Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. März 2006

6.3. Interkulturelle und soziolingustische Aspekte der Subsprachen
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On Some Factors Influencing Success of Communication

Tatiana Omelianenko (Moscow State Open University)


People are social beings, they live in a society and therefore they must communicate with one another. In other words, people "are doomed to communication". All the knowledge gained by humans in their cognitive activities is fixed and spread among people by means of language. The very existence of language makes social connections among people possible, i.e. communication is a necessary condition for individuals living in a society and vice versa the existence of society in individuals. So communication is both a function and the substance of language because all of language is aimed at communication.

The language forms the nation through storing and transferring culture, traditions, and the national mentality of the ethnos. Nowadays, when the interaction of people, languages and cultures causes a problem with respect to the tolerance of other cultures, it is necessary to review some linguistic issues in terms of cross-cultural interaction.

Worldwide integration processes in different spheres of present-day life resulted in the functional shift from national monocultural communication to international and intercultural communication. Linguists face a number of scientific, practical and educational problems connected with identifying and investigating factors necessary for a successful general and professional cross-cultural communication. These factors include the peculiarities of national character, culture, traditions, and behaviour stereotypes.

The constituents of any communication act are the knowledge of a mutually understood language and the amount of necessary information. They make up the cultural or scientific competence of the communicants. The extent of this competence differs inside and outside the nation.

The communication inside the nation is based on the common language and culture and this contributes greatly to its success. However, communication is not simply a verbal process, it depends on many different factors such as age, sex, social and professional status of the communicants, non-verbal forms of expression, deep background knowledge and many others. For example, there is almost no jargon slang or youth slang in the speech of elderly people, and sexual difference results in additional politeness, high emotionality of women’s speech and polarity of interests between men and women.

The communication between nations requires overcoming language and cultural barriers in addition to the above-mentioned factors and the process of international communication itself turns into cross-cultural communication.

Logical laws of thinking, constituting the universal aspect of languages as well as the universal knowledge of the world, explain the possibility of translating from one language into another. However, even a good knowledge of another nation’s language can not ensure complete communication without acquaintance with the cultural background of this nation.

Preparing to communicate with representatives of some other nation and another culture, it is necessary to remember the difference between high- and low-contextual cultures, depending on the amount of information expressed explicitly on the verbal level. In low-contextual cultures (European, North American, Scandinavian) information is expressed in the maximum verbal form and knowledge of the language is very important for successful communication. Expressions in high-contextual cultures (Chinese, Japanese) cannot be understood only from the language signs they contain. To interpret them completely and correctly it is necessary to know the context and not only a narrow, situational but rather a broad, cultural context.

Being common to all the humanity, the world is reflected in the mentality and culture of every nation in a unique, specific way. This reflection is fixed in the national language, and forms the linguistic and cultural picture of the world specific for every language. While studying a foreign language, the primary world picture of the native language is overlapped by the secondary world picture of the foreign language. This causes a rearrangement of the national thinking and a kind of personality bifurcation.

Such a transformation of national mentality is directly connected with a different categorization of the surrounding world and this affects language usage. The linguo-conceptual system of a foreign language is perceived through that of the native language. If some parts of the primary (native) and secondary (foreign) systems coincide, it makes understanding and interpreting much easier and vice versa differences of these systems may make communication difficult or sometimes impossible.

Such difficulties form the language barrier, which is much written and spoken about. Unfortunately, these difficulties are not taken into account in the textbooks made by native speakers because only those who are acquainted with other languages and cultures can identify such difficulties. This causes a serious problem in teaching languages because foreign teachers have to do a lot of work adjusting even well known courses such as Headway, Avenues, Streamline, etc. to national peculiarities and changing educational tactics offered by the authors.

Language differences are more evident as compared to cultural ones, and they can be found at all language levels: phonetic, grammatical, lexical, and syntactical. This can be illustrated as follows.

Native speakers of many European languages having a more or less simple letter-sound correlation (German, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Slavonic languages) experience substantial difficulties when mastering reading in such languages as French and English due to a large number of non-pronounced letters and difficult reading rules. For instance, the English word knight has 6 letters in writing and only 3 sounds in pronouncing: 2 consonants and 1 diphthong. It is even more difficult to study languages incorporating ideography (Chinese, Japanese) where one sign denotes a whole word and, sometimes, even additional grammatical meaning.

Grammatical differences hindering cross-cultural communication may be illustrated by the following examples. The only existing form of the English 2d person pronoun you has two different forms in Russian: ты for singular and вы for plural which are followed by the singular and plural verbs accordingly. This results in grammatical mistakes made by the Russians at the elementary level of English.

