5 Ch. 5: Verbal Communication


Ch. 5: Verbal Communication

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, readers should:

  • Identify and define basic linguistic terminology used to describe language.
  • Understand and explain variations in communication styles and context rules.
  • Identify and define the differences between translation and interpretation.
  • Discuss the role that language plays in culture.
  • Articulate what constitutes competence in intercultural communication.

Key Vocabulary

  • linguistics

  • morphology

  • phonetics

  • phonology

  • pragmatics

  • semantics

  • syntax

  • constitutive rules

  • regulative rules

  • Sapir-Whorf

  • linguistic

  • linguistic

  • high-context

  • low-context

  • direct

  • indirect

  • elaborate

  • understated

  • translation

  • interpretation

  • intercultural

  • world-mindedness

  • attributional

  • perception-

  • communication


  • code-switching


How do you communicate? How do you think? We use language as a system to create and exchange meaning with one another, and the types of words we use influence both our perceptions and others interpretation of our meanings. Language is one of the more conspicuous expressions of culture. Aside from the obvious differences, vocabularies are actually often built on the cultural experiences of the users.

There are approximately 6500 languages spoken in the world today, but about 2000 of those languages have fewer than 1000 speakers (www.linguisticsociety.org, 2/10/19).  As of 2018, the top ten languages spoken by approximately half the world’s population are Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, English, Arabic, Hindi, Bengali, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese, and Ladhna or Pundjabi (www.statista.com, 2/10/19)).  Chinese and Tamil are among the oldest spoken languages in the world (taleninstuut.nl, 2/10/19).

It is estimated that at least half of the world’s languages will become extinct within the next century.  Of the 165 indigenous languages still spoken in North America, only 8 are spoken by as many as 10,000 people.  About 75 are spoken by only a handful of older people, and are believed to be on their way to extinction (www.linguisticsociety.org, 2/10/19)).  When a language dies, a culture can die with it.  A community’s connection to its past, its traditions, and the links tying people to specific knowledge are abandoned as the community becomes part of a different or larger economic and political order (www.linguisticsociety.org, 2/10/19).

The Study of Language

Linguistics is the study of language and its structure.  Linguistics deals with the study of particular languages and the search for general properties common to all languages.  It also includes explorations into language variations (i.e. dialects), how languages change over time, how language is stored and processed in the brain, and how children learn language.  The study of linguistics is an important part of intercultural communication.

Areas of research for linguists include phonetics (the study of the production, acoustics, and hearing speech sounds), phonology (the patterning of sounds), morphology (the patterning of words), syntax (the structure of sentences), semantics (meaning), and pragmatics (language in context).

When you study linguistics, you gain insight into one of the most fundamental parts of being human—the ability to communicate.  You can understand how language works, how it is used, plus how it is developed and changes over time.  Since language is universal to all human interactions, the knowledge attained through linguistics is fundamental to understanding cultures.

Principles of Verbal Communication

Verbal communication is based on several basic principles. In this section, we’ll examine each principle and explore how it influences everyday communication. Whether it’s a simple conversation or a formal presentation, these principles apply to all contexts of communication.

Language Is Arbitrary and Symbolic

Words, by themselves, do not have any inherent meaning. Humans give meaning to them, and their meanings change across time. For example, we negotiate the meaning of the word “home,” and define it, through visual images or dialogue, in order to communicate with our audience.

Words have two types of meanings: denotative and connotative. Attention to both is necessary to reduce the possibility of misinterpretation. The denotative meaning is the common meaning, often found in the dictionary. The connotative meaning is often not found in the dictionary but in the community of users itself. It can involve an emotional association with a word, positive or negative, and can be individual or collective, but is not universal.  An example of this could be the term “rugged individualism” which comes from “rugged” or capable of withstanding rough handling and “individualism” or being independent and self-reliant.  In the United States, describing someone in this way would have a positive connotation, but for people from a collectivistic orientation, it might be the opposite.

