of directions for building meanings out of one's own head. (pp. 151, 152)
Yamamoto and Swan (1989) focus on the role of social effects in providing words their connotative meanings (p. 233). For example the denotative meaning of the word "dog" in English and "..." (kaleb) in Arabic is alike. "Dog" in English and "..." (kaleb) in Arabic refer to the same animal: an animal with four legs, two big ears, a tail, and barks. The connotative meaning of the word "dog" in English or "..." (kaleb) in Arabic differs in English and Arabic cultures. The connotative meaning of "dog," that is, "..." (kaleb) for Arabs is likely to be negative, and the connotative meaning of the same word is likely to be positive in the English culture (Bell, 1991, pp. 98, 99).
However, most English people associate the word "dog" with faithfulness and friendship. In contrast, most Arabs associate the word "dog" with dirt and guarding. Thus, the English proverb "Love me, love my dog," which has a positive connotative meaning in English culture, might have a negative connotative meaning in Arabic culture. Arabs might use "camel" or "horse" as a best equivalent to "dog;" thus, the English proverb is translated into Arabic as "Love me, love my camel or horse." Most Arabs give the connotative attitudes of dogs in the English culture to camels or horses in their culture.
Moreover, the dictionary gives several meanings for one word. The context might give the meaning to this word. This context might be grammatical, semantic, pragmatic, historical, social, or cultural. For example, Robinson and McKenna (2008) explain that there are more than thirty meanings for the word "run" in the dictionary. It seems difficult for anyone to get the most appropriate meaning of this word away of its context (p. 4). When these words share some semantic features, these words are called plysemous. Condit (1989) (Cited in Puntoni, Schroeder, & Ritson, 2010) sees that polysemy "occurs when people generate different basic understandings of the same message, not merely different attitudes" (p. 52).
It is important that English language learners know different meanings of one word in different contexts. In this regard, Crossley, Salsbury, and McNamara (2010) present the word "class" as an example about polysemy. The word "class" has at least six associated senses, which Crossley, Salsbury, and McNamara present as "socioeconomic class, a body of students, a course of study, a collection of things sharing similar attributes, a league ranked by quality (usually sports related), and elegance in dress or behavior" (p. 575).
Talking about polysemy drags me to talk about homonymy. Grunthal (2010) said, "Inflectional homonymy is the alternative concept that has been used in linguistic literature and emphasizes the identity between words and lexical types instead of categories" (p. 250) Also, Lakoff and Johnson (2003) see that "homonymy" is taking place when one word is used for different concepts. For example, the word "bank" is used to refer to a place where people draw or deposit money or a side of a river or sea (p. 1 10). So, there is no semantic connection between the multiple meanings of the same homonyms word. There is, for example, no connection between a place of drawing or depositing money and side of a river or sea.
In contrast to homonyms words, plysemous words share in common senses. For example, the word "ear" might be used to mean an ear of a human being, an ear of a cup of coffee, and so on. Corthals (2010) explains the distinction between homonymy and polysemy in that a homonyms word is a word having two or more unrelated meanings. For example, the Dutch word "vorst" is used to mean "monarch," "frost," and "rooftop." In contrast, a polysemous word is a word having two or more related meanings. For example, the word "mouth" might mean an opening in a person's face or an opening in cavity or river (p. 122). Crossley, Salsbury, and McNamara (2010) said, "Polysemous words are more common than both homonyms and vague words and are more of a rule than an exception" (p. 575). It seems that homonyms words make more confusion to learners than polysemous words do.
The confusion between cultural context meanings often causes misunderstandings and misinterpretations among people in different cultures. It is crucial that people know that words do not have a single meaning; rather, they have several meanings, amongst of which are connotative and denotative (Murray, 1982, p. 71). For example, the English proverb "Make hay while the sun shines" is used to urge people to make use of time. The word "sun" in the English culture carries positive attitude because it is soft and sends warm rays that motivate English people to work. In the complete contrast, most Arabs dislike "..." (al-shames), that is, "sun" namely in summer. The word "..." (al-shames) in the Arabic culture carries negative attitude because it is associated with hot weather, humidity, thirsty, and sun strike.
Accordingly, words carry meanings in all cultural situations because connotative meanings of words change according to how people accept and interact with these meanings in their cultural contexts. For example, the Shakespearian sonnet "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day!" that is used as a compliment or praising in the English culture might have a negative attitude in the Arabic culture. The connotative meaning of the word "summer," or "'..." (al-saeif) which is positive in the English culture, is negative in the Arabic culture. Arabs like spring and winter, instead.
