A faint whiff of the other

Language and Intercultural Communication
April 23, 2004

This ought to be a cracking journal. It is concerned with language, always an interesting and important topic. It looks at the space between languages, an area that has been studied peripherally in the past but without a clear focus. It deals with culture, so it investigates how human beings make sense of the world. It is intercultural, celebrating the rich diversity of human experience. And it explores communication, which makes social life possible.

The upbeat editorial in the first issue makes it clear that the journal will be interdisciplinary, linking disciplines in the humanities.

The editors are not afraid of moral and political engagement: in subsequent issues they cover the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the events of September 11 2001 and the worldwide refugee crisis. One editorial pays tribute to the late Donald Woods, a South African journalist, for his willingness to learn from the oppressed black majority and because his ability to speak Xhosa, the language of the eastern Cape, played a part in his ability to cross the cultural divide.

I was impressed by Farzad Sharifian's study of the difficulties faced by Australian Aboriginal children in the education system. The Yamatji cultural group speaks "Aboriginal English" rather than an indigenous language, but its communication patterns often appear strange to white educators. The author argues that ways of organising experience he calls "cognitive schemas" have an important role in structuring the discourse of a cultural group. Shifts of topic that have been regarded as bizarre can be explained in this way, enabling teachers to work with pupils' ways of thinking rather than against them.

Also interesting are papers on the role of English as a global language, on the translation of Tennessee Williams into Dutch, on the interplay of English and Spanish around the US-Mexican border, and on the importance of studying power and domination when investigating intercultural communication. Specialists in sociolinguistics, pragmatics and translation will find food for thought here, as will anthropologists and anyone interested in cultural studies.

Not all the signs are positive, however. Two articles about translation are impassioned but nebulous. Some of the contributors make sweeping generalisations, such as this one from the second issue: "In gap years, large numbers of young people snatch whiffs of alterity as they pass through a vast, practically undifferentiated field of otherness, often barely remembering the names of places they have seen." This skates over a difficult set of problems. It is true that for many students, travelling in their gap year is the longest stretch of intercultural contact that they will have in their lives. Some of them do not go beyond superficial tourism, but many stay in one place for a lengthy period, working alongside local people. I still remember selling gardening equipment in West Berlin for six months when I left school and learning much in that strange divided city about the cold war and European history. Perhaps more could be done to help young people learn from this kind of experience, but not by rubbishing it.

I was also uncomfortable with several pieces about the practice of language teaching. Their down-to-earth discussions of pedagogical matters sat strangely with the theoretical material - although a journal that combines theory and practice is a brave enterprise that should be encouraged.

More worrying was the opening article in the first issue, which applies the critical hermeneutics of the German scholar Hans-Georg Gadamer to intercultural communication. The authors argue against a positivist, scientistic approach in the humanities, which is a reasonable position, but they also quote approvingly Gadamer's wider attacks on science as "the enemy of freedom" and his claim that science is "dehumanising". There is more to Gadamer than this, and it is unfair to pick out just one part of his analysis, but this kind of attack on science is misplaced. Science is just a consistent attempt to base our understanding on evidence. It depends on freedom to challenge accepted orthodoxies and to pursue new paths. In a world where millions of people apparently believe all kinds of peculiar nonsense, scientific thinking is vital.

I would give at most two cheers to this journal. Each of the issues so far has been very different in scope and in tone from the others, and it is good to see a genuine sense of agenda-setting and exploration. Some of my doubts apply to a lot of work in the fields of translation, where productive theorising is extremely rare, and cultural studies, which can suffer from abstract wordiness and a lack of precision. The best work in these areas has a strong moral purpose, and the editors show encouraging signs that they are genuinely looking for this in their journal. I hope they find it.

Raphael Salkie is professor of language studies, Brighton University.

Language and Intercultural Communication

Editor - Alice Tomic and Crispin Thurlow
Publisher - Multilingual Matters, quarterly
Price - Institutions £180.00; Individuals £55.00
ISSN - 1470 8477

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