ACCOMMODATION THEORY REVISITED
University of Rome III (Italy) – email:
the course Lecture Notes based on this presentation.
For the slides used to
present this paper at the Milan symposium,
Background: Aim of this paper, Definition of accommodation
This paper proposes a more articulated view of accommodation than that currently used in the literature (Giles & St. Clair, 1979, Giles & Coupland, 1991). It emphasizes the existential nature of effective intercultural communication, which demands more than purely cognitive adjustments to the new communicative situation.
Accommodation is the term normally used to refer to the means we take to adjust our way of interacting with people of different cultures in order to facilitate communication. An individual is said to accommodate if s/he meets her/his interlocutors on their cultural grounds by such means as adopting their phonological system, using their habitual turn-taking procedures and observing their genre constrictions. This paper extends the term "accommodation", usually applied to oral interaction, to embrace the kind of translation that Newmark (1988) calls "communicative", in which linguistic forms, discourse conventions and even genre traits are adapted to the cultural expectations of the target readership.
Studies have shown (Samovar & Porter, 1988; Coupland et al., 1991) that productivity increases when at least one of the parties in an intercultural dyad accommodates to level 3 of the 5-level Accommodation Scale theorized in Boylan (2001). Even minimal accommodation (level 1) produces greater acceptance than degree zero accommodation, i.e. no change in one's habitual way of talking (Giles & St. Clair, 1979).
Key issue: How much to accommodate?
The present paper theorizes, however, that purely formal accommodation is not an absolute value and that, for each situation, there is a limit beyond which one can over accommodate (Level 3 is not always preferable to Level 1 on our Accommodation Scale). Familiar examples are encounters between traditional Japanese businessmen and their Western counterparts: very often the former prefer that the latter remain foreigners and do not try to act like Japanese. Indeed, in any situation purely formal accommodation (imitation of the other's communicative style without truly sharing the value system informing it) can risk sounding like a parody and thus false, even patronizing. In translation as well, an excessive attempt to adapt interculturally, involving the substitution of material facts with culturally adapted equivalents, can lead to what the author of the original text, or whoever commissioned the translation, considers a misrepresentation.
Data sources: Experiments with Italians sojourning in the U.K. and Anglos sojourning in Italy
This paper uses the data reported in Bianconi (2002) and informal experiments conducted by the author.
Indicative finding: A solution lies in defining accommodation as a "transformation of consciousness"
How to strike the right balance? The solution suggested here lies in redefining accommodation. This presupposes redefining language as well. Language, in fact, must be seen not simply as a semiotic (lexico-grammatical and pragmatic) system but rather as an existential or volitional matrix (a "way of being"). Thus, observing grammatical rules (e.g., verbal accord) becomes, just like accommodating to turn-taking styles, nothing more than a way of expressing shared values meant to create bonds of mutual understanding and solidarity among interlocutors. And, more importantly, rules are to be observed only insofar as they achieve that end. This means that one can adjust the interplay among such parameters as phonological accuracy, prosodic authenticity, lexico-grammatical correctness and gestural expressiveness to produce an overall effect of shared values that meets the expectations of one's interlocutor, without necessarily realizing each parameter as a "model native speaker" might. What counts is that the overall effect transmits an existential stance that is both truly felt and, insofar as appropriate, consonant with that of one's interlocutor.
In a word, accommodation means -- according to the thesis defended here -- not the external mimicry of local forms of communication but rather, through the inner assent to the local way of being, the adoption of an existential stance consonant with the world of one's interlocutors (or target readership). This can include being the kind of foreigner that one's interlocutors wish one to be: that is, one can accommodate optimally by accommodating minimally just as, in other cases, by accommodating to the hilt.
Let us reconsider, for example, the case of a traditional Japanese businessman who does not like seeing his Italian counterpart adopt Japanese ways (or use overly idiomatic Japanese speech patterns). The Italian businessman finds himself in a dilemma, since he realizes that he will be misunderstood if he uses his native behavioral patterns (or speaks Japanese with his native expressive habits). The solution, this paper suggests, lies in adjusting the various parameters so that the total effect is that of speaking and acting like the kind of Italian that meets the Japanese party's expectations (in practice, something close to the way a Japanese actor would portray an Italian). What does this mean specifically in terms of turn-taking procedure, phonological realization and so on? The peculiar combination of adjustments will be found automatically, this paper maintains, only if the Italian party learns to feel the cultural exigencies of his Japanese counterpart, i.e. only if he has entered into the other party's mind set and sees why the representation of an Italian made by an Japanese actor is not "funny" but "right". This means that the priority in Intercultural Training should be to give trainees such a "feel", not to prescribe this or that behavior to follow. The same holds for translation courses: they should be taught as learning to "become" the Source Reader in the target culture. This means learning to internalize the value system of a hypothetical Reader that has ratified the sense and value of the Source Text, in order to capture state of mind produced by that text, and then the value system of a hypothetical Target Reader in order to find the expressive key in which to reproduce that state of mind as a Target Culture "author".
