Meaning and the Social Context: Notes on the Pragmatics of Cross-Linguistic and Cross-Cultural Intelligibility

By Piirainen-Marsh, Arja | Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies, Annual 1998 | Go to article overview

Meaning and the Social Context: Notes on the Pragmatics of Cross-Linguistic and Cross-Cultural Intelligibility


Piirainen-Marsh, Arja, Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies


1. Introduction

In a paper considering the theoretical foundations of cross-cultural and cross-linguistic understanding, Sajavaara (1988) notes the importance of interaction-based studies for developing our understanding of the ways in which meaning is recovered across linguistic and cultural barriers. He argues for a global, holistic, and context-specific view of the recovery of meaning, which goes beyond the information content of messages and takes into account affective and interpersonal factors as well as the complex and dynamic processes of negotiating and adjusting interpretations in a real-time speech setting. In this paper I will consider how a pragmatic perspective on language and interaction can shed light on processes of creating meaningful discourse in intercultural or international settings. Building on the social and interactional dimension of pragmatics, I examine how sociocultural features of settings and the real-time context of interaction bear relevance to the processes through which speakers whose lingui stic and sociocultural background are not shared participate in and make sense of some communicative tasks and activities.

2. Cross-cultural/cross-linguistic intelligibility and interactional asymmetry

One feature of cross-linguistic or cross-cultural intelligibility which is particularly interesting from a pragmatic perspective is interactional asymmetry, in other words different and potentially unequal patterns of participating in and managing interaction in this type of communication (Hutchby 1996; Linell--Luckman 1991). Research on second language acquisition and intercultural or international communication has drawn attention to various forms of asymmetry which arise in situations where participants from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds come into contact. Different and/or unequal access to knowledge and resources, e.g., those related to linguistic and sociocultural aspects of communicative settings, has been linked to problems of understanding and participation rights, and hence relations of dominance or power.

Problems of this type have been studied extensively in different areas of research. Studies in contrastive and interlanguage pragmatics (e.g., Kasper -- Blum-Kulka 1993) have sought to identify how language and culture-specific patterns of linguistic action and limited command of the pragmatics aspects of communication may lead to misunderstandings or inappropriate language use. Work in interactional sociolinguistics and intercultural pragmatics, on the other hand, has shown that subtle differences in linguistic and other cues through which participants signal their understanding often give rise to observable interactional trouble (e.g., Gumperz 1992; Roberts -- Davies -- Jupp 1993). Further, discourse pragmatic research has focused on problematic aspects of conversation management and interpersonal relations, e.g., discrepancies in turn-management, sequential aspects of action and topic management (e.g., Clyne -- Ball -- Neil 1991; Scollon -- Scollon 1991). Finally, interaction-oriented studies in second lan guage acquisition research have drawn attention to the "modified" nature of interaction involving non-native speakers, investigating links between the type and amount of interactional modifications (e.g., meaning negotiations) and the process of language acquisition (see e.g., Wesche 1994).

Recent work in these fields has drawn attention to the complexities involved in negotiating meaning in an interactional context in at least two important ways. First, it has emphasised the variability of language use in relation to a number of contextual factors. Participants' performance and communicative success or failure have been linked to such features of social context as language proficiency, culture-specific communicative style, knowledge of topic, content expertise or familiarity with task (see e.g., Zuengler 1993). Secondly, studies have documented discrepancies at different levels of discourse organisation ranging from patterns of turn-taking (e. …

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