Countability is another grammatical category that lacks coincidence in Russian, French and English. This can be illustrated by the following table:

  singular plural


Russian coвeт
French conseil

As can be seen from above, the Russian words совет, знани e, новость and the French words conseil, connaisance, nouvelle are countable and have plural forms, whereas the corresponding English words advice, knowledge, news are considered to be uncountable, and using them in the plural forms is a serious grammatical error often made by Russian and French learners of English.

The grammatical category of definiteness/indefiniteness for nouns is expressed through articles in some languages (English, French, German, Spanish) and through some words or word combinations in others (Slavic languages). For example, the words with the definite article the post (English), die Post (German), la poste (French) are translated into Russian by the word combinations эта почта (this post), известная почта (the known post), определенная почта (the definite post), ближайшая почта (the nearest post), наша почта (our post) etc.

However, even the abovementioned languages with articles differ in the grammatical characteristics of the articles: in German, French, and Spanish articles possess characteristics of gender and number whereas in English the definite article the possesses none of these characteristics, though the indefinite article a/an has the characteristics of singular number and is not used with plural nouns. Such grammatical dissimilarity in expressing the same grammatical meaning causes substantial difficulties not only for studying foreign languages but also for communication as any mistake may lead to a misunderstanding.

Dissimilarities in vocabulary are most insidious and complex. It is vocabulary that makes the conflict of cultures very explicit and vivid because this part of language interacts directly with the real world. This conflict can be found at different language levels: that of word meaning, word combinations and phraseological units where the cross-cultural influence is at a maximum. Every word has its own lexical and phraseological valency, which is often restricted to a national language, and hence requires special attention.

Studying language differences at the word level, it is necessary to remember that any language contains words that cannot be translated into other languages, i.e. non-equivalent words. Such words result from differences in the real world surrounding peoples, and these words denote things and phenomena specific only for the given ethnic community, they have no equivalents in other languages, for example, the Russian words матрешка, самовар, the Japanese word sake, the Spanish word machete, orthe word from American Indian canoe.

Foreigners cannot understand non-equivalent words without special explanation because there are no such things in their life. But on the other hand, the native language of the foreigner has no image of these things which could distort the perception of this unknown thing because of (native language) interference. So the only way to fill in the evident communication gap is to transliterate such words and give their definitions:

матрешка (Rus)

- matryoshka, a kind of wooden Russian native dolls containing several smaller ones inside it;

самовар (Rus) - samovar, a large metal container used in Russia to boil water for making tea;
machete (Span) - a knife with a broad heavy blade, used as a cutting tool and weapon in South Americ
canoe (Am.Ind) - a long light narrow boat, pointed at both ends, and moved by a paddle held in the hands

The part of the vocabulary that contains "equivalent" words causes much more difficulties than non-equivalent or partially equivalent words. The fact is that reality equivalence (correlation with the definite concept) creates the illusion of language equivalence and this misleads the learners. They can use a word not taking into account its semantic ties, stylistic character, and other language peculiarities functioning in foreign speech.

Linguists, interpreters, and teachers of foreign languages know very well that it is hardly possible to speak about lexical equivalence without bearing in mind the national cultural background. A word as a language unit is correlated with some object or phenomenon of the real world. These objects and phenomena may be quite different in different cultures, for example, a house for the Chinese, the English, American Indians, and Eskimos. The differences of these real objects in form, structure and usage together with the scope of semantic meaning form the invariant concept of "a house" which gives the possibility for the word to exist and to be translated into other languages. Thus, language equivalence is backed up with conceptual equivalence supplemented by the equivalence of cultural notions.

The Russian linguist Barkchudarov, while illustrating the semantic scope of the meaning of the Russian word дом and the English word house, showed that these words coincide only in two meanings - " a building as a place of residence"(a stone house) and "a dynasty"(the House of Romanovs). All the rest of the meanings differ. The Russian word дом has the meaning "the place where one was born or habitually lives and to which one usually has emotional ties", i.e. corresponding to the meaning of the English word home. Another meaning of дом in Russian is "an institution, organization", which can be translated into English in different ways depending on types of institutions: orphanage, commercial firm, lunatic asylum. In its turn the English word house has a number of meanings that the Russian word lacks: "chamber, department" (the House of Commons), "theater" (opera house), "audience" (appreciative house). [1]

Дом and house differ not only in the scope of semantic meaning but also in usage. In Russian the word дом is a must in any mail address, but in English no such an equivalent and hence translation could be found - the number of a house is simply put in pre-position to the name of a street, but not in post-position as in a Russian address:

ул. Парковая, дом 6, кв., 2 6 Park St . Apt .2

Some more implicit difficulties of the language barrier may be illustrated through phraseological combinations, misleading words ("interpreter’s false friends"), and socio-cultural connotations.

