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Misunderstanding and non-understanding in the usage of English as a common language in helpdesk encounters involving non-native speakers

Beldad, A.D. (2006) Misunderstanding and non-understanding in the usage of English as a common language in helpdesk encounters involving non-native speakers.

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Abstract:The gradual internationalization of 'technical help over the phone' as an enterprise and the increasing application of helpdesk services in organizations highly characterized as intercultural and international have necessitated the usage of a common language that can be used when two individuals with different linguistic backgrounds decide to commence a transaction. A number of researchers (for instance Gass & Varonis, 1991; Weigand, 1999; and Kurhila, 2001) have asserted that when people interact using a secondary language, problems with understanding are inevitable. It has been pointed out that the causes of misunderstanding and non-understanding in conversations involving non-native speakers of a language can be attributed to the interacting parties' cultural and linguistic differences (also evident in the works of Grass & Varonis, 1991; and Weigand, 1999) - and when we focus on linguistic differences, the premise is that understanding problems are due to the interacting actors' difficulty in the correct construction of sentences, their unfamiliarity with the vocabulary of the language in use, and their problems with the proper pronunciation of words and terms. Another view, however, is that misunderstanding is not only caused by linguistic but also by pragmatic factors. Realizing that problems with understanding are normal occurrences in intercultural conversations, interacting individuals are expected to resort to varied approaches in resolving understanding problems - the most common, however, is repair. Although, in this research the concept of 'preventing possible understanding problems' is also explored. To address the questions of this study, telephone conversations made in a commercial call centre and a helpdesk of an education institution were recorded and were subjected to the methodology of Conversational Analysis. The selection of the recordings for transcription and analysis was in accordance with the following research problems: 1. What are the factors behind the occurrence of misunderstandings in helpdesk encounters involving non-native English speaking clients and agents? 2. How are these misunderstandings repaired and who initiates the repair? 3. What causes non-understanding in helpdesk encounters involving non-native speakers of English? 4. Who usually recognizes the inception of non-understandings in helpdesk conversations and how are they repaired? 5. How do participants in helpdesk encounters prevent problems of misunderstandings? It has been revealed that misunderstandings in helpdesk conversation involving non-native English speakers are due to false beliefs, erroneous inferences from the utterances of a conversational partner, and incomplete information. This implies that misunderstandings in non-native interactions are not different from native-to-native interaction - as differences in the interacting actors' linguistic background and their levels of competence in using the secondary language, as the analyzed recordings have revealed, do not lead to the inception of misunderstanding within and during the encounter. In the case of non-understandings, however, the cause is due to the construction of the utterance of the conversational partner - implying that linguistic factors play a role in the occurrence of non-understanding in non-native interactions. The repair of misunderstandings is usually initiated by the recipient of the problematic utterance, which enables the source of the trouble to execute the necessary correction to contain misunderstanding. Other-initiated repairs are also prominent in cases of non-understanding, where the party who recognizes his failure to process his partner's utterance will also indicate the trouble, thereby allowing the speaker of the non-understood utterance to repair the trouble to accommodate the recipient of the utterance to reach understanding. As shown in the analysis, repairing a non-understood utterance can be executed by repeating a statement, repeating and modifying the utterance, extending the meaning of an ambiguous term, and describing a non-understood item or object being referred to during the talk. The research also attempts to establish the notion of prevention as a strategy employed by the recipient of an utterance in an effort to avoid understanding problems, thus reaching complete understanding. In this case, however, the emphasis is that the caller resorts to 'prevention' during the consultation to prevent misunderstanding or not understanding the agent - especially when the caller is receiving pertinent information from the agent. With the notion of prevention of understanding problems in the conversation comes the production of preventative utterance - and the analysis shows that 'prevention' could be carried out either by requesting for confirmation of one's understanding of the partner's utterance or by requesting for a clarification in cases of uncertainty about the other agent's utterance. It further revealed in this research that in conversations involving non-native speakers of English, participants prefer not to focus on the language deficiencies of their partners, as errors are just allowed to pass uncorrected. In some instances, though, phonetic and lexical flaws are sometimes solved by self-repair.
Item Type:Essay (Master)
Faculty:BMS: Behavioural, Management and Social Sciences
Subject:05 communication studies
Programme:Communication Studies MSc (60713)
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