To end the last year on a festive note, ELTABB teamed up with European Language Competence (ELC) and organised a free two-day training course in intercultural competence for English teachers. Alexandra Patent muses on her impressions and key takeaways.
Judith Mader and Rudi Camerer’s Intercultural Competence in English was a very informative workshop which provided us with a variety of classroom activities to improve our students’ intercultural competence – two reasons why I would definitely recommend attending the next one.
But perhaps the best part of the workshop for me was sharing anecdotes with my colleagues about our experiences, and reflecting on my own intercultural competence.
On the first day of the workshop, we spoke about the meaning of the term “culture”.
Although most people would automatically name their country of birth as their culture, Rudi and Judith stressed that cultures are more broadly “discourse communities”. We belong to many different cultures apart from our nationalities, such as language communities, professional communities, religious communities, etc.
Many people would consider themselves to be part of the English language community, and learners of English are exposed to multiple varieties in the classroom, which may have stigmas or prestige attached to them. The trainers asked us to reflect on the varieties of English that we speak and/or teach and what attitudes learners can have towards these varieties.
Politeness vs. Accuracy
Regardless of variety, most English speakers can agree on some of the different ways in which we convey politeness in the language. The focus of most of the first day was on the importance of politeness in effective intercultural communication.
One of the most interesting exercises that Judith and Rudi showed us had a list of pairs of sentences which expressed the same idea, but each sentence had an error. Sometimes it was a grammar error, sometimes a vocabulary error, and sometimes an error of politeness. The trainers then asked us to determine which error in the pair was “worse”.
Ultimately, it was clear that in the hierarchy of problematic errors, grammar is at the bottom, lexis is in the middle, and politeness is at the top. We forgive linguistic accuracy if politeness is present.
What’s important to remember about politeness is that it is culture-based and not inherent in language, so it is something that we have to consciously decide to teach our students.
On the second day of the workshop, we spoke a bit about low context cultures, which don’t have a great deal of shared history or experience, resulting in more of a need for explicit communication.
High context cultures, on the other hand, have a lot of shared experience, resulting in less of a need for explicit communication. Erin Meyer speaks quite a lot about this in her book The Culture Map, which Judith and Rudi mentioned several times, and which I would definitely recommend.
We also spoke briefly about tight cultures and loose cultures; tight cultures value consistency and rules, while loose cultures value fluidity and rule-breaking. If you’re interested in learning more about tight and loose cultures, the trainers recommended the book Rule Makers, Rule Breakers by Michele Gelfand, which I’m looking forward to reading.
What Rudi and Judith stressed most about all of these differences was that there is no “normal” when it comes to culture.
The importance of trust
The focus of the second day was on the theme of trust, which Judith and Rudi identified as the most valuable business commodity. They showed us a couple of different critical incidents and asked us to consider what went wrong and how we could have avoided the problem.
Critical incidents are useful exercises with regard to intercultural competence because they require us to reflect on how someone who comes from a different culture could perceive our actions.
This kind of activity is great for our students who work for international companies. It is also really important for us as EFL teachers because we work with people who come from all around the world. We talked about our experiences teaching international groups, and problems we have had in the past.
Although we all have such different professional backgrounds, issues such as punctuality, authority, and diligence came up across the board, so it was interesting to see how many similar kinds of challenges we have faced.
Final thoughts on the training course
All in all, I think we walked away from the workshop with a few more tricks up our sleeve in terms of intercultural competence activities and exercises to do with our students, and a lot more awareness of the influence our own cultures have on the way we think and act.
If you’re interested in intercultural training with Rudi and Judith, you can visit the European Language Competence website here.