As a Spanish learner, I once faced the awkward situation of thinking I was having a conversation about new potatoes being on the menu, when in fact the hotel manager had diverged from the conversation to give me the news that there was a new Pope! Being in a Catholic Latin American country at the time, I should have been more aware of the context and cultural importance of the vote going on in the Vatican that week. However, my focus was simply on the words. Hence intercultural competence is so important and should not be ignored in the language classroom. It is especially so with English because it facilitates communication between so many people from diverse backgrounds (ELT Position Paper on Global Skills, 2019).
If we are to successfully communicate with people, we need to appreciate different perspectives to be able to understand how someone on the other side of the planet might view things. Open, respectful, and tolerant communication enables interaction with diverse cultures effectively, enabling us to connect with people. From researchers to taxi drivers, gaining intercultural competence alongside language skills can help smooth out communications and help reduce the stress of communicating in another language.
Intercultural competence in the ELT classroom
As an English language teacher, you may wonder if your students will be interested in such a thing as intercultural competence. A useful exercise to help students understand its importance is to ask them to write down what different interests, groups of people, clubs/societies, communities (local/national/international) they belong to. As an English language teacher, perhaps you listen to music in English and are part of a fan group of certain music artists; belong to an association of English teachers; run a book club. You might enjoy super-hero films; be a fan of Liverpool Football Club and watch every press conference Jurgen Klopp makes. – Incidentally, as a German manager of players of 17 different nationalities, living in England, he is an excellent example of what intercultural competence means.
- The activity helps us understand how we belong to different communities and are multi-faceted in terms of our cultures. In other words, multicultural is the norm, not the exception.
- For the teacher, it becomes a multi-purpose activity, because students are using English to discuss and write down the communities they belong to, whilst the teacher simultaneously discovers students’ interests and online communities they belong to.
Many students are keen to learn about Korean culture to understand their K-Pop idols better and so might combine Korean words with their English in their chats on fandom pages. Greta Thunberg is a climate activist that has captured the interest of many teenagers and young people. The sports fans may prefer Naomi Osaka – a Japanese tennis star born to a Japanese mother and Haitian father, brought up in the US. Whatever the interest of your students, the chances are high that they visit and possibly engage with other fans, in English, on pages/websites, so they are probably already reading in English to find out about the people/topics they are interested in.
English language and citizenship
As our students are online much of the time, it is essential that we can help them to be aware of their responsibilities as fair-minded and respectful participants. Bullying is a topic that we can investigate and learn about its effects together so that those who may have thought being anonymous removes responsibility realise that there are consequences of actions.
We can weave citizenship into example sentences while helping the understanding/practice of language items. E.g. because, because of, that is why, as a result of, consequently:
“I know a few words of Korean because I love Rain’s music.”
“Lewis Hamilton is one of the best F1 drivers and he is not afraid to promote Black Lives Matter. That is why I like him the best.”
“Billie Eilish is vegan, believes in sustainable fashion, and consequently signed a contract with H&M for their sustainable fashion line.”
“As a result of Greta Thunberg’s activism, more young people understand the need for replacing petroleum as an energy source.”
“Because of bullying, I refuse to have an Instagram account.”
Encouraging learner autonomy
After using the above kind of examples to illustrate how we use these connectives, we can ask students to do an internet search on a person/topic of interest and note down 5 sentences that use a variety of the same connectives. A follow-up to this could be they write out the sentences they found with a blank for the connective and provide it as an example for their peers to complete.
Another meaningful way to get students to further practise connectives would be to ask students to reflect on what issues/cultural aspects they feel strongly about in their communities and if there are any that have influenced their behaviour/habits. This would lead to them creating their own sentences using the connectives to describe why or how these issues have influenced how they live. Hence while they are using and practising English, students are also becoming more conscious about reasons for good citizenship and opinions on cultural values.
Zarina Subhan is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer. She has taught and delivered teacher training at all levels and in both private and government institutions in over fifteen different countries as well as in the UK. Early on in her career, Zarina specialised in EAP combining her scientific and educational qualifications. From this developed an interest in providing tailor-made materials, which later led to materials writing that was used in health training and governance projects in developing countries. Since 2000 she has been involved in Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), materials writing, training trainers and teachers in facilitation techniques and teaching methodology. Zarina is published and has delivered training courses, presentations, spoken at conferences worldwide, and continues to be a freelance consultant teacher educator.