LINGUIST List 32.1704

Fri May 14 2021

Review: Applied Linguistics: Abrams (2020)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 28-Nov-2020
From: Laura Callahan <>
Subject: Intercultural Communication and Language Pedagogy
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Zsuzsanna I. Abrams
TITLE: Intercultural Communication and Language Pedagogy
SUBTITLE: From Theory To Practice
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2020

REVIEWER: Laura M Callahan


This book examines the interface between second language instruction and intercultural communication. It contains an introduction, thirteen chapters, an appendix, references, and index. Each chapter features an overview and summary, followed by discussion questions and activities. Several of the chapters also contain sample teaching activities or other teaching resources.

Throughout the volume, the term L2/Lx (Dewaele 2017) is used to refer to the second language, or what teachers know as the target language.

Part I, “Theoretical and Methodological Foundations”, has three chapters.

Chapter 1, “Key Concepts in Intercultural Communication”, gives an overview of the definitions of culture, the inception of the field of intercultural communication, and the major theoretical models in the discipline.

In Chapter 2, “Pedagogical Foundations of Teaching Intercultural Communication for L2/Lx Use”, Abrams first traces the evolution of language instruction. The very earliest pedagogical goals did not include communication with speakers of the language studied and therefore no attempt at intercultural communication was expected. Later, the objective was for the student to come as close as possible to passing for a native speaker. More recently, the learner’s goal is no longer supposed to be to become like a native speaker, but rather to “mediate between two different cultures and different viewpoints” (Hua 2014: 7, quoted in Abrams, p. 49) and to “participate in L2 speech communities successfully” (p. 42).

In Chapter 3, “The Learner as Analyst: Methods and Sources of Data Analysis”, the author recommends that learners engage in the systematic analysis of interactions in the L2 as well as their L1. Three models to perform such analyses are presented: ethnography of communication, interactional sociolinguistics, and multimodal analysis. Abrams reminds us that “authentic communication is carried out by members of a cultural group – including nonnative speakers of languages – in specific social contexts, where the focus is on ‘content rather than the form’ (Berardo, 2006, p. 62) and ‘to fulfil some social purpose in the language community’ (Little, Devitt & Singleton, 1989, p. 25)” (p. 71).

The book’s transition from theory into practice then begins, with the later pages of the third chapter’s section on multimodal analysis devoted to a consideration of possible data sources from authentic materials and their use with various levels of L2 learners.

Part II, “Pedagogical Implementation”, has seven chapters.

In Chapter 4, “Intercultural Communication: Teaching Vocabulary”, Abrams notes that “vocabulary is one of the most significant contributors to meaning-making” (p. 94). Learners must first acquire some words in their L2 in order to comprehend or produce any verbal communication. Lexical knowledge also allows learners to begin to appreciate variation within a language, which in turn affords access to cultural nuances signaled by different word choices and word pronunciations. Vocabulary also plays a role in teaching idiomatic expressions and word collocations, the use of which can give learners a way to participate in an intercultural exchange long before they develop the skill to formulate such chunks of language on their own.

Chapter 5 is entitled “Intercultural Communication: Teaching Grammar”, a topic that might at first glance seem to be of less relevance to the book’s subject matter. Nevertheless, knowledge of grammar and the ability to use it to make one’s message more comprehensible and “understanding what someone says sets the stage for being able to interact with members of other cultures successfully” (p. 118). And, as noted in Chapter 4, learners should be aware of language variation, because prescriptive norms do not reflect the entire range of usage in the L2 communities.

Chapter 6, “Intercultural Communication: Teaching Pragmatics”, takes the reader through major terms and concepts in pragmatics, including pragmalinguistics, sociopragmatics, speech acts, conventional expressions, politeness and impoliteness, and humor. Next, Abrams reviews the research on teaching pragmatics, concluding that “it is more productive to teach learners how to ANALYZE interactions, how to figure out the relationships between language form and the specific social contexts in which it creates meaning” (p. 146; emphasis added).

