Speaking and understanding

It is widely assumed that the most difficult thing about a foreign language is speaking. Yet a speaker always has the options of rephrasing or using body language in order to transmit the intended meaning. In contrast, understanding is directly linked to the spoken or written source, and, apart from the request for something to be repeated, rephrased or explained during spoken face-to-face communication, a receiver cannot facilitate understanding by exerting influence. In order to be well equipped for intercultural (business) communication, it therefore helps to have a precise idea of how understanding works.

Understanding an utterance does not simply require linguistic decoding, but also involves a number of contextual factors and requires an understanding of speakers’ cultural assumptions and their communicative goals (Lindenfeld 1994). In fact, understanding takes place through the joint negotiation of meaning; it is a continuous process of interpretation. “When B answers A communicatively, B makes it clear to A and all others involved in the conversation how he interpreted A’s input and whether he accepts it, as he understood it. B therefore defines the ‘meaning’ of A’s input through his own input” (Brinker and Sager 2001: 154). This concept of understanding and being understood in conversation leads to the awareness that one’s utterances may be interpreted in ways that differ from their intended meaning, and that one may potentially misinterpret the utterances of others. This in turn results in the development of strategic questions for the purpose of understanding, specifying and inquiring, and in the formulation of intermediate summaries at delicate points in international business communication. This will be expanded on in the next section.

Within the framework of interactional sociolinguistics, Gumperz developed the concept of contextualisation references, which are signals making explicit how what is said should be understood and interpreted: “Contextualisation can take many linguistic forms. Among the most important are the choice among permissible linguistic options at the level of pronunciation, morphology, syntax or lexicon - as in code or style switching, the use of intonation or tone of voice, speech rhythm or pausing, and the use of formulaic phrases or idiomatic expressions that have particular interactional import” (Gumperz and Cook-Gumperz 2007: 23). Such con- textualisations can be helpful in intercultural (business) communication, but can also be completely misleading as different conventions are dominant in different cultures. By contrast, the use of contextualisations that make meaning lexically explicit in place of para-linguistic signals (e.g., tone) always serves a disambiguating function and contributes to understanding. Such devices include metalinguistic comments (e.g., “I mean that now as an urgent request” following an indirectly formulated request)

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