With Erhan Aslan on “Intercultural Communicative Competence”
The very basic aim of language teaching is helping language learners gain communicative competence for different purposes. When I was a kid, the end point of this aim was to be able to communicate with native speakers of English, which is no longer the case. As the world is getting more like a global village, foreign language (non-native) speakers of English have already outnumbered the native ones, and they do not need to be native-like to communicate with other non-native speakers of English. Thus, intercultural communicative competence (ICC) is getting much more attention as the cultural differences play a role in communication, and as communication is the only way to see such differences as variety in a positive sense. In my Conversation Pieces, I’m chatting with Erhan Aslan of University of Reading (UK) on this topic. Erhan and I have known each other for about 3 years, and for more than a year we (and Ali Fuad Selvi at NCC METU) have been working on a Newton Mobility Project (titled Research and Training on Intercultural Communicative Competence in Teacher Education in Turkey). Erhan will be in Ankara in the middle of April for a series of workshops for student-teachers, and teachers. So, our conversation piece naturally was ICC.
Deniz: Erhan, how would you explain what intercultural communicative competence is and how important it is for language teaching?
Erhan: In my view, intercultural communicative competence entails two things. First, it has to do with knowing things related to cultures other than your own; the one you were born into or, perhaps, the one you identify with. One can learn about cultures by observing others, traveling, reading about them or studying them. You can learn about the different kinds of stereotypes about them and develop some critical awareness based on this knowledge. This is actually just intercultural competence at the knowledge base. Second, ICC has to do with doing things in other cultures. In a sense, if culture is a toolkit, you know how to use it and what to do with it. The ‘communicative’ component of this competence encompasses the discovery and interaction dimension. You might think that American and British cultures are similar in many respects and they use a common language, English. However, there are certain expressions that are quite different between American English (AE) and British English (BE) that one can only discover in actual interactions. For example, when we first moved to UK from the US, my wife and I were greeted by the cashier at the checkout of a supermarket with the phrase “Are you all right?” We were a bit appalled by this phrase as it somewhat implied that we had some sort of a problem. However, we later learned that it was a common greeting in BE which translates to “How are you?” in AE. Therefore, when you possess intercultural communicative competence, you not only know about other cultures, but you also know how to interact with them and within them, as well as with their members. You discover things about how people communicate, behave and get along with one another. You gain more tolerance of ambiguity, meaning that you do not fear being in situations that you’re not familiar with in other cultures. On the contrary, you embrace them and partake in their various activities.
In a world that keeps growing and becoming more global, ICC becomes a mandatory asset for all people as they have to interact with those from other cultures as a result of migration, work travel, or study abroad. Since language and culture are intertwined in many diverse and complex ways, language teaching and learning provides numerous opportunities for developing ICC. In addition, in many parts of the world, language teaching pedagogy still centres on grammar and vocabulary in instructional settings where real-life, authentic communication is limited, systematic integration of ICC in curricular frameworks and teacher education programs is crucial in order to better prepare learners for the demands of the globalized world.
Deniz: In this world of knowing and doing things, what is the role of the language teacher in ICC?
Erhan: I see language teachers as cultural ambassadors representing different cultures in the classroom and instilling cultural sensitivity and awareness in learners. This awareness and sensitivity is not just limited to the target language culture. As limited as they may be in the classroom, they create opportunities for interaction, particularly with other cultures through authentic materials. Additionally, such interactions with other cultures through teaching and learning activities can increase learners’ awareness and criticality of their own culture. Despite these numerous benefits language teachers can bring to the task of teaching, many of them do not always know how to incorporate culture into their teaching. Some have a strong desire to do so but they do not possess the necessary resources to make informed decisions about intercultural pedagogy.
Deniz: As a teacher who has been working on ICC, what kind of practices do you have in class to help students become aware of their intercultural communicative competence?
Erhan: In my teaching in general, I value analytical and reflective practices in understanding different phenomena and content. Not only when I taught English as a second or foreign language, but also in my current teaching in TESOL and intercultural communication, I see great benefits in having students look at language in context through discourse and conversation analysis methods. This is the analytical part. Then, I create opportunities for them to reflect on what they find out from their analyses and what kind of implications there might be for communication in real-life settings. The reflexivity enables them to notice what’s happening around them with respect to language. They start noticing how they and people around them use language — as well as what they know about it and what they do with it. They immediately make connections between what they learn in class and the world outside the classroom. I think that should be the premise in any kind of teaching but it works particularly better in ICC teaching.
Deniz: What are the things that you have become aware of yourself after learning more about ICC?
Erhan: That is a great question! As much as my goal is to help my students develop more reflective and analytical skills, inevitably, I, as the teacher/facilitator, am part of the same process of learning. I learn so much from the content I teach, as well as from my students. Teaching ESL and TESOL has always given me opportunities to learn from international students from all over the world. Of course, these learning opportunities have had direct impact on questioning and understanding who I am as a member of the discourse communities that I am a part of, the different kinds of identities I possess, the clashes between some of them, and my avowed and ascribed identities. The more I study ICC, the better I understand there are multiple modes, meanings, and interpretations of the same reality that we all experience. In other words, I begin to see how there is no objective reality. ICC is like a double-edged sword — as much as you it helps you understand the intricacies of language and communication, it can also make you overly sensitive and extra-cautious about cultural differences and stereotypes. For example, this sensitivity directly affects my teaching as I have to find suitable examples that will not offend anybody in the classroom.
Deniz: Erhan, my final question is about a different role you have, being a father. You are married to an American, and living in United Kingdom. So your daughter will grow up in a multicultural family home. I’m not going to ask whether ICC awareness has an influence on you as a father because I think the answer is a clear “yes”. My question is: how does it have an impact of your parenting?
Erhan: Raising a multicultural child in a very multicultural country like England will definitely be an interesting experience for us. For me, ICC has never been something that only remained in the classroom as a subject matter and it has always had an impact on my life and interpersonal relationships as a result of living overseas for many years. This awareness will surely encourage me to teach my daughter how to navigate through different cultures, people, and perspectives. She will certainly develop her own strategies to deal with challenges along the way but I will certainly be there to guide her, listen to her, and help her come up with those strategies. Additionally, while she’s observing a great variety of cultural practices, my role will be to explain to her, as much as I know and am able to, the underlying assumptions behind those practices, the deeper and surface level aspects of cultures. For example, whenever she visits my home country Turkey, she will be offered food several times or multiple servings. She will need to learn that this is part of Turkish hospitality and she can always say she does not want any more food. Her refusals may be seen by Turks as politeness and they may still offer her more anyway. My awareness of ICC will surely feed into increasing her cross-cultural sensitivity.
Deniz: Thank you Erhan.
Erhan: Thank you!
*About 15 years ago, in an MA class (ELT 521 Cultural Aspects of Language Teaching), I learnt that small ornaments we collect from different parts of the world are called “conversation pieces” because they help people start a conversation during small talk or “misafirlik”. I think when the small talk turns into a professional exchange, the concepts work as conversation pieces. We, of course, do not record those informal exchanges with our colleagues. We remember the key points, we may share the main idea and important aspects with our friends, we may think about integrating it into our teaching, or we may simply just forget about it. But what if we record and share it with others? Would others be interested in our professional exchanges?
When I thought of recording the exchanges or discussions I had with my colleagues or experts to share them with other teachers or student-teachers in an online platform, MLD Bulletin came to my mind. I shared the idea with Elif and Yaprak, who were, as always, very welcoming.
 Conversation piece: an interesting or unusual object that attracts attention and makes people start talking about it (Macmillan English Dictionary, 2002)