fulbright Taiwan online journal

fulbright Taiwan online journal

“It’s made by chili, not curry.” Supra-understanding of Foreign Friendship Talks in ELF

In America, I found that many speakers of English as a lingua franca (ELF) experience misinterpretations involving loanwords, culturally-specific locutions, creative wordplay, or individual idiolects. Accordingly, in my talk for the celebration of 75 years of Fulbright, I proposed the concept of supra-understanding to explicate how ELF speakers can develop a critical sociolinguistic awareness of ethnocentric language usages and worldviews, thereby avoiding the misunderstandings of alien and idiosyncratic utterances in intercultural communication. To illustrate this concept, I present two scenarios to demonstrate how these adept ELF speakers achieve supra-understanding by re-deploying their semiotic resources, repositioning their perspectives, and re-negotiating meanings.

The poster for my Fulbright talk

Anecdote 1: It’s made by chili, not curry.

Pat, a visiting scholar from India, invited me for dinner at his apartment.[1] He cooked some rice, vegetables, and soup. Like most Indians, Pat likes very spicy food, but the dishes he prepared for me were much milder than those he usually makes for himself. I was surprised by the reddish-brown color of the soup, having long associated Indian food with the yellow color of turmeric powder, but I instantly realized my misconception.

My Indian friend cooked delicious dishes for our dinner

Then I asked Pat to recommend some curry powder since I wanted to try to cook this interesting dish myself. But when I asked Pat about the curry powder used in India, Pat said, “It’s made by chili, not curry,” unsure of what he wanted. I was also confused at the moment, and tried to clarify my question by saying that Indian food is very popular in Taiwan, where curry powder and curry cubes are widely used in soups, rice dishes, and vegetable dishes. In addition to this explanation, I also showed some images of curry powder products found online. Pat explained that the word “curry” generally refers to an Indian dish, not a kind of spice. He finally realized that I was using the word ‘curry’ in its Western sense of a ready-made mixture of spices typically used in Indian cuisine.

Beginning to understand, I sought further clarification. I asked Pat if ‘spice’ and ‘chili’ mean the same thing in India. Pat replied that chili is a particular type of spice, and that there are various types of chili, such as red and green. He showed me a box of spices he had in his kitchen; he also added that they might also use masala, a mixture of spices, often including red chili and turmeric, ground into a powder or paste, and

[1] All names are pseudonyms.

usually differentiated by the dominant spice, e.g., tikka masala or garam masala. He then realized that I was asking about masala, not curry powder.

Pat also told me that the reddish-brown ‘soup’ is actually a popular south Indian dish called sambar, and that it typically contains vegetables and lentils. Its spicy and slightly sour taste comes from the tamarind that is always included. Indians usually use sambar as a dip when eating white rice cakes called idli, or with a big, thin pancake called a dosa. The special spice mix used for making sambar is called sambar masala. Pat used some online images to explain these special Indian dishes so that I could learn more about Indian cuisine.

Pat later recommended a local Indian grocery store, and we went there together. When we saw several brands of curry powder on the shelf, Pat felt a little bit embarrassed. Pat said to me with a smile, “Well then, now it will be convenient for you to make a quick curry dish.”

Curry powder available in a grocery store in America

I later told him that the Google dictionary defines curry powder as a mixture of finely ground spices. In fact, the word curry originates from Tamil, a language spoken in southern India, and means a dish cooked in an Indian-style sauce, typically served with rice. However, outside of India, the term curry powder refers to a premade mixture of spices typically used in Indian cuisine. Regarding this conversation, Pat noted:

The phrase ‘curry powder’ still sounds strange to me, but I realize it actually exists in the West, even though it’s unfamiliar to most Indians. From our conversation, I came to find various English usages, which might be totally different from the way we speak English in India.

This anecdote illustrates a case of what I call supra-understanding: realizing that one’s habitual way of thinking has caused one to misinterpret the intended meaning of a particular expression. In this anecdote, both Pat and I deconstructed our language ideologies, and expanded our understanding by re-deploying our semiotic repertoires in multimodal ways. In a deconstructive process of collaborative learning, we eventually came to realize our linguacultural differences, thereby enhancing our mutual understanding.

This scenario highlights the importance of deconstructing ethnocentrism, as it awakens us to a dynamic process of meaning negotiation that transcends our linguacultural locutions in intercultural communication. The use of ELF in this way requires a critical sociolinguistic

awareness of translingual practices (TP), so as to mitigate the misinterpretation which inevitably arises between speakers from different backgrounds.

Anecdote 2: It’s called a down coat, not a feather coat.