Chapter 7, “Intercultural Communication: Teaching Paralinguistic Features”, examines voice quality, prosody, conversational management, and accent. With respect to accent and pronunciation, Abrams references Lippi-Green’s (2012) seminal work, which demonstrated how accents figure into listeners’ prejudicial assumptions (p. 163).

Chapter 8 is “Intercultural Communication: Teaching Nonverbal Communication”. This chapter presents nonverbal communication organized into the following categories: signs (icons, indexes, symbols), personal presentation, kinesics, haptics, proxemics, and chronemics. As with the previous two chapters (on pragmatics and paralinguistic features), Abrams underscores the importance of teaching learners to analyze as opposed to imitate, as well as to avoid generalizations based on an observation of just one interaction.

In Chapter 9, “Intercultural Communication: Teaching Cultural Knowledge”, Abrams first presents the major models of cultural knowledge, including one with which every U.S. language teacher is familiar: products, practices, perspectives (Lafayette, 1996). The reader is then taken through schemata, the frames and scripts of knowledge that help us “recognize and apply patterns that we subconsciously learn from our communicative environment” (p. 206). Obviously, in the context of intercultural communication, learners may need to revise some of their schemata.

Chapter 10 is on “Assessing Intercultural Communication”. We are reminded that authenticity is often sacrificed in favor of the reliability and practicality of an assessment instrument. Traditional assessments encourage teachers to teach and learners to learn that which will be on the test, rather than to teach and learn more authentic language. Alternative forms of assessment can be much more time-consuming and may be less reliable, but “hew closer to real-world communication and tasks” (p. 222).

Part III, “Intercultural Communication and the Personal Journey”, houses the book’s three final chapters.

Chapter 11, “Cultural Transitions”, opens with an overview of the diverse personal circumstances involved in the transition from one culture to another. Migrants, an overarching category in which tourists and students studying abroad are included, are grouped on a voluntary to involuntary continuum. Individual variables that influence intercultural adaptation are considered, as well as models of the stages of intercultural adaptation.

Chapter 12, “Cultures and Identities”, begins with an exposition of identity as a multiplex phenomenon, accompanied by an extensive table detailing aspects of identity paired with linguistic examples. The concept of avowed and ascribed identities is covered, followed by a section on language, identity, and power. In the section on intercultural identity, we are reminded of how culture is so ingrained that people see beliefs and behaviors associated with their own culture as natural and universal, and may judge those associated with other cultures as inferior. Therefore, Abrams notes, “[c]orrecting these assumptions and learning to think of other people and ourselves as embodying equally valid multiple identities is essential for developing intercultural communication” (p. 280).

In Chapter 13, “Miscommunication, Conflict, and Intercultural Communicative Competence”, Abrams observes that “[…] miscommunication is […] is a regular feature of intercultural existence, and learning to accept and manage it is part of intercultural communicative competence” (p. 288). An exposition of Communication Accommodation Theory follows, including what happens in cases of over-, under- or non-accommodation. The role of stereotypes and prejudices is examined, as well as sources of conflict and conflict styles. A simple awareness of conflict styles can help in conflict management and resolution, even if an L2 user does not ultimately decide to adopt a style different from that of their L1 culture.


Throughout the book, Abrams argues against using the native speaker as the only legitimate model and source of information. For example, in Chapter 9, “Intercultural Communication: Teaching Cultural Knowledge”, discussing the importance of a critical selection of sources, she advocates for using non-native informants as well, such as students returned from study-abroad. She maintains that “[…] knowledge is not the restricted domain of in-group members of a culture” (p. 205) and that “insider (emic) knowledge is not the sole purview of ‘native’ members of a culture” (p. 217). This move away from using the native speaker as the maximum model is hardly new. But it bears repeating, and the fact that Abrams considers it necessary to do so is evidence that many students (and some instructors) still see passing for a native speaker as the ultimate goal. For the vast majority this will never be attainable, nor is it necessarily desirable. It also ignores the multilingual reality of most parts of the world, in which many speakers use an L2 (or Lx) on a daily basis.

