Can different cultural belongings influence the learning of a second language?

Lucia Maddii
IRRE of Tuscany

In this contribution, structured through key questions, the linguistic and extra-linguistic sides of communicative competence and the problems of inter-cultural communication will be discussed. My aim is to prove that to foster the learning of a L2 it is necessary to take into consideration the cultural variable, as it can influence the learning process to a great extent.
After defining language and communicative competence, I am going to show, referring to the works of Professor Balboni and his collaborators of "Ca' Foscari" University of Venice, how cultural belonging can lead to misunderstandings in communication and to real "inter-cultural accidents". Given that - as Krashen states - emotional filters influence the quality, the quantity and the timing of learning, finding oneself in situations of embarassment or of real "cognitive dissonance" can slow or block the learning of a L2. Finally, I will try to give some inputs for research to be developed in further contributions.
1. What is a language?
2. What is communicative competence?
3.What does learning a L2 mean?
4.What are the communication problems linked to non-verbal languages?
5. What are the inter-cultural communication problems linked to the language?
6. What are the communication problems connected to views and values the speakers don't share?
7. How does culture influence learning?
8. What is cognitive dissonance?
9. What teaching/learning strategies could be carried out to encourage the overcoming of inter-cultural communication problems?

1.What is language?
Language is generally defined as an instrument of communication and of expression of thought, but language is also an instrument to build and transmit a culture. It is a multi-functional (as it is used not only to tell, to represent, but also "to act"), multi-level (as the cognitive, affective, social and contextual level are tightly interwoven in it), multi-channel (because it uses various channels: gestures, mimicry, prosody, proxemics, vestemics namely, the clothes we wear -which contribute to building up of the meaning of a message.

2- What is communicative competence?
Paolo Balboni, Professor of the Ca' Foscari University of Venice, defines commmunicative competence as a pyramid with three sides:
· to know how to make language (understanding, reading, writing, monologizing, talking, translating)
· to know how to act with language (what includes social, pragmatic and cultural dimension)
· to know verbal and non-verbal languages, what includes linguistic (morpho-syntactic, textual, phonological, paralinguistic) and extra-linguistic (kinesics, proxemics, vestemics and objectemics, namely the use of the objects one brings and gives as gifts) competence.
Communication is made up by events which occurr in a situational context.
According to Balboni, the communicative situation can be defined through four variables:
- the place in which the communication takes place, which can be divided into physical setting and cultural scene. "The peculiar characteristic of intercultural communication is that it occurs between people coming from different scenes, independently of the physical setting where they are, and keeping the rules and the values of the cultural scene they came from" (Balboni, 1999, p.26);
- the time, whose concept, as we know, varies from a culture to another;
- the subject, which interlocutors may seem to share, even though it is necessary to remind that the underlying values may not be the same (and this can lead to misunderstandings):
- the participants' roles, which are conferred and kept in different ways in different cultures.

A communicative event also includes:
- a linguistic text;
- extra-linguistic messages (mimicry, voice tone, gestures...)
- expressed and unexpressed aims, which are expressed in each culture following well -established rules, varying according to the status, the hierarchy and the sex of people involved in the conversation;
- psychological attitudes towards the culture, the institution, the group or sex the interlocutor belongs to (attitudes which emerge especially through extra-linguistic messages)
- a contextual grammar including - in addition to place, time, subject, role - an established sequence for a given event, a sequence which can be more or less ritualized and rigid.

3 - What does learning a second language mean?

Taking into consideration what stated above, learning a second language means developing one's morpho-synctactic competence, one's phonological competence, one's textual competence, but also one's pragmatic, socio-linguistic and cultural competence.
In inter-ethnic communication it is the discourse system what causes the most serious difficulties ( i.e. the way in which ideas are connected, the way in which they are highlighted, the way in which emotionally charged is transmitted). So the main problem is lies not in understanding what is being said, but why it is. Information on the why is not conveyed in the same way by speakers belonging to different cultures. Differences lead not only to misunderstandings, but also to stereotypes and tension between groups and individual speakers.

4- What are the communication problems linked to non-verbal languages?