Sara, a research assistant from China, shared her experience about the time she asked her American friend Larry to recommend ‘a feather coat.’ Sara found her phrase was misleading because Larry thought that she was thinking about dressing up as a bird for Halloween, but in fact she was actually planning to buy a coat to keep her warm in winter. She further explained that she wanted a lightweight coat stuffed with feathers, and she also used some online images to clarify the clothes she wanted to buy. Larry came to realize that she was not talking about a feather coat, but rather a down coat.

Larry said to Sara, “It’s called a down coat, not a feather coat.” He patiently explained that to Americans, her phrase might be taken as expressing a coat with feathers. Accordingly, if an American hears the odd-sounding term ‘feather coat,’ he or she is likely to associate it with some kind of costume with feathers, to be worn for a party or performance. But Sara was confused about why such a coat would be called down instead of up, seeing that it looked so puffy. Larry was not sure why, so he went online and found out that the word down refers to the tiny feathers that birds have under their wings and close to their bodies. Larry added that down is also used to fill ‘comforters’ (Larry’s word, typically used in North America, meaning quilts). In short, one can only know what is meant by the phrase ‘down coat’ by first understanding that ‘down’ is a type of stuffing. Regarding this misunderstanding, Sara noted:

I used “feather coat” because I didn’t know if there was a special term for the type of clothes I was looking for. So I translated it directly from the Chinese name: Yurong Yi. I was actually aware my word might be wrong.

It’s embarrassing, and it’s better to ask, instead of thinking he might understand it.

Jordan, a Taiwanese teaching assistant while working on his doctoral research, also shared a similar story. One time he would like to ask his American friend, Henry, to recommend ‘a heating fan,’ but Henry couldn’t understand what he was asking about, and he thought it was a joke or a riddle. Jordan realized that his literal translation of the Chinese name of the appliance (Dian-Re Shan) was misleading, so he explained that he was talking about a fan-shaped device that generates heat to make a room warm in winter. Henry then realized that Jordan wanted a space heater, a name that reflects its function, rather than its appearance.

Like non-native speakers of English, who might have idiolectal expressions, children also tend to invent words to describe something new or unfamiliar. For instance, a young child might say “happy birthday fires” for “birthday candles,” or might call a garden trampoline a “bounce-a-line.” Other examples are as follows:[2]

bus-train for tram hanitizer for

sanitizer rainbrella for

umbrella food map for recipe

boat coat for life jacket

bowl with holes for colander

In many cases, kids use creative and logical linguistic shortcuts that make more sense than the intended expressions.

Adults also engage in this kind of creative linguistic behavior, particularly when talking with close family members and friends. Jordan recalled his American friend Henry saying ‘dumb waiter’ for a food elevator’ as well as a speed bump or a speed hump. Anecdotes like these reveal that, like native speakers of English, ELF speakers are creative language users, deploying their native language usages, together with other semiotic resources, to negotiate meanings. ‘Peculiar’ expressions like ‘feather coat’ and ‘heating fan’ are sprinkled through TP. Albeit strange sounding to native ears, they might be regarded as a form of linguistic creativity, instead of mother-tongue interference. Multilinguals often use their multiple semiotic repertories in multimodal ways to make themselves understood in a particular situation, and the resulting ambiguities can add some humor and spice to life.

[2] More examples of children’s invented words are available on this website: https://www.someecards.com/news/news/30-words-invented-kids-dictionary/

In a similar scenario, Ben, a research assistant from Japan, said that one time his American roommate, John, asked for a paper towel when they were cooking in the kitchen. Unsure of what he was asking for, Ben replied if he wanted “a kitchen towel.” John corrected him, saying “It’s a paper towel, not a kitchen towel.” Then Ben asked him why Americans say toilet paper instead of toilet tissue, and paper towel instead of kitchen towel. After all, since it is generally used in the kitchen to wipe up liquids on the table or countertop, wouldn’t it be more logical to call it a kitchen towel, in analogy with toilet paper? John explained that a paper towel could be used anywhere in the house, not just in the kitchen. But, when Ben reasoned that toilet paper could also be used anywhere, John had to admit that it was a matter of established usage, rather than logical consistency.

Interestingly enough, Ben later found from the Cambridge dictionary that in Great Britain three terms are used to refer to the same thing: kitchen towel, kitchen paper, and kitchen roll. To Ben, kitchen paper sounds informal, whereas kitchen towel sounds more formal. However, John thinks of a kitchen towel as a rag used to wash dishes. Such discussions, albeit tedious, are sometimes necessary for facilitating long-term cross-cultural communication. Likewise, this case also indicates that  critical sociolinguistic awareness is needed to avoid miscommunication caused by ethnocentric diction, so that speech accommodation can resume. Regarding this naming difference, Ben noted:

It’s interesting to find different names for the same object. After that, he [John] didn’t argue with me any more. He still uses paper towel, while I mix different names, but I became aware that Americans use paper towel, not kitchen towel or kitchen paper. All of these different names are fine to me if everyone involved in a conversation can understand them. We might speak differently, but we can keep a sense of humor to add to the spice of life.

