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Cross-Cultural Communication Problems among Moroccan EFL Students

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Fez – While knowledge of language rules is important in every ESL/EFL context, these language rules remain useless if they do not conform to social norms. Highlighting the importance of the social aspect of language, Hymes (1972) pointed out “There are rules of use without which rules of usage will be useless.” Knowing the rules of language remains just one aspect of language knowledge; however, this knowledge is described as useless since it cannot help one to express oneself in real communication. Being aware of the importance of the social aspect of language, the Moroccan Baccalaureate curriculum aims to develop students’ sociolinguistic competence under the purview of the so-called Competency Based Approach.

In the same vein, the Moroccan English Language Guidelines for Secondary Schools (2007) state that “It is necessary to further focus on the learners developing the ability to use social/communicative functions accurately (correctly) and appropriately (in the right contexts)” (p.32). However, since the winds do not blow as the vessels wish, many Baccalaureate students cannot communicate appropriately in simple cross-cultural situations due to a myriad of reasons. In this respect, the question of sociolinguistic competence arises regarding the types of problems students may encounter in cross-cultural situations.

  1. The sociolinguistic aspect of Moroccan EFL textbooks

The sociolinguistic aspect of language in syllabuses can be seen in the form of speech acts: “What to teach can be described in sociolinguistic terms as a set of speech acts or language functions” (Corder 1973, p. 140). Being aware of this sociolinguistic aspect of foreign languages, English Language Guidelines for Secondary Schools (2007) state that “It is necessary to further focus on the learners developing the ability to use social/communicative functions accurately (correctly) and appropriately (in the right contexts)” (p.32). It further specifies language functions by asserting that “Social/communicative functions involve expressing one’s thoughts, intentions or feelings, expressing agreement and disagreement, apologizing, complaining, asking for information, etc.” (p. 32).

Moroccan EFL learners should be able to express themselves in social and cross-cultural situations, such as in the case of condoling, congratulating, and thanking. Failure to express oneself in such situations can result from pragmatic transfer or pragmatic failure in the target culture. The former occurs in the case of “using the rules of speaking associated with one’s own language and speech community when speaking a second language or interacting with members of another community” (Richards & Schmidt 1992, p. 494). The latter takes place when “one does not know what to say to whom, for example, which questions are appropriate to ask a guest” (Richards & Schmidt 1992, p. 495). While pragmatic transfer is peculiar to foreign language learners in cross-cultural situations, pragmatic failure is related also to native speakers. In some situations which are characterized by formulaic expressions, such as condoling, congratulating, or even greeting, Moroccans sometimes may not know the linguistic and paralinguistic conventions to follow. For instance, greeting in Morocco is sometimes accompanied by cheek kissing and exchanging salutations. The number of kisses between two individuals is not agreed upon. Generally, it ranges from two to four, and normally does not exceed six at maximum. In such situations, failure to agree on the number of kisses or exchange the suitable salutations may cause embarrassing situations.

  1. Research Hypothesis

In this regard, it is hypothesized that cases of pragmatic transfer and pragmatic failure are more likely to be found in students’ linguistic performance in situations of cross-cultural communication due to the interference of the mother tongue norms.

  1. Research Questions

This paper aims to answer the following main questions:

  • Are there cases of cross-cultural communication failure in students’ attempts to produce speech acts in English?
  • What are the reasons behind cross-cultural communication problems among Moroccan EFL learners?
  1. Methodology

In order to answer the above questions, a discourse completion test (DCT) of students’ sociolinguistic competence is employed as the main method of data collection in the current study. DCT can be defined as a questionnaire containing very briefly described situations designed to elicit a particular speech act. It contains short descriptions of a particular situation intended to reveal the pattern of the speech act being studied. Participants are asked to read each situation and respond to a prompt in writing. This type of test is very effective in inter-language pragmatic research. According to Kasper and Dahl (1991), DCT, along with role play, serves as one of the major data collection instruments in pragmatic research. In our context, DCT will help investigate the sociolinguistic competence of Moroccan EFL learners with a special focus on the major cross-cultural communication problems.