According to Balboni , we are more seen than listened to; 70/80% of information comes from the eye and only 10/15% from the ear. So, in understanding a message (and in communication) the non-verbal language plays a very important role. Let us consider the problems which can arise in intercultural communication.

smile: it is universally used to communicate positive messages, but in the Asiatic culture it is also used in situations in which a person feels uncomfortable (instead of disagreeing or answering no, Asians often just smile and keep silent, a situation that an Western persons will certainly interpret as a sign of approval).

look: a complex codification of timing, look direction- which varies according to the context, the hierarchy, the intimacy, the sex of the interlocutors- exists, and these rules varies from a culture to another. A well known misunderstanding often occurs between the Italian teacher and the Chinese pupil; the Chinese pupil who has been reproached stares down the ground. This attitude is interpreted by the teacher as a sing of falseness, or anyway of scarce repentance of the pupil; the teacher furtherly rebukes the pupil telling him/her: "Look at my eyes when I am talking to you!", while for the Chinese pupil, keeping his/her look down was meant as a sign of respect for the teacher.
Finally, let's just think for a moment how much the time allowed for eye exchanges between people of different sexes varies according to the culture, before it is considered an erotic proposal.

facial expression: expressions are quite universal, but their quantity and intentional control varies a lot. In the Mediterranean area people let emotions and feelings emerge quite freely through facial mimicry (we should consider separately the man who is not supposed to reveal his own "weakness"). In other areas of the world, especially in Asia, a certain control on one's expressions is required; this control on oneself gives us, as Mediterranean people, the sensation that Asiatic people are inscrutable, or at any rate that they feel less intense feelings than we do, which, of course, is simply not true.

arms and hands: probably the hands, together with the face, are the instruments of non verbal communication which are used and codified to the greatest extent; so it would be difficult to make a complete overview of the extreme variability, even from one area of Italy to another. Let us take into consideration, for example, how one's hands are used to greet, from palm rising to hand shaking, to the gestures meaning "come here", "what do you want", "go away", and so forth. Sometimes quite gestures having a positive meaning in a culture, as the American gesture meaning O.K., can be offensive in other cultures.

legs and feet: keeping one's legs crossed with one's ankle on one's knee or taking off one's shoes may be a sign of relaxation in some cultures, but on offensive gesture in others; showing one's shoes soles is very offensive in the Arabian culture, as for us Italian taking off one's shoes is a sign of scarce respect (but not in the Arabian culture, in which to take off one's shoes to get in the mosque is necessary).

body smells, noises and humors: without entering into details, the degree of tolerance for what comes from the body or belongs to the body varies. Nearly all the cultures consider impure what comes from the body, but some rules vary; in the Western culture, for example, you are allowed to blow your nose, while in Japan, but also in China, it is considered disrespectful. It has occurred to me several times to see Chinese pupils going under their desk or trying to hide in a hidden place endeavouring to stop a running nose (not to blow it) with their handkerchief as doing it in the presence of the teacher would be disrespectful.

distance between bodies: each of us has got, more or less consciously, a sort of "bubble" within which one feels safe. When someone crosses the limit of this bubble, we feel his/her proximity as an aggression and we feel uncomfortable. Let's give an example: more or less, in central Italy and in a great part of Mediterranean countries, we think that the "right" distance between two interlocutors, who of course are not intimate friends, is about one arm. In Northern Europe the limit of one's bubble is perceived to be at a distance of about two arms. In Southern Italy and in the Arabian world, but also in other parts of the world, the distance between two speakers may be less than an arm, and touching one's interlocutor often occurs. It is clear that the conversation between two people having bubbles of different size is a cause of extreme uneasiness: who is used to staying at a two-arm distance from his/her interlocutor feels the other's proximity as a personal aggression, while his/her interlocutor will perceive the other's keeping his/her physical distance as a sign of coldness, emotional distance and scarce affective involvement.
In addition to these very general rules there are rules regulating the contact between people belonging to the same sex or to different sexes and between more or less intimate people. Finally, the rules about who to kiss, how, where, when and how much are different in each culture: in Italy (northern - central)the kiss between men is not common, while it is normally used as a greeting in the Southern Mediterranean area. Kissing in public (between a man and a woman, but also between father and son) is tolerated/allowed to different extents.

clothes: "the cowl does make the monk", and the concept of elegance/formality, varies from a culture in this case, changing the Italian proverb a little, another, also within the Western culture.

status symbol objects: they vary from one culture to another, but also from one social class to another and from a group to another. Objects, symbols (badges, marks), brands denoting welfare and wealth are often valid only for one culture, and insignificant for another. Having a dress,
a pen or a watch of a certain brand may communicate the status of "rich" in a specific culture, but such details may be insignificant for other cultures. Showing one's wealth, wearing heavy gold jewels or showy rings may be interpreted in some cultures as a sign of scarce refinement, but in other cultures it can be a sign of social welfare and of one's education level (as men's heavy rings given as a present for one's graduation).

