The Role Of Intercultural Communication In Today's World

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Intercultural communication has become an inevitable issue worldwide due to the fact that globalization is taking place more and more rapidly. To be well-equipped for such a situation, everyone needs to prepare themselves with certain knowledge, skills and attitudes so that they are able to adapt to intercultural exchanges. Some individuals are fortunate enough to have authentic experience where they can communicate with people from other countries and learn from those precious practices. However, there are individuals who can only get exposed to other cultures via channels of mass media through which a full description of a particular culture may not be given. Another source from which people can improve their intercultural communication competence is schools, classes, and lessons, especially language classrooms, where the culture of the language which is taught and learned is embedded and delivered within the pedagogical techniques applied by the teachers. Therefore, teaching, particularly language teaching, plays a crucially important role in raising learners’ awareness as well as facilitating them with knowledge, skills and attitudes in terms of intercultural communication. In order to fulfil the aforementioned responsibility, language teachers need to keep themselves up-to-date in the field of intercultural communication. It is a must for them to know what criteria and components intercultural communication competence covers. Teachers are also obliged to be aware of the importance of intercultural communication and the role of languages in the era of globalization. In addition, language teachers have to employ classroom techniques that can simulate real-life intercultural communication situations for their learners.

According to Ting-Toomey (1999), competence in transcultural communication refers to “an integrative theory-practice approach enabling us to mindfully apply the intercultural knowledge we have learned in a sensitive manner” (p. 261). In other words, this type of competence empowers us to tactfully deal with situations in which intercultural communication occurs, using our existed knowledge. From the elaboration of transcultural communication competence suggested by Ting-Toomey (1999), it can be seen that in-depth knowledge, intensified mindfulness, and competent communication skills are the main components. Firstly, knowledge of cultural differences is the lens through which an individual can evaluate and interpret behaviors in an intercultural situation. Comprehensive understating of intercultural communication, verbal and non-verbal communication styles, social and personal identities, stereotype formation processes, and intercultural adaptation is required if an individual wishes to become a competent intercultural communicator. However, it is worth noticing that capturing a whole culture with its distinctive members is merely impossible so that willingness to learn more about a new culture is always necessary. The second component is mindfulness which refers to the process of “attending to one’s internal assumptions, cognitions, and emotions, and simultaneously attuning to the other’s assumptions, cognitions, and emotions” (Ting-Toomey, 1999, p. 267).

When viewing and judging a certain behavior, people need to consider both their own cultural values and their partner’s cultural values. Any unfamiliar behaviors should be placed in a fresh context and analyzed in multiple perspectives in order to be interpreted correctly. Being mindful also entails the ability to adjust and reconstruct our existed knowledge of a culture instead of insisting on rigid categories and polarized evaluations. This is because there are complexity and distinction within groups or cultures, i.e. cases where individuals present their unique characteristics and perform different practices from their group or culture. When it comes to the last component in transcultural communication competence, the four main communication skills include mindful observation, mindful listening, identity confirmation, and collaborative dialog. Mindful observation involves the act of observing the verbal and non-verbal communication styles, then describing interactive modes both physically and mentally, generating various interpretations, and engaging open-minded evaluations. Regarding mindful listening, intercultural communicators have to pay attention to “the tones, rhythms, gestures, movements, nonverbal nuances, pauses, and silence in the interaction episode” (Ting-Toomey, 1999, p. 270). They have to use their knowledge to figure out the actual meaning of each variation of those communicative features and response accordingly. In terms of identity confirmation, people should be mindful when addressing others by their titles, names, or identities. Also, the types of language used to communicate play a remarkable role in making other people feel included or excluded, especially during intergroup interaction. Finally, carrying out collaborative dialogs requires intercultural communicators to suspend their assumptions, respect others’ viewpoints and beliefs, and remain open-minded attitude toward differences.

The three components of transcultural communication competence, as discussed above, help people guarantee the three criteria of appropriateness, effectiveness, and satisfaction proposed by Ting-Toomey (1999). The appropriateness criterion refers to how proper the exchange behaviors are in accordance with expectations generated by the insiders of the culture. In order to obtain appropriateness while communicating with member from other cultures, people need to build up thorough understanding of the underlying values, norms, situational roles, rules and expectations that each interactive context may hold. Secondly, effectiveness emphasizes the mutual shared meaning that communicators achieve during their interaction. Effective communication demands the individuals’ awareness of the information which is being exchanged, their own identities, and the intimacy level of their relationship. If the communicators are mindful enough and well-equipped with intercultural communication skills such as mindful observation, mindful listening, and collaborative dialog, it is suggested that they can perceive the criterion of effectiveness. In addition, the components of knowledge, mindfulness and communication skills help communicators to accomplish the satisfaction criterion. When people are competent in terms of intercultural communication, they can offer chances for their partners to confirm and secure their desired identity images, which leads to interaction satisfaction. In the practice of teaching languages, teachers need to integrate the components and criteria of transcultural communication competence into their lessons so as to prepare their learners for intercultural encounters they may have in the future. Additionally, teachers need to notify their learners the significant importance of languages, especially English in the context of Vietnam.

