dissertation: English in Context in an East-Asian Intercultural Workplace

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Sat Nov 22 22:44:10 UTC 2008

English in Context in an East-Asian Intercultural Workplace

Institution: University of Toronto
Program: Department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning
Dissertation Status: Completed
Degree Date: 2006

Author: Alan Thompson

Dissertation Title: English in Context in an East-Asian Intercultural

Dissertation Director:
Normand Labrie

Dissertation Abstract:

This thesis is concerned with English in East-Asian international settings,
where it is practised mostly among non-native speakers, and where cultural
and interactional norms cannot necessarily be assumed to be those of
established English-speaking communities. It is a study of one
representative setting for English language practice in the region, a
multinationally staffed international cooperation agency located in Japan.
It attempts to describe the social phenomena that make up the context of
situation of interactions in the workplace, and investigates the influence
that this context has on the practice of English language there. The
objectives are to arrive at a clearer understanding of the functions and
nature of English when it is used as a regional (or international) lingua
franca, and to reappraise the goals for English language education in such

There were two components to the study: 1) An ethnographic study of the
setting consisting of observation and interviews with participants probing
a) their accounts of the conventions and social relations operating in
their workplace, and b) their perceptions and expectations regarding
communication in English; and 2) an analysis of audio-recorded interaction
data, by grammatical, discourse, and conversation analytic methodologies.
The participants' accounts were examined to see if they might help explain
distinctive features in workplace language practices (successful and
mis-communications, code-switching, innovation and variation in English

The interaction data demonstrate that English is preferred for functions of
ideational exchange within peer-groups, whereas Japanese is more often used
when interpersonal meaning is important (requests, conversation regulation,
etc.). The interview data, wherein participants reported favouring English
for its directness and status-neutral grammar, provides a potentially
causal correlation. Further, the following tendencies are observed in
English language practice: a) avoidance of interpersonal meaning-making in
the interaction order and in the structure of utterances, b) ideational
explicitness, and c) a preference for communicative efficiency over
adherence to rules of 'well-formedness'. Also, specific procedures for
negotiating interactional norms were demonstrated.

There are two remarkable findings: 1) The perceived view of English (as
direct and status-neutral) is a social fact and has had real,
self-fulfilling effect. 2) English has been positioned as a complement to
the participants' local languages, not acculturating to their cultural
backgrounds, but given the restricted role of ideational exchange. The
participants in this study are thus more accurately portrayed as
'practisers' of English than 'learners': they are not adopting the language
practice of foreigners; they are creating a third culture and embracing an
alternate practice of the language. The extent to which English is used and
the ways in which it is adapted are highly influenced by the degree to
which English language and culture are perceived to be suited to their
cultural priorities, and to the exigencies of the situation.


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