Awareness of supra-understanding is conducive to developing intercultural communicative competence (ICC) in the context of TP. Misinterpretation often occurs when ELF speakers unconsciously use a culturally-specific word like robot, a region-specific word like bubbler, a loanword like braai, a neologism like bounce-a-line, a colloquial word like barbie, or an idiosyncratic word like feather coat, unaware that others might not understand their socio-cultural or idiolectal connotations.[3] However, such intercultural communication breakdowns can be overcome if one makes an effort to seek clarification, as illustrated in the depictions of the informants’ foreign friendship

[3] The word “robot” refers to traffic lights in South Africa. “Bubbler” refers to water fountain in Kohler, Wisconsin. “Braai” refers to barbecue in South Africa, whereas “barbie” is used in Australia.

talks. Resolving misinterpretation requires deconstructive reflection on linguacultural locutions and exploration of sociolinguistic variation. For example, when hearing the confusing term “curry powder,” an Indian might take the initiative to find out what it means to the speaker, and the speaker might explain this diction when sensing the listener’s incomprehension.

The scenarios presented above have shown not only how adept speakers utilized their full semiotic repertoires and multiple modal resources simultaneously in translingual ELF contexts to prioritize mutual understanding over standards and accuracy, but also how they realized their ethnocentric misinterpretations and neoliberal prejudices to appreciate lingualcultural differences. ELF as TP poses a challenge for intercultural communication, but it also provides us with a great opportunity to explore, discover, and learn how our own socio-cultural norms and life styles differ from others. Only with curiosity, respect, empathy, critical thinking, and sharing of life experiences, can foreign friendships begin to grow and thrive.


It is essential to prepare English learners for communicative unpredictability by using multimodal resources in creative and strategic ways to expand their repertoires and develop their communicative competence. Teachers need to demystify the concept of the standard monolingual dogma and implement an inclusive approach, open to the flexible use of TP to facilitate their classroom interactions with multilingual and multicultural students A translanguaging pedagogy can empower multilingual students to appropriate a new language, expand their existing repertoires, and cultivate their confidence with self-esteem. Bi-directionality in language socialization not only facilitates classroom interactions between teachers and students from multilingual and multicultural backgrounds, but also expands linguacultural repertories in co-learning processes.

Acquiring standard English as a form of linguistic capital is insufficient, and recent research on translanguaging in a cross-cultural setting has indicated that understanding how distinct varieties of English vary in their linguistic structures and socio-cultural ideologies will facilitate mutual comprehension between speaker and listener. Nonetheless, speech articulation, contextual clues, and dialogue involvement might not enable interlocutors to figure out ‘odd’ locutions and novel diction unless one develops a critical awareness of one’s own ethnocentric conventions or idiolectal usages in meaning-making processes. The anecdotes presented in this paper indicate that the interactants, in addition to curiosity about other cultures, respect for linguistic variation, willingness to share life experiences, and clarification of intention, also developed a deconstructive thinking about their sociolinguistic habitus which might prevent them from exploring the socio-cultural connotations behind different ways of speaking. These anecdotes have demonstrated that it is speech accommodation from others’ perspectives that helps to develop an appreciation of linguacultural differences.

Jointly negotiating meaning entails not only a critical thinking of standard English, but also a deconstructive perspective of our own locutions and those used by others in ELF communication, thus enabling us to resolve the confusion caused by ethnocentrism and idiolects, and, at the same time, revealing the socio-cultural implications of particular usages. With a critical sociolinguistic awareness of neoliberalism and ethnocentrism, ELF speakers can achieve supra-understanding of alien diction by deploying and re-coordinating their entire semiotic repertories in resourceful ways.

It is worth noting that judging other language usages from one’s own perspective can be misleading and counterproductive in ELF interactions. The narratives presented in this report have shown the benefits of deconstructive and collaborative learning in ELF communication. It is ineluctable that translingual discourses with foreign friends require patience, empathy, additional information on socio-cultural background, and reflection on one’s habitual ways of speaking and thinking, but they can lead to genuine understanding, supportive solidarity, sustained efficiency, dialogical amusement, and interpersonal rapport in the long run. Not until we deconstruct ethnocentric conventions and accommodate various locutions will we be able to facilitate effective intercultural communication, thereby laying the basis for harmonious interactions grounded on well-informed understanding.

Managing Editor: Chao-Hui Wei (Bonnie) 魏肇慧

Good pieces need to be seen.


Hsiao Tzu Yang 楊孝慈

Hsiao Tzu Yang 楊孝慈

Professor Yang's research focuses on worldwide English language variation, exploring the use of English as a lingua franca in intercultural communication and developing curricular activities to enhance intercultural communicative competence.

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