Home > Intercultural Communication > Onion fights Iceberg – Chaos Results

Onion fights Iceberg – Chaos Results

‘Learner lives and learner language’ (Luke Meddings IATEFL 2011)

This rather pithy synopsis of Dogme methodology not only accurately sums up the approach for me but has been the source of lots of reflection since the conference in mid April.

Learner lives should be at the centre of our classes and we should teach the language which is most meaningful to them. This seems like common sense and can only result in the highest possible retention and recall of what they learn in our classes. However, for me, this quote led me to reflect on a deeper point about language and communication.

I’ve been teaching business English for several years, becoming increasingly more specialised, and am now focusing on the area of intercultural communication. Most of my learners are with me for a short time and have an immediate need to communicate in English – an important meeting, negotiation etc. I recently had an Italian learner who was about to lead critical negotiations with a Dutch firm and, on the way, had stopped in London to prepare his position (in English of course).

For me, this raises fundamental questions. Cultural gurus, such as Hofstedde or Trompenaars, say that Italians like a direct, charasmatic approach and expect a high degree of formality in negotations. The Dutch expect a lower degree of formality and require a more open, consultative style of communication.

Fair enough, we can probably all recognise this from our own learners. However, what I wondered as I taught Alfonso, was how is the fact he’s Italian going to affect his dealings with the Dutch. The culture we are born into controls how we think about certain issues and how we communicate. Italians and Dutch communicate differently.

Italians also have an understanding of the Dutch, from their point of view. As the Dutch have of the Italians. From the other perspective. Both are wrong, from the other point of view and right from their own. As I thought about this, I could see many pitfalls ahead for Alfonso.

Then I had another thought. Why was Alfonso in London preparing for a negotiation to take place in Rotterdam? The answer is fairly obvious; because, for convenience sake, the negotiation was to be in English.

Alfonso’s life is steeped in the Italian way of doing things. The language he uses to express himself is ‘Italian’ even when speaking another language. As Peter Grundy says, his conception of ‘negotiation’ is and Italian conception of the word. The Dutch and, most critically, the British conception of ‘negotiation’ is fundamentally different.

So, Alfonso was going to attempt to express his way of seeing the world to people who view the world differently in a language that reflects a third way of seeing the world. Problem confounded.

As a British teacher, with materials and frameworks written predominantly by Brits, am I able to really help Alfonso. I can improve his pronunciation. I can help him improve the language that appear fequently in British negotiations. I can listen to what he wants to say and advise him on the best way of doing so.

But do I really know where he’s coming from. Can I accurately predict how Dutch people, with values and methods of communication unknown to me, will understand, not what he ‘says’ but what he ‘means’?

Currently, I don’t have an answer to these questions and have decided to post this to see what other people think. What I’ve decided to do is to begin compiling a database of language my learners from different cultures use and see if there’s a correlation between that language and the cultural values of their countries. I feel this may help me give them ‘more than language’. It will give them communication.

I’ll let you know what I find out and I can’t wait to get your comments on my plan.


Cultures and Organisations:Software of the Mind, Hofstede, 1991, McGraw Hill
Riding the Waves of Culture, Trompenaars,1197, nbrealey
Peter Grundy’s plenary session and interview – http://www.iatefl.britishcouncil.iatefl/2011

  1. Anthony Gaughan
    May 9, 2011 at 6:53 am

    Welcome to the Blogosphere! You’ve picked a very interesting area to kick your blog off with, and the idea of a cross-cultural database is intriguing.

    In case you haven’t watched it, Mark Powell’s plenary at BESIG 2010 includes some interesting comparison of how different L1 users adapt English to suit their communicative preferences (e.g. the German/French approach to signposting functional turns via noun phrases rather than using a less obvious exponent). Here’s a link to part one of the talk on YouTube:

    Looking forward to your future posts.

  2. M Kenis
    May 9, 2011 at 8:41 am

    As a (NNEST) teacher of Business English who has become more and more interested in cultural diffrences over the last years I understand perfectly what you mean. Preparing students of any nationality to e.g. negotiate with people from any other nationality seems daunting or even impossible.

