In an intercultural communication, an error might arise during the process of carrying-over culture-specific aspects of language by speakers from two different backgrounds. One notable example from my latest classroom discussion was Pak Roni and his lady friend’s coffee story. Asking someone to have a cup of coffee is not entirely free of implicature in many cultures. As honest as his intention was in offering coffee as a gesture of hospitality, in eastern society, depending on the context, it is a hint that a guest has overstayed his/her welcome. In contemporary western culture, on the other hand, it insinuates a date invitation that might or might not involve the actual act of drinking coffee.
An attempt to carry-over the same implicature using different languages is the common pitfall of most foreign language learners. It is because languages have social constraints (Harlow, 1990) and different languages pose a different limitation on what its speech community could think (Sharafian, 2017; Zegarac & Pennington, 2008). People born in an L2 environment have acquired linguistic repertoire and knowledge concurrently since their childhood. This is not the case with L2 learners whose main source of (minimal) information is from textbook, with lack of authenticity in their instructional practice and material — especially those dealing with cross-cultural competence — and limited immediate social feedback from an interaction using L2. Consequently, they still use the mental sets of L1 in L2 communication which is a minefield of cross-cultural misunderstanding. Failure to comply with grammatical rules might only render a person as a non-proficient speaker, but failure to have the sensitivity to social appropriateness in language use most automatically renders him/her as having a lousy personality. People usually tolerate the former but not the latter.
A very memorable example of how easily someone can be mistaken as being non-considerate was an exchange between my students. We were engaged in a discussion about mental health issue when one of them asked this question, “Have you considered suicide?” To say I was a little taken aback when hearing this was an understatement. It took me a moment to realize that he was only asking whether the friend had had a suicidal tendency in the context of an attempt to diagnose a symptom of depression. Following all five of Hymes’ communicative principles (in Harlow, 1990), this question was already propositional as it was meaning-based, interactional as it was uttered in social interaction, and it was well structured. Conventionally speaking, he was using an interrogative structure to ask a question. What he did not know is, similar to that in bahasa Indonesia, an asynchrony of form and function in the speech act is a common practice. An interrogative structure is not always used to express a question and when it happens, it serves different implicature. When he asked said question, it was actually a suggestion, and any L2 speaker familiar with the utterance common use would think how formidable it is to suggest someone to commit a suicide.
Well, there are many chuckle-materials when addressing the topic of socio-pragmatic transfer error made by students. However, it is no longer funny when it deals with somebody’s potential life and death situation, is it?
Chapman, S. (2008). Language and Empiricism After The Vienna Circle. (pp.88-107). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Harlow, L. L. (1990). Do They Mean What They Say? Sociopragmatic Competence and Second Language Learners. The Modern Language Journal, 74(3), 328-351.
Sharafian, F. (2017). Cultural Linguistic and Linguistic Relativity. Language Sciences, 59, 83-92.
Zegarac, V., & Pennington, M. C. (2008). Pragmatic Transfer in Intercultural Communication. In H. Spencer-Oatey, Culturally speaking : culture, communication and politeness theory (pp. 141-163). New York: Continuum.