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Being Intercultural Through Texts: Dialogism and Addressivity

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    Text, or utterance, according to Bakhtin, is about a dialogue with an other. Text, then, does not exist in its own context, but is always directed to someone else, and as such his model of text can function also as a model of communication. Text can therefore be seen not just as a product in its own right, but it is always produced for someone else: a reader, interpreter, listener, which makes it relevant for intercultural learning, both in reading and writing.

    This ‘addressivity’ goes further than just helping the reader or listener along through using structural markers in the text or writing in a reader-friendly manner, such as writing with the use of discourse questions in mind, as I discussed above in relation to Widdowson’s view of texts. Instead, Bakhtin’s notion of addressivity or ‘dialogism’ means taking account of the reader or listener in a more substantial way and considering what the possible reader or listener’s previous knowledge and expectations and possible responses to the text might be. A reader’s responses to a text are based on his/her cultural and social experience and history, particularly in relation to previous reading experiences, but also in relation to the addressee’s conceptual world, which is made up partly of conventions of communication in certain areas of life (e.g. genres such as academic articles, law reports etc.), as well as his or her own ideological positions, or at least the discursive fields the addressee is familiar with.

    But text and communication are not just addressed towards a (future) reader who has a past and cultural baggage; texts (utterances) are also addressed to past language or communication. Language, Bakhtin says, is always a response to a greater or lesser extent to other utterances (1996 (1986): 91, 92). This applies to communication in real-time, e.g. a response to a previous utterance in a conversation, or a text which has been written in response to another text or any other intertextual references.

    If we apply this notion of engaging with the other to ‘being intercultural’, the intercultural learner is not just responding or engaging with the other culture, but also with another past. Words, like texts, are not neutral. There may be neutral dictionary meanings of words which ensure that speakers of a given language understand one another, Bakhtin says, but in live speech, communication words are always contextual (1996 (1986): 88). Language in use is not neutral because the context of the whole utterance gives the word ’colour’ or ‘sense’. Furthermore, as speakers, we are not the first people to use words. What we say is not just addressed to the object, the topic we speak about, but to what others have said about it. A text is a ‘link in the chain of speech communication’ (ibid. p. 94) and it cannot be seen separate from this chain. A text, or an utterance, carries echoes with the past, or as the playwright, Dennis Potter says it more succinctly: the problem with words is that you don’t know whose mouths they have been in (quoted by Maybin, 2001: 68).

    This is of particular relevance to the foreign language learner, who has not been socialized in the foreign language discourse communities and indeed might not be able to relate any discourses to particular people, events, or cultural and ideological views, at least not in the foreign language context. To understand a text, you can never only take the thematic content into account, because the text also responds to what others have said about the same topic. A text is then not just about its content, but it is a representation of something in relation to the other texts to whom it (perhaps unwittingly) refers: texts are filled with ‘dialogic overtones’ (Bakhtin, ibid., p. 92).

    But texts do not just exist as ‘echoes of the past’, texts themselves are not just written within one voice or discourse. As Kress showed, frequently there are various, even conflicting, discourses in a text, and it is these clashing discourses which give rise to the text itself (1985: 82). This heteroglossia consists of the seemingly endless voices and discourses in which social and ideological positions are embedded.

    It is the notion of dialogism - being in dialogue with past, present, future, and the other, which, I believe, constitutes the inter in intercultural. The inter in this interpretation is not a direct relationship between two cultures. As I argued earlier, intercultural relations are a complex set of cross cutting allegiances in which speakers act their complex multifaceted identities, or different ‘belongings’. In the next section, I explain what the cultural in intercultural is when we adopt a Bakhtinian version of texts, as a way of communicating with the other.

    This page titled Being Intercultural Through Texts: Dialogism and Addressivity is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Gerdi Quist (Ubiquity Press) .

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