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Cultural Gaps in Linguistic Communication with Reference to English and Arabic Language Communities

By jene2012 Dec 16, 2012 3888 Words
Cultural Gaps in Linguistic Communication with
Reference to English and Arabic Language Communities
Ekbal AlJabbari,
Alaeddin Sadeq, and Jamal Azmi
Department of English Language and Translation, Zarqa University, Jordan Abstract: Since each culture has its own unique identity, there is often a problem of communication gaps. Cultural communication gaps are crucial issues that influence all types of communication all over the world. These gaps are often the underlying reason for major misunderstandings or misinterpretations among the members of different cultural communities. The first aim of this paper is to examine some of the problems that are caused by cultural differences on the basis of linguistic communication, i.e., the verbal means of contact between the source language culture and target language culture. The analysis in this study will be limited to English as a representative of the source language culture (SL) and Arabic as the target language one (TL). The second aim of the study is to suggest some methods for dealing with the problems of cross cultural communication such as understanding the source language culture from various perspectives in order to find a suitable equivalent meaning in the target language. Knowing the shared linguistic features in the language of the two cultures will help to avoid many misinterpretation problems. Adding explanatory foot notes in the case of some cultural items that cannot be easily translated will be also of great assistance in this direction. Then paper is divided into four sections. Section one deals with the meaning of culture and communication. Cultural gaps and problems of misinterpretation with some solutions are explained in section two. Section three focuses on the main problems of cultural gaps in linguistic communication and offers some solutions to them. Finally, section four is the conclusion which summarizes the major findings of this study. Received June 18, 2010; accepted May 16, 2011

The Definition of Culture and Communication
This section will examine three important terms in
connection with each other. They are culture, language
and communication. First of all, culture is defined as a
combination of different codes concerning the way of
life, tradition, rituals, beliefs, values, morals, shared
customs and all the habits that are practiced by a
particular community using a particular language as
means of expression. Culture is also used by historians
to refer to any socially inherited element in the life of
man, material and spiritual (See Sapir, 1964: 7983).
Therefore, within this complex network of traditionally
inherited habits, language usage or attitudes, culture
can be considered as the identity card of a society.
Since no two identity cards are the same, no two
cultures are identical either, especially within societies
that are widely different from one another, like eastern
versus western communities.
What is important here is that culture produces
social meanings through language, which does not
include only verbal and written forms, but also other
elements like body signs and movements that are used
as a means of communication (Lyons, 1981: 267). In
this respect, we can fairly say that because one’s
knowledge of one’s native language is culturally
passed along; i.e. gained by his membership in a
particular society, language and linguistic dialogues
are integrated in the pattern of human communication
with one another all over the globe (See Lyons, 1981:
The differences in language use are the results of the
existence of personal, social and cultural pressure on a
particular language, as is the case with the Arabic
language which has its specific nature and cultural
features. Words such as ع م (uncle – the fraternal
brother of the father) and خ ال (unclethe
brother of the mother) or عم ة (auntthe
sister of the
father) and خال ة (auntthe
sister of the mother) are cases
in point.
In English culture, there is only one reference to
each which is uncle or aunt. When trying to carry out
the same meaning in interpreting a text from a source
language (SL English) to the target language (TL
Arabic), these culture bound kinship terms will
probably become problematic in the case of
translation into English, particularly when their
oligosemic sense is contextually relevant in a particular
This leads to the fact that the different contexts in
which a word is used, and their associated cultural
features in the source language culture, make it more
difficult to find the right communicative equivalent in
the target language culture. So, in order to understand
certain texts in the SL for the purpose of giving their
correct meaning in the TL, we need to have good
background information about the social and cultural
codes that are used by the people of the target
language, while keeping in mind the strong links
between their culture and their language usage. (Hall
and Freedle, 1975: 11) For example, if an English
customer asks a greengrocer “What is the final weight,
Cultural Gaps in Linguistic Communication with Reference to English and Arabic Language Communities 61
please? “The answer would come, “Four “. In Britain,
they use a system which is different from the weighing
system used in Arab countries. So, the answer should
be understood in the SL language as (four pounds) not
(four kilos) as is the case in the Target Language (TL)
language, because in the Arab world, the common
measurement is by kilos and not pounds.
The term culture has some limits and every society
has its own cultural features. On the other hand,
education, science and development in all fields affect
culture and language and hence the individuals’
communication with the world around them, east and
west respectively. Accordingly, “the sociolinguistics of
society is about the social importance of language to
groups of people and, hence, the sharing of meaning
becomes a crucial factor in our attempts to
communicate with others” (Fasold, 1984:13).
attempts to communicate with others can be achieved
either through the verbal (linguistic) channel, which
depends on the use of words or through a non–verbal
channel which is also called a silent
channel of communication.