Phraseological combinability, i.e. the ability of a word to combine or not to combine with other words, is specific for every language. This causes serious difficulties in various aspects of dealing in foreign languages: communicating, studying and teaching. For example, the meaning of the English word flat - "smooth and level" is conveyed in the most accurate way by the Russian word combination плоская поверхность having the meaning "a flat surface". This is the only coincidence with the Russian combinational model for the words плоский, ровный . All the remaining variants of the natural combinability for the word flat are unpredictable and should be learned individually:

a flat tyre

спущенная шина (a tyre without enough air)

flat shoes туфли без каблука (shoes without heels)
a flat violin расстроенная скрипка (not tuned violin)
a flat battery севшая батарейка (dead battery).

Either side of these pairs represents a combinational model of the correspondent language and requires special attention, individual learning, as it may cause misunderstanding and additional difficulties in communication.[2]

Another stumbling block for successful communication are those misleading words which are sometimes called "interpreters’ false friends". These words and word combinations look deceitfully familiar or even identical with words and expressions of the native language but they differ from the native words in their meaning or connotations. It is this difference that distinguishes "false friends" from international words, which have the same meaning in different languages. The roles of these two lexical layers are opposite: international words facilitate the international communication whereas misleading words make in more difficult.

The difference in the meaning of "false friends" can be shown by the following examples. The English word acceleration and the French word accélération mean "increasing speed", they are stylistically neutral and common in everyday speech but in the Russian language the word акселерация has a specific meaning "acceleration of growth and sexual maturity of children and teenagers registered from the second half of the 19 th century". This meaning when used not in biological context may be derogative. So it is impossible to use the word акселерация for translating the common English and French word combinations like car acceleration without creating a misunderstanding.

One should be very careful dealing with certain words because they may differ not only in meaning and usage but can be misleading in their political connotations. All modern dictionaries of the English language define the word nationalism as "desire of a nationality to form an independent country" which has fairly positive connotations. On the contrary, in Russian the word национализм denotes an ideology or politics based on national exclusiveness or superiority and has quite negative connotations. So the communicant who does not know this difference may find himself in an awkward position.

However, the most serious obstacle for successful cross-cultural communication lies in the combination of language and cultural barriers when they are represented by "equivalent" words having the identical meaning in different languages and correlated with the same objects or phenomena of the reality. Even being so equivalent, words become specifically "coloured" in the course of historical, cultural and linguistic development and arouse different emotions on the part of speakers. These relations are national and mostly do not coincide; for example, in the Soviet Union and other socialist countries the word коммунист had a positive connotation and denoted a person fighting for justice, equality, and a better life for everybody but in other countries this word denotes an ideological enemy, though the meaning of the word is identical in all the languages - "someone who belongs to a political party that supports communism; someone who believes in communism".

The most vivid examples of such non-coincidence may be found in folklore of different nations. The same animals are assessed differently by various nations and have different and even opposite connotations. The Russian and English words козел and goat denoting this animal have different informal meanings - " глупец, упрямец ", i.e. "a silly and stubborn person" in Russian and " an old man, especially one who shows a great sexual interest in women" in English. These meanings coincide only in the fact that they are used humorously and derogatively. But in the Chinese culture this animal is treated differently and considered to be miserable and defenseless.

Investigating the factors that hinder cross-cultural communication, one should not think that there are no factors facilitating it. Despite some cultural and linguistic differences, a number of associations which are universal for many languages can be found. For example, a male sheep has identical associations in Russian and English culture so the Russian word баран and the English word sheep have the same derogative meaning "someone who is easily persuaded into doing things, who obeys orders without thinking or who acts in a particular way because others are doing so". Moreover, such an animal as a donkey, or an ass is associated with stupidity and stubbornness in many cultures and hence languages - Russian, English, German, Spanish, Swedish and some others. So, the existence of such universal psychological and linguistic phenomena makes easier cross-cultural communication possible, and this may be and should be taken into account by those who deal with foreign languages.

Thus, people as social beings cannot do without communication by means of language. World integration processes in different spheres of modern life resulted in the functional shift from the national unicultural communication to a global cross-cultural one. This made linguists face a number of scientific, practical, and educational problems connected with defining and investigating social and cultural factors necessary for successful cross-cultural communication of general and special character. These factors include the peculiarities of national historical, cultural and linguistic developments and they may be found at all levels of any language.

© Tatiana Omelianenko (Moscow State Open University)


[1]. Л.С. Бархударов. Двенадцать названий и двенадцать вещей. Русский язык за рубежом, 1969, №4, с.79-80.

[2]. Тер-Минасова С.Г. Моя твоя не понимай - лингвистические и социокультурные аспекты коммуникации. Материалы международной конференции « Языки в современном мире», т.1, Москва, 2004, с.7.

6.3. Interkulturelle und soziolingustische Aspekte der Subsprachen

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