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К содержанию номера журнала: Вестник КАСУ №2 - 2005

Автор: Нурбаева Ж.

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.

Wolfson Sociolinguistics


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.

But Paul 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.” 

However, even 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 unsaid.

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.


 Americans 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: Закрой дверь. Прочти это. 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.

I also 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.

In Kazakstan 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.

The concept 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”.

I was 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 encounter.

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.

Small talk

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 expected.

It is 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.

These 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 Turn Taking

Two things 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 …).

Back 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 ability.

In some 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 sentences:

English                          Russian                         Student English

I missed the bus.                       Автобус уже ушел                  The bus (has) left.

I had (was in) an accident.        Я попал в аварию.                An accident happened to me.

Another way 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, У меня пропали документы. (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.


Socio-linguistic 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.


1. Peter 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

2. Nessa Wolfson. Perspectives: Sociolinguistics and TESOL. Heinle and Heinle, Boston, Massachusetts. 1988

К содержанию номера журнала: Вестник КАСУ №2 - 2005

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