Innovationen und Reproduktionen in Kulturen und Gesellschaften (IRICS) Wien, 9. bis 11. Dezember 2005

<< Interkulturelle und soziolingustische Aspekte der Subsprachen | Cross-Cultural and Socio-Linguistic Aspects of Sub Languages

On Some Factors Influencing Success of Communication

Tatiana N. Omelianenko (Moskau)



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

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

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 successful general and professional cross-cultural communication. These factors include peculiarities of national character, culture, traditions, and behavior stereotypes.

The constituents of any communication act are the knowledge of mutually understood language and the amount of necessary information that form 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 status of the communicants, non-verbal forms of expression, deep background knowledge and many others. For example, there are almost no jargon slang and 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 outside the nation 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 could not ensure complete communication without acquaintance with cultural background of this nation.

Preparing to communicate with representatives of some other nation and other culture, it is necessary to remember about 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 countries) information is expressed in the maximum verbal form and knowledge of language is very important for successful communication. Expressions in low-contextual cultures (Chinese, Japanese) cannot be understood out of language signs they contain. To interpret them completely and correctly it is necessary to know the context and not narrow, situational but rather broad, cultural context.

Being common for all the humanity, the world is reflected in the mentality and culture of every nation in the unique, specific way depending on difference in reality. 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, this primary world picture of the native language is overlapped by the secondary world picture of the foreign language. This causes rearrangement of the national thinking and personality bifurcation.

Such a transformation of national mentality is directly connected with different categorization of the surrounding world and this affects language usage. 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 worsen communication or sometimes break it.

Such difficulties mainly 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 they can be identified only by those who are acquainted with other languages and cultures. This causes a serious problem in teaching languages because national 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 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, 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 additional grammar 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 correspondently. This results in grammar mistakes made by the Russians at the elementary level of English.

Countability is another grammatical category that shows lack ofcoincidence in the Russian and English languages. The Russian words совет , знани e, новость are countable and have plural forms советы , знания , новости , whereas the corresponding English words advice, knowledge, news are considered to be uncountable and their using in plural forms is a serious error often made by Russian learners of English. French learners have the same errors with the former two words conseil and connaisance due the same reasons but use the latter word nouvelle correctly because it is uncountable in their language.

The grammatical category of definiteness/indefiniteness for nouns is expressed through articles in some languages (English, French, German, Spanish) and through 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) is translated into Russian by the word combinations эта почта (this post), известная почта (known post), определенная почта (definite post), ближайшая почта (the nearest post), наша почта (our post) etc. However, even in the first group the languages differ in grammar characteristics of 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 number. Such grammatical dissimilarity in expressing the same grammatical meaning causes substantial difficulties not only for studying foreign languages but also for communication.

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

One of the most evident difficulties lies in the fact that vocabularies of different languages differ in non-equivalent words. Such words resulted from differences of the real world surrounding peoples and these words denote things and phenomena specific only for the given ethnic community and they have no equivalents in other languages, for example, the Russian words матрешка , самовар , the Japanese word sake, the Spanish word machete, or the word from American Indian canoe. Foreigners cannot understand these 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 any image of these things to distort the perception of the unknown thing because of native language interference.

The part of the vocabulary that contains "equivalent" words causes much more difficulties than non-equivalent or partially equivalent words. The fact is that the 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 peculiarities of language functioning in foreign speech.

Linguists, interpreters, and the teachers of foreign languages know very well that it is hardly possible to speak about lexical equivalence without bearing in mind 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 " a place where one was born or habitually lives and to which one usually has emotional ties" i.e. 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 the type of the institution: 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), etc. (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 - simply the number of a house is in pre-position to the name of a street but not in post-position as in a Russian address.

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 national and 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 rest variants of the natural combinability for the word flat are unpredictable and should be learned individually: спущенная шина - a flat tyre, туфли без каблука - flat shoes, расстроенная скрипка - a flat violin, батарейка села - the battery is flat. Either side of these pairs represents combinational model of the correspondent language and requires special attention, individual learning, as it may cause additional difficulties in communication.(2)

Another stumbling block for successful communication is misleading words sometimes called "interpreter’s false friends". These words and word combinations look deceitfully familiar or 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 means "increasing speed" and it is stylistically neutral and common for everyday speech but in the Russian language the word акселерация has the only more specific meaning - "acceleration of growth and sexual maturity of children and teenagers registered from the second half of the 19 th century". This meaning may be used derogatively in some contexts. So it is impossible to use the word акселерация for translating the common English word combination car acceleration without misunderstanding.

One should be very careful dealing with misleading words because they may differ not only in meaning and usage but also in 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 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.

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 relations for the part of speakers. These relations are national and mostly do not coincide.

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.

In the Soviet Union and other socialist countries the word коммунист had positive connotation and denoted a person fighting for justice, equality, and better life for everybody but in other countries this word denotes 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".

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 universal for many languages can be found. Foe 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 animal as donkey, ass is universally associated with stupidity and stubbornness in many cultures and hence languages - Russian, English, German, Spanish, Swedish and some others. So, the very existence of such universal psychological and linguistic phenomena give a possibility to ease cross-cultural communication and this may be and should be taken into account by those who deal in foreign languages.

Thus, people, being social beings, are doomed to communication which is impossible without language. World integration processes in different spheres of modern life resulted in the functional shift from the national unicultural communication to the 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 peculiarities of national historical, cultural and linguistic development and they may be found at all levels of any language.


(1) Л . С . Бархударов . Двенадцать названии 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 коференции " Языки в современном мире", т.1, Москва, 2004, с.7.

Innovations and Reproductions in Cultures and Societies
(IRICS) Vienna, 9 - 11 december 2005

WEBDESIGN: Peter R. Horn 2005-10-21