But what if we have to transfer meaning from one vocabulary to another? In such cases, language and culture can sometimes make for interesting twists. The New York Times Sterngold, J. (11/15/98) noted that the title of the 1998 film There’s Something About Mary proved difficult to translate when it was released in foreign markets. In Poland, where blonde jokes are popular and common, the film title (translated back to English for our use) was For the Love of a Blonde.  In France, Mary at All Costs communicated the idea, while in Thailand My True Love Will Stand All Outrageous Events dropped the reference to Mary altogether. Capturing ideas with words is a challenge when the intended audience speaks the same language, but across languages and cultures, the challenge becomes intense.

Language Has Rules

Using language means following rules.  Constitutive rules govern the meaning of words, and dictate which words represent which objects (Searle, 1964).  Regulative rules govern how we arrange words into sentences and how we exchange words in oral conversations.  If you don’t know the various rules, you will struggle to communicate clearly and accurately with others.  Consequently, others will also struggle to find meaning in your communication.

Language Evolves

Many people view language as fixed, but in fact, language constantly changes.  As time passes and technology changes, people add new words to their language, repurpose old ones, and discard archaic ones.  New additions to American English in the last few decades include blog, sexting, and selfie.  Repurposed additions to American English include cyberbullying, tweet, and app (from application).  Whereas affright, cannonade, and fain are becoming extinct in modern American English.

Other times, speakers of a language borrow words and phrases from other languages and incorporate them into their own.  Wisconsin, Oregon, and Wyoming were all borrowed from Native American languages.  Typhoon is from Mandarin Chinese, and influenza is from Italian.

Language Shapes Our Thought

Members of a culture use language to communicate their thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and values with one another, thereby reinforcing their collective sense of cultural identity (Whorf, 1952). Consequently, the language you speak, and the words you choose, announce to others who you are.

What would your life be like if you had been raised in a country other than the one where you grew up? Or suppose you had been born male instead of female, or vice versa. You would have learned another set of customs, values, traditions, other language patterns, and ways of communicating. You would be a different person who communicated in different ways.

It’s not just the words themselves, or even how they are organized, that makes communication such a challenge. The idea that language shapes how we think about our world was first suggested by the research of Edward Sapir, who conducted an intensive study of Native American languages in the early 1900s.  Sapir argues that because language is our primary means of sharing meaning with others, it powerfully effects how we perceive others and our relationships with them (Gumperz & Levinson, 1996).  About 50 years later, Benjamin Lee Whorf expanded on Sapir’s ideas in what has become known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis or what is known today as linguistic determinism.  Whorf argued that we cannot conceive of that for which we lack a vocabulary or that language quite literally defines the boundaries of our thinking.

Contemporary scholars noted that linguistic determinism suggests that our ability to think is constrained by language (Gumperz & Levinson, 1996) and therefore not realistic.  Yet, both Sapir and Whorf, along with contemporary scholars, recognize the dramatic impact that culture has on language.  Because language influences our thoughts, and different people from different cultures use different languages, most communication scholars agree that people from different cultures would perceive and think about the world in very different ways.  This effect is known as linguistic relativity.  Your language itself, ever changing and growing, in many ways determines your reality.

Cultural Variations in Language

 As has been established, language is not culture free.  If your intercultural communication is to be effective, you cannot ignore the broader cultural context that gives words meaning.  We’ve discussed the linguistic issues of language, but what about the cultural issues of language?  Cultural competency is a kind of knowledge of all of the other systems of ideas and beliefs shared by members of a community and transmitted through language (Bentahila & Davies, 1989).  Cultural knowledge can keep second language learners from producing perfectly grammatically correct language yet embarrassingly inappropriate sentences.

Cultural rules about when and how certain speech acts can be performed may differ greatly.  Routine formulas such as greetings, leave-taking, thanking, apologizing and so on do not follow the same, or even similar rules, across cultures causing misunderstandings and confusion.  How language is used in a particular culture is strongly related to the values a culture emphasizes, and how it believes that the relations between humans ought to be.

