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Unit 10: Cross-cultural pragmatics

Communication between people of different languages and cultures always has the potential for misunderstandings. The study of cross-cultural pragmatics aims to mitigate these difficulties.

Not surprisingly, research has focused particularly on the process of teaching and learning pragmatics in a foreign language. Is explicit instruction helpful or can these culture-specific patterns of communication be learned just by living in the foreign community?  However the differences are learned, the reading in Unit B10.3 shows that to adapt to another culture is sometimes a challenge to one’s own identity and values. Ishihara and Cohen (2010) insist that cross-cultural communication is not simply the accommodation of a non-native speaker to the culture of the native speaker, but that pragmatic meaning is negotiated between pragmatically competent speakers, whoever they are. They suggest, for example, that ‘non-native speakers can be as pragmatically effective as (or at times, more so than) some native speakers’ (2010: x). They view pragmatic ability as ‘contextually constructed in interaction, often negotiable in context’ (ibid.). For the teacher they maintain that it is important to learn how to include pragmatics in the curriculum, and to incorporate activities and modes of investigation that allow them to enhance their own and their students’ pragmatic awareness.

Misunderstandings can be distressing in private social situations, leading to stereotyping and discrimination. Misunderstanding in business and professional contexts may in addition have very practical consequences: communities may be divided, sales contracts can be won and lost, employment can be sought and not found, and international diplomacy can succeed or fail. A particularly interesting area of study is the work of professional interpreters, who shoulder considerable responsibility, working, for example, in political, medical or legal environments. These are often situations in which the power relations between the participants are crucial (and often unequal or precarious) and the apparently inaccessible linguistic operations of the interpreter can be seen as threatening to both parties. In the courtroom there are therefore considerable constraints on what the interpreter is allowed to do, in some cases based on a lack of understanding of how language works.

In this section we suggest two areas to pursue: first, the teaching and learning aspects of pragmatics and its importance in developing social relations; second, we develop some of the professional issues involved in courtroom interpreting.

  • 10.1. Acquiring pragmatic competence
  • 10.1.1. Speech act sequences
  • 10.1.2 Accommodating to cultural norms – a matter of personal identity
  • 10.1.3 Researching the acquisition process
  • 10.2. Courtroom interpreting – who has the power?


  • Ishihara, N. and A.D. Cohen (2010) Teaching and Learning Pragmatics: Where language and culture meet, Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd

10.1. Acquiring pragmatic competence

10.1.1. Speech act sequences

Learning to communicate in a different culture is not only a matter of knowing how to express individual speech acts. Cultures sometimes differ in the complexity of speech act sequences: Barron (2003), for example, reports that her own Irish culture required her to refuse an offer of, say, a cup of tea, even if she wanted one, expecting the other person to offer again.

A: Would you like some more tea?
B: No thanks, I’m fine.
A: Are you sure?
B: OK, just one more then.

However, this strategy did not work in Germany, because the first refusal was taken at face value. The conversation she experienced might run as follows:

  • Would you like some more tea?
  • No thanks, I’m fine.
  • OK.

As a result, she was deprived of many cups of tea that she would actually have liked.


Barron’s observations of offer-refusal (and re-offering) sequences are based on her native Irish English and German.

  • What patterns are typical in your own variety of English or your native language?
  • Do these vary depending on the context? For example, might the sequence be different in an informal family context from a more formal situation with guests?

Read more....

  • Barron, A. (2003) Acquisition in Interlanguage Pragmatics. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins

10.1.2. Accommodating to cultural norms – a matter of personal identity

The discussion in Unit A10 focused mainly on the kind of misunderstandings that are unintentional, but Thomas’ experience in Russia (Unit B 10.3.1) was due to her unwillingness to adapt to the local norm. She knew what she was expected to say (i.e. apologize for poor performance as a teacher), but felt the accusation was unjust and she was unwilling to apologize for something that wasn’t her fault.

There is sometimes a conflict, as here, between wanting to adapt and ‘fit in’ in an unfamiliar environment and wanting to be yourself. Some communicative difficulties are therefore not the result of ignorance or poor proficiency but a deliberate divergence from the local norms.


Can you identify cross-cultural situations in which you know what the expected norm would be, but you would feel uncomfortable if you accommodated to the norm?


You know that English speakers use a wider pitch range than in your language. To your ears it sounds rather silly and affected, but you know that to English ears the narrower pitch range of your own language sounds a bit uninterested and boring.

  •  Do you prefer to sound boring or feel silly?
  • Does it make a difference if some of your compatriots are present?

You wish to make a request in English, and you know that in this situation most English speakers would express it indirectly. You, however, feel that it sounds insincere and hypocritical. In your language you would be much more direct.

  •  What do you do?

You have noticed that native speakers of English use a lot of discourse markers, such as like, you know (etc?).

  • Do you try to put as many into your sentences as possible?


  • Ishihara, N. and A.D. Cohen (2010) Teaching and Learning Pragmatics: Where language and culture meet. Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd

10.1.3. Researching the acquisition process

Assessing pragmatic competence can be carried out in a number of ways. Discourse completion tasks and questionnaires (see Unit A2) can be used to monitor current competence. However, assessing the development of pragmatic competence over time is a greater challenge. Many students spend a period abroad and this is an opportunity to gain proficiency in all aspects of the language, including pragmatics. Whether the opportunity actually leads to greater competence, however, is not clear. There are many people who spend half a lifetime in a foreign culture but remain unaware that their pragmatic meaning is frequently misunderstood.


