Cultural Terms for Communication: Sources of Intercultural Asynchrony in ESL Settings in Finland

By Wilkins, Richard J. | Communication Reports, October 2006 | Go to article overview

Cultural Terms for Communication: Sources of Intercultural Asynchrony in ESL Settings in Finland


Wilkins, Richard J., Communication Reports


This work presents an analytical approach to assessing intercultural communication through cultural terms for communication. Using data drawn from discussions and interviews with Finnish informants I show how the term asiasta puhumisen [speaking to the fact of the matter] functions in Finnish classrooms for adult education and what impact it has on Business English classes for English as a Second Language (ESL). Intercultural analysis based on these descriptions shows that the asiasta puhumisen term is one source of asynchronous communication when a foreign expressive order meets the Finnish one and has the potential to undermine the success that foreign teachers feel they are having when they teach Business English for ESL in Finland.

Keywords: Cultural Terms for Communication; English as a Second Language; Intercultural Communication

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Many persons now find themselves exposed to the diversity of cultural meanings embedded in terms for communication. For some it is an opportunity to learn and appreciate a feature of a larger speech economy. For others it becomes a moment of intercultural asynchrony where expectations concerning the functional outcomes of terms for communication are not met and communication breaks down (Agar, 1986). One such instance occurred while as a student teacher I attended a preparatory certification program in teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) in England. Terms such as collaborative, active, and participatory were used to describe ideal forms of classroom talk. The primary message communicated in these terms was that students should be using the language in order to learn it. There was one caveat. As our instructor put it, "these strategies will not work in Finland; in Finland they don't talk."

From 1984 to the present I have taught Business English for ESL in a variety of companies and settings for adult education in Finland. In many of the classroom environments, as varied as they are, my English-speaking colleagues and I have formed similar evaluations to that of the ESL instructor. We challenge our students to use the language in order that they learn it. We note a lack of participation on the part of our Finnish students. To describe our students we use terms such as distant, closed, and unwilling to discuss anything in classroom time. One colleague, frustrated by a perceived inadequacy of speaking skills, remarks: "If they [Finns] want to learn the language [English] surely they need to open up and talk more." These evaluations of Finnish participation in the learning process have also appeared in the teacher training literature for ESL (Wilkins, 2005).

In Briggs' (1995) terms, a number of communicative blunders have occurred while encountering the Finnish expressive order in ESL classrooms. One area where such blunders occur is the use of terms for communication to evaluate the speech practices of Finns. Examples in the excerpts above are collaborative, active, to participate, to open up, and to talk. When I discuss these terms with Finnish informants they produce their own interpretations of participatory structures in classrooms. In their own assessments they too use terms for communication. Terms such as asiallinen [sensible], asiassa pysyva [sticking to the point], and asiasta puhumisen [to speak to the fact of the matter] are used to describe some of the talk in educational settings. When they compare themselves to what they named as the open pedagogical cultures of America and Britain, they use terms such as teennaista [pretentious[ and pinnallinen [superficial] to describe the interaction in classrooms. American and British teachers, some Finnish informants say, evaluate their students on their ability to miellyttaa [please].

In an effort to account more fully for the intercultural asynchrony when a domestic Finnish communication culture is encountered by an alternative foreign expressive order I formulated two levels of description and analysis: (1) the identification of terms for communication reported on by Finnish informants that underlie beliefs about the learning process, and (2) an examination of the loci and sources of intercultural asynchrony when differing systems of communication meet and interact with the Finnish one. …

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