CROSS-CULTURAL USAGE OF MODAL VERBS IN ENGLISH by Jose Manuel Moron Marchena - Profesor/a de inglés


Many researchers have investigated modal usage in NNS speech and writing. The linguists that play a significant role in supplying information related to modal verbs usage are Eli Hinkel and Ignacio Vázquez-Orta, who contributed both in the definition of the modal verbs and their consequent study on non-native usage given that, as stated above, English modal verbs present a problem for NNS because of their underlying meanings and contextual implications, that is, it relates to semantics and pragmatics.

In fact, there exist two main reasons which basically make modal verbs a complicated component to be learnt by NNS of English: the lack of a core or basic meaning which learners may use to relate or link them with an existing modal representation in their native language; and the polysemy (variety of meanings) that modals enjoy. These two features may result in difficulties when it comes to pick the appropriate interpretation of modal verb in a certain context by a non-native speaker of English.

A pivotal term needs to be highlighted in order to understand how modal verbs work in terms of semantics: “stance”.  Stance refers to the level of personal involvement of the writer or speaker with the text or speech, as well as his or her moral evaluation, degree of certainty, and emotional perspective in response to the content of the text. In short, a given linguistic message not only conveys its mere content, but also the speaker’s relation to that content (personally, socially and culturally), that is, it shows the speaker’s attitude and reaction. Modal verbs are one of the most common resources employed by speakers in order to convey their stances, therefore speaker’s stance, broadly referred to as personal and cultural conventions, actively influence the linguistic form and context of the text.

Appropriate modal verb usage relies on presuppositions commonly known and accepted in a language community, thus the influence of the mother tongue (L1) may trigger differences in the way modal verbs are used in the target language (L2) by NNS. Pragmatic presuppositions and sociocultural values, which normally differ depending on the speaker’s background and origin, play an important role in determining the speaker’s stance.

Non-native usage of modal verbs reflects the pragmatic frameworks and norms specific to the learner’s L1 environment, which may be different from those expected in L2 conceptual structures. For instance, this cultural differences that affect modals are clearly visible in the following sample by a NNS of English from Indonesia, which represents the imposition of the Asian sociocultural values upon the society:

“If your friend loses his wallet, you have to give him money until his father sends him some. When they don’t have a driver’s license, you have to teach them to drive. If they want to go to the mall, you have to drive them to the mall, even if you have other things to do.” (Indonesian speaker of English)

The notions of group harmony and cohesiveness are highly noticeable in the example above, which often lead to expressions of friendship and collective responsibility (symbolized by the modal have to), which are distinct from those in Western societies. The group defines and controls the individual, and loyal friendships are means for establishing group belonging and settling down a true interpersonal relationship. On the other hand, we could scarcely find correlativeness in the American or English society.

An interesting point in the usage of modal verbs by non-native speakers is that of patriotism. Patriotism may have different manifestations in different cultures. In Asian societies, loyalty to family, tradition, and friends is closely related with the love for one’s country and, therefore, represented by a modal verb of necessity must. On top of that, native speakers, influenced by the Western society, tend to use the modal should and rarely use must when addressing patriotic deeds. Nevertheless Chinese people make an overt usage of must instead, as seen in the following example:

“When I study here, I must work very hard. I must study to respect my parents and to participate in the development of my country.” (Chinese speaker of English)

As a conclusion, the examples above make clear the differences found in pragmatic presuppositions and axiomatic (sociocultural) values between American English speakers and Asian non-native speakers regarding the usage of modal verbs of necessity. It is therefore noted that Asian people’s writings and usage of modal verbs are highly influenced by their cultural values and notions. This is possible due to the cultural bound of the Asian speakers to their fundamental social values, family and group responsibilities, so we can state that native speakers and non-native speakers’ understanding of obligation and necessity differs significantly and, consequently, it results in the influence of the L1 values and presuppositions on the L2 usage of the language (modal verbs in this case). Thus, it is asserted that English modal verbs are used as a reflection of cultural values.

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