  1. Participants

The participants were 30 second year Baccalaureate students and 30 native speakers of English in Fes. Native speakers were used as a control group, whereas Moroccan EFL learners were taken as an experimental group. Purposive sampling was the technique used in choosing the participants of the current study. This type of sampling is said to be the most common one when the research question that is being addressed is specific to the characteristics of the particular group of interest, which is subsequently examined in detail. In short, the profiles of each group will be presented in the tables below.

5.1 Moroccan EFL learners

30 DCTs in Moroccan Arabic and English were distributed to 30 second year Baccalaureate students following their studies in three high schools in Fez. The three schools involved are Ibn Tachafin High School, Ibn Maatir High School, and Ibn Rochd High School. DCTs were distributed to ten students in each school. In general, the background information of the Moroccan respondents is displayed in the table below:

Moroccan EFL learners
Figure 1: Background information of Moroccan EFL learners (NNS)

As can be seen above, all students are second year Baccalaureate students. However, they have different majors.

5.2 Native speakers of English

In another vein, 30 native speakers continuing their studies at the Arabic Language Institute in Fez (ALIF) were asked to fill in the same English version of the DCT that was handed to the Moroccan EFL learners. Before being given the discourse completion tests, the respondents were asked whether or not they are native speakers of English. In general, the profiles of native speakers of English can be displayed below:

Background information of English native speakers (NS)

Figure 2: Background information of English native speakers (NS)

As can be seen above, the American and British respondents differ significantly in terms of the educational lvel, majors and nationality. Americans have different levels of education ranging from a BA degree to a Master degree. Similarly, their majors vary from political science to strategic communications. It is worth emphasizing that these degrees and majors are not found in the Arabic Language Institute in Fez (ALIF) which specializes in teaching Americans Arabic (either Standard Arabic or Moroccan Arabic) and teaching Moroccans English. The native respondents got these degrees from their home countries. With respect to nationality, it should be noted that the factor of nationality is not adequate in knowing whether they are native speakers or not. Some of them have Moroccan American parents; thus, they have Moroccan American nationalities. Others have Danish nationalities; still they are native speakers of English. In a word, nationality is not crucial to be considered a English native speaker; thus, it was not taken into account.

  1. Data Analysis

The data under analysis was collected by means of a Moroccan Arabic and English written discourse completion test consisting of 4 sections. Each section includes two situations. The total number of situations is eight. While the responses provided by native English speakers are taken as the baseline or standard data for comparison, the responses provided by Moroccan EFL learners are analyzed and crosschecked in order to determine the extent to which Moroccan EFL learners can communicate in cross-cultural communication situations. In general, only the responses that constitute total communication breakdowns are analyzed in this article regardless of the type of the situation.

To begin with, when Moroccan EFL students were asked to give a piece of advice to their sick friend who refuses to see a doctor, one of them provided the following response:

Respondent 26 (NNS): “Drink  ze3tar [Thyme] or l?alba [Fenugreek]” [modified data]

The example cited above reveals that there is a serious case of sociopragmatic transfer in the learner’s behavior in the target language. The reasons behind this sociopragmatic violation, so to speak, lie in that such piece of advice is given only in Moroccan Arabic. Thus, transferring this social knowledge from Moroccan Arabic to English gives rise to negative sociopragmatic transfer. For example, advising someone who is sick to drink thyme or fenugreek is typically Moroccan, given that Moroccans are very convinced of the effectiveness of so-called alternative medicine in healing common sicknesses such as the flu and fevers. The reason behind this pragmatic transfer is rooted in the influence of Moroccan cultural norms, which are reflected in language. Another reason behind such communication failure can be traceable mainly to the lack of the linguistic and pragmatic resources in English.