objects people usually offer: offering something is always a sign of respect for one's guest, as it is accepting it. But the rules about the objects that one can offer and the way in which one can insist in offering or refuse to accept vary. In Italy, for instance, we tend (luckily this trend is weakening) to insist especially when we offer foods or drinks, which makes people belonging to different cultures (as the Anglo-Saxon one) and used to very different manners feel quite uncomfortable.

gifts: of corse a gift is a means to communicate respect, friendship, affection, but it can cause inter-cultural misunderstandings. Every culture has got objects that cannot absolutely be given as a gift in given occasions: in Italy, for example, we don't give chrysanthemums as a present, and we don't give flowers to a woman going to give birth (before the child has been born, they would be of bad omen). In Germany offering flowers wrapped in cellophane is offensive. Also the rule about whether to unwrap or not to unwrap a gift in the presence of the person who gave it varies; in the West people unwrap gifts in order to show they like them, while in several Eastern countries people thank without opening the gift.

5- What are the inter-cultural communication problems linked to the language?

There are some more specific linguistic aspects which can lead to inter-cultural accidents or misunderstandings:

volume and pitch: in Italy we speak in quite a loud voice. Various foreign people, especially from Northern Europe, told me they didn't understand why their interlocutors shouted: what had they done? Why were their interlocutors angry with them? If we also consider the fact that the distance between the bodies is shorter, that we gesticulate while speaking, we may understand their feeling uncomfortable, the sensation of being aggressed of our interlocutors who are accustomed to softer tones, controlled gestures and greater physical distance.

speed: speaking with a foreign person slowing down one's speech speed is a sign of respect for the person who is less competent. Not all of us act in this way, and this can trigger negative reactions in our interlocutors.

superposition of voices: Mediterranean cultures normally accept superposition of voices. It is even a sign of involvement in a discussion. Instead, in other cultures, a little time to reflect and answer is allowed. We can say that in Italy, as in other Mediterranean cultures, there is horror vacui, and for this reason the time between a cue and the following answer is always very short and there is low tolerance of silence (we use a range of pre-established sentences as fillings not to stay in silence). On the contrary, Scandinavian people are annoyed by superposition and require a rigid respect of turn-taking; in a conversation such fillings are not necessary and interlocutors don't feel uncomfortable with silence.

lexical choices: even without considering the problem of the possibility to translate a word from one language into another, there are other problems linked to lexical choices, above all in cultural exchanges, especially at a technical or scientific level. There is a contrast between Western people's request for exactitude and Eastern people "tolerance of ambiguity".

morpho-syntactic aspects: even not taking into consideration at this point the problem of the differences between languages with a very rich verbal morphology (as Italian is) and non-inflected languages (e.g. the Chinese language) we momentarily focus on the use of some verbal tenses as future and imperative. Without investigating the matter of the different conceptions of time, we can say that non-Western interlocutors may be annoyed by the certitude with which Western people talk about future: si Dios quiere, if God wills, inshallah, Arabian people say, because future is in God's hands: nobody actually knows what he/she is going to do tomorrow, and to state it with certainty is mere presumption.
Scollon and Scollon report that one of the causes of the bad relationship between Americans and Athapaska (North American native people) is for instance the habit of the former of concluding a conversation saying "see you soon" or "see you tomorrow", sentences sounding arrogant to athapaska people, as Americans treat the future as if it belonged to them (in addition to that, talking about the future is of bad omen in the opinion of Athapaska people).
Anyway, even in the Italian language the future tense is not very used; it often expresses uncertainty, the "maybe", while to speak of actions going to occur, but of which we are sure, we use the present tense (I take the train at seven, I go out in a minute).
Even the use of the imperative tense follows different rules: in some culture the direct request is permitted, as it is for Israeli people, while in other culture requests and orders are mitigated up to nearly hiding them, as in the Japanese culture (the outcome may be for example, respectively "please, hand me the salt-cellar", "can you hand me the salt-cellar, please?", "Is there any salt?")

Interrogatives and negations: each culture has different codified rules to say no or to disagree: answering no to one's interlocutor's request or question, especially if he/she is a person of a certain influence, is practically forbidden in some cultures. When a teacher asks his/her Chinese pupil "Have you understood?", he/she can answer but "Yes", even if it is not true, because answering "no" would be an offence, it would be like telling the teacher "you haven't explained properly". The "yes" - when it should be a "no" - in Asiatic parents' and students' answers is not to be considered as a lack of respect, or as being taken for a ride; it is simply due to the fact that - in their opinion - if we ask a yes/no question, it means that we "want" them to answer yes, and they do so for respect.

