03.01.2000   ©2000 - Patrick Boylan – patrickboylan.it

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In: D. Killick et al.(Eds.), Poetics and Praxis of Languages and Intercultural Communication,
Glasgow: University of Glasgow Publications, 2001, pp.45-53

N.B. "L2" = your "second language", that is the language you learn after the one learned from your parents. Italian is the "mother tongue" of most students at Roma Tre; so English (or French, Arabic etc.) is their L2.



Relativizing the Concept of Communication


Patrick Boylan


     University of Rome III



What does it mean to 'communicate'?  For mainstream linguistics, Roman Jakobson's response1 is still valid today: communication is the codification of a message by a sender who then transmits it along a channel to a receiver, who decodes it, puts it into context, and thereby comprehends it.   

But is a mechanical/causal definition of this kind - meant to open human communication to systems analysis - adequate in intercultural contexts?  Indeed, it may be asked if this definition is adequate even in those 'monocultural' contexts where values are only partly shared by the participants (as in communication between men and women, bosses and workers, or children and adults of the same ethnic or national community).  

This paper will therefore question, as a starter, the first two words in italics above.    (A future paper will discuss the others.)   On the basis of this critique, it will then be possible to offer a definition of the term 'communication' which has been designed specifically for handling intercultural contexts. 



Is communication really based on the use of a common "code"?


Ordinary experience suggests that the answer to the above question is in fact 'no' - or at least, not entirely.    Take, for example, communication in a couple: the partners may manage very well to communicate their affection for each other while all the time assigning slightly different (or even vastly different) meanings to the word love - as well as to most of the other ordinary words they use, such as meal, us, clean, or hopefully.    Indeed, it might take years of living together before they discover what the other party actually has in mind.    This is because we all speak to some extent a private language à la Wittgenstein (1968 section 243 [1953])2.    In communicating across cultures, the divide widens.

In our increasingly multicultural societies, therefore, it is perhaps time to ask if communication is indeed a mechanical coding/decoding process (which is the vision that language laboratory 'substitution drills' tend to inculcate in L2 students) or whether, instead, communication should be viewed as the search for a common code, a language game in which, over time, the parties refine their interpretative techniques (their 'hermeneutics' as described by Gadamer3). 

The latter vision of communication, if chosen, might then translate into L2 teaching practices like:


·       getting students to chat on the Internet with native speakers of the L2 in order to discover the negative or positive politeness routines considered appropriate in the other culture4; this works especially well with topics considered taboo and with chat programs that give a printout of the interaction for analysis: students learn that, while some cultural constants do exist, they must in any case negotiate implementations with each interlocutor;


·       getting students to prepare alternative versions of an advertisement (based on samples taken from L2 magazines) and then, employing the interview techniques that advertising agencies use before launching a campaign, to verify the reactions of native speakers (exchange students, tourists on the street) to the various epithets used;  students thereby learn to situate the oscillating values assigned by native speakers to a given word as a function of the background and expectations of the subject, the situation, and the investigative procedure used - just as in real life.


Do we really encode "messages" when we communicate?  Do "messages" really exist?  If so, where: in the mind of the speaker or in the words effectively uttered, however infelicitously?


Ordinary experience would suggest that the answer to the first question is 'no': we do not normally encode a 'message' when we speak or write.  That is to say, we do not normally have a clearly articulated 'message' in our minds which we then encode - into Morse, academic English, HTTP, pidgin, whatever - and send off.    Anyone who has written a book, for example, knows this perfectly well.    Authors really understand what they want to say only upon finishing the last draft of their work, i.e., only when their 'message' appears to them to have been satisfactorily elaborated.    That is why forewords giving the gist of a book are always written last: before a manuscript is terminated, the 'message' cannot be said to exist and cannot be summarised with precision. 