Connotative meanings of words, then, indicate to how people see the effects of these words on them. In other words, word meaning shows how certain cultural aspects are valued and seen as positive or negative by speakers of that language. Cultural patterns tell us what makes speakers of a particular language comfortable or uncomfortable with specific words (Chaika, 1989, p. 290). To show how words affect connotatively, not denotatively, on audience, Potter (1974) explained:
Magic words come from all sources, but the master magician is the businessman. For instance, many real estate agents sell only homes, never houses. The word home connotes family life, happiness, and security, while a buyer is apt to think of a house in terms of concrete, lumber, and next year's taxes, (p. 57)
Dictionary meaning of words has no culturally precise meaning. In this case, a word always denotes to an abstract thing in reality regardless to how effects that word may have on its users. A word is used literally when it is used denotatively. When a word is used figuratively, it connotes other meanings according to how its users see and use it in different cultural contexts. It can be said, then, that a word carries several extra meanings when it is used connotatively (Moffett, 1992, p. 26).
Hayakawa and Hayakawa (1990) warn us from basing our understanding of meaning of a word on its dictionary meaning. Dictionaries provide high abstraction of meanings for words, and this causes lack of conciseness and preciseness. It is a horrible mistake that people depend on dictionary to capture meaning of a word (p. 36). To know about the effect of denotative and connotative meaning on people, Potter (1974) presents this example:
Propaganda is a good word with a bad reputation. Denotatively, it refers to any organized effort to influence public opinion. And since man is by nature an opening-holding creature, man has always used propaganda. Today the word propaganda has unpleasant connotations for many people. The term suggests scheming dictators, lies, thought control, and the Big Brothers above us. (p. 175)
In this literature review, it becomes clear that people use meanings of words differently in different cultural contexts. People use words as a way of communication through the use of meaningful utterances in different contexts and different cultures. Hence, learning language requires knowing how meanings of words vary from one cultural context into another. Hayakawa and Hayakawa (1990) said, "But as we know from everyday experience, learning language is not simply a matter of learning words; it is a matter of correctly relating our words to the things and happenings for which they stand" (p. 86).
Gramont (1990) sees that people use words to express meanings for something (p. 1 16), and without providing meaning, these words are empty stimuli for receivers (Dewey, 1997, p. 171). Therefore, people need to see behind words to investigate the intended meaning. Of course, intended meaning depends upon various criteria, among of which is the effect of words on audience. In other words, people interact with words connotatively, not denotatively. They react positively or negatively with meanings of words according to the effect of these meanings on them, that is, connotative meaning. Denotative meaning is the dictionary meaning, and it is universal. People speak words full of connotative meanings.
III. Problem of the Study
Because of the urgent need for communicating in English with people from different countries, a large number of people all over the world are trying hard to learn English. Though most English language learners have a big store of vocabulary and grammar rules, misinterpretations and misunderstandings often happen between English native speakers and English language learners. The reason is that meanings of words differ from one cultural context into another according to the connotative effects of these words on people using them. Much confusion happens because of understanding meanings of words denotatively, not connotatively. Understanding connotative meanings of words in different cultural contexts is clue for learners to achieve positive interaction with English native speakers.
IV. Research Questions
Based on literature review, regarding denotative and connotative meaning, and interviews with ten international students, I posed the following questions to be answered:
* How can connotative meaning of words in English affect on English language learners' interactions with English native speakers?
* How can English language learners understand connotative meanings of words in English?
* Why do English language learners need to understand connotative meanings of words in English?
V. Objectives of the Study
The main objective of this study was to explore how English language learners understand connotative meanings of words in the English culture. Thus, the study focused mainly on carrying out a thorough investigation about some different connotative meanings in different cultures, through literature review and interviewing ten international students. Findings of this study proposed some strategies, according to experiences of some international students interviewed, for understanding connotative meanings of words in English culture. This study, also, might be used for future investigations in the same or related topics.
VI. Scope and Limits of the Study
The scope of this study was limited to identifying similarities and differences of connotative meanings between English culture and other different cultures. The sample of the study comprised ten international students, whose native language was not English. The scope of this study was directed to investigating meanings and interpretations, regarding connotative meanings of some proverbs and idioms in English, from the participants of the study in specific time - March 17, 2011 till April 17, 2011 - and specific place - University of Missouri Columbia, MO.