Titles and appellations: each cultures has its own rules about highlighting or not a person's professional titles (doctor, engineer, professor, architect), as well as the way in which "mister", "mistress" and "miss" are used in different ways. Anyway, what can lead to inter-cultural accidents is above all the name and surname of people. In China you may not address to a person using his/her first name, but only using his/her surname-name or his/her surname preceeded by "mister x" or "mistress y". Even in family life the Chinese don't use their first name, but the degree of relationship; even wife and husband call each other using titles. It may happen that children don't know their granparents' first name, and even that of their parents: teachers can interpret this as a will to hide an illegal situation, while really children don't know their relatives' first name. If we consider that in the Chinese language there is a specific word to mean not only the degree of relationship, but also if a relative is a maternal or paternal relative or if he/she is older or younger, we can understand that that is possible (for example, there is a given word to mean the eldest maternal aunt or the eldest brother or even the youngest paternal uncle...).

formal - informal: without investigating the matter in depth, the various cultures use formal and informal registers in different ways, and there are different rules to establish when it is allowed to change from formal to informal and with which formulas. In Italy, to address somebody as "tu" (you) is quite frequent among colleagues, while it is more less frequent to address the head as "tu"...

text structure: it is very important to remind that texts structure varies from ones culture to another. Argumentative texts in Italian, German, Slavish, Spanish go from a point A to a point B, through a series of digressions and could be graphically represented as a broken line; Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian texts go straight to the point and all accessory information is conveyed later; the Asiatic text and partially the Arabian one are structured through progressive approaches to the point, following a way that could be defined spiral-like.
Let's consider the problems children used to a certain textual structure - and so to a different disposition of information in a text - meet in studying subjects. Probably, in a given learning phase, children tend to transfer the textual structure of their language in their writings; in our opinion, the texts they write can be confused, repetitive, while in reality they simply write following the textual rules of their language.

6- What are the communication problems linked to views of the world and values the speakers don't share?
In addition to the linguistic and non-linguistic elements considered above, there are other elements of more general character which cause uneasiness (or dissonance, as will be better specified later) in learning languages, especially in school.

· The socio-linguistic context, namely the fact that, in school, writing prevails on oral communication, rationality on affectivity and Culture on culture; these differences cause problems to students belonging not only to "other" cultures, but also to other social "classes".

· The historical problem, for instance having to learn the language of colonizers; a less relevant factor as far as Italian language is concerned (even if it is possible that it has an influence on learners coming from Ethiopia or Eritrea), it can be very relevant in learning French or English.

· Logic versus syncretism in the language: lack of tense agreement, juxtaposition of ideas, scarce coordination, lack of conjunctions providing logic links - in the Arabian language or in Turkish; approximation versus exactitude in the Eastern culture.

· The status of language and writing.
In the West the language has essentially a pragmatic function ( the language is an instrument to say, represent, organize thought). Let us remind the reader, for instance, that the Arabian language is the holy language of Koran. In many African cultures the word is powerful, it is reserved to seniors, while youth's lot is silence; in these cultures the word has an initiation power, in the sense of a progressive revelation of knowledge; according to these cultures, writing weakens the power of the word.
It's true that in Western culture the word has a magic, evocative and religious power; but this is a less important aspect and is more and more restricted to marginal fields of use, considered as belonging to popular credulity and superstition.

· The cultural dimension of time (linear vs polychronic time)
In the language tense agreement/conjugation follows different rules; for example, in Turkish the degree of certainty of one thing or action, in the perfective or imperfective use, prevails on tense; in the language of Hopi Indians verbs haven't got tenses, but denote the validity of a statement, the knowledge and experience of a fact the speaker has got.

· The time arrow : for instance, Moslim time is more oriented toward the origin than toward the future - in the Arabian language the expressions in front of and past have got the same stem QDM.
· Fundamental differences in the cultural concepts of family, individual, women's and children's roles, religiousness.

7- How does culture influence learning?

The cultural factor influences motivation, anxiety (social anxiety), self -esteem, emotional condition (uneasiness).