All this implies learning how to acquire a new existential stance through a "transformation of consciousness" -- an operation which is not only cognitive but above all affective and volitional. This paper theorizes that, once one has done so, one need no longer pay excessive attention to form: almost anything one says or does will, in some way, sound right. The same applies to "communicative" translation: once one has introjected the existential value system of both a Target Reader Model and a Source Reader Model (often the person who commissioned the translation), the translator can feel free to "author" the target text to the extent that the Source Reader might have done on her/his own, if s/he, too, were bilingual and bicultural.
Bianconi, L. (2002) Culture and Identity: Issues of Authenticity in Another Value System. Paper presented at the XII Sietar-EU Conference, Vienna, 2002.
Boylan, P. (2001) Accommodation through a Transformation of Consciousness. In: Koch K. & Muggin T., Globalisation, foreign languages and intercultural learning, Proceedings of the first SIETAR-UK conference, South Bank University, London.
Coupland, N.. Giles, H., and Wiemann J. M. (eds.), (1991): “Miscommunication” and Problematic Talk. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Giles, H., Coupland, N. & Coupland, J. (1991). "Accommodation Theory: Communication, Context, and Consequence". In: H. Giles, N. Coupland & J. Coupland (eds.), Contexts of Accommodation. Developments in Applied Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Giles, H. and St. Clair H. (eds.) (1979). Language and Social Psychology. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Halliday, M.A.K. 1975. Learning how to mean: Explorations in the Development of Language. Oxford: Elsevier.
Newmark, P. (1988). A textbook of translation. New York: Prentice Hall.
Samovar, L. A. and Porter R. E. (eds.) (1988). Intercultural Communication: A Reader. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
SLIDES used at the Milan symposium,
6th ABC European Convention
Accommodation Theory Revisited
Department of Linguistics, University of Rome III
Accommodation = convergence
(Thakerar et al., 1982)
1. A shop assistant in a Cardiff travel agency, recorded, was seen to vary her pronunciation with that of her clients (upper/lower class):
standard (high prestige)
dialect (low prestige)
Coupland, N. (1980)
286 subjects (half soft-voiced,
listened to recordings of loud- and soft-voiced people and chose from a list of descriptive adjectives.
the voice heard was
similar to theirs: "credible", "sincere"
dissimilar: "uninteresting", "unpleasant"
(Kelly & Toshiyuki, 1993)
So, when people speak or listen to alloglots...
they do accommodate and
they seem to appreciate accommodation.
Studying what kind of accommodation and how much to perform is therefore a phenomenon of interest to:
begin by seeing
studies are going.
Initially: "speech" accommodation
= convergence of speakers' delivery features*
(Giles, 1973, Giles & Smith, 1979)
*linguistic attributes: speed, intonation, pronunciation, dialect, register...
levels of convergence:
(1) expression, (2) intent ("will to mean" culture)
each with sub-levels
(1) expression = delivery features + discourse functions*
regulatory, interactional, personal,
heuristic, imaginative -- Halliday (1975)
Ylanne-McEwen & Coupland (2000): expressive convergence =
complexity, clarity, explicitness;
topic selection, turn management, face-maintenance
Put most simply, expressive convergence means:
"We say things the same way."
means we accommodate if we use the same 'language' as our
interlocutor (in our native tongue or in an L2).
Note that accommodation does not mean
the same things."
language learners confuse this distinction (deliberately?) in order
to justify their refusal to learn to adopt, when using the L2, the
target language intonation schemes, gestures, interactional habits,
speech genres, rhetorical ploys, etc.
Since acquiring the full range of L2 expressive features is perceived as a threat to their identity, these speakers claim that by accommodating fully they would to have to end up saying the same things as people in the L2 community. Not so.
Put another way: accommodation ¹ mimicry
accommodation = playing in tune
Janicki's (1986) "Equalizer Model"
if we know how to equalize a particular piece of music (rock, folk)
once we "get" what it is all about,
how do we "equalize" our expressive habits to be really "in tune" with our interlocutors?
In other words, what do we have to "get" about our interlocutors???
(Obviously, something more than just their expressive style: whether they are loud- or soft-voiced, or use slang or conservative language, etc.)
