How many times have you heard from an Englishman, in reaction to your kind question: ‘Good morning, how may I help you?’ – ‘Yes, I wonder if you can….’
Probably the most irritating sentence you can hear first thing in the morning.
Or maybe you have had the pleasure to talk to a Spanish or Italian person in English. The moment you hear: ‘Listen, I have a question…’ you start grinding your teeth. And when to your goodwilled inquiry: ‘Is there anything else I can help you with?’ they respond with: ‘No, I have finished’, you feel like strangling someone. Strangely enough, if you happen to speak Spanish or Italian you may find out that this rude old witch on the other end of the phone line is actually a lovable sweet creature with a great sense of humor.
So what is happening here? Are these people schizophrenic? Well, probably not to the point you would wish them to be. We touch here upon a very interesting issue of biculturalism, that is, the degree of familiarity with L1 (native tongue) and L2 (second language) cultures. Els Oksaar in her paper Multilingualism and multiculturalism from the linguist’s point of view defines biculturalism on the basis of a broad view which sees culture as the ways of a people, i.e. the defining characteristics of a person or a group, including behavior patterns: “Multiculturalism of a person is realized in his ability to act here and now according to the requirements and rules of the cultures”.
Language is always used in a context, within a language environment, which includes shared knowledge, common experience and assumptions. Not every person knowing two languages may call himself bicultural. It is especially important in the view of pragmatics of a language. Pure linguistic competence may not be sufficient when it comes to cultural differences between speakers of various languages. Here the communicative competence gains in weight. Effective communication can proceed without hindrance only when the speakers are aware of the cultural implications. Application of the L1 set of cultural values when addressing native speakers of L2 is likely to lead to misunderstanding. The speaker may, quite unintentionally, appear to be arrogant, strange or ignorant, simply because his oral production lacks the concordance of linguistic items and cultural conventions.
Proficient means aware of cultural implications
Although it is absolutely natural in Italian to say: ‘Senta, ho una domanda…’, using the imperative form of a verb in English is considered very rude in a formal situation. In addition, the more fluent the bilingual becomes, the fewer allowances will be made and the less tolerant the native speakers of the other language will be of violations of cultural assumptions. Hugo Baetens Beardsmore in his Bilingualism: basic principles puts it this way: “the further one progresses in bilingual ability, the more important the bicultural element becomes, since higher proficiency increases the expectancy rate of sensitivity towards the cultural implications of language use.”
So maybe we could cut them some slack next time our Italian or Spanish friends greet us with ‘good evening’ at two p.m. After all, it is after five somewhere out there.