VII. Participants of the Study
The participants of this study were ten international students, whose native language was not English and who were studying at the University of Missouri Columbia. These participants were three from Europe (Albania, Germany, and Spain), three from Asia (China, South Korea, and Taiwan), three from Middle East (Jordan, Turkey, and Tajikistan), and one from Africa (Somalia). The table below shows some information about these participants, taking into account that the last three columns in the table include the participants' answers about my questions regarding these titles. Also, more discussions about the participants' answers and comments are presented in findings, data analysis, and conclusion.
As the table above shows, some of the participants' majors are not English. Thus, I gave them some information about the "denotative and connotative meaning" to make sure that they would understand what they were saying. Some of the participants were semi-native English speakers, such as Afrim, Santana, and Gonas. In fact, the majority of the participants found difficulties in understanding meanings of most of the expressions. Some of the expressions were familiar to some participants, yet they did not give the intended meaning in English.
VIII. Methodology of the Study
I planned the methodology of this study to get the truth through dialogue (interviewing). I tended to obtain findings of this study through the participants' interviews, where I presented my own interpretations while analyzing their answers and comments to my questions. Thus, it was important that conversations be held between me and the participants of the study regarding the phenomenon of the study to construct a meaningful reality. I interviewed the participants of the study and asked them questions related to denotative and connotative meaning. My goal in interviewing these participants was to find out whether these participants know the connotative meanings of some words in English culture or not.
I used a digital camera as an audio tape recorder. In recording, neither the participants nor I were shown in the camera. I used a high-quality Sony digital camera to record only voices of the participants and mine. I explained to each participant the idea of using the digital camera in recording. I transcripted each interview at the same day of the interview. Doing this helped me remember almost all the speech in the interview as some of the participants' English was not clear enough. Also, transcription at the same day helped me comment and analyze on each participant's speech individually.
As I was not familiar with machine transcription, I transcripted the interviews through listening and transcription every word, every action, and every sound. In transcription, I used three dots (...) to refer to the participant's pause, and in case of long thinking, I wrote (long thinking). Transcription everything in the interview, of course, took me from 12 to 16 hours of continuous work for each interview. After interviewing the participant, I came back home in order to save the interview in my USB flash memory. Later, I did all the transcription at Ellis Library, where I used to select a place away from any kind of disturbance or distracters. I wrote the interview on pieces of paper - from 16 to 20 pieces - and then I typed them to be saved with the whole work.
IX. Data Collection
I collected the data of this study from both primary and secondary resources. The primary resources of collecting data included interviewing ten international students. I based findings of this study on participants' answers and comments besides my own observations during and after interviewing the participants. To know how important interviewing is to the qualitative research, Spradley (1979) (cited in Hatch, 2002) shows the role of the researcher while doing the interview, saying,
I [the researcher] want to understand the world from your [the participants of the study] point of view. I want to know what you know in the way you know it. I want to understand the meaning of your experience, to walk in your shoes, to feel things as you feel them, to explain things as you would explain them. Will you become my teacher and help me understand? (p. 91)
However, interviewing the participants was core in conducting this study because it provided me with great opportunities to know more about the phenomenon of the study. Through the face-to-face interaction with the participants of the study, I could identify important points related to the importance of understanding connotative meaning in learning English. I prepared questions related to connotative meaning in English culture as shown in Appendix 1 .
These questions were set up in specific order, using clear language and simple words. All participants' answers and comments were taken into account while collecting the data of the study. The questions were designed to cover three main areas in language, and one area was about the participant. For the questions about the participant aimed at knowing information about the participant's country, native language, language used beside the native language, level of education, major, emphasis in college, time of starting learning English, time spent in English-speaking countries, and percentage of using English with English native speakers. These questions give me a good background about the participant ability in learning English and its relationship to understanding English culture.
The part related to language was divided into three interrelated sections. The first part was about understanding meanings of words used in English proverbs and idioms. The main purpose of this part was to find out whether the participants understand meanings of these expressions in English culture or not. The six expressions used in this part were selected carefully to cover different areas of connotative meanings. For example, there were three words related to weather (summer, rain, and sun) and three words related to animals (dog, cat, and pig). These words, as I guess, cause problems to learners of English in understanding their connotative meanings in English.
