Linguistik online 5, 1/00

Language choice in bilingual, cross-cultural interpersonal communication

Ingrid Piller (Hamburg)

1 Introduction

Studies of intercultural communication have all too often taken misunderstandings as their central category (Ehlich 1996: 925 for an overview). By contrast, I will focus on the innovative potential of intercultural communication in the following. Cross-cultural communication is just as often characterized by success and leads to satisfactory understanding as intracultural communication. This is particularly true where cross-cultural communication is at the same time intimate communication. While the use of a common language does not guarantee mutual understanding, the absence of a common language does not necessarily prevent it, either. Novels and plays frequently explore the idea of an understanding that goes beyond language. In Max Frisch's play Als der Krieg zu Ende war (1949), "After the end of the war",1 for instance, a Russian officer in 1945 Berlin falls in love with a local woman. Neither speaks the other's language, and they have no lingua franca.2 Nevertheless, the lovers feel that their understanding is perfect because they can never tell each other a lie. The officer feels that Agnes is the only individual who understands him. He values their conversations without a common language much more highly than those with other Russian speakers:

Excerpt 1: Frisch 1995 (11949): 249

Stepan /Dich verstehe ich. Ich verstehe nicht die Deutschen, sie sind nicht ehrlich zu uns. Und unsere eigenen Genossen verstehe ich nicht. Der Krieg hat sie zu Tieren gemacht./ ["I can understand you. I can't understand the Germans, they aren't honest with us. And I can't understand my own comrades. The war has turned them into animals."]
Understanding without a common language is also a recurrent theme in contemporary advertising: the product is fashioned as a means of communication in the absence of another common code. A TV spot for Jacobs Krönung, a brand of coffee, for instance, which was broadcast on German TV in early 1999, starts with a group of Bedouin riders spotting car tracks in the desert sand. The leader utters a battle cry and they break into a gallop. The camera changes to a European family who are enjoying a coffee break in the shadow of their car, surrounded by mountains of sandy desert. The distant sound of hooves bodes evil and tension runs high as they stare in fear when they see the Bedouins charging down a hill. The father protectively kisses the head of his little boy and his daughter, a young woman, looks at her mug of coffee in a moment of indecision and then gets up, faces the riders, and offers her mug with both her hands to the leader of the Bedouins. At this gesture, the attack comes to a halt, the woman and the Bedouin prince smile at each other shyly and take turns sipping coffee from the mug. Relief. And the comment of the voice-over says: "Jacobs Krönung und wir verstehen uns." (‘Jacobs Krönung and we’ll understand each other’). The product has become the means of communication in a potentially dangerous intercultural encounter.

In Ervin-Tripp's study of the language use of Japanese-American couples, some informants also reported that they had no common language or had not had a common language when they first met. Instead, they spoke "the language of the eyes." (Ervin-Tripp 1968: 202). In 1919 Zara Witkin, an Californian engineer and socialist, fell in love with the Russian actress Emma Tsesarskaya when he saw her on screen in Village of Sin. He went to Moscow to find her and they became lovers although she spoke no English and he only a few words of Russian. Another couple without a common language, the Russian actress Zoya Fyodorova, and the American naval attaché Jackson Rogers Tate communicated with the help of a dictionary. Their story is particularly tragic as they had met in Russia during World War II and were separated four 43 years because of the Cold War, eight of which Zoya spent in prison, their daughter being raised with an aunt (both accounts from Visson 1998). So, a romantic attachment may transcend linguistic confines not only in fiction or advertising but also in "real life".

There can be no doubt that understanding without a common language will be the exception rather than the norm. However, accounts like the above drew my attention to a group of highly successful intercultural communicators: intercultural couples. My assumption that intercultural couples must be successful intercultural communicators is based on findings from social psychology that show that - in Western post-industrial societies - communication difficulties are the major cause of marital unhappiness and marital failure (e.g. Fitzpatrick 1990: 433; Sternberg 1988). A 'good spouse' is no longer just a good housekeeper, breadwinner, or sexual partner but a good communicator. It follows that stable intercultural couples must be good intercultural communicators. My research project on the language practices of intercultural couples is thus based on the assumption that an understanding of their communication patterns will improve our understanding of what makes intercultural communication successful, instead of fraught with misunderstandings.

