Message and Symbols
in Intercultural Communication
Guan Shijie
Peking University
 Part 1. Message and Encoding
 Part 2. Language
 I. Language and Perception
 II. The Influence of Language on Intercultural Communication
 III. The Translation of Language
 Part 3. Nonverbal Language
I. Intro of Nonverbal Language(Non-linguistic Symbols)
II. Nonverbal Communication and Culture
III. Body Language
IV. Chronemics
V. Proxemics
VI. Others
Part 1. Message and Encoding
 1. Message and encoding
 In communication, people employ different
ways to encode messages to form symbols.
 The symbols are supposed to be understood
by the receiver.
 There are simple and complex symbols.
 Different symbol systems have different
amounts of users.
 2.Types of Symbols
 Language
 With sounds: spoken
spoken language
 Without sounds: written
 Nonverbal language
 With sounds: music,
whistle, stereo...
 Without sounds: body
language, dance,
With sounds
Written words
Without sounds
Body language,
 3. Encoding, symbols and culture
 Encoding is a process that is accepted
through common practice. Symbols are results
of this process. Encoding and symbols come
into being in specific historical and cultural
 Two key points:
 Signifier and signified
 The nature of encoding
Signifier and Signified
Semiotics divide any symbols into
signifier and signified.
 The signified refers to objects
(e.g.: goat, cow)
 The signifier refers to the
subjective ability of human
beings to create (making
sounds, creating images).
 Encoding is the process by
which human beings use
signifier to assign the signified
and the result of this process
is called “symbols”
 山羊(Chinese),
The Nature of Encoding
 The nature of
encoding is an
assignment, i.e., the
relationship between
a signifier and a
signified is assigned,
depending on a set of
rules between the
users (senders and
 signifier(1)牛 signifier(2) ox
signifier (3)
Different encoding of cultures
 Encoding, symbols and culture
 Different cultures prefer different symbols and
encoding processes (e.g.: body languages)
Part 2. Language
 1. The features of language
 Language is a special social phenomenon
objectively existing in human society. It is a
symbol system established by usage and
acquired by learning, consisting of sounds,
vocabulary, grammar and so on. It is a
communication tool used for delivering
meanings and ideas for members of a
specific region or cultural group.
Language symbols
are random
(established by
 Linguist Sausure brought
about the idea of
randomness of the language
 Language is a symbol
system and the symbols are
consisted of signifier and
 Language symbols are random
 When we say “newspaper”, we produce a sound (a signifier),
expressing something made of paper and carrying pictures and
printed symbols which is accessible through daily purchase (a
signified). The relationship between a signifier and a signified is
random, i.e., the word ”newspaper” does not have any
necessary relationship with the things referred to except for the
common usage.
 This point of view states that meaning is an unstable feature
which relies on the expression on different discourse
structures. What language provides us is just our description of
the reality, not reality itself.
 What is meaning of “cool”?
 5 hundred most used words
in English language can produce
14 thousand meanings.
 2. Relation between Language and
 For long, people have been employing
language as the tool to express ideas and
concepts, i.e.: language does not play any
role in the human’s perception of
 Sapir’s challenge
 In 1921, American linguist Sapir challenged this traditional view
by stating that language affect the perception of the outside
world in priority, just like a pair of colored glasses.
 When asked “can you think without language?”, most people
tend to say “yes, I know I can do it although it is not easy.”
language is but a coat!
 However, language could not just be a coat, but a readymade track, or channel.
 The function of language is not only carrying message, but also
shape our perception in real life.
 Language is a guideline for
real-society. People are
under the control of some
specific language that serves
as the main way to express
meanings. It is a fantasy to
regard language as an
additional method to solve
practical communication or
thinking problem. The fact is,
“real-world” is, to a large
extent, constructed with
language customs used by a
specific group of people.
Edward Sapir
 Wolfe’s development
 This point of view was not paid
enough attention to until Sapir’s
student Wolfe issued relative
works in 1930s.
 There is some plain relationship
between understanding a word
in specific context and the
reason for a fire.
 Gasoline drums
 Empty gasoline drums.
Benjamin Lee Whorf
 He believes that: in two different
languages, the influences of language on
perception are different.
 Proof
 (1) Grammar level
 Hopi language recognizes events according to the
duration of time, therefore Hopis do not say “I stayed
five days” but say “I left on the fifth day”. This is quite
different from English in that it cannot objectify time.
 The “subject-object” syntax of English is in fact a
dichotomous world view which reduces an object into
smaller particles by analyzing and depriving.
 However, Hopi’s syntax reflects a holistic, synthetic
world view.
