Because sociolinguistic rules of speaking are very
largely unconscious, we are rarely aware of their existence unless they are
brought to our attention through the shock of having them broken. When it
happens that the non-native speakers do break sociolinguistic rules, natives,
as we have seen, often react very negatively.
In the fifteen years of my experience as a
non-native speaker of English, I have had innumerable experiences of
sociolinguistic miscommunication. In these incidents I was both the “violator”
of the American social rules and the “victim" of such “violation” from
Americans who spoke Russian to me.
When I was a
student, cultural differences were never specifically taught in our English
classrooms because the country was “behind the curtain” and had limited
connections to English speaking countries. In fact, the very term “culture” I
used to understand as ‘refinement’ only. I would think of theaters, books, a
certain circle of people, etc.
Hiebert’s definition culture as “the more or less integrated systems of
beliefs, feelings and values, and their associated symbols, patterns of
behavior and products shared by a group of people” was totally new to me, and I
only discovered the true meaning of it in my first encounters with foreigners
who talked about “culture shock.”
now when there are plenty of opportunities to be familiar with the British or
American culture, little time is devoted in our EFL classrooms to explaining
the norms and values of English-speaking cultures, discussing the differences
between these cultures and the Russian/Kazak cultures, and practicing not
merely the language of, say, greetings and partings but also the cultural norms
that accompany such speech acts.
In this paper I will examine my experience
and try to draw some insights for my colleagues at KAFU. I hope they can later
apply these in their EFL classrooms to teach their students how to avoid some
of the preventable “culture shocks” and how to gain sociolinguistic competence
along with linguistic and strategic competencies.
What is sociolinguistic competence? In one
word, it is appropriateness: the sentence may be correct, but still used out of
place. This type of communicative competence deals with social rules of the
language (hence the name) such as functions, relationships, topics,
psychological roles, and emotions. There are appropriate ways of expressing
joy, anger, or amazement and these ways are different in each culture.
Sociolinguistic competence can be verbal (using/not using specific expressions
in specific situations) and nonverbal (using/not using specific gestures,
facial expressions, intonation, posture, etc.). It defines norms of interaction
regarding status, gender and age; it determines what to say and what to leave
Why is it important to be
sociolinguistically competent? Because it is closely linked to what is
considered “good manners”, “honesty”, “sincerity,” and ultimately “good
character.” Misunderstandings may range from amusement to contempt, from
initial shock to long lasting stereotype. To avoid acquiring such stigmas, our
EFL students need to be aware of the pitfalls of sociolinguistic incompetence
and take measures.
A few incidents from my own life would
help illustrate the importance of learning the social rules of another culture.
struck me as awfully polite people with all the ‘thank you’s and ‘I
am sorry’s. We do not thank for “little’ things like passing the food at
the table or say sorry for a “little” unintended nudge. I was amused, but since
I had had no training in cross-cultural communication, it never occurred to me
to look at things from the other side’s perspective and wonder how “rude” I
might seem to my new friends by transferring the norms of my culture into my
conversations in English. Thankfully, my friends would point out how they felt
and patiently explain the appropriate phrases and intonation for specific
speech acts. Like Wolfson said, I was not aware of these rules, but as soon as
I was introduced to the differences and especially the danger of such
miscommunication, I became a fast learner of the culture. Through observation
and, inevitably, miscommunication, I learned that Russian speakers’ requests
sound rude, because we use imperatives: Close the door. Get the phone. Come
here. To me Americans sounded overly polite and wordy: Would you close
the door? Can you get the phone? Could you come here for a second? I
thought Americans were wordy and strange until my close friend, an American
girl, broke down in tears and said that her Russian teammate, who was a male,
was dominating her and “bossing her around”. The “bossing around” included
phrases like: Закройдверь. Прочтиэто.
Иди сюда. Сходи в магазин. (Close the door. Read this. Come here. Go shopping).
After examining the situation, we were
able to see how negatively we viewed each other, and how these feelings of hurt
and bewilderment accumulated until the explosion. This could have been avoided
had the Russian speakers known that requests were made differently in English.
It is not enough to use a raising intonation; one has to use a question, not a
statement. On the other hand, had the American known the cultural norms for
this area, she could have been more accepting of the different culture.
No permanent damage was done. Both came
out of this incident as friends and remain as such until today. But not all are
so lucky to have cleared up their misunderstandings.
Another example of different cultural
views on politeness would be closure on the phone. Here in Kazakstan the
conversation can end “abruptly”: (Ладно, пока! or Ну, давай!
or even А-га, давай, пока (these come right after an exchange of information and without much
ado are followed immediately by hanging up). In this situation, the Americans
are left feeling mistreated or worried they have said something wrong and
inappropriate, while the Russian interlocutors have no intentions of hurting
the Americans, nor do they think somebody may have been wronged in any way. A
good “American” closure on the phone would include a pre-closure, a signal that
is telling the interlocutor that the conversation will soon end: Well, it
was nice talking to you/ It was so good to hear your voice, etc.