In the following I will discuss my notions of intercultural communication and intercultural couples, I will look at methods for the study of couple talk, and I will discuss the language choices of these couples.

2 Intercultural communication and intercultural couples

In the last two decades an approach has been gaining ground in gender studies, which does not seek to explain assumed differences in the verbal behavior of men and women to result from male dominance but rather from cultural differences between men and women (Freemann and McElhinny 1996: 231ff for an overview). It is argued that men and women are socialized into different cultures because, as children, they play in different same-sex groups (Maltz and Borker 1982: 202ff). In this sense, each and every heterosexual couple would be an intercultural couple.3While no one can be happy with such a comprehensive category, the problem affects all studies in intercultural communication: our notions of intercultural communication are presumably based upon the speech community. However, just as linguists are notoriously unable to distinguish between a language and a dialect, we cannot define a speech community unambiguously either (Andrews 1996: 397ff). The days of traditional areal speech communities have long been dead and gone. At least in urbanities, where speech communities are divided along the lines of gender, regional and national origin, ethnicity, social class, sexual orientation, or interest groups. "There is then a sense in which all communication is cross-cultural" (Romaine 1994: 29). A German-American couple whose conversation I taped made this point when the wife asked her husband:

Excerpt 2: d16, ll. 4

Susan5: do you THINK, that WE have more to deal with, being bicultural, American and German, as ... a couple ... a Hamburger, and a Bavarian? ... do you think there's more cultural differences? more difficulties with us? or more with a- a German couple? a Northern German? and a Bavarian? ...
It is not clear where intra-cultural communication ends and intercultural communication begins, particularly so as sociolinguists have begun to refute essentialist notions of identity (e.g. Crawford 1995; Ehrlich 1997; Kramsch 1998). Cultural or national identity may be salient in one interaction but not in another, or at one point of an interaction but not at another. Participants may construct themselves and be co-constructed by others at one point as, say, people from Munich, at another as Bavarians, at another as Germans, at another as Europeans, at another as Westerners etc. And at many points of an interaction other aspects of a person’s identity will override cultural/national identity. Instead, gender, ethnicity, social class, professional status, status differences etc. may be foregrounded. Thus, an interaction between a person whose first language is English and one whose first language is German is not intercultural communication by the mere fact that there is an American and a German talking. It is only intercultural communication if the participants choose to focus on the cultural/national aspects of their identities, i.e. the "interculturalness" of a given interaction ? or its "intraculturalness" for that matter ? is interactively constructed. Instead of intercultural communication we may just as well be looking at a conversation between two university lecturers, two parents, a member of the armed forces and a civilian, or between wife and husband. "Each of us is simultaneously a member of multiple discourse systems which make competing demands on us for membership and identity." (Scollon and Scollon 1995: 15). Instead of "looking locally" (Eckert and McConnel-Ginet 1992) which aspects of a person’s social identity are being made salient in a given interaction, intercultural communication research has too often been driven by ideas of an essentialist ‘otherness’ (e.g. Andersen 1997). Essentialist models
portray [the Other - I.P.] in terms of fundamental attributes which are conceived as internal, persistent, and generally separate from the ongoing experience of interaction with the daily socio-political contexts of one’s life. (Bohan 1993: 7)
Just as research on language and gender has moved away from a focus on difference ("women’s language vs. men’s language") to an interest in the social construction of a gendered identity (e.g. Crawford 1995, Talbot 1998, Romaine 1999), I am suggesting that a social construction approach would also offer new insights in the field of intercultural communication. Instead of asking how Germans and Americans, for instance, use different communication styles, it might be much more useful to ask how cultural and national identity is ‘done,’ i.e. how it is constructed in ongoing interactions.

Communication between partners in a romantic dyad may even be far too personal to be considered intercultural communication at all. Is interpersonal communication all there is to it? Maren, another participant in my study, makes this point when she says:

Excerpt 3: gb2, ll.

Maren but then I mean- I don't think that we saw each other as an Englishman and a German woman. it was just two people. I mean, it was Dennis and Maren.
Again, it is helpful to consider the notion of the social construction of identity. Personality is one factor in the construction of a person’s identity along with gender, ethnicity, status etc. While personality affects all interactions of an individual it is never the sole contributing factor (Scott and Spencer 1998).