The second part in this section was talking about the participants' own language and culture. The same words used in the English expressions presented in the first part were presented in this part, too. The idea behind this was to find out the similarities or differences between the English culture and the participants'. Later, I tried to find out how the participants' understanding to these words in their cultures affected their understanding to these words in the English culture. Also, in this part, the participants were asked to provide expressions related to the words presented. I thought to make connections between connotative meanings of words in different cultures.
The last part in this section was a general question about the difficulties the participants encountered while using English with native speakers. I focused mainly on problems due to cultural gaps between the two cultures. The participants' comments were important in this part, so there was a question in a form of giving a comment or share an idea regarding this topic.
As for the secondary resources, they included books and articles about word meaning, namely connotative and denotative meaning. Also, I searched and increased my knowledge about how to fulfill a qualitative research. Being aware of the conceptual terms related to the subject of the study and qualitative research was also a target to me.
X. Findings of the Study
In this work, it is shown clearly that language presents different meanings to same words. Also, meanings of words change from one cultural context into another. Meanings of words change according to how people use and see these words in their communities. Of course, there are dictionary meanings, which refer to denotative meanings, but these meanings cannot be seen or understood similarly in different cultural contexts. Therefore, it is essential that meanings of words be seen connotatively because these meanings change from one community into another. It is effect that gives a word its meaning, not a dictionary. This might be supported by Wolfram and Estes (2006), who said, "A given word may have not only a central, core meaning but also a host of peripheral meanings and associations that make it difficult to pin down the meaning of the word with precision" (p. 60).
In this work, I interviewed ten international students studying at the University of Missouri Columbia. The participants were from different countries, which meant that I interviewed ten students from ten different cultures. The participants speak ten different native languages but all share in English as a second language. Seven of the participants were graduate students, and three were undergraduates. The participants had different majors, but the majority's major was English (four). The participants spent different periods of time in English-speaking countries, ranging from one year to ten. The participants' use of English with native speakers varies from 40% to 99.9%. The table shows me that the European participants use English more than 90%. Finally most of the participants found difficulties in understanding English native speakers regarding cultural issues.
As for the English expressions, most of the participants haven't heard most of them before. The only participant that heard about all these expressions was Afrim, from Albania. In fact, for me, this is not strange because his major is TESOL. Kyung Mi, from South Korea, and Toulgash, from Turkey, haven't heard about any of these expressions. Four participants (Chue, Saban, Santana, and Gonas) heard about only one expression. Only two participants heard about the expression "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day!" Four participants heard about "Love me, love my dog." Five participants heard about "Save for a rainy day!" Three participants heard about "That's like putting lipstick on a pig!" Three participants heard about "Make hay while the sun shines!" Only two participants heard about "You look like the cat that ate the canary!"
Though Santana, from Spain, and Gonas, from Germany, heard about only one expression, their guesses about the expressions that they haven't heard about were almost correct. Chue, from China, and Kyung Mi, from South Korea, did not even try to guess the meanings of the expressions that they haven't heard about. Toulgash, from Turkey, guessed the meanings of the expressions he hasn't heard about, but almost his guesses were incorrect.
What I noticed through the open question about sharing components regarding this topic that most of the participants focused about the role of culture in understanding meanings of words. For example, Taloquan, from Tajikistan, said, "Actually, what I mention all that I think for understanding culture of another language another culture." Tab-Yao, from Taiwan, said, "Culture is very interesting. Culture is a very big issue." Saban, from Somalia, said, "I would like to say that it is differences between the cultures." James, from Jordan, said, "I believe every language has culture." Tolugash, from Turkey, said, "if someone tries to understand from different culture ...."
What was interesting was that the three Europeans mentioned nothing about culture, they talked about something different. For example, Afrim, from Albania, said, "The only thing that I would say is ... it is always positive to ... to understand the context ...." Santana, from Spain, said, "When you pay attention to the context, it is ... at least for me it's pretty easy to ... to guess the meaning or what they are trying to say ... like good close idea and also reading because it is reading is actually even better ...." Gonas, from Germany, said, "what help me was definitely like reading ... like books in English, especially if I had read them in German before. I was ... to get the meaning out of some paragraphs without even knowing what the word means, so I was able to kind of find things like that and also . . . watching . . . movies in like the different language."
