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Analysis Of Conversational Misunderstandings Between Indonesian And Australian Students


Muhammad Sukirlan

University of Lampung


Misunderstanding and not-understanding are two main conversational consequences caused by asymmetrical condition between the speaker and the listener. As the persons involved in conversation are uncertain about their socio-cultural background, finding the source of misunderstanding and not understanding are of important job for every language teachers. Therefore, the objectives of this research are (1) to analyze misunderstandings and not-understanding that occur in conversation, and (2) to know why misunderstanding and not-understanding occur in conversation. This research employs descriptive qualitative (naturalistic) design, and the data of this research were taken from the samples of talk performed by Indonesian student who was engaged in conversation with Australian. These extracts of the scenarios are the language sample typically made by foreigner (English non-native speaker) in the early period of arrival in Australia. The results of the research reveal that misunderstanding and not-understanding in conversation are caused by asymmetrical belief and different socio-cultural background shared between the speaker and the listener.

Key words  :asymmetrical, misunderstanding, not-understanding, socio-cultural


Conversation involves joint activities performed by two agents in order to attend mutual understanding. In a joint activity, the agents do reciprocal sequence of actions to establish and to maintain the agreed goals. The agents involved act in coordination with each other to produce and receive utterances directed at the same goal. When one acts as a speaker, the agent that produces the utterances, the other acts as a hearer, the one receiving the utterances. The speaker is trying to deliver the message and the hearer is trying to attend the meaning across his/her mind.

Conversation comprises of more than just the sum of individual autonomous utterances, rather, when the two persons are engaged in conversation, they not only produce a structured sequence of utterances but they also elegantly coordinate the presentation and acceptance of message through utterances to achieve and confirm mutual understanding. The two participants engaged in conversation do the so called joint activities (Clark, 1996). In relation to this point, Levinson (1992) suggests that joint activities are goal-centric and constrained in terms of setting, role, and above all, on the kind of allowable and appropriate contribution.

In other words, the statement above tells the evidence that conversation involves complex activities whereby the agents are required to consider the factors affecting the success in presenting and accepting messages. Firstly, the two agents involved in conversation should agree with the goals such as to state opinion, to discuss, to ask question, to inform, to command/request, etc. Secondly, the speaker and the hearer should also consider the setting where the conversation takes place such as formal, semi-formal, informal settings so that they can select the language mode appropriately. Thirdly, the role of the two agents involved will also affect the effectiveness of how the message is transferred. Super-ordinate will usually have power to command/request his/her sub-ordinates. In this role-based conversational pattern, the subordinate will usually take for granted about the message he/she hears. The hearer, in this particular sense, will try to understand or at least, he/she will act as though he/she understood the message.

In addition to the goals, settings, and roles that are involved in conversation, the participants derive explicitly and implicitly a set of common set of beliefs about the activity, and they drive towards mutual understanding. In other words, the participants’ acts in conversation are not free-values – the utterances the speaker produces is not only determined by the speaker but they also determined by several contingencies factors. Participants get explicitly or implicitly a common sense of (beliefs, thoughts, ideas, referents, etc.,) about the activity, in that, they achieve to what we usually call mutual understanding as both parties coordinate and accept utterances each other.

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Considering the complexity of the factors that involves in the process of conversation, conversational participants in a discourse sometimes do not succeed in understanding one another as a result of non-understanding and misunderstanding. Reflecting the inherent symmetry of the negotiation of meaning, all conversants can act as both speaker and hearer, and can play both the role of the conversant who is “misunderstood” or “not understood” and the role of the conversant who fails to understand. Misunderstanding occurs without the recognition of the conversants. The conversational participants do not know that misunderstanding has happened, at least in the first stage of the conversation. In misunderstanding, the participant obtains an interpretation that his/her believes is complete and correct, but which is, however, not the one that other speaker intended him/her to obtain.