The concepts 'intercultural communication' and 'intercultural couples' have been shown to be fuzzy. For the purposes of the present study, I only collected data from self-identified intercultural couples, specifically Anglo-German couples (see the section on "Sample and informants" below). The experimental research design (see the section on "Methods" below) served to make cultural allegiance salient and explicitly positioned participating couples as "intercultural." A positioning only a few couples explicitly resisted (see Excerpt 2 and Excerpt 3 above).

Couples with different cultural backgrounds are not the marginal minority one might think. Although EU figures on marriages between partners of different linguistic backgrounds are not available, even if one takes national origin as an indicator (Harding and Riley 1986: 23), the figures for Germany show that binational marriages have been on the increase over the last decades (Statistisches Bundesamt 1997: 22). In 1960, 3.7% (total: 19,458) of all the couples who got married in the Federal Republic were between a German and non-German national. By 1995 their number had risen to 13.5% (50,686). Marriages between German nationals and nationals of the two major English-speaking countries, the US and the UK, fell during the same period (see Table 1), which is due to the changing role of the British and American forces in Germany, and to changing immigration patterns.

Table 1: Marriages between German ( FRG), and UK and US nationals in Germany (tabled from: Statistisches Bundesamt 1997: 23)

  1960 1965 1970 1975 1980 1985 1990 1993 1994
German female                  
German male                  


I will now go on to discuss which linguistic choices these couples have, which choices they make, and what their attitudes towards these choices are. Before, I will briefly address the question of how to obtain data for the study of marital communication that is also intercultural communication.

3  Methods for the study of marital communication

In many areas of linguistics, the fact that our results will be influenced by the method used to obtain the data has become a matter of urgent concern (e.g. the section on 'methodological issues' in Gass and Neu 1996: 21ff). The first choice that one has to face is between elicited data and naturally occurring data. While the latter are usually heralded as the 'real thing' in pragmatic studies, they, too, have some serious shortcomings such as their unsystematic nature (Beebe and Cummings 1996: 67). Also, one has to be cautious about the naturalness of "natural" conversational data as the observer's paradox also applies in non-experimental settings (Wilson 1987). Furthermore, naturally occurring couple talk that is not embedded in another situation such as a party setting is difficult to come by. The only studies to use naturally occurring samples of couple talk as their data are, as far as I know, Fishman's (1978; 1980; 1983) work on the supportive nature of female's contributions in conversations and the follow-up study by DeFrancisco (1989; 1991). Fishman asked three monolingual US-American couples to have all their home conversations tape-recorded for a certain period, and DeFrancisco seven.

For these reasons, in the study of marital communication, elicited data are used much more frequently. Elicited data can take many forms: questionnaires, sociolinguistic interviews, experimental settings, or discourse completion tests, to name but a few. I won't go into the pros and cons of all these methods here as I have done so elsewhere (Piller, in print). Instead, I will look at experimental studies of the communication practices of romantic dyads that have been carried out in the social psychology of language. In these studies, couples are asked to engage in activities like the following: "to work toward a mutually satisfactory solution to a salient relationship issue" for thirty minutes while being videotaped (Notarius and Johnson 1982), "to engage in pleasant conversation" (Fitzpatrick, Vance and Wittemann 1984), to discuss "un thème conflictuel" (Boucher 1995), "a neutral subject" (Spaine 1991), or "one current relational problem and one successfully resolved marital problem" (Weatherford 1985). In yet another study, of nonverbal communication in romantic dyads, couples were videotaped while playing 'Trivial Pursuit' (Manusov 1990a; 1990b). In all these designs, participants are basically asked to role-play their own conversations (Baus 1992).

These research designs obviously have the advantage of yielding real communication between the partners, while most of the other possibilities involve a certain amount of self-reporting, or talk in the presence of other participants. However, it has the disadvantage of being artificial and making subjects feel very self-conscious. Ethnographers of communication, who will only accept observation of naturally occurring conversations as valid data, generally deny the validity of experimental approaches. Nevertheless, the presence of an observer is in many social situations in a way "unnatural," too, and in the case of the intimate dyad simply not feasible most of the time. And, as Tannen (1994: 130) argues in favor of experimental designs, a communication is natural to the situation in which it is produced. Thus, experiments elicit speech that is natural to the odd situation in which it is produced. Experimental designs, furthermore, ensure comparability as they are standardized.

