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Transcultural Communication: what it is and why we are all doing it

Posted on: July 9, 2021

Will Baker, co-author of Transcultural Communication Through Global Englishes, examines the challenges and our understanding of intercultural communication.

From intercultural to transcultural communication

Many of our contemporary social spaces, from superdiverse urban environments to globally connected digital communities, are highly multilingual and multicultural. Similarly, due to the internationally linked nature of workplaces and educational institutions, we often work and study with colleagues from around the word. Furthermore, immigration for both economic and political reasons has become a common phenomenon for many societies. And, of course, travel to ‘other’ countries and cultures for tourism is something most of us have experienced. Although the Covid-19 pandemic has severely curtailed physical travel, it has also underscored how interconnected all countries are and led to an increase in digital communication enabling instant interactions across physical borders. Moreover, given governments reluctance to shut physical borders during the pandemic and the subsequent enthusiasm for re-opening them, it is not likely that physical travel restrictions will remain for long.

Thus, communication with people from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds is a part of daily life for many of us. This has been studied under the field of intercultural communication which can be defined as communication where linguistic and cultural differences are salient to the interaction. A central concern has been understanding how this potentially challenging communication is managed. Concepts such as intercultural communicative competence and awareness have outlined the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to successfully engage in intercultural communication. Research has shown that intercultural communication, rather than a problem to be overcome, is often very successful and a normal communicative practice for many. Equally important has been understanding how people construct and negotiate their cultural identities, how they intersect with other identities, and the role of power and ideology in this. Underpinning much of this research has been the key role of language, and particularly multilingualism, in all aspects of intercultural communication. The worldwide spread of English has added another dimension to this interest in language as a result of its increasingly important role as a commonly used lingua franca in a truly global range of settings.  

Yet, the complexity and diversity of contemporary social spaces, both physical and virtual, has challenged our understanding of core concepts in intercultural communication such as identity, culture and language. Taken-for-granted links between a language, culture and community, particularly at the national level can no longer be assumed. So, for instance, we see the English language used in settings far removed from its Anglophone origins and with no obvious link to Anglophone cultures or communities. Similarly, there are problems with assuming participants in intercultural communication are ‘in-between’ or hybridising cultures and languages. In multilingual and multicultural settings, it is often not clear what cultures or languages participants are between and it may not be possible to identify a single origin for cultural references or practices. We have all become familiar with cultural practices, from new music styles to internet memes, which rapidly spread around the globe and in the process are transformed, taking on diverse forms and interpretations.

An example of transcultural communication

The following short extract may help to illustrate this phenomenon. It comes from a private message exchange on Facebook between two international students at a UK university, North (Thai) and Ling (Chinese) (pseudonyms are used). 

1. My lovely daughter
2. Thank you for your moon cake
3. It’s really delicious
4. I gave P’Sa and P’Yui already
5. and I’ll give P’Beau on this Sat

6. U r welcome, and the mid-autumn festival is this Sunday, enjoy∼
7. Can u tell P’Sa , she can get her bag back now∼
(Baker & Sangiamchit, 2019: 481)

The topic of the conversation is the mid-autumn festival and the associated practice of giving moon cakes. While the mid-autumn festival is traditionally associated with Chinese culture, it is also celebrated by Thais (as North shows here) and many others around Asia, adding a regional scale. Furthermore, the festival now has a global reach as seen in its celebration in the UK in this example. Moreover, this interaction takes place in the virtual social space of Facebook adding yet another scale. Here we can see multiple scales from the local to global simultaneously present. Perhaps most interesting though is the use of language. On the surface this appears to be English. However, it is English used as a lingua franca (ELF) since the participants don’t share a first language. Significantly, English is used alongside other languages as seen in the use of ‘P’ to preface names (lines 4, 5 and 7). In Thai ‘P’ (พี่), translates as ‘older sibling’ and is used when speaking to an older person in an informal situation to show respect and intimacy, as North does here. Moreover, this practice is also followed by Ling (line 7); although, she does not speak Thai. Given the use of ‘P’ in this way it is difficult to attribute it to either Thai or English. Moreover, we see a cultural practice (intimate terms of address) originally associated with Thai culture used by a Chinese participant who is unfamiliar with Thai culture and communicated through ELF; underscoring the diversity and complexity of the connections between language, culture and identity. 

Transcultural communication as an everyday practice

Examples such as North and Ling’s exchange show how the ‘inter’ of intercultural communication becomes problematic since communication is not taking place ‘in-between’ cultures or languages. Instead what we see in contemporary social spaces are multiple cultural levels or scales simultaneously present with participants moving through and across them, negotiating meaning ‘on the move’ as the interaction progresses. Such communication may be best characterised as transcultural communication defined as “communication where interactants move through and across, rather than in-between, cultural and linguistic boundaries, thus, ‘named’ languages and cultures can no longer be taken for granted and in the process borders become blurred, transgressed and transcended” (Baker & Sangiamchit, 2019: 472). This is not to suggest that linguistic and cultural borders no longer exist; after all, to transcend a border it must be there in the first place. However, while recognising the powerful ideological influences of named languages and cultures, especially at the national scale, transcultural communication also shows how we can transcend and transgress those borders and in turn transform them.

Most importantly though, transcultural communication is not something strange or exotic. For the majority of the world multilingualism and multiculturalism is the norm and making use of the diverse range of cultural and linguistic resources to hand is an everyday practice. As globalisation and international connections have continued to expand this has only increased making transcultural communication ubiquitous but seldom considered or even recognised.  Research in transcultural communication and the related fields of translanguaging and transmodality is only now beginning to emerge and there is much still to understand about how we negotiate the complexity of communication in diverse contemporary social spaces.