The participants will possibly not be aware that misunderstandings have occurred all the way the conversation takes place. Alternatively, the conversation might break down, leading one participant or the other to determine that a misunderstanding has occurred.  According to Hirst’s (2007) model, misunderstanding is divided into two types; self-understandings and other-misunderstandings. The first refers to those that are both made and detected by the same participant. They arise when a participant finds that he/she cannot incorporate an utterance into the discourse consistently. Whereas the .second refers to those that are made by one participant but detected by another. They occur when a participant recognizes that if one of his/her own acts had been interpreted differently, the other’s utterance would have been the expected response to it.

Not-Understanding, on the other hand, occurs whenthe speaker and the hearer have somewhat different beliefs and perception about the world, the hearer might not be able to identify the object from the description – that is, not understanding the referent.

However, in this process the conversational participants will often engage in a kind of negotiation in order for one of them to understand a reference that the other wishes to make. In this stage the participant (the speaker or hearer) may accept, reject or postpone. If the participant’s utterance was rejected, or the decision postponed, than the other participant would refashion the referring expression. That would take the form of expanding the expression by adding further qualification or replacing the original expression with new expression. Unlike in misunderstanding where the participants are not aware of what is happening, in not-understanding, the participants are aware that it has happened.

With reference to the factors involved in conversations, in this research, therefore, there seems to be in need of analyzing misunderstandings that occur in conversation and finding the factors that make misunderstanding occur in conversation


This is a descriptive qualitative (naturalistic) design, and the data of this study were taken from the samples of talk performed by Indonesian student who was engaged in conversation with Australian. These extracts of the scenarios are the language sample typically made by foreigner (English non-native speaker) in the early period of arrival in Australia. The samples of talk are taken from Jurnal Bahasa dan Sastra “Aksara” Vulume I, No. 2, October 2000 written by Mahpul (2000). Lynch (1996) suggests that the most common methods for gathering and recording the data in a naturalistic program evaluation are observation, interview, journals, questionnaire, and document analysis. The following are the three scenarios of talk and all of which were performed by newly-coming Indonesian student who was engaged in conversation with Australian

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An Indonesian student on his way to the city met his Australian friend.

Indonesian       : Where are you going?

Australian        : Why?

Indonesian       : No. Just asking.

Scenario 2

Indonesian introduced himself with Australian.

Indonesian       : Are you married?

Australian        : No.

Indonesian       : Why?

Scenario 3

Australian asked his Indonesian friend.

Australian        : You didn’t attend the class yesterday.

Indonesian       : Yes.

Australian        : No. I didn’t see you.

Indonesian       : Yes. I didn’t come.

(Scenario 1, 2, and 3 taken from Mahpul (2000 p. 41 -47)


From scenario 1 through 3, it is apparent that the conversational participants are using the same linguistic code to encode and decode message, yet, the participants do not attend the same conversational goals. The initial speakers in scenario 1 and 2 do not estimate the value of his utterance and treat the hearer as if he/she understands the meaning, whereas in scenario 3, the response in the first turn uses the rules in his/her speech community.

In scenarios 1 and 2, for example, the questions such as “Where are you going?” and “Are you married?” are judged to be acceptable based on the economic, social and political dynamics of situated interactions. In the light of speaker’s speech community, whose socio-culture values low-individualism, collective/group of which the emphasis is put on “we”(Hostfed, 1991), such utterances function as greeting rather than as actual questions. Answer of such questions is not important, rather, they function only as interactional glue in order to create sort of an emotional link between the speaker and the hearer. It is in contrast with Australian context whose socio-culture values high individualism of which emphasis is put on “I” and individual initiation and achievement (Hostfed, 1991), such questions are categorized as very aggressive, and very personal where answer of such questions is considered very important.

It is the dynamics of situated interaction that determine the conditions under which such assertions will be judged to be acceptable, just as they determine the assertion-conditions for estimates of the value of commercial goods (Smith, 1998). Smith further agues that when engaged in the “business” of verbal interaction, we are constantly judging, interpreting, assessing, and evaluating the communicational behavior that we observe in others and that we ourselves produce.

