The main obstacle to any communication, especially cross-cultural communication, is the fact that the thought cannot be directly transmitted from one mind to another. In order to do this, we use special signs, specifically language signs, and therefore we rely on the knowledge that we have acquired based on our native culture. This is a core concept of the Moscow school of psycholinguistics, as well as of the field of research that was named ethnopsycholinguistics.
Ethnic culture, understood as a historically predetermined way of actions, supposes that every cultural phenomenon has a common function of serving as a means of human activity. Consequently, to be cultured is to be able to use a number of objects, to possess a system of cultural phenomena as something that allows to conduct collective and individual activity [Markaryan 1969]. The 'way of activity' notion does not only incorporate skills and abilities, but the whole range of objective means of conducting people's activity. Its elements are the means that were developed outside of biology. With the help of these means people's actions are stimulated, programmed, and produced [Lourie 1997].
What makes ethnic cultures so unlike each other and unique? One can adopt Makaryan's idea that such uniqueness stems from the system of organizing elements of experience that is inherent in one particular culture. But it should be noted that the elements themselves are not necessarily unique and occur in a number of cultures [Markaryan 1969: 68]. Having translated this idea into the language of psychology, one will have to agree with the idea proposed by Alexey Leontiev. He states that the worldview and world perception of each nation is based on its own system of denotational meanings, social stereotypes, and cognitive schemes. Therefore, the consciousness of an individual is always ethnically motivated, and the worldview of one nation cannot be simply 'recoded' into the language of the culture of another nation [Leontiev 1993: 20].
The cultural development of consciousness begins with the birth of a child and is not carried out according to biological laws, but rather under the influence of educational system that is determined by history and culture. Recognizing consciousness as a system structure, Lev Vygotskiy considered 'semasiological analysis' to be the only productive way to study it. The aim of this analysis is to reveal the structure of meanings.
The name given to the image of consciousness is a living name, as it originates from the action and carries its hidden energy (the potential model of cultural impact). According to Svetlana Lourie, this is how the ethnic group adapts to the real world. This is how the coordinate system that will be used by a representative of a certain ethnic culture is set. The same goes for the worldview, which is a core component of an ethnic culture [Lourie 1997: 221]. However, only separate fragments of the whole image of the world enter one's consciousness. Thus, it is more about the presence and intergrity of the image of the world that is recognized by those from particular cultures.
The image of consciousness associated with a word is one of many attempts to describe knowledge used by communicants in production and perception of messages. And the name, or the word is a cultural frame that overlaps with the individual experience of each person socialized in a particular culture. 'To name' means to assign a certain meaning, and 'to assign a certain meaning' means to comprehend, to incorporate something in your worldview.
Ethnopsychological research in Russian psycholinguistics began in 1970s as research of ethnic and cultural peculiarities of speech communication. These peculiarities, according to Alexey Leontiev, are formed by a system of factors that cause differences in organizing, mediating, and functioning of communication processes that are inherent in a particular cultural group.
These factors are added to the communication processes on different organization levels and differ in nature. However, they are interconnected with other factors that influence and form these processes, especially with linguistic, psycholinguistic, and psychological factors [Leontiev 1997: 192].
Alexey Leontiev gives the following classification of these factors:
- Factors related to cultural tradition.
- Factors related to social situation and social functions of communication.
- Factors related to ethnopsychology in a narrow sense, i.e. to the features of mental processes and various types of activity.
- Factors related to peculiarities of a language of a certain community [Leontiev 1997: 191-192].
It was Alexey Leontiev who suggested to refer to the area of psycholinguistics that deals with communication processes in ethnic and cultural aspects as 'ethnopsycholinguistics'. From his point of view, ethnopsycholinguistics is an area of psycholinguistics that studies ethnic and cultural variations in three spheres. First, in speech operations, speech actions, and coherent acts of speech activity. Second, in language consciousness, or the cognitive use of language and other sign systems that are functionally equivalent to it. And third, in external and internal organization of communication processes [Leontiev 1997: 192]. Victoria Krasnykh defines the area of ethnopsycholiguistic research in a similar way. She considers ethnopsycholinguistics to be an area that studies speech activity from the point of view of ethnic and cultural peculiarities and considers the ethnic-cultural component of the discourse, as well as explores the ethnopsycholinguistic determinism of language consciousness and communication [Krasnykh 2002: 10]. However, according to Yuriy Sorokin’s viewpoint, the core concept that should be studied within the framework of ethnopsycholinguistics is ideological semantics, which is built on top of technical semantics [Sorokin 1998: 123].