XI. Data Analysis
Babbie (2001) defined qualitative data analysis as: "the non-numerical assessment of observations made through participant observation, content analysis, in-depth interviews, and other qualitative research techniques" (p. 358). Hence I see this method of analysis is more appropriate than quantitative approach. I used this approach because I felt that this kind of studies required interpretations rather than figures. In other words, I used this method for the purpose of getting meaningful interpretations to the data collected. I presented my own interpretations to the phenomenon based on the participants' responses and comments.
The first thing that I noticed was that the participants who were from Europe: Spain, Germany, and Albania had no difficulties in understanding meanings of words in proverbs or idioms. The reason is that, as they said, their culture is similar to the English. Because of this similarity between English culture and theirs, these participants rarely found difficulties in understanding English native speakers. For example, Santana, from Spain, said, "It didn't happen to me very often. Actually, because I think ... we have very much the same connotations in Spanish. So, that isn't a problem for me .... When they use ... a word . . . that I couldn't understand and ... it had like different connotations I could understand as well because they are very similar."
As for the question "Can you remember any particular difficulties that you've had in learning English based on cultural differences between England and your home country or the United States and your home country?" these participants assured that they did not have any difficulties regarding cultural gaps. For example, Santana said, "I don't have any particular difficulties actually. I think it's because our cultures quite similar in many ways so. I mean in, of course, there are differences but like in general terms it's the cultures very similar. So, I don't really have difficulties in that aspect." Gonas, from Germany, said, "What I struggled with was ... the grammar part a lot." He gave an example about how German's sentence structure differs from the English. The English sentence "When don't you go to the concert?" is shifted into Germany to be "When do you go to the concert not?"
Afrim, from Albania, thought that the only difficulty he encountered, regarding learning English due to cultural differences between his culture and the American's or the English, was the difference between American English and British English. He said, "There are difficulties especially ... I can ... in the context of American and British English ... I've always seen this in ... these differences between those languages are always, you know, can even go in and out now, especially in the Internet they are one nation, one world." In fact, Afrim started learning British English in 1990 when he was in the fifth grade, and he came to the United States in 2002. Afrim gave an example about parts of cars because he is working in this field.
Having a glance to the answers of the other participants - shown in the table - shows me that all the other participants have difficulties in understanding words or expressions related to cultural meanings. Though all participants found difficulties in understanding some of the expressions, European participants' guesses were closer to be correct than the other participants. European participants based their guesses on understanding the connotative meanings of particular words in the English culture, which is similar to theirs.
Though Santana has spent only 16 months and Gonas only one year in English-speaking countries, their English was the most perfect. They attributed this perfectness to their continual use of English with English native speakers in authentic situations. Santana said that she spoke English 99% during the whole week in Columbia. She spoke Spanish only 1% when she called up her mother in Spain. Gonas used English 90% as all his friends were Americans. Also, Afrim, who spent nine years in the USA used English 99.9%. If we compare these ratios with the other international students, we know why these three students are the most perfect and fluent, taking into account that only Afrim was majored in English.
However, the table shows that Taloquan uses his native language with his family more than 60%. Though he spent more than four years in the United States, he found difficulties in understanding connotative meanings of words. He answered my question if he had ever had a situation where he understood the basic meaning of a word or expression but couldn't understand why someone was using it at the time, saying, "Yes. Actually I think it is maybe normal for people, especially for the people who come from the traditional society. Because in traditional society many people use a lot of proverb which person might not ... know about. It was happen to me, of course, also."
The table shows, also, that Chue uses English only 50%, so she failed to know almost all the proverbs and idioms though she has been in Englishspeaking countries for almost four years and her major is Literacy (English Education). Kyung Mi had known nothing about proverbs and idioms though she has spent ten years in English-speaking countries, uses English 80%, and her major is English. The reason, as she mentioned, was that she did not know anything about English (American) culture.
Jasem uses English only 60%. But he found difficulties in understanding connotative meanings of words though he has been in the United States for nine years. He attributed that to the cultural gaps between his native language and English. Tab-Yao has spent four years in English-speaking countries, but she used English only 50%. She believed that differences in cultures caused her confusion in understanding connotative meanings. She believed that learners should have adjusted their behaviors to understand the English culture. She said, "I experience some kind of culture shock, and I need to change."
Although Saban, from Somalia, has been in an English-speaking country for eight years, he found some difficulties in understanding the specific meaning of some words. He believed that a word has several meanings according to the context. He used English only 60%, so he was not so accustomed to the English culture. Toulgash used English only 60%, so he found many difficulties in understanding Americans when they spoke. To understand what English native speakers said, Toulgash, from Turkey, said, "First of all, the person needs to learn the language."
