Intercultural Communication Competency in ELT Classes
Hidden challenges of English language teaching
In the spectrum of reasons why people want to become CELTA qualified there is for sure the desire to travel around the world and discover new cultures while earning a living by teaching English.
It sounds like the perfect life-professional plan! However, quite often even the most experienced teachers encounter challenges when they interact with learners of English as a second language.
Whether experienced or newly qualified, you need to consider how students of different cultural backgrounds communicate differently and how that can impact on the classroom.
Three key challenges
When we English teachers move to a different country, we have to take into consideration three key challenges:
● culture shock when interacting out and about with locals
● the difficulties in understanding and reading the culture of the students inside the classroom
● your local language knowledge may be lacking and you’ll use a very different non-verbal communication style to your learners.
To give you an idea of the extent of the challenge, it is common practice among families belonging to several Asian cultures (such as the Chinese and the Japanese) to teach young students to look down and to never stare directly into the eyes of the teacher. Parents also teach children not to address the teacher directly. In situations like this, the teaching style will need to be adjusted and re-assessed.
The good news is these problems can be overcome! Researchers in the field of Intercultural Communication have been studying socio-linguistic aspects as well as cultural factors that may interfere and complicate interactions in the EFL classroom. They highlight the need for teachers to develop and consequently to teach students Intercultural Communication Competency.
But first, what is Intercultural Communication Competency?
Deardorff (one of the most prominent researchers in Intercultural Communication) explains that Intercultural Competence is "the ability to develop specific knowledge, skills and attitudes that lead to visible behaviour and communication that are both effective and appropriate in intercultural interactions". EFL teachers can be very competent in linguistic communication, however, they may not be aware of the intercultural dimension of the language. This impacts on the performance of communication and interaction.
Culture is a factor in language learning
To be competent in intercultural communication means to be able to recognise the impact of our own cultural values, norms and conceptions on the way we express ourselves and on how we communicate with others. This applies to verbal and non-verbal communication: if you are from countries like the USA, Western Europe and Central or Latin America, chances are that you shake your head up and down to say “yes” and move it side to side to say “no”. Surprisingly, this isn’t universal. In some Eastern European countries such as Albania and Bulgaria they do the opposite: a head shake side to side means “yes” while nodding means “no.” Saudi Arabia citizens shake their head to say “yes” and move the head back to say “no”, while Indian citizens shake their head to some degrees to say either “yes or no”.
A lack of intercultural competence leads to problems for students. Students initially feel the need to translate and interpret all new language. They try to find an equivalent word or expression in their first language. However, it is through the comparison among languages that we discover that some expressions or words may have no clear existing translation (search for the concept of saudade from Portuguese in English language).
Cultural conceptualization of the learner of English means that the cultural background of the learner may influence his English language learning experience. It leads to the usage of the language in ways that isn’t always understood by the teacher due to translation and use words that have a link to their cultural background (for example, the concept of face – mianzi - in the Chinese culture, that is very different to the western counterpart). This has to do with the cognitive impact of culture in learning a language. It is indeed down to individual cultural style, the meanings assigned to objects, events, relationships and all must be taken into consideration when teaching English.
It’s our jobs as EFL teachers to offer our learners tools to discover the uniqueness of their own language and the acceptance of English language as a new skill and resource.
So what tools can help us gain intercultural competency?
Give your learners time to reflect on their own cultural background and present them with new perspectives. Allow them to dive into other cultures ways on which and give them time to reflect and discuss the existence of other ways to do things that are neither right nor wrong, simply different.
Provide learners a chance to reflect on their own multi-cultural identities. Think together about how humans construct identities and renegotiate them according to different contexts (i.e. how may we use dialect when with family members and less colloquialisms with a professor at university).
To do so, we can introduce specific tasks into our teaching routines that help learners develop cultural awareness components. To give you some ideas, they may be:
● Role play or simulations
● Present what they think distinguishes their own culture from others
● Present their own city/country to their fellow students through making use of different skills such as writing, speaking, presentations, mingles or games
● Discuss gestures in class that have different meanings in different cultures.
As EFL teachers we should always be aware of the motivations behind why students are learning English. In the majority of the cases the language will be used as a means of communication with others who don’t speak English as a first language: a Lingua Franca in an international context. In this case, our main goal is to teach learners not only language and the knowledge attached to it, but to communicate internationally with people with different cultural identities.