As I am interested in the language choices intercultural couples make, in their reasons for these choices, in their attitudes towards intercultural communication, and also in certain features of their actual conversations such as conversational control and humor, I needed to combine data that are normally collected through sociolinguistic interviews, with actual couple talk. I did so by developing a one-page "discussion paper" in German and English. The discussion paper served participating couples as a basis for the discussions which they were to self-record. Both, the questionnaire and the discussion paper, were prepared in English and German to give the couples the choice of their preferred language. Altogether, the discussion paper consists of 23 questions in four sections: language usage and skills (8 questions), language and culture (5 questions), language and identity (4 questions), perceived and self-reported attitudes towards intercultural couples, and their children (6 questions). The questions are not numbered but presented as a running text with four paragraphs. In the following they are numbered for ease of reference.

The questions on language usage and skills are the following:

The questions on language and culture are the following: The questions on language and identity are the following: The questions on perceived and self-reported attitudes towards intercultural couples, and their children are the following: This paper was given to German-English couples who were willing to spend some time discussing the issues addressed in it, and to tape themselves as they did so. I had been expecting to get, on the one hand, self-reported information on the couple's language practices like in a semi-structured interview, and on the other hand, also real samples of couple talk without the presence of a researcher. Although the design is experimental, it is "not too unnatural" as the couple has the choice of the setting.

4 The sample/informants

After I had "tried out" the proposed method in a pre-study with two couples, who are personal friends, I started advertising for my research in various bilingual interest publications in June 1997. The sample is thus being drawn on a voluntary, self-select basis from bilingual couples who can be reached through advertisements in bilingual interest publications, radio shows, or Internet sites. I intended to collect a sample of about 30 conversations. I wanted to have about fifteen conversations from couples living in a German-speaking community, and a further fifteen from couples living in an English-speaking community. Altogether, about 180 couples responded and asked for the materials (information sheet, discussion sheet, questionnaires, tape), and 51 tapes were returned to me.

4.1 Language choice

The first choice that participants in an intercultural encounter face is that of the choice of the medium: in which language (or languages) is the interaction going to be conducted? In the following I will discuss the linguistic choices made by these 51 couples and the reasons they give for their choices. One might argue that the preferred language choice of any person is the mother tongue. Persons who can use their mother tongue can be conceived to be in a powerful position while the use of a second language always entails a certain amount of relinquishing of control. In one of his essays on English linguistic imperialism, Phillipson (1998: 106), for instance, writes:
Language rights will inevitably have to be limited further, but already in effect European politicians and bureaucrats often opt to function in a foreign language, or are pressured into doing so, rather than insisting on their language rights.
The quote suggests that these politicians and bureaucrats would be better off expressing themselves in their mother tongue instead of an L2. I am arguing that such a view is too simplistic. For many people their second language has become their preferred choice of expression as the examples in Coulmas (1997) amply demonstrate. To give just a few examples, Paul Celan chose German as the language of his poetry instead of Romanian, Joseph Conrad chose English as the language of his novels instead of Polish, Salman Rushdi writes in English instead of Gujarati, and Jorge Semprún in French instead of Spanish "because he had turned French into his mother tongue" (Coulmas 1997: 32). In some situations the choice of a non-native language may actually be an act of empowerment: a person opts to leave the "linguistic caste system" (Kachru and Nelson 1996: 91), which privileges ‘native speakers’ and is based on the assumption that a person can only express herself fully in her first language, and has to relinquish (some) control in any other language.

So, which linguistic choices do intercultural couples make and what are their motivations for these choices? In a very brief article that is based on introspection, Siguan (1980) identifies the following factors that might influence linguistic choice in intercultural couples: "le territoire," i.e. the language of the monolingual area where the couple live; "diglossie," i.e. the choice of the more prestigious language if the couple live in a bilingual area; "loyauté linguistique," i.e. the choice of the non-native or less prestigious language for reasons of solidarity; "langue de l'homme et langue de la femme," i.e. there is a tendency for the language of the male partner to prevail; and "facteurs individuels," i.e. choices that do not fall into the larger patterns previously identified. Are these factors born out by my data?