As for analyzing how the participants understood connotative meanings of animals in English culture and theirs, I found out that the participants' cultures dominated on their thinking about these animals. Nesi (1995), for example, presented an example about learners who understand the connotative meanings of animals according to their own understanding to their cultures. He asked a Chinese participant to guess the meaning of the word "cowed" in "The people were cowed by their leaders." The Chinese participant understood the connotative meaning of this word according to how he understood it in his culture. Hence, he presented the meaning "forced to work hard." The reason for giving this meaning to the word "cow" was that "cow" is associated with hard work in China (pp. 274, 275).
Similarly, my data analysis shows that in Taiwan, having a dog is an omen of bad luck while seeing a pig in dream in South Korea is an omen of good luck. Also, the Taiwanese say "pig" is negative, but "piggy" is positive though "pig" and "piggy" indicate to the same animal. Either positive or negative, "pig" has different associations in different cultures. For examples, those who use their hands in eating are called pigs in Spain. Thus, Arabic Bedouins might be called pigs because they use hands in eating. In Germany, "pig" is associated with dirt and bad smell. In China, "pig" is an indication to stupidity and silliness. The Turkish see that "pig" is a term called for angry people.
Similarly, Tajiks, Albanians, Somalis, and Jordanians avoid even talking about pigs. They see that these animals are completely prohibited. So, using "pig" is the highest rank of insult in these communities. Saban, from Somalia, confirmed this, saying, "Traditionally, we are Muslim society and for us pigs we saw them very thing that prohibited . . . have them or to eat them or, you know, to anything to do with pigs we see negative." Therefore, there were different interpretations for the proverb, "That's like putting lipstick in a pig." For example, Taloquan, from Tajikistan, interpreted this expression as an indicator to originality, saying, "If original things you never can change. Doing some artificial action or something. So, original is original."
Chue, from China, had a different perspective about this expression, where she thought that "pig" was an indication to stupidity. Hence, she interpreted this expression as "So, I think this sentence may mean it is not necessary to do this." Tab-Yao, from Taiwan, was thinking that saying something like this was funny. She could not imagine a pig with a lipstick. She laughed and commented, "See ... putting a stick, you can visualize ... hahaha. Putting a lipstick on a pig! It is very funny, right?" Kyung Mi, from South Korea, and Tolugash, from Turkey, could not imagine the idea and refused to give any interpretation to this expression.
Similar to Kyung Mi and Tolugash, Jasem did not like to give his guessing about this expression, but he commented lately, saying, "Actually I am not sure because somehow I heard some, for example, in the movies . . . they cares by using "You pig" which means not good." Afrim, from Albania, was sure from his interpretation to that expression, which was "cover an image portrait in a way it isn't you try a kind of superficial, changing to something that simply not the thing one to be or the thing that matches to for something. So, it is like you want to alter the form but the content is bad."
Santana, from Spain, heard about this expression, so she interpreted it as "It means that . . . even though you can put like tons of makeup you like beautify something like beau ... it is like ... it ... is not going to do any good. It doesn't matter how try to like beautiful it. It always going to look ugly or bad." Gonas, from Germany, did not hear about this expression before, but he guessed the meaning, saying, "I haven't, but I guess it means something like ... trying to cover up something ugly not to offense . . . like a pig now . . . but something to cover out ... something ugly with something more beautiful ... like just hiding something."
Looking carefully at these interpretations made me think of a study closer to find appropriate justification for that diversity of interpretations. Gordon Matt., a professor in the Department of English at the University of Missouri Columbia, thankfully provided me with an article similar to my study. In this article, which was about "figurative meanings of animal terms," Nesi (1995) claimed:
Many common terms such as 'cat,' 'cow' and 'mouse' were found to have a wide range of figurative meanings, and discussions with informants revealed that even advanced learners tend to think in terms of the connotations of their first culture when they encounter or use these words in a figurative sense in English, (p. 272)
Nesi's notice was almost related to what I noticed later, regarding "dog" and "cat." For example, Asians associate dogs with faithfulness and friendship, so they see them as positive. But Arab and Muslims associate dogs with dirt and guard only, so they are either positive or negative according to the purpose in which these dogs are used. In Tajikistan, people associate dogs with reliability and loyalty because they use them in the countryside for guarding. So, people there may have up to ten dogs. Though dogs are seen as positive in most European cultures, they might be seen as negative, too, in some contexts. Sometimes, the word "dog" is associated with blind fellowship, which is negative in the European cultures. In Albania, as Afrim said, they say, "Like the dogs in the Inn" as an insult for blind followers, as dogs in the Inn belong to none, as Afrim told me.