 Grammar level
 The language system of each language (the
grammar) is not only a tool to represent the ideas,
but also a tool that shapes the idea. It is a procedure
and guideline for people to carry out the thinking,
analyze the phenomena and synthesize... We
anatomize the natural world according to the rules
set by our own languages. The reason that we can
abstract areas from the phenomenon world is not
because they are right there. Contrarily, the world is a
kaleidoscope of feelings and expressions which
requires a brain to organize. That is to say, we need
language system in our brain to organize.
 Proof(2)
 The level of vocabulary
 The differentiation of words refers to the number
of words in a particular area.
 The higher the differentiation in a specific area is,
the more concise meaning each word carries.
Different languages have different levels of
 For example, in Hopi, every flying objects except
the birds, say, the flying locust, airplanes, pilots,
are expressed in one word. It is almost incredible
for an English speaker.
 A illustration to show the Wolfe hypothesis
 Just like we use a telescope to see the mountains far
away and use a microscope to see the bacteria,
people use language to understand the historical
events and foreign scenery as well as the inner
feelings of a friend which are all far away from us.
Language is our telescope and microscope.
 Then do the lens of different cultures affect the
perception of reality? That is to say, are material
through all the lens the same picture?
A illustration to show the Wolfe hypothesis
person A’s perception
same object
language A
 person B’s perception
same object
language B
 person C’s perception
same object
language C
 This difference in world views is not
abstracted from the objective natural
world but set in advance by different
languages. With different languages
spoken, we perceive different worlds.
 Wolfe’s thoughts could be concluded in
two terms:
 Linguistic relativity: speakers of different
languages have respectively different
perception and thinking. (weak influence)
 Linguistic determinism: language determine
the perception and thinking towards the
existence. (strong influence)
Wolfe’s arguments arises great
debate and discussion. It has been
a common understanding for most
people that language does pose
influence on the perception. The
question is, just to how large an
extent does language affect the
thinking process of human beings?
 Since the 1960s, Chomsky and
some other cognitive scientists set
the tone for this question that
language difference is not so
important because language is a
common social feature of human
beings. What we rely on to talk with
each other should be attributed to
our common genetic
characteristics but not protean
Avram Noam Chomsky
 But things changed again since 1990s.
 Dan Slobin in UC Berkeley said that
language is not only symbols. The brain is
made up of experiences. Difference, trivial
may it be, between languages could have
affected the world view of the speakers.
 Scholars have done a lot of researches
from the perspectives of one language,
comparison of two languages, bilingualists,
alexia, deaf persons and children until
2004. The result showed that language
affects the thinking process of different
culture members in subtle form but not in
strong form.
III. The Influence of Language on
Intercultural Communication
-----in the case of Chinese and English
Analysis Model of this section
Phonetics Vocabulary Meaning Grammar Pragmatics Contex t structure
The frame of analysis
Language relates to culture as a whole.
Language, as a whole, is
connected to culture. The
interaction of the two
appear in the levels of
phonetics, meaning,
vocabulary, grammar,
syntax, context, structure
and words. So we are
adopting a multi-variants
frame to analyze the
 1. Phonetics and intercultural communication
 Toned language and non-toned language.
 Mandarin Chinese has four tones but English and other
Indo-European languages don’t, which is the foremost
difference between the two languages in phonetics. Chinese
is a single-syllable language. In all the 1,300 syllables there
are only 429 if deprived of tones.
 There are 1,200 syllables in English, with stresses but
without tones.
 Phonetics and intercultural communication
 There are many words sharing the same
pronunciation in Chinese, far more than in English
 There are many words sharing the same
pronunciation. For example, Xin Hua Dictionary has
1,514 characters in it with 424 syllables.
 According to a research on 45,300 Chinese words,
the words sharing the same pronunciation occupies
as many as 38.6%.
 For example:
 My name is 关世杰 Guan Shi Jie
There are 80 Chinese characters who’s pronunciation
are “guan”
 There are 150 Chinese characters who’s pronunciation
are “shi”
 There are 187 Chinese characters who’s pronunciation
are “jie”
partial tone of “guan shi jie” have many meanings:
they can be sentences or words
关是杰(Guan is a hero)、关是桀(Guan is
tyrant)、官是桀(Officer is tyrant)、
关视桀(Guan watches tyrant)、关视姐
(Guan watch his elder sister)……关师
姐(an elder female classmate Guan),
世界观(world view)
 It can be written a story by using the pronunciation
“guan”, ” shi” and “jie”.
in Chinese
关世杰 观世界 关视羯 关十羯 管是羯 关嗜羯 惯食羯 惯弑羯 关
失节 关师姐 官十阶 官示戒 管世杰 关世杰 关视姐 关氏嗟 使关节
translates into English:
 Professor Guan Shijie watched the world and saw rams. He
reared ten of them in pens to manage. He likes eating rams and
is used to doing it. Also he killed a lot of them which is a
wrongdoing. Guan’s sister was then a high official, Shi wants to
punish the misfeasor , imprisoned Guan to change his mind.