Of the 51 couples, 21 use German as their common language, 16 English, and 14 a mixed code. This count is based on the language choices reported in the questionnaire that accompanied the conversation and on the conversations themselves. Obviously, it could be argued that self-reports on a questionnaire and a conversation taped for research purposes might not reflect what the couples "really" do. However, in the social constructionist framework outlined above there is no such thing as a "real essence" and a display of self in one context is exactly that: a construction in one particular context. Those couples that report a mixed code use two different strategies: either each partner speaks his or her language all the time and receives the other language back, or both partners engage in code-switching. 38 of the couples who sent me tapes live in a German-speaking country (37 in Germany and one in Austria), 10 in an English-speaking country (5 in the UK, 5 in the US), and three live in another country (Belgium, Israel, the Netherlands).

Table 2: Couple language and community language

couple language
community language
mixed code

As was to be expected from previous research from a diversity of contexts,6 the community language is the most powerful indicator of the language bilingual couples will use for marital communication (see Table 2) - this is also what Siguan (see above) predicted. Six of the ten couples who live in an English-speaking country use English with each other (60%), and 18 of the 38 who live in a German-speaking country use German with each other (47%). However, it was also to be expected from these studies that the overwhelming majority of bilingual couples would opt for the community language as their common language - which is clearly not true for my sample. So which factors govern the choice of a common language according to the couples themselves? I will now look at two factors in some more detail: habit and compensation.

4. 2 Habit

Many couples explain that they use the language they use, whether it is the majority language or the minority language, out of habit. It is the language they used when they first met that they stick to. Maren, for instance, a German woman who lives in England with her English husband says:

Excerpt 4: gb2, ll. 20-26

Maren well I suppose- your German is quite good now but erm it's just habit, isn't it? before, we spoke in English to each other. we met in England. when we met, you didn't know- you knew only one phrase in German.

Dennis that's right.

Maren zwei Bier bitte. ("two beers, please")

Habit may account for the use of the majority language (as in the case of Maren and Dennis, who use English in the UK) or the minority language (as in the following example of a couple who use English in Germany). Deborah, an American woman who lives in Hamburg with her German husband, also adduces habit as the reason why they use English together.

Excerpt 5: d20, ll. 10-23; 51-59

Deborah [...] well, my husband and I erm decided to speak English together. and I guess mainly that has to do with the fact, that, when I first arrived here in Germany two years ago his English was considerably better then my German, and in order for us to communicate, even on a basic level, it was- it was necessary for us to speak English. and I think we've just kept that up, because it became a habit, and also I think it's sort of a, ... a way for him to offer some sort of sacrifice to ME. because I had to give up, all my things, my culture, my language, my family, and my friends, to move to Germany. and he had everything here around him. and I guess the only thing he COULD offer me was his language. [...] it- it's STRANGE for us when we speak German with each other. because we met in the States, he was teaching German at the university where I had studied. and I had already graduated but he was giving me private lessons. and that's how we became friends, and we just spoke English together THEN. and we have always spoken English together, and it just seems strange that- that once I came here, that we should then speak German. [...]
Deborah finds it strange to use the majority language with her husband because that is not what they did when they first met. The fact that couples find it difficult to change from the language of their first meeting to another one can probably be explained with the close relationship between language and identity. In a number of studies in the 1960s, Ervin(-Tripp) (1964; 1968) found that language choice is much more than only the choice to the medium. Rather, content is affected, too. In a number of experiments, that have unfortunately not been replicated since, she demonstrated that in Thematic Apperception Tests (TAT) the content of picture descriptions changed with the language (English or French) a person used. When she asked English-Japanese bilingual women to do a sentence completion test, she got the same dramatic results: the sentence completion changed from one language to the other. Her most famous example is probably that of a woman completing the stimulus "When my wishes conflict with my family ..." with "It is a time of great unhappiness." in Japanese, and with "I do what I want." in English (Ervin-Tripp 1968: 203). Likewise, Koven (1998) shows in her study of the narratives of French-Portuguese bilinguals that the self is performed differently in these languages. She argues that these differing performances point to contrasting experiences and positional identities in the two linguistic communities. So, there is evidence that bilinguals say different things in different languages, which makes it quite obvious why intercultural couples stick to the language of their first meeting: they might lose the sense of knowing each other, the sense of connectedness and the rapport derived from knowing what the other will say in advance if they switched.