When we say we 'encode' messages, then, what we really mean is that we 'elaborate' them, seemingly out of nothing, by juxtaposing the most suitable tokens we have at our disposition.    To be sure, a given token does belong to a given system: lexical, iconic, gestural, etc.    It is not, however, simply an object that we borrow from that system in order to represent, conventionally, an object belonging to another system, as when we use 'MN' to represent 'Minnesota' in Zip Coding a letter to the United States of America.    Indeed, in creating 'messages', we are under no obligation to confirm the generic meanings (uses) of the tokens we employ; we may extend, limit or even contradict those meanings.    (This of course does not hold for highly conventional communication, e.g., writing Zip Codes or signalling ship-to-ship using Navy flags).    In other words, in everyday communication it is the 'message' that (re-)creates the code, not the other way around.    Or, rephrased in Saussurian terms, it is parole that creates langue, not the opposite.

But what is it, then, that we have in mind as we begin to write, and that seems to us to be a clear image of what the future text is to be?  What is it that feeds the writing-discarding-rewriting process yet does not constitute, properly speaking, what will finally appear to us to be our 'message'?

It is what pragmaticists call our 'communicative intent': the sum of the effects (cognitive, affective, volitive) that we want to produce by means of our utterances.    Note that the effects we anticipate mentally - be they an illumination, a catharsis or a resolve - constitute a result.    They are in no way a guarantee that we also have the linguistic means to achieve that result.    In other words, having clearly in our minds a communicative intent, interlaced with the mental state to be produced, does not guarantee that we shall be able to put together the words necessary to produce that state in others - or even in ourselves at some future date.

We all have re-read notes jotted down a week before, only to discover that what had seemed so clear and intelligent is in fact gibberish or, at best, a banality.    Where was the 'message' at the time we jotted those notes down?  On the sheet of paper?  In our minds?  Much more simply, it never existed.   For if, by 'message', we mean our communicative intent, then that indeed was in our minds, but only as a wish.    While if, by 'message', we mean the material elaboration of that intent, then our 'message' is, alas, the gibberish we wrote down: it reproduces the confusion that was reigning in our minds and which our daydreams of the end result served to mask. 

Thus, 'messages' are, at the beginning of the communicative process, only hypotheses of meaning yet to take shape: they are engendered, not 'codified'.    What is more, 'messages' are, even after a text has been definitively formulated by some author, only that author's hypothesis about the sense conveyed by the words laboriously strung together.    This is because (a.) authors can never be sure they are not fooling themselves as to the effective clarity of the 'message' in their minds (the issue just discussed) and (b.) authors can never be sure that the words they have chosen will produce on their readership the effect that those words produce on them.    Thus, the 'message' authors claim to have put into words is only the particular reading that they give their text, i.e. the reading they presume to prevail over all other possible readings their text might offer.    Any text is, at best, an invitation to whomever happens across it to guess (reconstruct) the sense its author intended.    It is a message in a bottle, cast into the sea - ever more blurred by the brine that seeps in over time.

In this sense, the act of composing (or interpreting) an utterance is similar to the overall communicative exchange itself.    It is an attempt at collegially making and attributing (not 'encoding' and 'decoding') meaning.    It is an attempt because the message exists only as a potentiality: time will tell if we have found the right words or assigned the right senses.    It is collegial in that, as we search our minds for the words to render our intent (or as we take stock of the words used in a text), we hear a chorus of voices of the past - the resonance the words have acquired for us - and arbitrate among them.    Collegiality also derives from the perfective nature, just mentioned, of genuine communication: our 'message' comes into existence - i.e., communication effectively takes place - only when someone (the de facto receiver) 'sees' meaning in the sound waves or ink stains we have produced.    Until then, they are just that: sound waves or ink stains that communicate nothing save their existence (plus an implicit invitation to be interpreted, if they appear intelligible).    Authors themselves can be that de facto receiver by putting their text aside a moment and then rereading it with fresh eyes, i.e., like someone else.    Or the de facto receiver can be an entire community - for instance, the public that decrees the success (and thus the sense) of a novel, whatever the author's intent may have been.

It is now possible to answer the second of the two questions raised at the beginning of this section: do 'messages' really exist and if so, where?  'Messages' do exist, but only in the mind of a beholder - or, to be more exact, in the communicative event of which they are a part.    So, communicatively speaking, a 'message' is a systemic modification.  