Guan looked at his sister and sighed. Finally he bribed the
officials and got free.
 Misunderstandings caused by phonetics
 (1) It offers a rich resource for Chinese literature and
arts but hard to translate into English.
 (2) Chinese characters are not good at expressing
phonetics. Therefore the translation is generally done
through using charaters. A direct result is that you get
different images of the external word because of the
inborn feelings of the Chinese words.
 Good ones: America 美国 (a beautiful country), England 英国(the
country of heroes), Sweden 瑞典(lucky standard)
 Bad ones: Jew 犹太 (beast-related)
 From bad to good: coca cola (蝌口蝌蜡 tadpoles eating wax可口
可乐 delicious and fun)
 Additional meaning: revolution
Translation of
Head & Shoulders:海飞丝
Safe guard: 舒肤佳
Panten: 潘婷
 Translation of brands:
 Johnson (strong and lively)
 Reebok (fast pace)
 Head & Shoulders
 Safe guard
 Olay
 BMW (precious horse)
 Panten
 (3). English is not good at delivering the image
so that the Chinese calligraphy could not be
 (4). Misunderstandings also exist in the process
when Chinese is translated into English
 (5). Different preference on the onomatopoeia
 (6). Spending time is different when using
different language to express the same meaning
or same thing.
 (7) There are no consonant sounds in English::zh ch
sh r j
vowel:Ü (发许音困难)
There are no consonant sounds in Chinese:  t d
 (8) English people not getting used to express Chinese
Chinese people not getting used to express English
 (9) Chinese is a musical language while English is not.
It is difficult to translate Chinese poem into
 2. Vocabulary and Intercultural Communication
 The number of words is difference in various
 Sami language of Kiruna Sweden has five hundred
words to explain snow and several thousand more to
define reindeer.
 Yi-ching(易经), and vocabulary of 仁(benvolence)
and 道(Tao).
 Cooking verbs in Chinese, food, dishes.
 Hinduism, Buddhist words
 Islamic words.
 The differentiation of words
 Terms for different colors
 Terms to address relatives
 Keigo (complimentary words) in Japanese
 Arabic vocabulary for camels
 Idiomatic phrases
 3. Meaning and intercultural
 The features of characters and words
 The meaning of characters and words is both
stable and changeable, comparatively stable but
absolute changeable. Example: word to address
the blacks in English and words for Mr., Miss
 The meanings mainly fall into two categories:
 Denotation
 Connotation
 Meaning and intercultural Communication
 Meanings are different in different cultures
 The word “comrade”: result
 Score 3.5 means neutral
 <3.5 means positive
 >3.5 means negative
 The word “individualism”: result
 The meaning of “He”: in English it means harmony, peace,
unity, kindness and amiableness
Chinese (88)
Chinese (91) English
Chinese(91) English
Hegemony and 霸权
 In the post-war world, when mentioning “hegemony”, the first world
that appear in people’s mind would be “U.S.”. Many works domestic
and abroad have described the definition of “hegemony”. According
to Modern Chinese Dictionary, hegemony refers to the behavior of
manipulating or controlling others through power in international
relations; while an American dictionary defines it as “leadership,
authorities or influences, often refers to the political dominance of a
nation or government in the league or federal.”
 We can see from here that for the definition of hegemony, there is a
difference between the west and the east. In Chinese way of
thinking, hegemony is firstly a “behavior”, a subjective policy rather
than an objective situation; therefore we have “become the
hegemony”, “assume the hegemony” in Chinese. It is a negative
word which incurs us to think of bullying people. A “hegemonism”
(霸权主义) would make things even worse. So we often declare that
we China don’t assume hegemony and will not forever no matter
how strong we will be. Because of the long history of being
suppressed by western hegemony, China has a inborn repel for
hegemony in world politics.
Hegemony and 霸权
 Hegemony in English originates from an abstract Greek
word with no plain negative meanings. It refers to the
dominant position or power a specific country, a group of
countries or a sovereign has. Hegemony has something
to do with control but nothing to do with bullying. There
is no such “hegemonism” in English dictionary and it is
rarely used in western academic works. The so-called
hegemon is also a neutral word, referring to “the nation
which is able and willing to manage the principles of
international relations”. Therefore, Americans will have
no negative response when called hegemon.