In the same vein, Abrams avows that “[t]he ideal outcome of extensive L2/Lx learning is the development of an INTERCULTURAL IDENTITY” (p. 278; emphasis original). She asserts that “[…] intercultural individuals also know that they can accept some values and practices from each culture with which they affiliate and simultaneously reject others (while being aware of the possible consequences for flouting expectations)” (p. 279). This is a liberating perspective. It frees learners from the guilt they may feel for having misgivings about a particular aspect of the culture associated with their L2, and thus permits them to continue to engage with the language and culture as opposed to having to choose between wholesale acceptance or rejection.

As is clear from its title and content, this book’s intended readership is language teachers, though it will also have an impact on language learners. Abrams aptly describes these two groups as “this book’s immediate […] and […] indirect audiences […]” (p. 55). At the beginning of Part II, the section of the book on pedagogical implementation, she states that the ideas offered therein are intended to “complement or expand activities that instructors are already using with intercultural communication-oriented tasks from the beginning of L2/Lx instruction” (p. 81), rather than to completely replace current curricula. This will come as welcome news to teachers, who are regularly asked to retool their materials to incorporate supposedly groundbreaking curricular innovations, which sometimes turn out to be merely old practices repackaged. Abrams’ work offers much more than old practices repackaged, but her reassurance that the book is not intended as a replacement for all current practices nevertheless shows some much-needed respect to members of the language teaching profession.

A major strength of the book is its detailed presentation of activities to teach intercultural communication. Just one example of this can be seen in a case-study in Chapter 10, which includes a holistic rubric for “assessing learners’ locally situated, plausible (i.e., semi-authentic) interaction” (p. 228). This rubric is very useful and inspiring, and could be adapted to other languages and situations different from the hypothetical one in the case-study (intermediate learners of Modern Standard Arabic getting a taxi from the Cairo airport to begin a study-abroad program).

Chapter 12’s section on pedagogical activities to foster intercultural identity development in the L2/Lx classroom is likewise full of practical ideas. Teachers will recognize some of these activities as ones they may already use at the novice level, such as having students observe how speakers use terms of address. Another activity would be of especially current interest: a research project on “cultural and social symbols, images, objects and their connection to identity (e.g., school mascots in the United States, including the debates surrounding culturally appropriated images; religious songs; peace or environmental movements)” (p. 284).

Along with the plethora of activities throughout the book, the Appendix contains a richly detailed four-year curriculum.

At times some readers (especially those who teach in the U.S. higher education system) may find themselves questioning the usefulness of all of these activities, or, more accurately, questioning whether they would ever have a chance to implement many of the ideas proposed. For example, the aforementioned Appendix is a fantastic resource. But for most teachers, getting to use the items beyond the second or even the first year of this four-year plan will unfortunately remain a fantasy, as long as U.S. universities continue to hold or reduce language requirements to a bare minimum. Excluding the modest numbers of students who major in a second language, the vast majority of students take from zero to two courses (with each course lasting 10 to 15 weeks) during their entire university career, and never go beyond the most basic level.

To this same point, in Chapter 11, there are two especially tantalizing items listed in the section on pedagogical activities for supporting intercultural transitions. One is the recommendation that language teachers “[h]elp learners identify and enhance their intrinsic/integrative motivations for studying the L2/Lx; even if the language is a requirement, there is a reason why they chose a particular language” (p. 258). This sidesteps the fact that many college students in the U.S. simply continue the language they took in high school, and many high schools offer just one, two, or at most three choices of language. Likewise slightly frustrating is the suggestion that teachers “[a]sk learners to write an essay imagining their life in the host culture two years later (describing ideal selves indirectly)” (p. 259). This could certainly be a creative way to inspire students to go beyond the minimum required level. However, the reality at many universities is that most students not only take few language courses, as noted above, but also that those who study abroad do so in so-called ‘island’ programs. In such programs students live in another country but take courses in their L1, often with fellow students from their home university.