One can hardly overestimate
the strong relation
between culture, language and communication. Yet,
culture seems to be the most influential element over
language as a means of communication.
Cultural Gaps and Problems of
Misinterpretation with some Solutions
This section focuses, mainly on the role of cultural
gaps in causing the problems of misinterpretation
between the source language, and the target language.
Cultural overlap can be found between two societies:
“This overlap could be more or less depending on the
degree of contact and the relation between these two
societies, “(Lyons, 1981; 323). This cultural overlap is
related with two important facts, namely the use of
words having meaning that are not familiar in the
second culture and the features of the language in use.
However, travel, trade, scientific cooperation or
translation and mass media nowadays play important
roles in bridging the gap between cultures through
introducing some culture bound words and expressions
to people from other cultures. This borrowing of new
words and expressions firstly, brings closer the
different cultures of the world. Secondly, it helps in
making the process of text interpretation and analysis
in the target language culture easier. i
In spite of this, the difficulties of interpreting a text
or finding the right meaning in the second language in
linguistic method of communication remain, because
as stated earlier, cultures do not share the linguistic
qualities or language features. Eckert and Richford,
argue that “in the communicative function …the term
register is used to represent language varieties
i Ibid
characteristic of particular situations of
use.”(2001:239) In other words, because the form and
the function of language change across different
cultures, and since the TL culture has few situational
and linguistic features identical to that of the Source
Language (SL) text the difficulties and problems of
translating or interpreting a text become greater. This
shows that the problems of translating meanings from
one culture to another are influenced not only by the
use of words and expressions that are not found in the
second language culture, but also by its language form
and usage.
Let us consider some areas of difficulties related to
the interpretation of some culture bound words or
expressions. For example, the familiar word “pizza
“refers to a famous Italian dish. Although this dish has
become universal, its equivalent is not yet found in
Arabic culture. In this case, it becomes a problem
when trying to find the proper meaning for it in Arabic.
Such word does not exist in the dictionary of the Arab
world, or in its everyday usage. Since no equal
meaning is found for it in Arabic, the best way of
dealing with it is to write it as it is pronounced in
English “ بيت زا (pizza)” and add some explanatory note to it. This method is called (transliteration) that is
writing the word as it is pronounced in the source
culture. Other examples are found in English cultural
food like “Hotdogs “which literally means “ الك لاب ال ساخنة ” (the dogs that are hot) in the Arabic
interpretation of it because of its unfamiliarity to their
culture. In reality, Hotdogs is some kind of a cheap and
popular food, particularly in the USA. Similarly, other
English culturally bound foods or drinks such as
Jumbo and Chips “ عم لاق وبطاط ا (Huge and Potato), Bloody Marry " ماري ا الدموي ه “ (a girl called Mary covered in blood) or Banana Split “ الم وز الق سو م ” (Banana divided) are not known in the traditional Arabic

Culture. In this case, the Arab translator will need to
search for a new or a similar concept in order to
overcome these cultural gaps in meaning or use of such
words. Hence, the nearest interpretation for Jumbo and
Chips in the Arabic culture will be باطاط ا مقلي ه (fried potato). Bloody Mary which is a cocktail drink will be
translated into Arabic with some explanation in a foot
note. The same solution can be applied to Banana Split
which is also a famous English desert. This leads to the
fact that if no equivalent is found for a word or an
expression in the second culture language we can
either find a new concept similar to it in meaning to the
original one in the source language, or write the word
as it is pronounced in English and then explain its
meaning in the Arabic culture. In the case of a few
words, in order to deal with the culture gaps, we need
to deal with each individual problem. People need to
have good background information about these culture
specific items to overcome the problems related to
misunderstanding or misinterpretation.
Zarqa Journal for Research and Studies in Humanities, Vol. 11, No. 1, 2011 62
Indeed, cultural gaps are found in all aspects of life.
It is seen in reference to traditions, geographical
features, clothes, proper names …etc., Let us consider
the latter case briefly. According to Quirk “peoples’
surnames normally carry their national identity.
Peoples’ names are also linked, at times, to religious
and historical background” (1974:118 119).
Accordingly, he suggests that the best way to deal
with such culture –specific names is to write them in
the target language culture as they are pronounced by
people of the original culture. ii In the case of
translating them from English into Arabic, we
arabicize them; that is to say we transliterate them into
Arabic. Benazir Bhutto is thus referred to in Arabic as
بن اظير بوت و (Benathir Boto) and not بن ازير بوت و (Benazir Bhutto) as the English people pronounce it (See also
Crystal, 1987:343). It is worth mentioning here that
some words have negative meanings in one language,
but positive ones in another language or culture. For
instance, the word “owl “in English is associated with
wisdom while its Arabic equivalent “ بوم ة " is
associated with Bad Luck/bad omen in the Arabic
culture. This difference in the meaning of “owl”
depends entirely upon cultural and traditional use of
the word in each society. Thus, we need to have good
information about the different cultures of the world
and not only depending on the dictionary meaning in
dealing with such culture bound word like “owl”. We
also “need to learn the cultural terms in order to
develop sensitivity to cultural variation, especially
when such variations reveal great differences in
interpretations and analyses in the source language”
(Carbaugh, 1989:95).
