The intercultural error of ‘You’ and ‘I’; a reflective writing

As an English teacher, I have always been constricted by my own understanding that my primary goal is to assist students in reaching an acceptable standard of English proficiency – that includes fluency and comprehension. The instructional focus, therefore, is on two components only: students and language. Little did I ever try to acknowledge, let alone accommodate, the cultural value in my students’ language and that of English. One assignment in identifying errors made by students makes me realize the gravity of my mistake in doing so. First, language is not a neutral entity. It is and will always be laden with cultural and social load. Fairclough (2001) highlighted the notion that language has a dialectical relationship with society. Every linguistic phenomenon is determined by social rules and, in turn, has social implication. Second, failure in acknowledging so leads to error in language production and a potential hindrance of communication. The overwhelming evidence of these is my students’ errors in the use of pronouns.

Pronoun is not only a small part of grammar rules in English but also a mirror of a bigger social value in (the speaker’s) culture. It contains information about the concept of self-and-other-ness, how the speaker forms her identity, and how she assumes her position in power spectrum. In bahasa Indonesia, for example, the first person singular pronouns ‘aku’ and ‘saya’ have a stark semantic difference. The former is stronger in its self-ness compared to the latter. In a very communal society like Indonesia, therefore, saya is more socially appropriate. Likewise, the use of second person singular pronouns in Indonesia – kamu, engkau, Anda – reflects the degree of formality influenced by social status, age, power, and interpersonal distance between the speakers. Kamu and engkau are more casual, showing the degree of closeness. Anda is more formal but, on the other hand, it puts distance between the speakers, so much that it poses a risk of patronization. A linguistically aware person would resort to a strategy of not using pronoun at all. Instead, she is going to use ‘Bapak, Ibu, Tuan, Nona, or Nyonya’ that might or might not be followed by their name.

However, the difference in social, power, distance and stratum of speaker is not contained within English pronouns. It envelops the equalitarian nature of its speaker’s culture (Brown and Gilman 1960:118-119). In modern (current) English, singular I and singular you are the same regardless of the speakers’ status or distance. This is where errors occur. Students, unaware of this different politeness concepts, avoid using objective pronoun ‘you’ altogether or compensate it by the coding of title and name or by using a direct translation of ‘Bapak, Ibu, Tuan, Nona, or Nyonya etc.other than as vocative. It is because the use of you eliminates the social structure, diminishing the power of the addressee, something that is considered as impolite when sending a text to the teacher, in students’ culture.

The following examples illustrate the error caused by source language cultural interference.

In this example, the sender goes as far as switching the code to Javanese ‘njenengan’ just to emphasize the politeness, his ‘submission’ to the (assumed) powerful receiver.


This example illustrates how the student tried to compensate for the lack of ‘subordination’ indicator in the language, so she transferred the politeness strategy in Bahasa Indonesia directly to English (Bu –> Mrs.).

These intercultural errors mainly because students still think in what their source language’s culture dictates them to. They could not fathom the equalitarian concept in interpersonal interaction of English speaking culture. Leavitt (2015) stated that the words your language gives you determine and limit what it is possible for you to think. Therefore, another goal to add in EFL instruction is to train students NOT only to speak in English, but also to think in it. All in all, these errors need to be addressed by giving corrective feedback, explicit teaching of cultural value, and exposing students to as many intercultural materials as possible.


Brown, R & Gilman, A. (1960). The Pronoun of Power and Solidarity. In T.A. Sebeok (eds). Style in Language. MIT Press. 253-76.

Fairclough, N. (2001). Language and power.  Longman: Harlow, Eng.

Leavitt, J., (2015). Linguistic relativity: precursors and transformations. In: Sharifian, F. (Ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Language and Culture. Routledge, London and New York, pp. 18–30.

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