Space and Hospitality
One summer I
was invited by my American supervisor who lived in another Central Asian state
to spend a week in his guesthouse to have some time away and recuperate from an
exhausting semester of teaching. In Russian and Kazak homes the guest is the
most important person in the house and they are to be entertained, fed, and
well taken care of.
For two days
I was hungry and alone, because the family would not invite me for meals,
except for dinner. Well, they thought they were being “hospitable” by giving me
my space and freedom to choose to be or not to be with people. The wife had
previously shown me the kitchen and said I was welcome to use it any time and fix
my own breakfast and lunch. At the time I thought it peculiar that she
mentioned that, supposing that she did not really mean that. She did. Of
course I did not go to the kitchen by myself waiting for the invitation to join
them. The invitation never came, so I dared not come. Not seeing me the whole
day they assumed I wanted to be alone and respected my desire to have some
space. By dinnertime I was very famished, hurt and frustrated, but “rewinding”
the conversation that had happened on the first day, I decided to give it a
try. The next day I went into the main house and “fixed” my own breakfast. They
were delighted, because I ‘felt” at home in their house, and I was delighted
because I did not have to go hungry! Since then I have been invited to many
American homes and noticed that the guest culture is quite different in many
ways. I learned to get up from the table and ‘fix” my own plate of seconds
without waiting for the host to serve me.
learned to say yes to refreshments the first time they are offered, because it
might be the last time as well. I was offered my favorite chocolate ice cream
for dessert and trying to be polite, I refused, still hoping the dessert would
be offered again. The host, on the other hand, never insisted because he, too,
was trying to be polite.
we offer to do the dishes after the party, and the host always refuses. We do
it anyway, but there is usually this game of negotiating. You do not put your
guest to work. Here I was surprised by the eagerness of my American hosts to
accept my help with cleaning up. For them, that was another sign of my “feeling
at home” with their family.
of “tea” is also quite different in the American culture, as I have discovered.
Here to invite someone for “tea” or to offer someone “tea” means to sit around
the table with food, sometimes lots of food, and have a casual talk. Hours and
courses of dishes may pass before the actual ‘tea” arrives. “Tea” is a whole
meal in a Kazak home. Besides, we never ask our guests if they would like tea.
We just assume if they are in our homes, we are to give them “tea”.
visiting a wonderful American lady in her home, and she asked me if I would
like some tea. I hesitated first, but then agreed, thinking it would be nice to
have some time to talk and get to know each other better over a light meal.
Never had my meal been lighter! As I was sitting on the couch in the living
room, I was offered a steaming cup with a Lipton tea bag in it. I had to learn
to readjust my expectations and my notions of hospitality: it takes different
forms; it is not good or bad, just different. To put my readers at ease, this
lady has become my very good friend and has showered me with her hospitality
(both the American and Kazak way) over the years. We laugh about our first
Here is an
example of me breaking the space rules, which is also from my time in the USA. I was
enrolled in my first semester in an American university. I went to the campus
bookstore to buy textbooks. In Kazakstan we stand in lines closer to each other
than in America. When I was
ready to pay, I went to what I thought was the end of the line. However, I
accidentally cut into the line because the space between people was bigger than
what I am used to, and I assumed that was where the line ended. Having caught
some indignant stares and remarks, I withdrew and found the end of the line. I
felt very embarrassed. As I was getting closer to the cashier, I came too close
and was told to go behind the line on the floor. I had not even noticed that
line! I was devastated: after ten years of formal instruction in English I made
such a fool of myself. I am fluent in English and many times can be passed for
a native speaker, but I still miscommunicate, because having learned the language
in an EFL context, I naturally transfer the behaviors appropriate in my own
culture into my interaction in English unless I have learned the difference.
In my case,
such learning occurred through culture shock experiences, but I believe it is
possible to incorporate culture studies into a language curriculum and avoid,
to at least some extent, such painful incidents. These examples demonstrate
that being fluent does not mean socio-linguistically competent. Moreover, the
very fact that I do sound like a native speaker in many situations made people
in the United States expect more from me and hold me accountable if I did not
demonstrate appropriate speech behaviors. So as we, English teachers, work on
fluency and accuracy in our classrooms, we must spend more time on discussing
culture differences and application of these new norms and rules.
When asked How
is life? A Russian speaker would say “Нормально” (normal), “Пойдет” (bearable)
or “По-маленьку” (little by
little). For an American this might sound like the person is coming out of a
crisis. So the question is often followed by a series of others to show
concern: What happened? Are you okay? etc. What the Russian speaker
implies is the same as Fine in English, so no further questions are
important for the Russian speakers to know how what they say might be
interpreted by Americans and visa versa. By introducing such speech acts as
small talk, requests, complaints, offers and others, practicing them and
explaining the differences between the cultures we will serve our students
immensely and spare them unnecessary emotional traumas. By emphasizing the
value of culture and the fact that there are no right or wrong cultures, we can
help our students avoid distorted view of differences they encounter and learn
to appreciate and celebrate our differences.
examples show that it is vitally important to become a culture learner to avoid
socio-linguistic miscommunication and the hurt it causes. But they also show
that it is impossible to simply pick up the social rules of the target
language. There has to be a conscious effort and willingness to grow on the
part of the learner, and there has to be a conscious effort and willingness
to teach the appropriate social norms and implications of breaking those norms
on the part of the instructor. English teachers who are non-NESTs (NEST: Native
English-speaking teacher), provide a better learner model and are more
sensitive to the students’ needs as they are both teachers and learners of the
subject (Medgyes, 2001).