This book also does not (nor does it purport to) solve the intransigent problem of how to use the L2 as the vehicle of instruction to teach intercultural communication while simultaneously teaching novice level learners to speak the L2. For example, in Chapter 13’s section on pedagogical ideas for teaching conflict resolution and intercultural communicative competence in the L2/Lx classroom, Abrams states that “[t]he L2/Lx should be used as much as possible, but discussions in the L1 are useful as well, since they can improve learners’ experiences while they are studying or working in new cultural contexts” (p. 309). What this translates to in practice, however, is that instructors who are admonished to use the L2 at least 90 percent of the time will continue to choose activities that can be done with very low-level linguistic skills. In a typical activity geared toward elementary level learners, students might be asked to compare school lunch menus between France and the U.S. with a Venn diagram, for example.

The issues outlined above have been present for some time in the language pedagogy profession, and it remains to be seen whether conditions will change in response to emerging political and social factors. In the meantime, however, the book Intercultural Communication and Language Pedagogy: From Theory to Practice is an extremely valuable contribution to the discipline of applied linguistics in general and to intercultural communication in particular. This book is a welcome addition to the existing literature on intercultural communication, complementing edited volumes such as Paulston et al. (2012), Nakayama & Halualani (2010), among others. It offers clear theoretical expositions and copious teaching resources, and will be of great interest to language teachers and language teacher trainers. It is well-written, fully documented, and accessible style makes it suitable for courses in language pedagogy at both the graduate and undergraduate levels.


Bennett, Milton J. 2012. Paradigmatic assumptions and a developmental approach to intercultural learning. In Student Learning Abroad: What Our Students Are Learning, What They’re Not and What We Can Do About It, eds. M. Vande Berg, R. M. Paige & K. H. Lou. 90–114. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Berardo, Sacha Anthony. 2006. The use of authentic materials in the teaching of reading. The Reading Matrix 6(2). 60-69.

Borghetti, Claudia. 2017. Is there really a need for assessing intercultural competence? Some ethical issues. Journal of Intercultural Communication 44.

Broadfoot, Patricia & Paul J. Black. 2004. Redefining assessment? The first ten years of assessment in education. Assessment in Education 11(1). 7-27.

Dewaele, Jean-Marc. 2017. Why the dichotomy “L1 versus LX user” is better than “native versus non-native speaker”. Applied Linguistics 39(2). 236-240.

Hua, Zhu. 2014. Exploring Intercultural Communication: Language in Action. New York, NY: Routledge.

Jackson, Jane. 2014. Introducing Language and Intercultural Communication. New York, NY: Routledge.

Lafayette, Robert (Ed.). 1996. National Standards: A Catalyst for Reform. Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook Company.

Liddicoat, Anthony J. & Angela Scarino. 2013. Intercultural Language Teaching and Learning. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Lippi-Green, Rosina. 2012. English with an Accent: Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the United States. New York, NY: Routledge.

Little, David, Sean Devitt & David Singleton. 1989. Learning Foreign Languages from Authentic Texts: Theory and Practice. Dublin, Ireland: Authentik.

Nakayama, Thomas K. & Rona Tamiko Halualani (Eds.). 2010. The Handbook of Critical Intercultural Communication. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.

Paulston, Christina Bratt, Scott F. Kiesling & Elizabeth S. Rangel (Eds.). 2012. The Handbook of Intercultural Discourse and Communication. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.


Laura Callahan is a Lecturer in the Department of Modern Languages & Literatures at Santa Clara University. Previous appointments include The City College and Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Michigan State University, and the University of California, Berkeley. In addition to intercultural communication, her research interests have centered on codeswitching and other contact phenomena; language, race, and identity; linguistic landscapes; and heritage language maintenance. Recent work includes collaboration on the following article: Adriana Raquel Díaz and Laura Callahan. Intercultural communicative competence and Spanish heritage language speakers: an overview from the U.S., Australia and Europe. Journal of Spanish Language Teaching. 2020, 7-2: published online 25 Nov. 2020.

Page Updated: 14-May-2021