Habit also explains why the percentage of couples who use German in a German-speaking country is lower than the percentage of couples who use English in an English-speaking country (47% vs. 60%; see Table 2). English is much more likely to be the language of the first interactions - no matter where the couple will eventually settle down - as the portion of speakers of German who have English as a second language is much higher than the portion of English speakers who have German as a second language.

4.3  Compensation

Deborah (see Excerpt 5) mentions a further factor that influenced her and her husband's choice of English as their common language. The use of English in Germany became a gift that was offered to compensate for the sacrifice Deborah had to make to live with her husband: migration. A lot of recent research has shown that language and power are inextricably linked: "all socio-communicative verbal interaction, at whatever level of formality or complexity, reflects the distribution of power among the participants." (Watts 1991: 53). In intercultural relationships the partner in whose native country the couple live is clearly privileged: legally, economically, and usually socially, too. In the linguistic construction of reality, power may also accrue to a person through being an undisputed expert manipulator of a code, a native speaker. Being a foreigner and having to use a non-native code places a person in a doubly marginalized position, while being a native using the native code places a person in a doubly strong position. The compromise to let one partner be the native, and the other the native speaker may well be conducive to a more egalitarian distribution of power in a relationship.

Research on language and power is frequently linked to research on gender. This leads to the question whether it is the male or the female partner in intercultural relationships who find themselves in weak or strong positions in the above sense?

Table 3: Language choice and gender

Female partner migrates and uses the majority language with her partner 
Female partner migrates and uses her native language with her partner 
Male partner migrates and uses the majority language with his partner 
Male partner migrates and uses his native language with his partner 

Table 3 shows that, in my sample, about half of the female partners find themselves in a doubly marginalized position, i.e. they have given up their status as natives and their status as native speakers. However, only three male partners find themselves in such a weak position. Almost an equal number of couples, have reached a compromise by compensating for migration with the use of the minority language. This includes a number of 'weaker' compromises, too, though, as I have also counted those couples that report the use of a mixed code as 'compromise couples'.

5 Conclusion

To sum up, this paper has three objectives: first, I am arguing for a social construction approach to the study of intercultural communication. Second, the discussion of my research design is intended to contribute to methods in the study of intercultural communication. Third, I am identifying language choice as a major factor in the linguistic construction of cultural identity. Through their language choices, the couples in my sample most often align themselves with the majority. However, they may also actively construct themselves as intercultural border-crossers by the use of a mixed code, or even as minority members, which happens when both minority and majority partner use the minority language. The reasons the couples themselves identify for their choices are 'habit' and 'compensation.’ Both factors have wider implications for the study of intercultural communication generally: we need to learn more on how content and identity constructions differ with language choice, i.e. how content and the presentation of the self differ from one language to the next in a multilingual's repertoire. Also, the power make-up of intercultural conversational exchanges, enacted through code-choice and other devices, deserves further attention as the trouble with intercultural communication are not misunderstandings in themselves but the fact that the life chances of minority members may be at stake if such misunderstandings occur.


1 Here and elsewhere: the translations into English are mine.

See Leisi 1993 and Piller 1998 for more detailed analyses of the love talk in this play.

3 I do not wish to align myself with the so-called difference approach, which has been heavily criticized for ignoring power relations in society (e.g. Troemel-Ploetz 1991 or Cameron 1998). I am adducing it here to make the point that there are no clear definitions of and no firm boundaries between cultures.

4 "d16" is the code of the interview. The line numbers refer to the original transcript. The following transcription conventions are employed in the excerpts:

  … pause
  - truncation
  , clause final intonation ("more to come")
  . sentence final falling intonation
  ? sentence final rising intonation
  […] parts of the utterance have been left out
  CAPS emphatic stress
  Italics German utterance

5 All the names are pseudonyms to protect the anonymity of my informants.

6 E.g. Bernard 1994; Dorian 1989; Gal 1979; Mertens 1994; Mougeon 1984

7 The three couples who live neither in an English- nor a German-speaking country have been excluded from this count, as has the only homosexual couple in my sample.


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