What the study of intercultural interaction can reveal about the use of English

As a sociolinguist, Professor Lisa Fairbrother of the Department of English explores the broad range of problems that occur during English communication both inside and outside Japan. When people from different backgrounds interact, what sorts of misunderstandings or problems might arise, and why do they happen?

In short, the subject of my research is “language problems.” Delving a bit deeper, I look at what happens during English communication between people from different backgrounds, the effects of those backgrounds on said communication, and what sorts of problems can arise as a result. The causes of communication problems are numerous and can include things such as where a speaker was born and raised, the type of social system they are used to, their customs, social class, their relationship with their interlocutor, and, of course, their language proficiency.

When considering why misunderstandings occur, one reason is related to the mechanics of language. For instance, some words can have different meanings, depending on the type of English used. For example, “first floor” can refer to either the “ground floor” or the “second floor” of a building, depending on whether the speaker is American or British. Other problems can be caused by grammatical differences between languages, such as how one replies to negative questions.

However, what interests me most are the causes of miscommunication that go beyond grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. For example, miscommunication sometimes occurs due to differences in conceptions of politeness. There is a funny story I often hear from Japanese students who have experienced study abroad. A member of their host family, offering some delicious looking cake, asks, “Would you like some cake?” to which they reply, “No, thank you,” believing that they are being polite to first refuse. However, the cake immediately gets cleared away and the student is left feeling hungry. This type of misunderstanding is caused not by the student’s use of grammar, but rather by the intended meaning behind their words, which was missed by their host family.

In class, students are always surprised when I tell them, “I didn’t graduate from high school.” To clarify, there are no high school graduation ceremonies in England, and the word “graduation” only refers to graduation from university.  Therefore, the difference in education systems can also lead to misunderstandings.

Exploring value differences that lead to friction

One area of research that interests me greatly is the interaction that occurs in the workplaces of global businesses, where employees gather from all over the world and communicate in English. I interview employees, asking them about their recent interactions at work, and from there hone in on the types of communication issues that happen from day to day.

To illustrate, we can look at two concepts commonly of significance in the Japanese workplace: politeness and hierarchy. For example, a South American employee was working for an international company in Japan that, on the surface, promotes an open, non-hierarchical corporate culture. Taking this literally, he approached and spoke directly with the global CEO who had been visiting the Japan office from overseas. Although their exchange was cordial, the employee was met with antagonism from his Japanese co-workers for not respecting the hierarchy. Even though English was the language being used, this example shows that Japanese values can strongly influence English interactions. Not recognizing these influences can even lead to communication breakdowns.

Research reflecting diversity in society

When people whose mother tongues are not English interact together, disagreements can occur over whose English is the most appropriate or correct. In these cases, group power dynamics can play a significant role, with the English of the person in the highest social position often being pushed forward as correct. In my view, the relationship between language and sociological factors, such as power, social class and gender, is an important area of research.

Reflecting the rapid growth of the internet, I’m now working on a new research topic: language problems and technology, particularly relating to online forms and procedures. For example, in Japan, many problems occur when non-Japanese names are input online using Roman and katakana characters, and I am investigating these issues. If people continue coming to Japan from overseas to live and work, language problems will increase, and I believe the insights offered by sociolinguistics will be of enormous benefit.

The book I recommend

“Communicating with Foreigners”
by J.V. Neustupný, Iwanami Shinsho

This book begins with the question “what is a foreigner?” and its content resonates with my experiences during my initial arrival in Japan. Although outdated now, it really stimulated my curiosity for sociolinguistics and led me to pursue further study and research at graduate school.

Lisa Fairbrother

  • Professor
    Department of English Studies
    Faculty of Foreign Studies

After receiving a B.A. Hons. in Modern History from Oxford University in 1992, Lisa Fairbrother came to Japan as an assistant English teacher and started to learn Japanese. She received an M.A. in Teaching Japanese as a Second Language and a PhD in Japan Studies (Linguistics) from Chiba University, and joined Sophia University in October, 2002.

Department of English Studies

Interviewed: June 2022

Sophia University

For Others, With Others