‘Cross-Cultural Pragmatic Failure’: An Academic term for the result of lazy teaching

This month’s Quick Read (subscribe to our newsletter) is inspired by a subscriber who recently published a paper on Cross-Cultural Pragmatic Failure. ‘What’s that?’ You may ask. A good question, as many of the sources referenced in Peter McGee’s paper are also trying to define it. Here’s our take on why it’s a symptom of academics spending too much time examining their navels instead of getting out a bit more.

The definition is in the name: when teaching fails to prioritise usefulness when selecting the material that is to be taught. In particular, in the instance of foreign language teaching, where different cultures frequently come into contact, how the usefulness as it relates to particular cultures is underestimated.

Why discuss this? Well, because I think on one hand this is a laudable evolution in the psychology of language teaching, but on the other, it’s a woeful example of the lag between academia and the real world.

The definition here points to pragmatism, usefulness, relevance as it relates to culture. I think the meaning of ‘culture’ is simultaneously underestimated and overestimated. This needs to be explained before discussing what might be pragmatic in relation to culture.

Too often people equate ‘culture’ with geography: national, or at best, sub-national religious frontiers. Culture is also temporal : even if you spent your whole life in the same place, the beliefs, knowledge and skills that you and your peers shared when you were 17 are not the same as those of someone in their late forties. In the Venn diagram of life, the place where spatial and temporal intersect, can be found every group that shares a common context – a common set of beliefs, knowledge or skills. Every one of these is its own culture. This is why I think the commonly understood definition for ‘culture’ is underestimated.

Where I think ‘cross-cultural’ is overestimated, is in your mental Venn diagram again. When two cultures interact, they don’t need to be aware of each other’s entire cultural circle, they only need to engage with the intersection – the part that both require from the other. That’s the sweet spot where the respective belief systems meet. The language needed to serve that small overlap – the pragmatic lexicon – is smaller still.

A simple example: when I go to the post office, the gentleman serving me is of a different culture to me (when you read that do you subconsciously assume that I mean he is of a different national/religious/melatonin persuasion?) Our limited interaction is a tiny part of our respective cultural circles. All we require is first, a shared belief system – that he knows what to do with my parcel, and that I hand over some legal tender. And second, to exchange information – language. The glossary is very limited, but precise. We both need to employ a code which is spatially and temporally appropriate. That is all that is pragmatic for the context.

So how is language teaching aligning itself with the pragmatic sweet spot?

It’s not, yet. A fundamental reason for the lag between schools and the real world is that the psychology that operates them is focused on teaching rather than learning.

Language learning has changed little – you learned your native language not by being taught it, but by learning it. You learn what you need to survive, adapt and thrive in your particular social context.

The reason for learning is unchanging, but language teaching methodologies change with the seasons. Why is this? Teaching institutions are by definition distanced from reality – academic – theoretical rather than pragmatic. My old mum (a seasoned teacher) once said – ‘there’s no such thing as teaching. Just people who talk, and people who learn.’ When was the last time you read a book or research paper on the subject of language teaching methodology, written by a language learner? Or the last time you saw teaching material created in partnership with language learners of a particular lexical culture? Schools are operated by academics –

people who have passed through several years of academia. Each generation of academic teaches the next what they have been taught. This is the temporal lag in relevance.

A guide to No-fail Pragmatic Cross-cultural Interactions


To increase relevance, the content needs to be tailored to the (spatial and temporal) context – the culture.

First identify the parameters of the cultures – which culture(s) is/are interacting with which – in particular what is the precise context of the interaction? This indicates the most probable lexis required for that context. As the smallest unit of a culture is an individual, higher relevance is achieved through smaller numbers. Once the parameters have been identified, you then need to be able to select and assemble content accordingly. Out with the ‘one-size-fits-all’ fifteen year old text books! McGee’s paper mentions ‘genre-specific exercises’ and ‘contextual information’, with ‘properly situated and authentic learning materials’.

Content needs to be close to the source – created by or in partnership with the people that actually do the thing, and updated regularly.


There is no such thing as teaching. By providing highly relevant content, you’re greatly increasing the chances of a high rate of assimilation. But, at the end of the day, it’s the learner that decides what and when to learn. Although autonomy and freedom are innate, they are discouraged from an early age unfortunately. Teething problems are therefore likely. It takes time for people to accept the responsibility of directing themselves. Learner-led exploration with a guide for support helps to maintain relevance, interest and motivation.

Serve and enjoy with friends.

Something that has been made clear to us with the recent pandemic is that although we may be physically isolated, we still can, and do, communicate and cooperate. We still have an enormous pool of information that is shared globally. People from all sorts of contexts, cultures and genres have published their knowledge and experience, so it’s easier than ever to base learning on information that is genre-specific, temporally valid, and instantly accessible.

What’s more, learners and learning guides can be located anywhere, allowing for a much greater possibility for matching people with specialist knowledge, in a place and at a time that is practical.

Writing this from a post-Brexit, virus-ridden island, with climatic disaster looming on the horizon, I’m acutely aware that we are all in this together, and it’s in all of our interests to evolve our capabilities when it comes to learning from and communicating with each other. Let’s commune people!


McGee, P. (2019). Cross-cultural pragmatic failure.

Training, Language and Culture, 3(1), 73-84. doi: 10.29366/2019tlc.3.1.5