The Oral Interview and Cross-Cultural Understanding in the Foreign Language Classroom

Article excerpt


This article discusses cross-cultural oral interviews and how they can be used in the foreign language classroom to help students understand the differing, often culture-specific perspectives of language use among people speaking another language. By conducting interviews, or by teaching students the interview process, instructors can provide students with a means for ascertaining how people from the target culture understand or misunderstand the students' culture. Beginning with a discussion of theoretical issues regarding communication, the article proceeds to discuss oral interview methodology including specific guidelines for interviewing, and to share sample results that elucidate the framework used. Finally, specific suggestions for implementation in the foreign language classroom are provided, from incorporating such interviewing in coursework to specific examples of activities addressing various aspects of language and meaning.

Key words: intercultural communication, methods/materials, pragmatics, scripts, speech act theory

Language: German


Communicating successfully is not an easy task, even when people share the same native language. When human beings from different cultures and languages of origin interact, they run an even greater risk of misinterpreting one another's meanings. One of the key problems is that knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation is not enough to avoid misunderstandings and miscommunication. As functional linguistics has demonstrated, language is ambiguous, and "shared knowledge that speakers must have in order to communicate appropriately" (Saville-Troike, 1989, p. 24) is as essential to successful communication as are words and forms. Indeed, negative stereotypes of whole groups of people can result from misunderstanding the conventional rules of interpretation. Thus, Colombians might say that Americans are materialistic, Germans might say that they are superficial and "wishy-washy," and U.S. citizens might describe German speakers as rude. Such generalizations occur even when Americans do not intend to appear materialistic or superficial and Germans do not intend to be rude. It is because one is interpreting the speech of the other to mean what it normally would in one's own culture rather than according to the other's linguistic conventions. Such miscommunication is often what Kasper calls "unmotivated rudeness" (1990, p. 208). In other words, speakers are not intending to come off as they are interpreted. Both parties understand the linguistic string, but each interprets it differently.

One of the ways by which learners of a foreign language may come to understand how their meanings are different from those of the people whose language they are studying is through oral interviews, conducted with the goal of deciphering where problems in cross-cultural communication occur.

Thus, this article addresses the oral interview as well as its implementation in the foreign language classroom. In the first section, a theoretical framework is described that can account for the misinterpretation of ideas, meanings, and intentions. In the second section, a methodology describing how one can ascertain what a person means by what she or he says is provided, together with examples of cross-cultural misunderstanding between Americans and native speakers of German that are elucidated using this framework. Finally, the third section provides specific suggestions for the incorporation of interviewing in the foreign language classroom and the resulting interviews. Although the examples are from interviews with German speakers, this methodology can be applied to other language and culture groups.

A Theory of Successful Communication

In order to communicate successfully one must have the appropriate linguistic knowledge, interaction skills, and cultural knowledge. In order to communicate successfully across languages and cultures, one must be especially cognizant of differences in culture-specific norms of interaction and interpretation, values and attitudes, and cognitive maps and schemata (Saville-Troike, 1989). …