Intercultural Communication in Plurilingual Areas: Some Examples of Italian/German Verbal Interactions in South Tyrol

Article excerpt


Based on a research project on intercultural communication in the plurilingual area of South Tyrol-Alto Adige, Italy, the paper focusses on the micro-analysis of verbal interactions in linguistically `mixed' groups, with speakers who are either South Tyroleans of Italian and German mother-tongue or come from different regions of Italy and other countries.

After a brief description of the socio-political and linguistic situation of South Tyrol, where the the German-speaking community is protected as linguistic minority, examples taken from different settings, ranging from professional, educational and political contexts, are examined, in order to see how the official goal of Italian-German bilingualism is reflected in real communicative exchanges, how language choice and language alternation can fulfil communicative purposes and how limited competences in the second or foreign language can be exploited in intercultural communication.

It is thus shown how conversational analysis can provide a fruitful insight on intercultural communication, considering that it is at the micro-level of actual interactions that collective views, communicative practises, individual attitudes and convinctions can be positively or negatively confirmed, modified or reinvented.

1. Introduction

How do speakers of different mother-tongue and culture living in the same area communicate with each other? How does intercultural communication work in plurilingual areas with linguistic minorities? What are the reasons for the use of the one or the other language, or of both, in verbal interactions among members of two different speech communities?

Among the various plurilingual areas with linguistic minorities where such questions can be examined, the region of South Tyrol, which has been part of the Italian state since 1918, seems to be a quite promising one: this area, which is often taken as an example of successful interethnic living together is as a matter of fact populated by a German speaking community (about 68% of the total population), a minor Ladin community (4%) and and Italian speaking community (27%). Italian and German are legally parified languages: all official documents have to be written in both languages and citizens have the right to use their mother-tongue and be responded in that language in every relationship with the public administration; correspondingly, public employees need to prove their bilingual competence passing a language examination. German and Italian are taught as second languages within the Italian and the German school system, which are independent from each other.

Quite a number of researches have been dedicated up to the present to learning and teaching German and Italian as second languages; sociological and psychological investigations on attitudes, opinions and experiences of living together in this area have also been carried on (see references); what was still missing, and what was intended to start exploring with the research presented here, is how this living together works in every-day-life communicative exchanges between members of the two major linguistic groups of this area, Italian and German speakers. If seen from a didactic perspective, such exchanges are in a way the 'output' of language learning and teaching; from a sociolinguistic perspective, they are the result of personal experiences, ideas, attitudes and sterotypes, besides public discourse on language and intercultural communication, which give the personal sphere an implicit background; within a conversation analysis frame, finally, they are examples of how speakers negotiate and construct meaning together, display their identity and their interlocutors' one, make linguistic and cultural differences relevant or not, step by step, as they communicate with each other verbally (see Heller 1988b).

In fact the question about the influence of the social macro-context versus the relevance of the interactional micro-context on speakers' verbal behaviour has been for more than a decade at the centre of discussion, within studies on bilingual communities, among scholars applying a 'traditional' sociolinguistic approach (see in particular Myers-Scotton's 'markedness theory' in Myers-Scotton 1993) and those coming from a background of pragmatics and conversation analysis, who generally refer to Auer 1984 and Auer 1998. …