A 'message' can also be defined from a semiotic standpoint as the encounter of the communicative potentiality of an oral/written text with the expectations and assumptions of its listeners/readers, culturally determined to a large degree.    Behaviourally speaking, a 'message' is the cognitive-affective-volitive modification, often only momentary, that occurs in receivers during a meaning-sharing event.    (We have said that senders, to the extent that they re-experience what they say or write, are also receivers.)   It would perhaps be best to train students to work with the behavioural definition, since it is both empirically measurable and focused.    Using it also helps to establish the acquisition of cross-cultural capability as a behavioural science.   


Teaching practices based on relativizing "code" and "message"


If one admits the relativity of the communicative process, if one agrees that the classical (mechanical/causal) model is too simplistic to be useful - if not always in monocultural exchanges where minor misunderstandings pass unnoticed, at least in most intercultural exchanges - then one must admit that the "communicative" activities typically found in L2 textbooks today are profoundly misleading and that a new paradigm is needed for the study of living languages.5

What does 'misleading' mean?  An example will make the point clearer.    If, as a communicative-approach teacher of French, I tell John to ask Mary the time, add that she's his sister, and give him a cue card bearing:

A.   Quelle heure est-il, s'il vous plaît?      B.   T'as l'heure?

I am in effect telling John to implement the mechanical model of communication.    John must take the message [time?], put it into context [sister¬], encode it graphemically by choosing [B.], encode that phonemically /talœr­/, and then transmit the phonemes and the rising intonation by producing the appropriate sound waves.    Mary, then, has only to invert the operations and 'intercultural communication' will (supposedly) have taken place.  

This, clearly, is no more than a pious illusion.    There is in reality nothing intercultural here.    There is simply the mechanical encoding and transmission of funny sounds standing for what John would have communicated much more naturally by saying


just like everyone else around him does (John, as you can hear, comes from a working class family in Croydon).    No wonder that John complains to Mary, on leaving the classroom, that there should be just one language in the world (by which he means working-class south-east British English, of course) for this would eliminate the need for endless (and useless) encodings and decodings.    Is John wrong?  We would probably all agree he is.    But the fault is not his: it is the inevitable result of using the mechanical model of communication, aseptic and culture-free, in learning an L2.  

In an L2 classroom using a communicative-cultural, project-oriented approach, however, where 'encodings' and 'messages' are not predetermined by the teacher and remain fundamentally open-ended, John and Mary would have a different experience of language learning.    They would learn what communication means when taught and experienced as the problematic co-construction of a culture-bound Weltanschauung.    Let us try to imagine such a classroom.  

As an overall project for the year, students would be asked to identify themselves with a 'double' from the target-language community.    For example, if they were learning French and had a passion for pop music, they would first seek out (in music stores, in pop magazines, on web sites) a French, Belgian or Senegalese pop singer who says things they relate to.    They would then (a.) hypothesise the Weltanschauung of that person and document it, (b.) introject that Weltanschauung at the beginning of each lesson (à  la Stanislavsky) and, as a consequence, (c.) start to talk and behave like the double, within the limits of their linguistic, pragmalinguistic and imitative capacities.    Along with this overall project, prepared individually (mostly outside the lecture hall), they would participate in joint (small group) activities during lessons such as:


·       creating literary pastiches: Students try to imitate the styles of authors studied in previous L2 literature courses.    This presupposes (as in creating a double) identifying and introjecting the author's Weltanschauung.    Students finally grasp, as immanent knowledge, what a Weltanschauung is when they attempt to express an intent in some L2 author's style, felt (for the occasion) as theirs.    They grasp immanently how that intent becomes negotiated meaning when they finally comprehend, through repeated attempts, how apparently minor stylistic adjustments and native speakers' reactions to their text go hand in hand.    (An appropriate 'Guinea pig' public can be had by promoting a literary 'e-journal', half pastiches and half critiques, exchanged with foreign students doing a similar project);