Furthermore, Smith”s (1988) Contingencies of Value argues that when engaged in the “business” of verbal interaction we are consistently judging, interpreting, assessing, and evaluating the communicational behavior that we observe in others and that we ourselves produce. Determining what someone means, estimating the truth of what they say, evaluating their communicational behavior in relation to particular assertion-conditions, norms, and conventions, and so on – these are acts which are not essentially different than determining whether a particular commercial item is or is not worth the price that is being asked for it. In communicational interaction we thus evaluate, negotiate, and bargain for communicational good.

In scenario 3, misunderstanding also occurs in response to the first initiation. In the first conversational initiation, there is nothing wrong with the assertion “You didn’t attend the class yesterday, didn’t you?” based on the speaker’s speech community. On the other hand, the response “Yes” is made to indicate that the hearer is in agreement with the speaker’s assertion of not attending the class yesterday in the speech community that value indirectness. However, in the light of the first speaker’s speech community, the response “Yes” means rejecting the first assertion “that he/she attended the class yesterday”. But as soon as the first speaker hears something that seems inconsistent with his/her expectation, he/she may hypothesize that there has been a misunderstanding and produces a repair – an utterance that attempts to correct the problems “No, I didn’t see you”. And then, the hearer produces the second assertion of his not attending in the class yesterday “ by producing his/her assertion “Yes, I didn’t come”. However, the hearer’s assertion of not attending in the class yesterday is still in the context of low indirect value that still leads to misunderstanding. In this particular conversational case, the first speaker still did not attend the conversational goals (uncertain) – of whether “He attended the class yesterday” or “He did not attend the class yesterday”.

Participants in a conversation rely in part on their expectations to determine whether they have understood each other. If a participant does not notice anything unusual, he/she may assume that the conversation is proceeding smoothly. But if he/she hears something that seems inconsistent with his/her expectation, he/she may hypothesize that there has been a misunderstanding, either by his/herself to the other, and produce a repair – an utterance that attempts to correct the problems.

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Misunderstanding also occurs even when the message is delivered in written form. No participants engaged in communication guarantee that mutual understanding occurs using the written mode. It is especially true in scientific or technical paper that expresses complex ideas because of the difficulty of the materials. Even simple ideas written or expressed poorly can be serious problem for the reader to understand what they mean.

Every conversational participant brings with him/her the different beliefs, expectation and goals. The differences can lead the participants to make different assumption about one another’s actions, construct different interpretation of the discourse objects, or produce utterances that are either too specific or too vague for others to interpret as intended.


The participants that involve in conversational activity are basically in the state of uncertainty. The hearer is uncertain about the articulation the speaker makes, and the speaker is also uncertain about the attentiveness or the comprehension of the hearer. Both the speaker and the hearer typically take a sequence of actions to establish and maintain mutual understanding.

However, as the factor that affect the conversational process are very complex such as conversational goals, roles, setting and other allowable factors, misunderstandings are inevitable. Conversational misunderstanding may be caused by many factors such as different beliefs shared between the speaker and hearer, their shared socio-cultural value (low individual and high individual context).


Clark, Herbert H. and Wikes-Gibbs, Deanna. “Referring as  Collaborative process.”Cognition, 22, 1986, 1-39.

Clark, H.H. (1996). Using Language. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

Hirst, Graeme et al “Repairing Conversational Misunderstandings and Non- Understaandings” http//www/

Hostfed, G. (1991). Culture and Organization: Intercultural Cooperation and Its         Importance for Survival: Software of the Mind. London. McGraw HillInternational.

Levinson, S.C. (1992) Activity types and language. In P. Drew and J. heritage, eds., Talk at Work, 66-100. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

Lynch, Brian K. (1996). Language Program Evaluation. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

Mahpul (2000).”Misconception due to linguistic transfer by Indonesian students studying in Australia” Jurnal Bahasa dan Sastra “Aksara” Vulume I, No. 2, October 2000

Smith, B.H. (1988). Contingencies of Value: Alternative Perspective for Critical Theory. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Taylor, Talbot J.(1992). Mutual Misunderstanding: Scepticism and the Theorzing of Language and Interpretation. Drham and London, Duke University Press.

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