Attitudes Towards Speaking, Silence, and Writing

In some cultures, such as the United States, speech is highly valued, and it is important to be articulate and well-spoken in personal as well as public settings.  People in these cultures tend to  use language as a powerful tool to discover and express truth, as well as to extend themselves and have an impact on others.  Such countries tend to take silence as a sign of indifference, indignation, objection, and even hostility.  The silence confuses and confounds them since it is so different from expected behavior.  Many are even embarrassed by silence, and feel compelled to fill the silence with words so they are no longer uncomfortable.  Or if a question is not answered immediately, people are concerned that the speaker may think that they do not know the answer.  Countries reflecting these attitudes would include the United States, Canada, Italy, and other Western European countries.

Silence in some Asian cultures can be a sign of respect.  If a person asks a question, it is polite to demonstrate that you have reflected on the question before providing an answer.  In differences of opinion, it is often thought that saying nothing is better than offending the other side, which would cause both parties to lose face.  Sometimes words do not convey ideas, but instead become barriers.  Silence can convey the real intention of the speakers and can be interpreted according to the expected possibilities for speech or have more profound meaning than words.

In hierarchical cultures, speaking is often the right of the most senior or oldest person so others are expected to remain silent or only speak when spoken to and asked to corroborate information.  In listening cultures, silence is a way to keep exchanges calm and orderly.  In collectivistic cultures, it is polite to remain silent when your opinion does not agree with that of the group.  In some African and Native American cultures, silence is seen as a way of enjoying someone’s company without a need to fill every moment with noise.  Or silence could simply be a case of the person having to speak in another language, and taking their time to reply.

The act of writing also varies widely in value from culture to culture.  In the United States written contracts are considered more powerful and binding than oral consent.  A common question is “did you get that in writing?”  The relationship between writing and speaking is an important reinforcement of commitment.  Other cultures tend to value oral communication over written communication or even a handshake over words.

Variations in Communication Styles

Communication style refers to both verbal and nonverbal communication along with language.  Problems sometimes arise when people from different cultures try to communicate, and they tend to “fail to recognize the conventionality of the communicative code of the other, instead taking the communicative behavior as representing what it means in their own native culture”  (Loveday, 1986).  An understanding of communication style differences helps listeners understand how to interpret verbal messages.

  • High Context cultures, such as China, Japan, and South Korea, are those in which people assume that others within their culture will share their viewpoints and thus understand situations in much the same way.  Consequently, people in such cultures often talk indirectly, using hints or suggestions to convey meaning with the thought that others will know what is being expressed.  In high context cultures, what is not said is just as important, if not more important, than what is said.  High context cultures are very often collectivistic as well.
  • Low context cultures on the other hand are those in which people do NOT presume that others share their beliefs, values, and behaviors so they tend to be more verbally informative and direct in their communication (Hall & Hall, 1987).  Many low context cultures are individualist so people openly express their views, and tend to make important information obvious to others.
  • Direct/Indirect styles are closely related to high/low context communication, but not exactly the same.  Context refers to the assumption that speakers are homogeneous enough to share or implicitly understand the meanings associated with contexts.  Whereas, direct/indirect refers directly to verbal strategies.
  • Direct styles are those in which verbal messages reveal the speaker’s true intentions, needs, wants, and desires.  The focus is on accomplishing a task.  The message is clear, and to the point without hidden intentions or implied meanings.  The communication tends to be impersonal.  Conflict is discussed openly and people say what they think.  In the United States, business correspondence is expected to be short and to the point. “What can I do for you?” is a common question when a business person receives a call from a stranger; it is an accepted way of asking the caller to state his or her business.
  • Indirect styles are those in which communication is often designed to hide or minimize the speaker’s true intentions, needs, wants, and desires.  Communication tends to be personal and focuses on the relationship between the speakers.  The language may be subtle, and the speaker may be looking for a “softer” way to communicate there is a problem by providing many contextual cues.  A hidden meaning may be embedded into the message because harmony and “saving face” is more important than truth and confrontation.  In indirect cultures, such as those in Latin America, business conversations may start with discussions of the weather, or family, or topics other than business as the partners gain a sense of each other, long before the topic of business is raised.
  • Elaborate and Understated communication styles refer to the quantity of talk that a culture values and is related to attitudes towards speech and silence.
  • Elaborate styles of communication refers to the use of rich and expressive language in everyday conversation.  The French, Latin Americans, Africans, and Arabs tend to use exaggerated communication because in their cultures, simple statements may be interpreted to mean the exact opposite.
  • Understated communication styles values simple understatement, simple assertions, and silence.  People who speak sparingly tend to be trusted more than people who speak a lot.  Prudent word choice allows an individual to be socially discreet, gain social acceptance, and avoid social penalty.  In Japan, the pleasure of a conversation lies “not in discussion (a logical game), but in emotional exchange” (Nakane, 1970) with the purpose of social harmony (Barnlund, 1975).