Looking for justification for that, I found that Bobda (2009) said, "The cultural context contributes to the construction of the denotative meaning of some words with otherwise possible multiple interpretations" (p. 337). This assures finding more than one interpretation for one expression. For example, there were different cultural perspectives for the word "cat" in the expression "Like the cat that ate the canary." Some participants see that "cat" positive, others see it negative, and others see it both negative and positive according to the context. Hence, the expression is seen as an indicator of pride and confidence in Tajikistan. But it is seen as an indicator of guilt and shame in other cultures. In Somalia, cats are associated with mercy and kindness. In the complete contrast, dogs in Turkey are associated with trust and goodness, and cats are associated with cheat and badness, which is similar to associations of cats in the United States, as Gordon Matt commented in this part.
As for the concepts related to ecology, I noticed, through the participants' answers that rain is both negative and positive in the European cultures, but it is always positive in hot and dry weather, such as that in Arabic and African regions. For example, Africans equate a rainy day with eating steak to show their happiness and respect to rain. In contrast, Arabs and Africans associate "sun" with sadness and depression, the same feelings that associated with "rain" in European cultures. In Albania, they celebrate delivery of a baby after a long time of not having babies, as Afrim expressed, saying, "It was born like (or with) the sun." Of course, this proverb in Arabic or African cultures means that this new born is a bad omen to its family. This might be shown in Saban's belief about "sunny and rainy days." He said, "Actually, we like rainy days, but we don't like the sunny days. In our area is very hot, so we like the raining because the amount of rain we get is very little."
Dissimilar to rain, summer is associated with depression and sadness in Arabic and African cultures, but it is associated with joy, brightness, and happiness in European and Asian cultures - but all seasons are the same in South Korea as Kyung Mi said. It is interesting that people like seasons according to the function of the season in these cultures. For example, Tajiks like autumn because they get the outcome of their plants in this season. In China, they like spring because it is the beginning of the year for them. In Arab and African communities, they like winter because they are always looking and waiting for rain. So, those who are born in summer are expecting to have hard life as Saban said, "They said if you born in these seasons (summer and winter), you are going to be very, you know, difficult person, or you might be somebody who is ... make some deviation against the norms of the society."
Taiwanese sometimes name babies with the name of the season born in. In Arabic communities, Arabs commonly name ... (Rabbe), which means "spring." But no one in Arabic communities is named ...(Saeií), which means "summer," ... (Sheta), which means "winter," or ... (Khareef), which means "fall." Arabs name their kids ... (Rabbe), which means "spring" rosy hoping that their kids become fruitful and nice as the season spring is to Arabs. In contrast, Arabs avoid naming their kids ... (Saeif), which means "summer" or ... (Khareef), which means "fall" because these seasons particularly bring with them heat, dust, and humidity.
Close similar to Arabic culture, most people in Turkey do not like summer because it is the season of hard work to prepare for winter. Toulgash said, "When you are in summer, you need to work a lot for winter." So, Turkish associate "summer" with hard work; thus, it has negative attitude in Turkey. Of course, this negative attitude of summer in Turkey influenced on Toulgash's seeing Shakespeare sonnet, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day." Toulgash saw that the connotation of the word "summer" in this sonnet was negative. Thus, the whole meaning of the sonnet was negative, which contradicts with what Shakespeare's intended meaning in the English culture.
To conclude, cultural background about English helps English language learners understand connotative meanings of words in different cultural context. In contrast, when English language learners lack English cultural backgrounds, their own cultures dominate their interpretations for most of English words. Nesi (1995) believes that learners' own cultures might interpret English culture, which causes that learners understand connotations of English words differently (p. 273). This is seen in some of the participants' answers to questions related to English culture. For example, I noticed that most of the participants were capturing the meanings of the English proverbs and idioms presented according to their cultural backgrounds. Hence, several interpretations for the same expressions were presented differently. Also, some participants found difficulties in understanding the meanings of some expressions because they had no idea about the English culture.