For the answer, let's go back to our definition of "communicative accommodation".
It takes place on two levels of convergence:
(1) expression = delivery features + discourse functions
(the level on which we may find an answer to the question just asked:)
(2) intent* = professed values + Weltanschauung
*("will to mean" culture)
is essentially an intentional
matrix (Level 2), not
a semiotic code (Level 1). It is what the word 'language' means in
expressions like: "He
and I may say things differently but we sure speak the same
Thus accommodation really works when it takes place on the second level. And, when it does, mere expressive convergence (pronunciation, register...) becomes a secondary issue.
What does the second level, intent, consist of?
-- Externally, it consists of one's "professed values" --
cognitive - beliefs, concepts...
affective - tastes, feelings...
volitive - affects, wants
which is the object of contemporary "intercultural studies"*.
*Intercultural studies are ethnographic accounts, often using as an explanatory device the "cultural dimensions" that Hall, Hofstede and Trompenaars have popularized.
-- Internally, it consists of a will to mean which derives from the will to be embodied in the collective mind-set (Weltanschauung) that we call 'culture'.
In other words, our Weltanschauung conditions how we perceive the world and therefore how we communicate (how we mean what we say).
Actual communication -- the will to mean something in concrete communicative events -- produces over time an intentional matrix (a sedimentation of specific wills to mean). This is what 'language' is essentially.
This intentional matrix gives a community's way of expressing itself its typical character and style. In the past this matrix was sometimes described as "the genius" of a given language. We shall call it, more simply, 'language' or "the expressive potential of a given culture". The members of that culture possess it, to varying degrees depending on their level of acculturation, education, talent. Thus when they communicate they communicate above all themselves as possessors of a certain Weltanschauung.
What do we mean by Weltanschauung in practice? How is it expressed verbally? Compare these two expressions:
Context: the bedroom of two young brothers, speakers of General American; one is at a desk reading, his back to the other boy who, across the room, is looking out the window; separating the two brothers are their twin beds and the night table. The brother at the window notices something interesting outside and invites the other boy to have a look, too.
Come to the window!
Come on over here to the window!
is an example of French or Italian Weltanschauung:
to change you's
current spatial relation with window.
In English, this sounds formal, even peremptory, because the
speaker seems interested only in specifying relations among
In French or Italian, on the other hand, it sounds perfectly
normal (and is, in fact, the default form):
This is an
example of Anglo (and Germanic) Weltanschauung.
Physical reality -- the desks separating you from window
("over") and the precise position of I
("here") -- is noticed and felt as worth
specifying. This perspective foregrounds the material
(technical) aspect of carrying out the order (which is hedged as
an exhortation by means of on -- option also made
possible by the use of over). In French or Italian saying
all this would sound too explicit, even demeaning, stilted and
by no means idiomatic.
We may call intercultural epistemology
the study of the
culturally-determined intentional matrix
that co-determines expression in a given community
(i.e., that community's 'language').
the Anti Hegelians: Dilthey, Marx ... Husserl, Gadamer
Also: second Searle (Social construction of reality)
Halliday (Language as social semiotic), as well as
the ethnolinguists (Boas, Sapir, Whorf...Hymes)
and the ethnomethodologists (Garfinkel...Ciccourel)
Thus, in a word, essentially
accommodation = what's real for you is real for me
"We see the same things..."
...although not necessarily in the same way.
The same comment applies here as in the previous case, although the formulation is reversed.
On Level 1 (expression), we said that accommodation means "saying things the same way" as one's interlocutor (although not necessarily the same things). This kind of accommodation does not produce servility or mimicry since, by adjusting one's "equalizer", one can vary, to a large extent, the individual components of the way one says things and, in any case, the things said can be radically divergent.
Level 2 (intent), however, the reverse is true. Here accommodation
does not mean "seeing things the
same way", for this would imply a total and perhaps servile
identification with the target culture. Instead, Level 2
accommodation requires "seeing the same things"
-- i.e., seeing as real what is real for one's interlocutor,
whatever one's opinion of it may be.
To return to the example of the two brothers, if the boy at the window were a foreign-born adoptive brother, he might not "see" as worth mentioning (because of his upbringing in the foreign language and culture) the beds separating him from his brother at the desk. He might therefore limit himself to saying "Come to the window" and this formal, peremptory order, due to a lack of accommodation on Level 2, might produce a communicative breakdown. In other words, the brother at the desk might feel irritated and react by saying: "Shut up, I'm reading!"