In conclusion, this section stated that exchanging
cultural information and learning new cultural terms
are as important as studying the linguistic features of
the different languages of the world for the purpose of
reaching a better and successful communications
between different cultures of the world.
Cultural Gaps in Linguistic Communication
The important issues that are going to be discussed in
this section are: the meaning of communication, the
cultural problems related with these worldwide
methods of contact between the different languages.
Let us begin with the definition of a concept of
communication “Communication is a process in which
a person, through the use of signs, whether verbal or
non –verbal express meaning to another in order to
affect change or pass on information to another
individual in either the same or in a different society.
We can simply say that it is a method of exchanging
knowledge for the purpose of bridging the gap between
cultures of the world and individuals in either different
regions in one country or different societies”.
ii Ibid
(as shown in
In this case, the linguistic method of communication
refers, in particular, to the spoken and written means
of contact (i.e., the use of words) between the different
cultures of the world. “Every language has a cultural
focus, i.e., each language has its own terminology, its
own strange functional and structural nature and
culture –bound register or a socially conditioned
language that need careful treatment when
transferring their peculiarities and meanings from one
culture to another” (Newmark, 1981: 121125
Interestingly, in his book Culture Bound: Bridging
the Cultural Gap in Language Learning, Valdes states
that “meanings, like forms are culturally determined or
modified.” (1988:54).Since this socially conditioned
linguistic identity varies across cultures, and since
language changes continually, as new words, idioms
and phrases appear to match the continually changing
needs of cultures, cultural gaps in linguistic
communication is inevitable. Choosing words or
finding the right equivalent becomes a serious problem
in text translation or reaching a proper level of
communication between cultures.
The difficulty in dealing with lexemes, on the level
of linguistic communication, does not come only from
understanding the source language words or terms
within the linguistic context of the source language,
but also from finding the equivalent vocabulary within
the appropriate linguistic context in the target
language. This proves the fact that a word is not just a
word list, but it has real cultural, linguistic identity that should be carefully studied when dealing with the
problems of cultural gaps in linguistic communication
between different societies. For example, the simple
statement “I am going home “has two different
meanings in Arabic language (TL). It either suggests
that the person is going to his own house “ ان ا عائ د ال ى المن زل " (I am going back to my apartment), or he is
going back to his own country " ان ا عائ د ال ى ال وطن " (I am going back from abroad to my country). The meaning
depends on the nonlinguistic
context.. Understanding
the intention of the word “home” depends on the
context and the situation of the speaker. There are
other words that cannot be understood even in a
context of situation, such as uncle, aunt and cousin in
the English language. As stated earlier, in the
discussion unless the individual in the TL culture has
good background information regarding such words,
they may interpret uncle to ع م (UncleThe
brother) who is in fact خ ال (Unclethe
brother) and so on.
However, cultural gaps in linguistic communication
are not only limited to words or the transference of
word list stuff alone. More serious problems come out
when dealing with phrases, idiomatic expressions or
proverbs, especially when they appear strange and
sometimes meaningless to individuals in TL culture,
Cultural Gaps in Linguistic Communication with Reference to English and Arabic Language Communities 63
like the Arabic. For instance, the sentence “it is raining cats and dogs “is a meaningful phrase which means
there is some heavy rain in the English (SL) culture
(Watson, 1970:662663).
In the Arabic (TL) culture,
such an expression does not exist and if it is going to
be literally translated, it would sound bizarre and
almost meaningless “ إنه ا تمط ر قطط اً و كلاب ا ” (it is raining real animals “cats and dogs”.
Another example is when a native speaker of
English says “I’m off color today”; in the SL language, this indicates that the speaker is not feeling well. In
this case, simple knowledge of grammar rules and
vocabulary items will not be enough to give the right
equivalent meaning in the Arabic TL culture. In order
to overcome this type of cultural gap, the TL culture
addressees must familiarize themselves with the
meaning of such expression in the SL culture. This
basically is achieved through experience and
intercultural exchange between the individuals in both
SL and TL cultures. In this case, the most suitable
explanation for “I’m off color today” will be in Arabic انا متوعك قليلا اليو م“ ” (I am feeling a bit unwell today). The problems of cultural gaps in linguistic
communication are further complicated by the
difference in the structure or the grammatical system of
English and Arabic. This difference may further
enhance the possibilities of misinterpretation or
misunderstanding of a spoken or a written text when
transferred from English into Arabic. A clear and
simple example is found in the difference between the
placing of the subject and verb in both languages. In
the sentence “Ali went home “the subject/agent comes
before the verb. The Arabic equivalent of this sentence
will be “ ذه ب عل ى ال ى البي ت ” (Went Ali to home).The place of the verb is always before the agent in verbal
sentences in Arabic.