    But what we can and should do I think is to make them more aware of cultural differences. You can present some “models” to them like that of Hofstede or Richard Lewis, (http://www.cultureactive.com/help/demo.html), you can find a lot of good “how to do business in …” websites, there are speaking exercises with cultural differences as a topic etc.

    And moreover I believe that the fact that the Italian and the Dutchman use English as their lingua franca can also be seen as an advantage rather than another hindrance. By teaching them the language needed for negotiating in their English courses you give them a kind of common/similar way to deal with the negotiation which puts them more or less on a equal footing or at least more equal than when one of them woudl have been a native speaker of English.

    So when Alfonso feels confident in English and is aware of the Dutch approach to negotiating he will do fine I like to believe.
    He won’t even be surprised when his Dutch colleague orders a glass of milk at lunch.;-)

    • edpegg
      May 9, 2011 at 11:41 am

      Thanks, M Kenis for your great post.

      I agree with you and your suggestion is similar to some things I already do. However, I’m concerned that only introducing cultural differences is not going far enough. This relates to a question someone asked at the BESIG PCE at IATEFL ‘why are negotiations always taught in an Anglo Saxon framework?’

      When I heard Peter Grundy talking about pragmatic meaning at IATEFL, combined with my own research into discourse analysis, I started thinking about these things and haven’t stopped.

      I feel there’s much more opportunity to use pragmatic understanding to help our learners with these tricky issues, to go beyond culture and into how culture affects language and meaning and how language affects cultre, but I could go on about that for hours.

      However, these are very early days and I’m not entirely sure what I think about it all yet, that’s the main reason I decided to start blogging.

      I think a wider dialogue between cultural competence training, ELT and applied linguistics could greatly help us all (including Alfonso) be more effective in our communication

      I’d love your thoughts on this.

  3. M Kenis
    May 9, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    Thanks for your reply. I was quite thrilled to read it as it was the very first time I had ever posted my thoughts online although I have been teaching for 31 years now 🙂 I know that I am a very ordinary teacher and there’s always that chip on the shoulder…;-)
    Moreover I come from a pre-blogging generation, I write on blackboards using chalk most days but I still feel passionate about English and teaching and I love to communicate with people.

    As to the topic I agree with you that these are very early days yet. Looking back on my career, though, I can see that business coursebook writers have started to take cultural differences into account now. They look at business topics in a wider than Anglo-Saxon context, they give us listening material with non native accents etc.

    I agree that there is more to it than making people aware of cultural differences but I am afraid I do not really know how to take it from there.

    I only know that (English) language and culture are very closely intertwined. It was indeed during Peter Grundy’s IATEFL keynote speech (and some other sessions I attended later as well) that I noticed that many people in the audience did not react in the same way as myself. They did not find the same things funny, they did not respond to the things he said in the same way and I thought there and then: this is because they come from a completely different background. Their framework of reference was just very different.

    A wider dialogue as you suggest would definitely be welcome and most interesting.

    For the time being (coming from a pragmatic culture:-)) I can only offer Alfonso this help.

    Having a teacher like yourself gives him at least an edge when it come to cross cultural awareness/communication. It’s a start.

    Back to marking now: listening to my students’ recorded presentations on: “Intercultural factors when making international presentations” 🙂

    It’s a start.

    M Kenis

  4. May 10, 2011 at 8:36 am

    Yes, welcome to the blogosphere. And a great discussion to start off with 🙂

    I think that the models (Hofstede, Trompenaas, Lewis etc) only go so far, and we also need to be using insights from pragmatics / sociolinguistics if we are trying to help people use English in an intercultural context. I don’t think we can really “predict” how our students will understand meaning, particularly as it is so context specific, but we can certainly help by making them more aware of potential problem areas. Of course we can do this best from our own Anglo Saxon perspective, but even this is offering something different for our student to think about.

    I’ve found some of the recent research in BELF and sociolinguistics to be particularly useful in this area – have you seen Marie-Luise Pitzl’s work on miscommunication in international business contexts for example, or the seemingly never ending stream of articles coming out of the Wellington Language in the Workplace Project? Some really good stuff.

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