Pragmatics and intercultural communication (27 Mar 06)

Date: 27 March, 2006
Location: The British Council, London
Event type: Colloquium

workshop attendees

A National Research Colloquium organised by the team responsible for the ESRC-funded PIC Project (Pragmatics and Intercultural Communication) 2003-2006. The aims of the colloquium are to disseminate information about the background to The PIC Project and to report on the Projects provisional findings and on the support materials which emanate from it. The meeting will also consider the Projects contribution to current developments in the administration of the Assistants Programme.

The meeting has been jointly organised by the Subject Centre, The British Council and the University of Lancaster. Lunch and refreshments will be provided.

Event report: Pragmatics and intercultural communication

by Alison Phipps, University of Glasgow

The Pragmatics and Intercultural Communication (PIC) event was hosted by the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies, and by the British Council. The day aimed to disseminate initial research findings from the project which had focused on the cross-cultural difficulties experienced by foreign language teaching assistants on placements in France and England respectively. The project is funded by the ESRC and has focused on capturing live data which would enable analysis of areas of pragmatic breakdown in relationships between assistants and their mentors or tutors.

Robert Crawshaw, Jonathan Culpeper and Julia Harrison offered three lively and stimulating perspectives on the research findings and the methodologies employed during the course of the project. There were plenty of opportunities for discussion throughout the day.

The Project

Robert Crawshaw began the day with an overview of the background to the project, its aims and objectives and questions relating to the capture of live data from events and on -going relationships between mentors and mentees. Key questions related to the source of misunderstandings in the relationships and whether or not these can be characterised as 'intercultural'. 3 pragmatic aspects have provided the focus for analysis: 1) Politeness 2) Formality 3) Complaint.


Julia Harrison gave an introduction and overview of the ATLAS database and the typologies used in the codification of the data. The search facilities for the database allow areas such as administration, living, pedagogy, relationship, other school activities, other employment and social life to be accessed . There was considerable discussion about the benefits of the ATLAS database and the range of possibilities it affords for manipulation of the data sets. Data was collected from live recordings of interviews and from log books kept by the assistants.

Activity types and politeness

Why do some of the meetings (between mentors and mentees) partially fail in the eyes of the participants? Jonathan Culpeper addressed this question by examining the data via the theories of activity types and discourse types. In this way he was able to establish the volume of talk of different types in the interactions and to see where this talk was solidarity talk, power talk, managerial talk and how this coincided with the expectations as expressed by the participants.

Formality in discourse

When examining the data from the perspective of the ethnography of communication Julia Harrison established the degree to which formality was a factor in the interchanges. References to formality and informality in the data are both positively and negatively codifiable and demonstrate the presence of factors such as social distance, hierarchy and of formality as a property of the participant's social identities.


In the final presentation Robert Crawshaw focused on the question as to whether or not complaint was occurring in the data or in face to face communication. The extent to which the interlocutors were able to avoid complaint in face to face interaction but narrate complaint in their log books raised questions about the nature of complaint as a speech act or as a goal driven event. Complaint certainly featured in the data but it was not immiediately clear what the nature of this was; a professional engagement; a breakdown in communication; a cross-cultural misunderstanding?


The final round table discussion of the day allowed participants the chance to reflect on the possible future applications of the date for teacher training, foreign language assistant training and for further avenues of research. The potential for analysing the data following dramaturgical lines - through the methodological stagings, through to the 'dramatic' events of the encounters between mentors and mentees was one area of discussion, as was the value of the research in highlighting areas of cross-cultural misunderstanding and conflict for those involved in the foreign language assistant programmes.


The PIC Project: Pragmatics and Intercultural Communication