  •  How would you design an assessment to test the development of pragmatic competence over such a period?
  • What use, if any, would you make of questionnaires, discourse completion tasks, role-play or interviews?
  • How would you assess explicit pragmatic awareness?


  • Barron, A. (2003) Acquisition in Interlanguage Pragmatics. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins

10.2 Courtroom Interpreting – WHO HAS THE POWER?

The role of the interpreter is a complex one. There is a naive view of interpreting and translation, held by many, that moving from one language to another is simply a matter of substituting one set of words for another. Anyone who knows something about the nature of language understands that this is not the case – not least, as you have learned in this book, because there is an important distinction between what people say and what people mean. Interpreters/translators often have a difficult decision to make: do they stay close to the original and sacrifice some element of speaker meaning, such as politeness, or do they render what they think the speaker means, and in so doing depart considerably from a verbatim translation? Interpreters are used in many different multilingual or bilingual contexts, but in some of these their contribution can have a crucial influence on the outcome of the event, in some cases a matter of life or death. One such context is courtroom interpreting.

The court interpreter Ruth Morris notes that court interpreters are often constrained to restrict themselves to a verbatim rendering of what is said. They are thus often unable to take into account cultural differences in trying to convey what a speaker means as opposed to what they say.

As a subset of communicative activity, interpretation is inevitably subject to constraints on success, due to a variety of physical and psychological factors. It is further influenced by differences in cultural and other conditioning, factors which shape our thought patterns and perceptions. In order to convey these aspects, the interpreter needs to understand not only linguistic but also many other elements related to speakers’ and listeners’ worlds of knowledge. When the law calls for interpreters to restrict themselves to verbatim translation and prohibits the use of techniques which go beyond the referential use of language, it is making it impossible to achieve anything approaching the in any case unattainable goal of ‘true’ communication. (Morris 1995: 27)

In the courtroom as elsewhere, it is not always clear whether interpreters are considered to have a voice in their own right, for example to seek clarification or to explain. According to Morris:

In the transparent view of language, an interpreter is a non-person. This is the ideal conception for the law. Examining the issue in a philosophical context relevant to our present concern, White (1990: 259–60) asks whether that inherently marginal figure, the interpreter, who lives ‘in the space between two languages’, can ever have a voice or identity of his or her own. Going even further, he queries why it should not be possible for the interpreter to actually enter one or another of these worlds, and ‘speak with momentary, if qualified, confidence within it’. (ibid.: 35)

The notion of an interpreter as a non-person is difficult to maintain. But what is their role? Are they allowed to laugh if something is funny? Are they allowed to sound enthusiastic or angry or sad? The behaviour of an interpreter can have an important emotional effect on the interaction, such as that reported by Wadensjö (1998: 284) on the conversation between a midwife and a pregnant mother. She says that ‘...they both claimed that the interpreter’s formal style had made it hard for them to talk and laugh as they had done before, when assisted by another interpreter’ (cited by Lee and Llewellyn-Jones 2011).

Lee and Llewellyn-Jones (2011) argue that the role of sign language interpreters cannot be to be ‘invisible’; they operate within a role-space comprising three dimensions: presentation of self (I am X and I will be interpreting for you), management of interaction (I’m sorry I didn’t catch that) and participant alignment (smiling at a joke). Clearly different situations – compare courtroom with an informal community gathering – allow different amounts of room for manoeuvre through these different dimensions.


A court interpreter has considerable responsibility to represent accurately what the defendant is saying. In some situations the interpreter may have to choose between a literal or close translation of what was said, and changing it to fit the local norm. If the simple answer ‘no’ would sound impolite in the court context, although it is the polite norm for the speaker, the interpreter can translate it with ‘no’, or in a mitigated form such as ‘I’m afraid not’ or ‘well, not really’.

  • What are the dangers of being too literal on the one hand, and of being too adaptive to local norms on the other?
  • How would you design a study to investigate the work of court interpreters?
    • Do they interpret differently for defendants and legal representatives?
    • How do they deal with inaccuracies and disfluencies?
    • How are pragmatic markers translated?
    • How do they deal with indirectness?

You can read in Unit A12 about the way in which power can be enacted in discourse.

  • In what way do the constraints on court interpreters serve or endanger the power relationships between the participants


  • Berk-Seligson, S. (1990) The Bilingual Courtroom: Court interpreters in the judicial process, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
  • Bourdieu, P. (1991) Language and Symbolic Power, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
  • Davidson, B. (2000) ‘The interpreter as institutional gatekeeper: The social-linguistic role of interpreters in Spanish–English medical discourse’, Journal of Sociolinguistics 4: 379–405
  • Hale, S. (1999) ‘Interpreters’ treatment of discourse markers in courtroom questions’, Forensic Linguistics 6: 57–82
  • Lee, R.G. and P. Llewellyn-Jones (2011) ‘Re-visiting role: Arguing for a multi-dimensional analysis of interpreter behaviour’. Unpublished MS, University of Central Lancashire
  • Morris, R. (1995)‘The moral dilemmas of court interpreting’, The Translator 1(1): 25–46
  • Wadensjö, C. (1998) Interpreting as Interaction, London and New York: Longman
  • White, J. (1990) Justice as Translation: An essay in cultural and legal criticism, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press