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Review of  Intercultural Pragmatics


Reviewer: Stavros Assimakopoulos
Book Title: Intercultural Pragmatics
Book Author: Istvan Kecskes
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Sociolinguistics
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 26.530

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Review:
Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry

SUMMARY

Istvan Kecskes’ latest book is essentially an overview and extension of his substantial previous research in the domain of intercultural communication. Given that Kecskes has almost single-handedly drawn attention to this neglected subfield of pragmatics, this monograph can easily be seen as a milestone in itself. In it, the author goes beyond the mere concretisation of his significant contribution to the understanding of language use across cultural boundaries; effectively, he manages to establish intercultural pragmatics as a legitimate enterprise that is not only worthwhile and interesting in its own right but can also provide significant insights for the more traditional study of theoretical pragmatics. In this respect, this work is of potential interest to both advanced researchers in the area of pragmatics and graduate students interested in it.

The monograph is made up of 10 main chapters accompanied by an introduction and an epilogue section. While the epilogue is, as expected, a brief section summarising the main points of the book and some directions for future research, the introductory section is pretty much as extensive as the main chapters themselves. In it, Kecskes motivates the need for his monograph by drawing attention to the fact that multilingualism is slowly becoming the norm in today’s world. This development should make it imperative for research in language use to keep an eye on the intercultural communicative setting. Against this background, after briefly presenting the subject-matter of his Socio-cognitive Approach, the author turns to discuss its differences from other seemingly similar lines of research, namely sociopragmatics, interlanguage and cross-cultural pragmatics, with a view to showing how interculturality brings a novel perspective in the study of pragmatics.

The first main chapter starts off with a brief overview of the way in which research in pragmatics has progressed, leading scholars in the field to eventually follow one of the two currently predominant strands, i.e. the linguistic-philosophical and the socio-cultural-interactional one. Arguing that traditional individual-centered theorising in pragmatics needs to pay much more attention to the wider sociocultural aspects of communication, the author goes on to introduce the issues that his intercultural perspective has concentrated on so far. These include the shift of the focus from speaker-intentions to “negotiated” intentions that emerge during a conversational interaction, the need to complement current hearer-oriented theorising with a speaker-oriented perspective, the challenge that experimental research on egocentrism (e.g Barr and Keysar 2005) poses for traditional accounts that are based on some notion of mutual knowledge or common ground, and the recent surge of interest in contextualist theories of meaning.

In Chapter 2, Kesckes returns to outline his Socio-cognitive Approach in more detail. In addition to defending his critique of traditional theorising and the idealised notion of communication it assumes, he elaborates more closely on his approach’s merits. These include a balanced interest in the speaker and the hearer, the explication of the relationship between intention and attention in the communicative setting, as well as the emphasis on salience as a guiding mechanism in communicative interactions.

Chapter 3 provides a more thorough justification for the author’s manifesto that traditional pragmatic theory has a lot to gain from incorporating socio-cultural factors in its analyses. Since it is the same pragmatic mechanisms that underlie our communicative abilities, the argument goes, the intercultural setting should not be treated as a deviation from the intracultural one, which has after all been at the centre of attention for theoretical pragmatics so far. In this regard, the main difference between the development of L1 and L2 pragmatic competence is that, in the case of the latter a lot more individual motivation is required. In continuation of the chapter, Kecskes goes on to review the literature on pragmatic competence in a variety of contexts, namely L2, bilingualism and multilingualism, presenting in this way how it thoroughly affects language use. The chapter then concludes with a brief exposition of the notion of pragmatic transfer that the Socio-cognitive Approach adopts.

In the following chapter, Kecskes analyses encyclopedic knowledge from a socio-cultural perspective. After presenting the contextualist stance adopted by contemporary researchers in cognitive semantics, he embarks on an analysis of the ways in which cultural mental models are developed, maintained and can be seen to affect both intracultural and intercultural interaction. Naturally, the focus is again on intercultures, which are defined as ‘ad hoc creations’ that are produced when individuals from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds engage in communication.

Chapter 5 deals with the relatively understudied topic of formulaic language, which includes multiword collocations that are assumed to be stored as a single entry in the mental lexicon. Emphasising the role of psychological saliency, the author provides a thorough description of formulaic expressions. He then suggests that they are so commonly used because they decrease the amount of effort interlocutors have to spend in processing them and embarks on a comprehensive review of the relevant literature both in the setting of theoretical pragmatics and that of English as a Lingua Franca. Ultimately, this discussion ends up with an examination of situation-bound phrases, or utterances as the author calls them, which seem to play a central role in intercultural interaction.