At the beginning, ethnopsycholinguistic research in Russia was mainly conducted by researchers from sections of psycholinguistics and theory of communication at the Institute of Linguistics of the USSR Academy of Sciences. The research was conducted in several directions in accordance with the classification of factors that determine communication which was given by Alexey Leontiev.
Along with the development of theoretical aspects, a large niche in many of the collective monographs was occupied by specific studies of differences in verbal and non-verbal behavior of the peoples of the world and the USSR. For instance, there were descriptions of communicative behavior of native speakers from specific cultures, or of speech etiquette of various nations.
Within Soviet and then Russian ethnopsycholinguistics, a special place was occupied and is still occupied by research on peculiarities of language and culture with the help of associative experiment (free and directed). It is believed that the results of this type of experiment provide ample material for cross-cultural research and allow to see the specifics of links between words in the speech of speakers from different cultures. This exact approach was widely used at the first stage of this research when researchers focused on ethnic and cultural peculiarities of semantics in different languages and cultures. One of the most prominent representatives of this school is Alexandra Zalevskaya, as well as her disciples [Zalevskaya 1971, 1979, 1988; Dmitryuk 1983; Rogozhnikova 1988; Shmeleva 1988; Lachina 1994 etc.]. This research was descriptive in nature and it characterized the stage of accumulating theoretical evidence and preparing for the stage of explaining the experimental data from representatives of different cultures. In order to decipher the data, it was important to consider the way the surrounding world is categorized in the individual consciousness, the schemes for storing information about the world, the connection between linguistic and factual knowledge and their refraction through the prism of norms and values in the society and the emotional experience of the individual [Zalevskaya 1977, 1982, 1990, 1992]. At the current state of ethnopsycholinguistic research of this school, cross-linguistic and cross-cultural comparisons are not only used to establish the facts of the ethnic-cultural peculiarities of verbal and non-verbal behavior of communicants from different cultures. They are also used to explain the reasons for mutual understanding or disagreement in cross-ethnic contacts and to predict possible 'critical' moments. Researchers state that psycholinguistic experiment (particularly, associative) has helped to discover the peculiarities of the processes of categorization and identification through typical examples and features in the language of speakers from different cultures.
One more particular field in ethnopsycholinguistics that occured from the very beginning was the study of literary texts. Culture in its verbal aspect was understood as a complex interaction and co-existence of texts, in particular fictional and historical texts. The object of the study was not the ethnic and cultural peculiarities of behavior of people from a particular culture, but the way they were reflected in texts transmitted from one culture to another (the problems of translation). The development of this field is associated with the names of Yuriy Sorokin and Irina Markovina who were working out the theory of lacuna, or accidental gaps. In such research, a text is viewed as a source that allows to make assumptions about the mindset of an ethnic group, as well as about models of verbal and non-verbal behavior that are applied within this mindset.
Analysis of the texts functioning in one ethnic culture or another shows that these texts contain lacunas (accidental gaps) that reflect specific realities, processes, and states that contradict the usual experience of a native speaker of another language and culture (confrontational gaps). Gaps can also occur in texts that belong to the same linguocultural community, or ethnic group (contrastive gaps). Confrontational gaps are of the greatest interest for ethnopsycholinguists. This type of gaps can be noticed in both verbal, and non-verbal behavior.
The concept of linguistic consciousness appeared in psycholinguistic studies in 1990s. The search for ethnic-cultural peculiarities of linguistic consciousness defines the status of the linguistic consciousness itself. It is seen as a means of learning about a foreign culture in its objective, activity-based, and mental forms, as well as a means of learning about one's own culture. The ontology of the study of linguistic consciousness is the cross-cultural communication between speakers from different cultures, accompanied by inevitable communicative conflicts that occur due to differences in consciousness [Tarasov 1996, 1998].