Likewise, if the two boys were to participate in a "year abroad" program in a Parisian lyceum, after having "learned" French at school only up to Level 1, they might not "see" as real many of the things that are real for their Parisian classmates: for example, "mind as esprit" (wit). The boys might therefore dismiss as frivolous the constant paradoxical bantering (boutades) of their classmates, while their classmates, for whom the human mind is not just a data processor but a way of looking critically at so-called data, might find the boys dull if not stupid and their down-to-earth conversations as prosaic, although expressed in grammatically perfect and pragmatically appropriate French. This would be another example of a communicative breakdown due to a failure to accommodate on Level 2.
Moreover, the boys may "see" as real things that are not real for their classmates and for other Parisians they encounter. Take, for example, the local baker, who simply hands them, unwrapped, the bread loaf they request. The boys might "see" (or feel they see) "impurities" passing from the palm of the baker to the unwrapped bread loaf and complain about it.
n'est pas propre!"
(Boys: "That's not very clean!")
Baker: "C'est pas propre? J'suis pas propre, moi? Mais foutez-moi la paix, vous deux!"
(Baker: "Not clean? So, like, I'm not clean? Is that it? Get the h__l out of here, you two!")
While in all cultures "clean" means generically "free from dirt", each culture determines what "dirt" consists of and how much must be removed for an object to be "clean". Level 2 accommodation therefore means "seeing" as clean what the target population, on the whole, sees as clean: the boys did not do so and thus produced a third communicative breakdown.
Let us quickly add that accommodating to French discourse would not oblige the boys to give up their aversion to eating food touched by others. It would, however, mean seeing as "propre" (although not necessarily as "clean") a well-washed human hand that handles bread directly in a bakery, and speaking as a consequence.
This means that once the boys learn to accommodate (by going through an acculturation process), they could, without creating a communicative breakdown, criticize the baker's habits (as many French people have done in trying to get a law passed obliging bakers to wear gloves or wrap their bread). They would manage to do so by using another language -- for example, by speaking of hygiene, not cleanliness. This shift would be instinctive and immediate once they had acculturated to the French mind-set (Weltanschauung), and would be an example of a communication breakthrough, due to successful accommodation on Level 2.
This insight enables us to be more flexible in accommodating and in teaching others to accommodate, in various domains:
1. "communicative-cultural" language teaching.
2. "intercultural training" for teamwork, negotiation
3."communicative-cultural" translation and editing
See www.boylan.it, click on the page RESEARCH
insight also helps us to resolve the major
contradictions in accommodation theory.
Let's examine them, one by one (A, B, C, D, E).
A. Maximal accommodation ¹ optimal accommodation
¹ "We say things the same way." (US/Japanese negotiators)
¹ "We see things the same way." (EU negotiator in Albania)
B. Accommodation depends on tasks, context
conserve divergences; "E pluribus unum".
Calculation: promote convergences; "Best practices".
Execution: eliminate divergences; "The company way".
(Hambrick et al., 1998)
C. Divergence (not convergence) is often more effective.
translation ® render
differences (Newmark, 1981)
Switch in Arab oil communiques: in English ® in Arabic
OF ALL our insight helps us resolve the unproven claim of
accommodation theory, i.e. that is pays to accommodate. People who
change their expressive output in function of their interlocutor are
said to be trying to make their communication more effective.
Thus, to return to our initial example, accommodation theory claims that the Cardiff sales assistant codeswitched to be more acceptable to her upper class clients and to ensure optimal communication; the switch was not simply a reflex triggered by schooling and, because of the social stigmatization of the "lower" diglossic forms, embarrassment in using everyday language with "gentry". Moreover, according to accommodation theory, in adjusting her pronunciation according to the two categories of clients she addressed, the assistant showed that she subscribed (unconsciously) to the theory that similarity appears attractive to one's interlocutor. But is this so?
D. accommodation costs versus benefits
costs: loss of identity/integrity; effort
benefits: better communication
E. Accommodation similarity-attraction theory
Email politeness accommodating
Bun, U. & Campbell, S.W. (2002)
Convergence positive in self-presentations
Laura Bianconi (2002)
Still, there seems to be more to it:
Alan Bell (1984): Audience Design creative mix
the "more" cannot be explained by traditional accommodation
theory, based on purely expressive convergence performed to be more
The "more" can however be explained by seeing accommodation as the introjection of the culturally co-determined intentional matrix of one's interlocutor, not to mimic the interlocutor or to gain in-group membership, but simply to make oneself understood -- even using expressive forms that are different from those of one's interlocutor and saying things the interlocutor would never say.