Variations in Context Rules of Communication Styles

While there are differences in the preferred communication styles used by various cultures, it is important to remember that no particular culture will use the same communication style all the time.  When a person either emphasizes or minimizes the differences between himself /herself and the other person in conversation, it is called code-switching.  In other words, it’s the practice of shifting the language that you use to better express yourself in conversations.  According to communication accommodation theory (Auer, 1998) this can include, but is not limited to, language, accent, dialect, and vocalics or paralanguage.

There are many reasons why people may incorporate code-switching in their conversations. People, consciously and unconsciously, code-switch to better reflect the speech of those around them, such as picking up a southern accent when vacationing in Georgia.  Sometimes people code-switch to ingratiate themselves to others.  What teenager hasn’t used the formal language of their parents when asking for a favor like borrowing the car or asking for money?  Code-switching can also be used to express solidarity, gratitude, group identity, compliance gaining, or even to maintain the exact meaning of a word in a language that is not their own.

Language & Power

It has been said that all language is powerful and all power is rooted in language (Russell, 1938).  Those who speak the same language not only can make themselves understood to one another, but the ability to make oneself understood promotes a feeling of belonging together.  The identity-forming power of language is incredibly significant.  Based on language, individuals will form small or large social groups that become societies, states, and nations.  (Goethe-Institut, 2/11/19)

Co-cultural groups will be impacted differently by language and social position within a dominant culture or language group.  One’s social position influences how one interprets a communication context or how one is viewed by others within a dominant language group.  Co-cultural groups are often expected to adopt or adapt to the dominant communication strategies.

Politics & Policies

Language management is going on all the time.  Language policy is deeply embedded in beliefs people have about language, and centers around the question of who has the ability or the authority to make choices where language is concerned, and whose choices will ultimately prevail.  This could manifest in official governmental recognition of a language, how language is used in official capacities, or protect the rights of how groups use and maintain languages.

Language policies are connected to the politics of class, culture, ethnicity, and economics. While some nations have one or more official language, the United States does not have an official legal language.  Much debate has been raised about the issue, and twenty-seven states have passed Official English laws (USConstitution.net, 2/12/19). English is only the de facto national language.  The European Union has 23 official languages, while recognizing over 60 indigenous languages.

Moving Between Languages – Translation & Interpretation

Because no one can learn every language, we rely on translators and interpreters.  On the surface level, translation and interpretation seem to be much the same thing, with one skill relying on written texts and the other occurring orally.  Both translation and interpretation enable communication across language boundaries from source to target.  Both need deep cultural and linguistic understanding along with expert knowledge of the subject area and the ability to communicate clearly, but this is where the similarities end.

  • Translation generally involves the process of producing a written text that refers to something written in another language.  Traditionally, the translator would read the source in its original language, decipher its meaning, then write, rewrite, and proofread the content in the target language to ensure the original meaning, style and content are preserved.  Some translators use computer-aided tools to convert the source into a file type for electronic translation, then proof-read each section of the text for quality of content, meaning, and style in the target language.  Translators are often experts in their fields of knowledge as well as linguists fluent in two or more languages with excellent written communication skills.
  • Interpretation is the process of orally expressing what is said or written in another language.  Contrary to popular belief, interpretation isn’t a word-for-word translation of a spoken message.  If it was, it wouldn’t make sense to the target audience.  Interpreters need to transpose the source language within the given context, preserving its original meaning, but rephrasing idioms, colloquialisms, and other culturally-specific references in ways that the target audience can understand.  They may have to do this in a simultaneous manner to the original speaker or by speaking only during the breaks provided by the original speaker.  Interpreters are also often experts in fields of knowledge, cultures, and languages with excellent memories.