Eye contact and
that are very significant in conversations with native speakers are maintaining
eye contact and turn taking. Americans seem to be particularly uncomfortable
with someone who does not look them in the eye while talking; they seem to
tolerate even less long periods of silence. The EFL teacher should be concerned
with how his or her students might be perceived if they avoid eye contact or
active engagement in a conversation with a native speaker due to shyness,
cultural norms, or uncertainty in their language ability. The students may be
absolutely unaware that such behavior can be interpreted as dishonesty, lack of
sincerity and/or interest, and lack of respect. Americans value assertiveness,
confidence, openness and directness. And the assessment tools for those values
are maintaining eye contact and sending back-channeling signals (Hmm/ Huh?
Yes/I see/ You did what?/ Pardon?/ Correct me if I am wrong, but you mentioned
channeling is expressing reaction to what is being said. This could be both
verbal and nonverbal. Both types have a place in EFL instruction. Turn taking
is taking initiative and asking questions, using paraphrase to make sure you
understood what was said, commenting on what was said, etc. In doing so, we
communicate our interest and involvement, in some cases our critical thinking
places in Kazakstan it is ‘good manners” to not say anything, especially in a
conversation with an elder. Your job is to listen. That is how you show
respect. You also are not to look them in the eye. Lowering one’s eyes
communicates deference, not defeat. Now compare that to the American views on
showing respect through eye contact, active involvement and back channeling!
That could be a good scenario for a cross-cultural conflict.
It will be a
disservice to our students if we do not teach them about these cultural norms
and prepare them to adjust their own views, values, beliefs and attitudes to
those of their interlocutors from other countries. This is an important issue
here at our University since many of our students are involved in various
educational and exchange programs, or they may be taking a class with a
visiting faculty member from the USA or Canada, or they
apply for positions in joint ventures as they graduate. Be it a casual small
talk, or a job interview, or a business lunch, our students must be able to
“put their best foot forward” so to speak.
The Sociolinguistic Active Voice
Have you ever
noticed how in Russian we often avoid using the active voice to express
responsibility for the action? We, the subjects, tend not to take the role of a
doer of an action, but rather ascribe the action, especially an erroneous
action, to the object: where a Westerner would say I broke the platу, the
Russian speaker would say The plate broke. Grammatically (or
linguistically), the sentence is still in the active voice. But sociolinguistically
it is a passive sentence since no plate can just break by itself. Compare some
other examples of this discrepancy in using sociolinguistically active/passive
I missed the bus. Автобус уже ушел The bus
I had (was in) an accident. Я попал в аварию. An accident
happened to me.
of avoiding the ‘loss of face” by admitting the mistake is using reflexive
pronouns: Ключ потерялся (The key
lost itself). The American would say, “I lost my key.” Just a few days ago
I lost my wallet with my ID in it. When I was relating the event to my
colleagues in Russian, I said, Уменяпропалидокументы. (Literally:
The documents were lost from me). Again, had this happened in the US, or had I
been talking to my American colleagues here at KAFU, I would have said, “I have
lost my ID card.” Would our students have made the literal translation instead?
Again, there is nothing wrong with the sentences produced by the EFL students
in the so-called “interlanguage” (column 3). However, these little details may
add up and contribute to the stigma of an incompetent English speaker.
rules of speaking cannot be acquired naturally, because the learner is not
aware of the differences in various cultures. Students act based on the default
mode and for them it is their own cultural norms. Such norms of the other
culture are to be taught in the classroom, because (1) unnatural speech
behavior is viewed negatively by native speakers, and (2) these rules will be
acquired through a series of culture shocks otherwise. To lessen the impacts of
cross-cultural miscommunication, teachers need to incorporate culture studies
into the language curriculum, point out the differences in speech acts, teach
how to choose the appropriate norms, and give students extended practice in
various situations. As fluency increases, so should introduction of more
cultural differences and of more speech acts, since native speakers tend to
expect more from fluent speakers than ones who are not so confident in the
target language. Teachers will have to explain the implications of
miscommunication and help prevent ethnic stereotypes. Finally, the instructor
is to be socio-linguistically competent as well; teachers will have to learn
such norms themselves before teaching them to students, and I hope this paper
was of some help in that.
Medgyes. When A Teacher Is A Non-native Speaker. Teaching English as a
second of foreign language. 3rd edition. Editor: Marianne
Celce-Murcia. Heinle and Heinle, Boston, Massachusetts. 2001
Wolfson. Perspectives: Sociolinguistics and TESOL. Heinle and Heinle, Boston, Massachusetts. 1988