 Meaning and intercultural Communication
 Different connotations for same words
 Red in Chinese
 Red in English
 Festive red cloth
 Hot
 Being successful
 Bloody
 Welcome
 Communist
 Revolution and good
 Arctic
sense of politics
 Red bonus
 English
 Meaning and intercultural Communication
 Vocabulary problems in intercultural communication
 It is a key for intercultural communication for people
to understand different connotations caused by
cultural differences in the languages.
 We can analyze the influence of vocabulary on
intercultural communication by comparing the
sameness and difference in connotations and
 Meaning of “和”
 meanings of “和” include:harmony,
peace, unity, kindness and
have a heart of wolf and lungs of dog (really really bad people)
a wolf’s ambition (over-ambitious person, usually with evil target)
getting together like wolf and Bei (conspiracy)
devour like wolves and tigers
be like wolf and tiger (cruel and harsh)
Zhong Shan wolf (中山狼)
 Ah, wolf, wolf. Warriors, wolves, You should be!
 Legend of Oğuz Han has a depiction that:
 In the dawn, a wolf walked out of the blue light and led the way for Oğuz’s
troops. They marched along when the wolf went and they stopped when it
stopped. Finally they enjoyed victory. From then on, a golden wolf’s head was
set in all the flags. Warriors like wolf never failed.
 Let us practice a survey on
 the meaning of “dragon”
comparison of word meanings in two different languages
Types of
Influence on
The extent
of being
+ high
is different in
different two
牛(ox)/dog 猴
does not
does not
(Qin Hui)
Haze and ask
does not
菊/chrysanthemum 竹
Confused or
- low
 4. Grammar and intercultural
 Syntax and Intercultural Communication
 Syntax refers to the principles of words
forming a sentence, i.e.: the relationship
among the symbols of words. It is part of the
 Grammar is related with the thinking patterns,
 I will deal with it in detail in next lecture.
Before my bed by Li Bai
床前明月光, There is bright moonlight,
So that it seems
疑是地上霜。 like frost on the ground.
举头望明月, Lifting my head
I watch the bright moon,
低头思故乡。 Lowering my head
I dream that I'm home.
(Translated by Arthur Cooper)
5. Pragmatics and intercultural communication.
 Pragmatics was brought about as a concept in
recent 20-30 years. It is generally regarded that
there are at least two sets of rules for languages:
 The structure rules: phonetics, vocabulary,
grammar …
 The usage rules: if the using of language is
appropriate or not.
 A sentence correct in grammar could have failed
its original purpose if it is used in inappropriate
situation, identity or against the local customs.
An American: “You speak very good English.”
A Chinese: “Oh, no! My English still needs
 Difference in phone calls
 Schmidt did 215
telephone calls of
Egyptians, finding that
they don’t introduce each
other at the beginning;
and the topic will not start
until they guess each
other right.
Hi, who are you
looking for?
Hello, John
Is Mr. Guan there?
Can I speak to
Mary, please?
Hold on, I’ll get
him/ He is not
Sure, hold on.
 The pragmatic rules include
 How to address others?
 How to greet with each other?
 How to propose a requirement?
 How to accept or refuse the requirement of
 The sequence of speech
 The amount of speech
 How to say goodbye
 How to make an invitation?
 If Americans say “we must get together soon”, it is
just being polite but not a formal invitation.
However, Chinese will take it real.
 A formal invitation will usually include time and
place: Come over for dinner next Saturday night.
 Thanks
 In Arabic
people use
words to
 In Britain,
thanks is
 In China, “a
really big
requires no
Face Dilemma: how to say No?
 Directness ------indirectness (roundabout)
 In case of face, different cultures will have different ways to cope
with. For example, in eastern cultures, no is rarely used. If you want
to refuse something, you go in an indirect way. Therefore even if
Asian people say “right” or “yes”, sometimes they just men “could
be” or “I am listening”. This may cause misunderstandings.
 For others’ favor, Chinese NO does not necessarily confer refusal,
sometimes it is just a way to be polite. For example, people say NO
to be polite when someone offers tea and pastries for the first time
and accept it for the second time. Europeans and Americans will
not offer twice, however, which always makes Chinese thinking they
are not hospitable.
Case Study
 Would you like some Coffee?
 A: No, Please don't go to any trouble.
 a customary refusal in Chinese, it poses trouble
for those who do not understand Chinese culture.