The roles of translators and interpreters are very complex.  Not everyone who has levels of fluency in two languages makes a good translator or interpreter.  Complex relationships between people, intercultural situations, and intercultural contexts involve more than just language fluency, but rather culture fluency.

Intercultural Communication Competence

 Has learning about another culture changed or enhanced your impressions for the better?  The gateway to such connections is intercultural communication competence.  Another way to view intercultural communication competence is the ability to communicate and behave in appropriate ways with those who are culturally different.  You are interculturally competent  when you adapt to cultural difference by co-creating spaces, teams, and organizations that are inclusive, effective, innovative, and satisfying.  You can strengthen your intercultural communication competence by becoming more world-minded, practicing attributional complexity, and understanding communication accommodation theory.


 By possessing world-mindedness, you demonstrated acceptance and respect toward other cultures’ beliefs, values, and customs or worldviews (Hammer, Bennett & Wiseman, 2003; Merryfield, et al (2008).  Practicing world-mindedness happens in three ways.  First, you must accept others’ expression of their culture or co-culture as a natural element of their communication patterns (Chen & Starosa, 2005).  Second, you should avoid any temptation to judge others’ worldviews as “better” or “worse” than your own.  Third, treat people from all cultures with respect.

By practicing world-mindedness, you are more than just tolerating cultural differences that you find perplexing or problematic, you are preserving others’ dignity.  World-mindedness is the opposite of ethnocentrism or the belief that one’s own cultural beliefs, attitudes, values, and practices are superior to others’. Ethnocentrism is not the same thing as patriotism or pride in your own cultural heritage.  You can be patriotic and proud of your own heritage without being ethnocentricEthnocentrism is a comparative evaluation where people view their own culture or co-culture as the standard against which all other cultures should be judged (Sumner, 1906; Neulip & McCroskey, 1997).  Consequently, such people tend to view themselves as competent communicators and people from other cultures as incompetent communicators.

Attributional Complexity

Practicing attributional complexity means that you acknowledge that other people’s behaviors have complex causes.  You have the ability to observe others’ behavior and analyze the various forces that might be influencing it.  For example, rather than deciding that a reserved classmate is unfriendly, you might consider cultural theories about communication styles, and language usage before passing judgment.

In addition, you might check you might want to check your understanding of someone’s words or behaviors.  This is called perception-checking, and it’s used to help us decode messages more accurately by avoiding assuming too much.  Perception-checking is a three-part process that includes description, interpretation, and clarification.  First, you should provide a description of the behavior that you noticed.  For example, “you walked out of the room without saying anything.”  Second, you should provide one or two possible interpretations.  Such as, “I didn’t know if you were mad at me or if you were in a hurry.”  And thirdly, you should request clarification from the person about the behavior and your interpretation.  As in, “could you help me understand this from your point of view?”

Perception-checking helps us try to see things from another perspective.  It allows us to examine how people from other cultural backgrounds make decisions and allows us to make comparisons of their approaches to ours.  And finally, it allows others to explain the reasons for their behavior and allows us to validate their explanations rather than challenging them.

Communication Accommodation

 The last way to strive for intercultural communication competence is to embrace communication accommodation theory by meshing your communication with the behaviors of people from other cultures.  People are especially motivated to adapt their communication when they see social approval, when they wish to establish relationships with others, and when they view the language use of others as appropriate (Giles, Coupland, & Coupland, 1991).  In contrast, when people wish to convey emotional distance and disassociate themselves from others, the accentuate the differences through communication.

So what does this mean for intercultural communicators?  Try adapting to other people’s communication preferences (Bianconi, 2002).  Notice how long a turn people take when speaking, how quickly or slowly they speak, how direct or indirect they are, and how much they appear to want to talk compared to you.  You may also need to learn and practice cultural norms for nonverbal behaviors, including eye contact, power distance, and touch.  Use caution to avoid inappropriate imitation though.  Mimicking could be considered disrespectful in some cultural contexts, whereas an honest desire to learn is often interpreted positively on the road to intercultural communication competence.



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