The following three chapters focus in turn on three major elements that are taken to bring together the individual and societal perspective in the study of intercultural pragmatics. The first one is context, which, according to Kecskes, comprises both prior experience and the understanding of the particular setting in which a communicative exchange takes place. After this description of context, a considerable part of Chapter 6 is dedicated to the exposition of the author’s Dynamic Model of Meaning. The basic assumption here is that the meaning of lexical expressions is the result of an interaction of information that is stored in the head of the interlocutors with assumptions about the situation in which the exchange takes place. In turn, Chapter 7 is concerned with common ground. After going through the relevant literature on it, Kecskes presents his Socio-cognitive Approach’s take on the notion of common ground, which is in line with the view of context as a blend of prior experiences with perceptions of the actual situational context. The last of these chapters deals with the third factor that is assumed to shape our understanding of intercultural communication, that is, salience. Much like the previous one, the chapter begins with an overview of the literature on salience. Then, the author turns to discuss the differences between the notion of salience that his Socio-cognitive Approach takes on board and the closely-related one that Giora puts forth in her Graded Salience Hypothesis (2003). In general, the Socio-cognitive Approach distinguishes between inherent, collective (i.e. shared among the members of a speech community) and emergent situational salience. In this picture, inherent and emergent salience influence each other during both utterance production and interpretation, with which Kecskes deals in turn, before showing how the study of intercultural communication indicates that salience can be taken to be culture-specific.

Chapter 9 touches on the topic of (im)politeness. After an inevitably brief overview of previous theoretical deliberations on the matter, Kecskes explains how intercultural pragmatics approaches polite and impolite communication. More specifically, he discusses the role that intention, cultural models and context play in the production and understanding of (im)polite utterances on the basis of numerous examples of interactions in the intercultural setting.

The last main chapter of the monograph turns to the question of what forms of data collection researchers of intercultural pragmatics can make use of. Here, the preferred methods include conversation, discourse segment and corpus analysis, as well as the study of computer-mediated communication, each of which is addressed in a separate section.

EVALUATION

As I have already noted from the beginning of this review, Kecskes’ book is a much needed monograph that summarises his extensive output, which has shaped research in the domain of intercultural pragmatics. However, as the author himself promises, it delivers much more than this. Apart from raising awareness of an often neglected setting in which communication takes place, it also covers an impressive array of topics that have been at the centre of attention in the study of language use, irrespective of interculturality. In this sense, even the comprehensive overviews of the literature on these topics render this book an indispensable reference point for anyone working in pragmatics.

That said, the breadth of this book’s contents could be taken to be its main shortcoming too. The coverage of so many topics in a single monograph cannot realistically be exhaustive. Therefore, if the reader is not familiar with work in the field, s/he would find it difficult at times to identify the reasoning behind some of the proposals that Kecskes makes. For example, even though he repeatedly criticises the (neo-/post-)Gricean perspective in the study of verbal communication, he only offers a brief overview of the rationale behind it. Similarly, when he discusses the differences between his notion of salience and that of Giora’s, he does so on the assumption that the reader is familiar with Giora’s account. Obviously, due to space restrictions, it would be impossible to present and review each of these accounts in a separate section, but the lack of this content could make Kecskes’ argumentation hard to follow for students or researchers who are just starting to familiarise themselves with pragmatics theorising.

More advanced readers, however, will be thoroughly satisfied with the job that Kecskes does in connecting everything together while discussing the challenges that intercultural communication presents for traditional accounts. Clearly, the author’s main intention is to push his intercultural agenda, which he manages to do perfectly well through the use of accessible language, solid argumentation and appropriate examples. If anything, I expect this monograph to inspire much more ground-breaking work in the field. After all, most of its chapters could be expanded into books in their own right.

All in all, I find Kecskes’ ‘Intercultural Pragmatics’ to be a very well-informed, as well as clearly written monograph. Its main limitation is that it can be dense at times, and thus challenging for the non-initiate, but this is certainly understandable given its scope. I would thus have no reservation to recommend it to my advanced students, or colleagues who are familiar with pragmatic theory; in fact, I would insist that they read it, if only to appreciate the complexities of intercultural communication and assess the author’s original point of view.

REFERENCES

Barr, Dale J. and Boaz Keysar. 2004. Making sense of how we make sense: The paradox of egocentrism in language use. In Herbert L. Colston and Albert N. Katz (eds.) Figurative language comprehension: Social and cultural influences. Mahwaw, NJ: Erlbaum.

Giora, Rachel. 2003. On our mind: Salience, context and figurative language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
After his PhD in theoretical pragmatics at the University of Edinburgh and a postdoctoral appointment in philosophy at the University of Granada, Stavros Assimakopoulos is currently a Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Linguistics of the University of Malta. His research lies in the interface of linguistics, philosophy and cognitive psychology and mainly focuses on the implications that cognitive approaches to inferential pragmatics, such as the one offered by Relevance Theory, carry for the study of linguistic meaning.

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Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780199892655
Pages: 304
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