(8 persons, 13%)
 B: Yes, please.
 an appropriate acceptance. (20 persons, 33%)
 C: Thank you.
 an ambiguous answer. (33 persons, 54%)
 The negative influence of pragmatic errors is bigger
than what is caused in grammars
 Native speakers are tolerant of foreigners’ errors in
phonetics and syntax, attributing it to the lack of
relative training; but they are not sensitive enough to
find the errors in pragmatics, therefore they are
always taken as hostility, unfriendliness or
 7. Context and intercultural
High-context language
 The meaning of a
sentence is restricted
by its context.
 A Chinese poem
Low-context language
 The meaning of a
sentence is not much
influenced by the
 In English:
 (I) Asked a kid under
the pine tree, (he) said
master has gone for
herbals. (the master is)
in this hill, (I) don’t know
A Comparison of the Two
Linear way of thinking
Being straightforward
Tell the truth
Informal language style
Talk much
Take the feeling and face
of the senders in priority
Spiral way of thinking
Downplaying or
Formal language style
Talk little
Take the feeling and face
of the recipient in priority
Case 1. Style of Low-context
 Bella (knocks on her neighbor’s screen door):
Excuse me, it’s past 11 o’clock already, and your
loud music and dancing around are really disturbing
my sleep. Please stop your jumping and banging
around immediately! I have an important job
interview tomorrow morning, and I want to get a
good night’s sleep. Some of us do need to pay rent!
 Hayden resentfully): Well, this is the only time I can
rehearse! I have an important audition coming up
tomorrow. You’re not the only one that is starving,
you know. I also need to pay my rent. Stop being so
Case 1. Style of Low-context
 Bella (frustrated): I really think YOU’RE being VERY
ANNOYING and INTRUSIVE! There is an apartment
noise ordinance, you know. And if you don’t stop
banging around immediately, I’m going to file a
complaint with the apartment manager and he could
evict you…
 Hayden (sarcastically and turning up the music
louder): Whatever! Do what you want. I’m going to
practice as I please. Don’t bother to ask for my
autograph when I become a big-time Hollywood star!
Case 2. Style of High-context
 Mrs. Kurogl: Hello, Mrs. Yamashita..Your son Toji is entering his
high school karaoke contest, isn’t he? I envy you, because you
must be so proud of his talent. You must be looking forward to
his future as a pop singer….I’m really impressed by his
enthusiasm--everyday, he practices so hard, for hours and
hours, until late at night…
 Mrs. Yamashita: Oh, I’m so sorry...Toji is just beginner in
karaoke singing. We don’t know his future yet… He is so silly
boy singing so late. We didn’t realize you can hear all the noise
next door. I’ll tell him to stop right away. I’m so sorry about all
your trouble, it won’t happen again.
Dimension of High/Low-contexts
High context
African American
American Indian
German Switzer
Low context
8. structure and Intercultural
 Cultural factors’ influence on structure
 Robert Norton who had been teaching for many
years in Korea thought at first that the students
didn’t have very clear logical thinking. After doing
a relative research he found the problem was
not in the English learning but the different
structure of paragraphs determined by different
ways of thinking.
Cultural factors’ influence on structures
Kim did a research on the Korean way of thinking and writing style
in1996 and by working on 30 editorials in Korean and American
university newspapers she found out that, Americans tend to bring about
the theme in the beginning while Koreans do it in the end.
Theme appears in
Korean students writing in Korean
Korean students writing in English
American students writing in English
beginning middle
 9. Varieties and diversity within one language
 There are many accents in Chinese.
 There are British English and American English
Vocabulary and meaning
IV. Translation of Language
 Translation of language
 Translation
 The possibility and impossibility of translation
 Possible and impossible (100%)
 Different difficulties in translation of different
Translation and Equivalence
Dimensions of the equivalence in translation
Source Language
Target Language
Phonetics Vocabulary Meaning Grammar Pragmatics Contex t structure Words
The nature of translation
 Translation is not a word-for-word change, but
intercultural communication
 An American expert on editing the translation said:
under some circumstances, it is not convincing to
translate Chinese into English no matter how good it
is translated. When I was told to edit speeches I
would tell the translator that what we need is
adaptation not translation.
Translation is both inter-language and intercultural
communication. Translation is to convert, as much as
possible, as effective as possible, the content of the
speaker with a specific cultural background to the
recipient with different cultural background.
 The strategies of domestication and
foreignization in translation
 Domestication: adopt a ethnocentric attitude
and translate the source language into target
language with strong color of local culture.
 Foreignization: accept the features and
difference of the source language, put the
reader into exotic context.
The end

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