An analogy may be found in "communicative translation" theory which justifies the "cultural rewriting" of source texts. The original texts are accommodated to the target public's Weltanschauung, not simply to make them more "attractive" but to make the communicative intent of the original text truly felt by the target public. Indeed, a lack of accommodation in the target text could, if anything, betray the source text.
NOT accommodating jeopardizes communication.
Defining a second level of accommodation (and an "inner core" on that level: Weltanschauung), not only resolves many contradictions in traditional accommodation theory.
It also permits us to classify the various kinds of accommodation.
0 Using your L1 idiomatically (degree zero )
1 Using your L1 carefully
2 Using your L1 (or an L2) conventionally
3 Using an L2 authentically (L2 is your interlocutor's L1)
4 Using an L2 authentically ( L2 is neither party's L1)
Using an L2 (or your L1) idiosyncratically,
through mutual elaboration of a creole*
* When using your L1, the degree of accommodation lies between 2 and 3.
Other options, used infrequently in negotiations:
Multilateral Delivery Accommodation,
Reciprocal Cultural Accommodation,
Cultural Accommodation in the L1.
For detail see: Patrick Boylan (2002) "Accommodation through a Transformation of Consciousness" -- click here
Boylan, P. (2001). "Accommodation through a Transformation of Consciousness". Proceedings of the conference Globalisation, foreign languages and intercultural learning, South Bank University, London.
Boylan, P. (2001). "Relativizing the Concept of Communication". In: D. Killick et al. (eds.), Poetics and Praxis of Languages and Intercultural Communication. Glasgow: University of Glasgow Publications, 2001, pp.45-53.
Boylan, P. (2002) Language as representation, as agency, as a new way of being. In S. Cormeraie, D. Killick, M. Parry (eds), Revolutions in Consciousness: Local Identities, Global Concerns in Languages and Intercultural Communication, Leeds: LMU Center for Language Study. pp. 165-174.
Bell, A. (1984): "Language style as audience design," Language in Society, 13: 145-204.
Bun, U. & Campbell, S.W. (2002). "Accommodating Politeness Indicators in Personal Electronic Mail Messages". Paper presented at the Association of Internet Researchers' 3rd Annual Conference, Maastricht, The Netherlands, October 13-16, 2002.
Coupland, N. (1980). "Style-shifting in a Cardiff work-setting". Language and Society 9, 1-12.
Giles, H. (1973): ‘Accent Mobility: A Model and Some Data.’ Anthropological Linguistica, 15: 87-105.
Giles, H., and Smith, P. (1979): ‘Accommodation Theory: Optimal Levels of Convergence,’ in H. Giles, and St. Clair (eds.), Language and Social Psychology. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Giles, H., Coupland, N., and Coupland, J. (1991): ‘Accommodation Theory: Communication, Context, and Consequence,’ in H. Giles, N. Coupland, and J. Coupland (eds.), Contexts of Accommodation. Developments in Applied Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gudykunst, W. B. (1991): Bridging Differences: Effective Intergroup Communication. London: Sage.
Halliday, M.A.K. 1975. Learning how to mean: Explorations in the Development of Language. Oxford: Elsevier.
Hambrick, D. C., Davison, S. C., Scott, A. S., & Snow, C. C. (1998). "When Groups Consist of Multiple Nationalities: Towards a New Understanding of the Implications". Organisation
Studies, 19/2, pp. 181-205.
Janicki, K. (1986): ‘Accommodation in Native Speaker-Foreigner Interaction’, in J. House, and S. Blum-Kulka (eds.), Interlingual and Intercultural Communication: Discourse and Cognition in Translation and Second Language Acquisition Studies. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag.
Kelly, A.R. & Toshiyuki, K. (1993). "Effects of language intensity similarity on perceptions of credibility, relational attributions, and persuasion". Journal of Language & Social Psychology, 12:3 [Sept.], pp. 224-238.
Newmark, Peter (1981). Approaches to Translation. Oxford: Pergamon.
Thakerar, J. N., Giles, H., and Cheshire, J. (1982): ‘Psychological and Linguistic Parameters of Speech Accommodation Theory’, in C. Fraser, and K. R. Scherer (eds.), Advances in the Social Psychology of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Thanasoulas, D. (1999) "Accommodation Theory". http://www.tefl.net/articles/accommodation.htm Originally (1999): http://www.geocities.com/CollegePark/Union/7044/dimit15.htm
Ylanne-McEwen, V. and Coupland, N. (2000) ‘Accommodation theory: a conceptual resource for intercultural sociolinguistics’, pp., in Spencer-Oatey, H., ed., Culturally Speaking: Managing Rapport Through Talk across Cultures, Continuum, London, 191-216.