Completion of the Pragmatics and Intercultural Communication project

News summary

A team of researchers based at Lancaster and Cambridge responsible for the ESRC-funded project 'Pragmatics and Intercultural Communication' (2003-2006), have announced the end of the project's funding period and to wish draw colleagues' attention to its findings so far. They would welcome any critical comments or feedback on any aspect of the project which continues to generate research papers from members of the team and colleagues at other universities in the UK. The wide-ranging corpus of data is in the public domain and may be used for learning purposes by students or teachers or as a basis for further research by individuals.

Pragmatics and Intercultural Communication: 'The PIC Project'

Project website

The main objective of the 'PIC project' was to carry out a critical analysis of communication between foreign language teaching assistants and the 'teacher/mentors' responsible for their professional welfare in French and English Schools. Its aim was to investigate and to differentiate between the various factors (psychological, linguistic, political and cultural) which determined the success or failure of their professional relationships. Students from five British and three French Universities volunteered to participate. With the full support of The British Council, the Centre International des Etudes Pédagogiques, the French Ministry of Education, Local Education Authorities and Académies, 57 students (24 French and 33 English) were placed in a cross-section of schools in different regions of France and in the South-East Midlands and East Anglia areas of England.

Both students and prospective teacher/mentors were prepared for the project in a series of workshops in both countries. The students were tested psychologically, responded to questionnaires and took part in focus groups relating to their preparation for the period of residence abroad and to their expectations. They also rehearsed 'critical intercultural incidents' derived from previous research which 'trained' them in techniques of observation and recording of their experiences, orally and in writing.

Data was subsequently collected in four formats: 'live recordings' of face to face exchanges, oral records of their reactions to these, written journals on the development of their relationships with their 'teacher/mentors' and 'retrospective reflections' gathered at final workshops. It was thereby possible to compare 'live' data with 'metapragmatic' reactions on the part of the interlocutors towards the exchanges. The data was transcribed in its entirety, codified and stored on computer for subsequent analysis using Atlas Ti5. A project website ( - also accessible by googling 'Pragmatics and Intercultural Communication') was set up. It contains the full set of data, a progressively updated summary of the project's findings and outlines of the published papers emanating from the research.

Physical dissemination of the findings has taken place through specially organised national and international workshops and presentations by members of the research team at international conferences (see website and below).

At the institutional level, the Project's principal finding has been that despite the high quality of available preparatory material offered by government agencies, lacunae persist in students' preparation for the programme. This applies particularly in the field of pedagogy, given the increasing demands placed on assistants in schools. In addition, educational policies in the two countries (such as GCSE examination syllabi or the compulsory inclusion of English in French primary schools), themselves the expression of national cultures, are key determinants of the topics of exchange and their likely outcomes. These policies also to a large extent determine the nature of the teaching undertaken by the assistant.

At a theoretical level, the Project demonstrates that intercultural verbal communication cannot satisfactorily be understood in terms of universal politeness principles. Specific cultural codes regulate what is considered appropriate in given situations, for instance those dominated by such functions such as 'giving information', 'seeking advice', 'complaining', 'praising', 'criticising' and 'apologising'. These codes are likely to be as much the product of particular contexts as of nationally determined linguistic patterns of behaviour. Not surprisingly, students need to be aware in advance of the codes appropriate to the contexts concerned if they are to manage their professional relationships successfully in the foreign school environment. For example, in 'giving information' and 'seeking advice', a major institutional difference between the French and English contexts is that the post of 'head of department', standard within English schools, does not exist in the French education system. Inevitably, what is deemed to be 'reasonable' in requesting guidance differs between the two countries. In England, the Head of the French department can be expected to know the timetable of the assistant and would normally take responsibility for her (his) teaching programme; in France this is not the case. If English assistants require this type of advice, they need to be more circumspect in requesting it and require more diverse negotiating skills. This knowledge and the type of expression appropriate to the occasion, together with the role and status of the interlocutor, define the nature of an 'activity type' – or the bundle of culturally determined conventions governing professional interchanges. Contrary to popular stereotype, the French students exercised more reticence than the English in seeking advice and complained less when things went wrong. In general, the French suffered fewer breakdowns in communication due to language difficulties than did the English. Analagous, culturally determined, 'rules of conduct' were at play in interpreting 'praise' or the giving of 'compliments'. While the English teachers were more liberal in expressing personal approval of the assistants than their French equivalents, these attitudes were readily interpreted by the French students as 'false' if they were not sustained. As might be expected, the French teachers were viewed as being more 'formal' than the English. Again, such cultural criteria needed to be understood prior to departure, and appropriate linguistic instruments developed, if a successful cross-cultural 'rapport' was to be established with colleagues in the place of work.

The originality of the project and the quality of its contribution to the field of intercultural pragmatics lies in having provided empirical evidence of cultural differences in attitude and speech behaviour between two directly comparable experimental groups, fulfilling similar roles and undertaking analogous communicative tasks in professionally equivalent situations. The data is original in that it combines live interchange with retrospective analysis by the participants of the factors conditioning its outcomes. Its analysis has exposed the mechanics of communication between language assistants and teachers in French and English schools. It has tested the validity of stereotypes of English-French cross-cultural communication by closely examining patterns of communication in a number of selected domains. It has provisionally concluded that the rules governing given types of exchange (or 'activity types') are culturally determined and specific to particular contexts. Their make up can only satisfactorily be explained by an approach which combines the quantitative analysis of specific 'moves' with a qualitative insight into their symbolic connotations, sequential structure, style and impact and a knowledge of the environment in which they occur.

Robert Crawshaw
Jonathan Culpeper
Julia Harrison
Barry Jones