As far as
is concerned, I had already referred - in a former contribution of mine - to the different kinds of motivation:
- instrumental motivation : it can be of long or short-term (for example the motivation of learning Italian to practise as a doctor is a long-term instrumental motivation, while learning Italian to obtain a good mark in a class-work is a short-term motivation)
- integrational motivation
for instance the motivation to living in Italy, to entering into relations of friendship with Italians is an integrational motivation;
- intrinsic motivation: general motivation, to say linked to the pleasure of learning for learning's sake, to the texts, to the learning situation;
- identification with one's social group

As far as anxiety is concerned, we can distinguish between
· communicative anxiety (the light tension one feels when one has to speak in public or to people one doesn't know)


· social anxiety, strongly connected to the fear of cutting a poor figure, which at higher levels causes learning problems.

As we can imagine, a learner with a low level of self-esteem, aware of belonging to a group with a low social status, coming from a traditional school education (or with no education) will feel a high degree of social anxiety.

Apart from cultural belonging, activities more or less anxiety-inducing exist.

The level of anxiety is higher in oral expression, as one has less time to plan and uneasiness due to pronunciation is more pronounced, while it is less so in writing and reading.

The most anxiety-inducing oral activities are those carried out in the presence of the whole class (making a report, role plaing, answering to the teacher), while the less anxiety-inducing activity is working in pairs or in small groups.

The more anxiety-inducing writing activity is writing one's own work on the blackboard.

Nevertheless, as the results of various researches have not given clear-cut and univocal directions, it is possible to distinguish

Facilitating anxiety (light state of excitement linked to involvement in the activity and to the desire not to make mistakes)

Inhibitory anxiety (avoiding risk, lack of involvement in the activities, stress) with negative consequences on learning.

8.What is cognitive dissonance?

As cognitive dissonance we mean a painful condition for the human being, a sort of psychological uneasiness which is a result of beliefs or attitudes brought into play at the same time even if incompatible, or of a subjective incompatibility between beliefs and behaviour.
It often occurs to children when thay have to choose between the values of their family and those of their age group.
Such a dissonance often causes irritation, panic, crises which worsen their sense of extraneousness, hostility, indecision, frustration for being far from home.
This happens because the human being needs cognitive coherence; I would say that cognitive organization demands keeping the maximum consonance between the two co-existing simultaneous notions.

To avoid uneasiness the subject either tries to reduce dissonance (namely, one looks for information reducing the dissonance, and avoids information increasing it, selecting, for example, the aspects which are common to the two cultures and concealing differences)


When such a dissonance is extreme, one looks for information increasing it (i.e. one chooses between A and B). For instance, a foreign boy who chooses the way of complete assimilation look for differences and increases the distance with his culture of origin, overestimating the Italian culture and understimating his culture of origin which will be of no use in decreasing the dissonance.

School often puts the pupil in the situation of having to act in evident contradiction with his/her identity and his/her firmest convictions... The more the dissonance attacks the pertinence of the finalities of the group or system, the more it is important and generates resistance. If the dissonance is frequent and very strong, it generates nearly permanent defence mechanisms.
Anyway it is the individual who has to negotiate his/her rescue from uneasiness, changing from a binary reality (either...or...) to a more complex and paradoxical representation (both...and...)
For the individual, probably a double or multiple belonging is better than a double or multiple non-belonging.

9 - What didactic strategies could be carried out to encourage the overcoming of inter-cultural communication problems?

- Expressing the differences of habits, customs, communicative ways through examples (videos, written dialogues, images) and /or direct experiences (maybe also by using a tape recorder or a video-camera)
- Developing learners' awareness that pragmatic universals do exist, but that there is a variety of linguistic means to carry them out
- Being aware of and destroying reciprocal stereotypes and knowing the different ways in which linguisitc acts are carried out.
Getting skilful in intercultural communication means being able to communicate using a series of strategies allowing us to avoid inter-cultural accidents, even if this doesn't mean that one has to acquire a communicative competence perfectly identical to the natives' (in fact there are ways to lower communicative tension, for instance using irony, admitting one's own incompetence, apologizing for one's own mistakes, etc).


- Balboni P., Didattica dell'italiano a stranieri, Roma, Bonacci 1994

- Balboni P. Tecniche didattiche per l'educazione linguistica. Italiano, lingue straniere, lingue classiche, Torino, UTET 1998

- Balboni P.E., Parole comuni, culture diverse. Guida alla comunicazione interculturale, Venezia, Marsilio 1999

- H. Dulay, M. Burt, S. Krashen, La seconda lingua, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1985 (original edition in English: Language two, New York, Oxford University Press, 1982)