Video fix – “Fawlty Towers” and culture-induced misunderstandings in language contact

February 3, 2016 5:42 pm

Fawlty TowersPast and recent movies and TV shows have often tried to advise us on how the increasing number of bilinguals, and cross-cultural contacts in general, means that we shouldn’t be surprised if there exist a lot of misunderstandings, confusion and conflicts among currently mixed language communities. These kinds of interactions, indeed, can even become an important source for comedy content and sharp sketches. But how can we explain why nowadays – at least in some cases – it is still so hard to understand fully each other?

To start with, one of the reasons can be the maintained belief that language and culture overlap – most of all because language itself is, of course, a cultural entity; but also because, conversely, the influence of language on culture is in such a way that, without language, cultural knowledge would never develop. That’s why it is easily accepted that knowing a language is a lot more than knowing just the grammar: it should imply awareness of all the associations carried by expressions in the same language, particularly in the context of culture.

Therefore, another reason can be that bilingualism and biculturalism do not automatically coexist: one can retain his/her own culture and reject the new, or reject the old and replace it with the new. However, sometimes bilinguals are unaware of their lack of biculturalism, and this unawareness may lead to a language conflict in cross-cultural communication situations.

Last but not least, Bach and Harnish, two language experts, wrote that “there are mutual contextual beliefs, which facilitate various steps of the hearer’s inference to the speaker’s communicative intention, and the several presumptions, which assure the hearer that there is an inference to be drawn. The speaker relies on these mutual beliefs to make his communicative intention recognizable”. But do people from different cultures share the same contextual beliefs? And is it possible, considering one’s unawareness of cultural differences in cross-cultural contacts, that the concept of mutual belief is instead responsible for many language conflicts?

Watch the video below to understand better how culture-induced misunderstandings were portrayed in British television during the 70s. “Fawlty Towers” was a BBC sitcom first broadcast in 1975. It consisted of twelve episodes and starred John Cleese as the rude owner of a fictional hotel in the seaside town of Torquay, on the “English Riviera”. The show was named the best British television series of all time by the British Film Institute in 2000.


  • 2002. Language Contact – Misunderstanding, Confusion and Conflicts. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 03 February 16].
  • Wikipedia – Fawlty Towers


Written by Eva Barros Campelli

Communication trainee at TermCoord

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