Furthermore, what is quite interesting is that intra-cultural pragmatic failure can occur even in the mother tongue due to intra-cultural and intra-lingual differences. An illustration of this fact can be found in the following response about giving an advice in Moroccan Arabic to a friend who has failed the Baccalaureate exam:

Respondent 16 (NS of Moroccan Arabic): “/nta lli xrajti 3la rask byeedek ditiha flalla o malli o tqarqib sttalli o lxroj m3a lbnat iwa l3am jay tssenna/”

Not every MA native speaker can produce or understand such an expression. Thus, failure to deduce the meaning of such a ritualized formula is more likely to result in sociopragmatic failure even among native speakers of MA. This indicates that in the different regional and social dialects of Moroccan Arabic, politeness is expressed differently.

Last but not least, when Moroccan EFL students and English native speakers have to request their university teacher to repeat a question they haven’t heard well, they provided the following answer:

Respondent 1 (NNS) “Sorry, teacher, but I am not hear [sic] you so please reply the question.”

Respondent 11 (NS): “Can you please repeat the question! I couldn’t hear it.”

A contrastive analysis of the pragmatic data elicited from Moroccan EFL learners and the data generated from native speakers reveals that there are cases of pragmatic errors in the request made by the Moroccan EFL learner. One of the gravest errors is due to linguistic overgeneralization. More specifically, this type of errors can be traceable to L2 lexical overgeneralization. In the example above, it is due to the similarities that exist between “repeat” and “reply” in English that this error is more likely to occur. The teacher could interpret the student’s request to repeat the question as a request to reply to the question; thus, this instance of pragmalinguistic failure amounts to creating miscommunication.

In some situations, students remain silent. That is, they do not know what to say at all due to total lack of linguistic resources needed to express oneself in some situations. This act is the extreme type of cross-cultural pragmatic failure, which leads to a total communication breakdown.

  1. Limitations and Recommendations

The findings of the current study would have been more detailed if there had not been some limitations. One of these limitations relates to some administrative constraints that immensely affected the quantity of the data and the quality of the findings. Moreover, with respect to data analysis, different statistical tests could have been run on the data derived from English native speakers and Moroccan EFL learners in order to make the pragmatic differences between Moroccan EFL learners and native speakers more clear. Last but not least, the current study could not give a holistic view to detect all the areas of cross-cultural communication problems where pragmatic transfer and pragmatic failure are more likely to occur, as the latter is a huge area that needs further investigation.

In this regard, further research to investigate Moroccan EFL learners’ pragmatic performance in the creation of other speech acts is strongly called for in order to help teachers and learners understand the peculiarities that characterize the development of interlanguage pragmatics. Furthermore, it is recommended that contrastive analysis be used by Moroccan EFL teachers in order to solve some predictable communication problems by detecting the areas where pragmatic transfer and pragmatic failure are more likely to occur.

The main objective of the current study was to investigate some cases of cross-cultural communication problems among Moroccan EFL learners taking second year Baccalaureate students in Fez as a case study. In this regard, a Discourse Completion Test in both English and Moroccan Arabic was used as the main method of data collection given its attested efficiency in pragmatic inter-language research. The gathered data has yielded some illuminating results with regards to the kinds of cross-cultural communication problems which can be summarized in three main problems, namely pragmatic interference, pragmatic/linguistic over-generalization and pragmatic failure.


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Corder, S.P., Introducing Applied Linguistics, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.

Færch, C., & Kasper, G., Strategies in Interlanguage Communication, London: Longman, 1983.

Hymes, D., “Models of the Interaction of Language and Social Life,” J. Gumperz and D. Hymes, editors, Directions in Sociolinguistics, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 35–71, 1972.

Kasper, G. and Dahl, M., Research Methods in Interlanguage Pragmatics: Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 13, 215-247, 1992.

Latif, H., “A Sociopragmatic Study of EFL Moroccan Learners’ Requests,” Unpublished DESA Dissertation, Faculty of Education, Mohamed V, Souissi, Rabat, 2001.

M.E.N., Moroccan English Guidelines for Secondary Schools: Common Core, First Year and Second Year Baccalaureate, www.men.gov.ma, 2007.

Richards J.C. & Schmidt R., The Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics, London: Longman Group UK Limited, 2001.

Thomas, J., Cross-Cultural Pragmatic Failure, Applied Linguistics, 4 (2), 91-112, 1983.

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