The above discussion of cultural gaps in linguistic
communication leads us to the assertion of the
following conclusion; first and foremost is that
languages usages differ grammatically and
semantically within and cross cultures in accordance
with the social practices in which they take shape.
Accordingly, the meaning of words differs from one
society to another and respectively from one culture to
another. Thus, different rules of interpretations and text
analyses should exist within one culture in order to
remove all misunderstanding, when trying to carry the
English (SL) cultural bound lexemes or expressions
into the (Arabic) TL culture. Secondly, in order to
succeed in carrying out the task of removing cultural
gaps and misunderstanding of SL, we need to have a
wide knowledge concerning source language culture
like knowing about the peoples’ habits, the situation of
their particular speech, the common linguistic and
structural features of their speech. In addition, to the
understanding of the grammar features of the SL
language, every bit of information will count in
providing the nearest interpretations of the SL culture
and hence in minimizing the mistakes of finding the
most suitable equivalent in the target language culture.
Thirdly, when we want to interpret a word or a
concept from the source language , where no direct
equivalent is found, “ we can either produce a new
word to show the intended meaning in the target
language , or use whatever resources of the target
language to render the meaning we want to express
(Newmark , 1982 :121125).
In spite of these suggested solutions to some of the
problems of cultural gaps in linguistic communication,
the problem of how far should the interpreted text
integrate in the target culture and how much it retains
of source language culture remains a matter of
speculation for further study.
Cultural gaps are serious problems which affect all
aspects of communication all over the world. This
paper aimed at examining some of the major problems
of communication between cultures that are
characterized by obvious cultural gaps, between the
Arabic and English cultures. The paper investigated the
difficulties of interpreting culture bound words, idioms
and proverbs, in an attempt to suggest a number of
possible solutions to the problems of crosscultural
The analyses in this study focused particularly on
the linguistic method of communication and the culture
gap problems related to it, with reference to examples
from both the English and Arabic languages. In the
examination of the cultural difficulties in interpreting
meanings of words with specific cultural use and
features on the bases of linguistic communication, the
paper had four areas of focus, firstly on showing the
nature and the types of the existing problems related to
the cultural gaps between the source language culture
(SL) and the target language culture (TL). Secondly,
the results of the study reveal the fact that in order to
overcome such cultural gaps in linguistic
communication, individuals in the TL culture are
required to be aware, as much as possible, of the SL
language features so as to avoid the problem of losing
the meanings of words, due to their lack of such
knowledge of the source language or its culture.
Thirdly, to overcome the obstacle of translating culture
bound items into TL, a good background knowledge in
terms of historical, traditional and even geographical
aspects is required to establish the nearest equivalents
to them in the TL Arabic culture. Fourthly,
understanding the influences of the SL culture is also
equally important in enabling a successful
communication, in spite of the clear gaps between the
two cultures in question.
Finally, an investigation of the shared features
between the source and the target language cultures
must also be carried out in order to reduce the cultural
Zarqa Journal for Research and Studies in Humanities, Vol. 11, No. 1, 2011 64
gaps, and hence to overcome the crises of
misinterpretation and misunderstanding between
different cultures of the world.
Works Cited
[1] Carbaugh D., “Fifty Terms for Talk: A CrossCultural
Study,” in Language, Communication
and Culture, TingToomey,
Stella and Korzenny,
Felipe, London: Sage Publications Ltd, 1989.
[2] Crystal D.: The Cambridge Encyclopedia of
Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1987.
[3] Faircough N., Language and Power: Longman
Group UK Limited, 1989.
[4] Fasold R., The Sociolinguistics of Society,
Oxford, Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1984.
[5] Hall S. and Freedle O., Culture and Language:
The Black American Experience, Hemisphere
Publishing Corporation, 1975.
[6] Lyons J., Language and Linguistics, Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1981.
[7] Newmark P., Approaches to Translation,
London: Pergamon Press Ltd, 1981.
[8] Quirk R., The Linguist and the English
Language, Edward Arnold Publishers Ltd, 1974.
[9] Sapir E., Culture, Language and Personality:
Selected Essays Edited By David G.
Mandealbaum.: University of California Press
Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1964.
[10] Valdes M., Culture Bound: Bridging the Cultural
Gap in Language Teaching: Cambridge
University Press, 1988.
[11] Wilson P., The Oxford Dictionary of English
Proverbs, Oxford and the Clarendon Press, 1970.
[12] Robert S., PhD Definition of Communication,
/def_com.html. Last Visited 2009.

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