·       organising a debate with a native speaker: Students in a panel argue for a certain cause (e.g., nommer Jean-Luc Godard à l'Académie française) and are judged as to their effectiveness by a native speaker, invited to class, who holds opposite views.    Beforehand, the teacher has presented the sociocultural identikit of the guest (a French colleague, say).   This allows the students to prepare their case after first placing themselves in the guest's linguistic-cultural framework, to be as convincing as possible.   In seeking to make themselves understood by building on the ways their interlocutor talks and thinks - and, from there, moving to a common ground of mutual entente - students see how necessary it is to get ‘receivers’ to collaborate in collegially ‘making meaning’ through working out a common idiom.    Their vision of the problematic status of 'message' and 'code' becomes at this point immanent knowledge.    


L2 'communication' projects such as these would complement activities aimed at investigating the L2 as a 'code': activities like, for example, verifying politeness routines in L2 on-line chats or verifying the perlocutionary force of epithets in L2 ads (see above).    Altogether these projects and activities would constitute an innovative university course in which the acquisition of a new language and culture represents the acquisition of a new consciousness and capacity to be.    Such a course could be aptly entitled: Cross-Cultural Competence in...(L2). 


An alternative definition


In the perspective just described, the word 'communication' (without an article) takes on a much more general meaning: the establishment of a relationship with someone else.    As a consequence, the words 'communicative act' (or the word 'communication' with an article) come to mean simply an instance of concomitant change within a relationship, and the word 'relationship' a state of reciprocal influence.   

Illustrating the full impact of such a definition is beyond the scope of this paper.    But it should be immediately clear that 'communication', thus defined, does not necessarily suppose words or even gestures - it is enough that some relationship be established.    For example, it is enough simply to enter a store in order to create a relationship (by proximity) with the shop assistants there - and thus to 'communicate' with them - even if one remains at the door silent and immobile.    And in fact, shop assistants often say to such a person, as if summoned, 'Yes?'  What exactly establishes a relationship is, obviously, a cultural variable.  

Moreover, it follows from our definition of 'communication' that 'messages' must be taken to be the totality of the communicative event.     In other words, the "message" is not what an instigator intends to "transmit" or effectively "transmits" by her behaviour alone, but rather what the instigator, as only one component of an entire event, collaborates in creating.  

As a consequence, teaching cross-cultural capability means much more than preparing students to use grammatically correct sentences in the L2 or even notionally/functionally appropriate routines.    It means preparing them to perceive communication as a whole event and to adapt their entire behaviour (not just their speech or gestures) as a consequence.    It means teaching them to get their interlocutor to collaborate in forging, through attempts at creating and validating felt 'messages', a 'code' that both parties can feel as theirs.    It means getting them to clarify their presumptions regarding the intent, relationships and concomitant changes that constitute (or that will constitute) the 'message', before wrestling with the words.    It means ridding them of the myth of perfect communication, the nemesis of near-perfect communication (our goal, to all effects).    Above all, teaching cross-cultural capability means teaching students to acquire a culturally authentic presence.   With an authentic presence, students will communicate effectively even while they remain silent and immobile (actors and diplomats know how to do this very well).   And when they do speak, their words will take on a more authentic ring.    This is because whenever people speak - or simply relate - what they express is, above all, themselves and their world.  




1Jakobson, R.   (1982) Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics, in T.A. Sebeok (Ed), Style in Language, Cambridge (MA), MIT Press, pp.350-377 (Reprint of 1958 text)

2Wittgenstein, L.   (1968) Philosophical Investigations, Oxford, Basil Blackwell (First edition 1953)

3Gadamer, H.G. (1960) Wahrheit und Metode, Tübingen, Mohr (Paul Siebeck)

4Brown, P. and Levinson, S.   (1987) Politeness: some Universals in Language Usage, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

5Boylan, P.   (1995) What does it mean to 'learn a language' in today's world?  What role can present-day technology play?, in G.C. Cecioni and C. Cheselka (Eds), Language and Technology, Firenze, Editice CUSL pp. 92-114.    Also at: http://host.uniroma3.it/docenti/boylan/text/boylan00.htm


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