Consequently, these participants failed to capture the connotative meanings of some words in these expressions. As for the participants, who did not find much difficulty in understanding connotative meanings of English words, they believed that reading English books, watching TV and English movies, and interacting with English native speakers might help learners capture the connotative meanings of words in the English culture. For example, Santana, from Spain, said, "When you pay attention to the context, it is ... at least for me it's pretty easy to ... to guess the meaning or what they are trying to say . . . like good close idea and also reading because it is reading is actually even better because you can stop, you know, for a second and read it again like see the context and just guess whether trying to say there."
Finally, Bobda (2009) explained the rule of cultural context in understanding meanings of words, saying "The cultural context helps to understand the connotative meaning. It is the cultural context which determines the kind of association that a word has for us" (p. 379). Thus, I may conclude that most of the participants could understand the meanings of words in the expressions used according to the effect of these words to people in their own cultures. So, there were different associations, attitudes, and meanings to the same expression. For example, pigs bring luck in South Korea and are completely forbidden in African and Middle Eastern cultures. Taloquan, from Tajikistan, expressed his culture opinion about pigs, saying, "Since my society is Muslim society and according to the Sharia according to the understanding of the people, we usually don't use pig in our culture, and you cannot even find in some literature even ... or people tried avoid to using of this."
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Youssif Zaghwani Omar is a lecturer in the English and Translation Department at the University of Benghazi, Libya; the head of the English Department at the College of Arts and Sciences, Wahat Jallo, Libya; a doctoral candidate in English Education at the University of Missouri, Columbia; and a holder of six masters' degrees (Applied Linguistics, Translation, Business Administration, Reading Literacy, Linguistics, and English Education). He has had 15 years of experience teaching English and translation in Libyan high schools and universities. He would like to extend his gratitude to Professor Gordon Matthew in English Literature at the University of Missouri, Columbia, for all his guidance and help in completing this work and to Professor Roy Fox, Professor Amy Lannin, English Education, and Professor Carol Gilles, Reading Literacy, at the University of Missouri, Columbia, for their support and help.
Appendix 1: Interview Questions
* What is your home country?
* What is your native language?
* Do you know any other languages?
* Please describe your level of education? What was your emphasis in college? What are you studying now?
* When did you start studying English?
* How much time have you spent in English-speaking countries?
* During a typical week in Columbia, how often do you speak English as how often do you speak your native or other languages? Give rough percentages.
Consider the following phrases and expressions in English.
1. Shall I compare thee to a summer's day! (Shakespeare)
Have you heard this before? Why does Shakespeare use summer here and not another season? What kinds of associations does this word have in English? Do English speakers think of it positively or negatively, etc.?
2. Love me, love my dog. (English proverb)
Have you heard this before? What does this proverb mean? When might someone use it? What associations do English speakers have for dogi Do English speakers think of it positively or negatively, etc.?
3. Save for a rainy day! (English proverb)
Have you heard this before? What does this proverb mean? When might someone use it? Why does it talk about a rainy day instead of a sunny one? Do English speakers think of it positively or negatively, etc.?
4. That's like putting lipstick on a pig! (English proverb)
Have you heard this before? What does this expression mean? When might someone use it? Why does it talk about a pig? Do English speakers think of it positively or negatively, etc.?
5. Make hay while the sun shines! (English proverb)
Have you heard this before? What does this proverb mean? When might someone use it? What associations does the word sun have in English? Do English speakers think of it positively or negatively, etc.?
6. You look like the cat that ate the canary! (Idiom)
Have you heard this before? What does this expression mean? When might someone use it? What associations do cats have in English? Do English speakers think of them positively or negatively, etc.? What attributes are they commonly credited with?
Thinking about your native language and your culture, what associations do you have with the following concepts?
* Summer vs. Winter vs. Spring vs. Autumn (or other seasons)? Can you think of expressions that refer to particular seasons in your language?
* Sunny days vs. rainy days? Can you think of expressions that refer to sun or rain in your language?
* Dogs vs. cats? Can you think of particular expressions that refer to these animals? How are they viewed in your culture?
* Pigs? Can you think of particular expressions that refer to these animals? How are they viewed in your culture?
In your own learning of English, have you ever had a situation where you understood the basic meaning of a word or expression but couldn't understand why someone was using it at the time? So you knew the meaning of the words but not what the person was trying to convey.
Can you remember any particular difficulties that you've had in learning English based on cultural differences between England/USA and your home country?
Do you have any other thoughts you can share about learning the broader meanings of words and expressions in English?…