According to Krasnick (1995), English has not only served as the lingua franca of government, commerce, and education in Southeast Asia, but become the language of regional and global cooperation in the area. As globalization keeps on making its expansion, people from other countries, particularly English-speaking countries, are more and more attracted to the active working environment in Asia. Consequently, this situation has created “the daunting complexity of culture” with the urgent role of intercultural communication (Krasnick, 1995). Therefore, English teachers are not only expected to distinguish and clarify between right and wrong answers but also address the issue of intercultural interaction. In order to do so, teachers have to compile teaching techniques that can raise learners’ awareness of cultural differences and facilitate intercultural communication training during class hours. There have been authors who recommend effective pedagogical techniques for embedding culture in language lessons. Scollon (1999) introduces the use of television sitcoms in teaching culture in the classroom. This technique involves using a set of television programs as teaching materials to contrastively elicit differences in cultural codes for common social interactions among cultures. Cortazzia and Jin (1999) highlight the role of language textbooks in providing cultural elements to the learners. A suggested checklist for textbook evaluation is also given with certain criteria focusing on cultural content such as social identity and social groups, belief and behavior, and national history and geography. On the other hand, Harklau (1999) illustrates a way of teaching writing in which teachers offer students opportunities to explore new cultures and present their own viewpoint about cultural phenomenon. Actually, teachers can employ many other teaching techniques such as role-play, discussion or group projects to incorporate culture into language lessons.

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At the moment, I am an English teacher at a language center and my students vary from young children to adults. As mentioned above, my responsibilities are both teaching the language and teaching the cultures of English-speaking countries. I always try to raise my students’ awareness of the differences between Vietnamese culture and Western culture and provide them with particular knowledge and skills in terms of intercultural communication. From my experience and observation, I can integrate culture in almost every lesson on the language aspects and skills and this integration somehow makes my teaching more meaningful and engaging to the students. The language aspect that I find myself elaborate cultural phenomena most often is vocabulary. First of all, lexical items are one of the main sources of verbal communication that help language speakers to express their thoughts and opinions; therefore, using vocabulary appropriately is very important. Regarding meaning, a lot of words do not only carry their denotation, i.e. their literal meanings, but also their connotation, i.e. the extra meanings related to attitudes or styles. As a result, there are words that can evoke positive feelings when they are used such as “famous” or “luxurious”. On the contrary, there are certain items containing negative meanings like “notorious” or “basic”. Therefore, I try to draw my students’ attention to those sematic features of vocabulary and ask them to check with a dictionary before using any words that they are not familiar with.

Another example of incorporating culture into vocabulary lessons is teaching how to describe people. In Vietnamese, we tend to use the colors “black” and “white” when talking about the skin, for instance, “da trắng” or “da đen”. However, it is not the case for English language since those colors may trigger the thought of racism in the listeners’ perception and cause miscommunication. Instead, I have to guide them to use the adjectives “fair” and “dark” to achieve appropriateness criterion. Moreover, the different use of vocabulary items may be due to the dissimilarity in cultural concepts. For example, whenever I teach English prepositions, I always remind my students of the phrase “in the sky”. The preposition “in” implies containment (Downing, 2006), which suggests that English speakers perceive the sky as a container or a space. Meanwhile, Vietnamese people usually say “trên trời”, the equivalent of which is often mistaken with “on the sky”. As the word “trên” recommends, in Vietnamese culture, the sky is considered as a surface on which objects such as the sun and stars are situated. From the two prepositional phrases, the difference in viewing “the sky” between the two cultures can be revealed. After listening to my explanation, my students are very interested in the issue and sometimes even ask for more information related to cultural differences. Last but not least, the vocabulary used to indicate family members in English and Vietnamese also presents another difference regarding cultural values. English culture requires no clear-cut separation among siblings in terms of age or among relatives in terms of maternal or paternal sides. In contrast, Vietnamese culture emphasizes the hierarchy in the family and the sides by providing a detailed list of words referring to every specific member in the extended family such as “ông nội”, “ông ngoại”, “chị”, and “em”. This is due to the influence of Confucianism on Vietnamese culture, which places an important role on social order.

Concerning pronunciation, I usually integrate intercultural communication skills while teaching intonation. The rationale for my integration is that different intonation in English language conveys a different meaning, which may not be similar to Vietnamese. I myself find it necessary to point out for my students the functions each type of intonation performs. For example, they should employ falling tone when they want to end their speech instead of raising their voice, making native speakers wait for them to continue. Also, they should raise their voice to sound friendly rather than lower their pitch at the end of the utterances, which characterizes orders or commands. Misuses of intonation may cause misunderstandings and create awkward moments. Due to the small distribution assigned for pronunciation and time constraint, I can only briefly show the importance of intonation in communicating with English speakers and offer my students simple practice. In my viewpoint, it is quite challenging to embed cultural elements in to the lessons when it comes to grammar. As a Vietnamese teacher, I am in charge of delivering all the grammar lessons in the textbooks and facilitating my students’ process of acquiring the grammar points. Therefore, the time budget of each class meeting is not sufficient enough to introduce cultural values, concepts, or beliefs that are entailed in English grammar. In addition, I myself have not done any thorough cultural research into this language aspect. The only moment that I can elaborate the interconnection between grammar and culture is when I teach the modals “can” and “could”. As explained in many grammar books and websites, “could” is preferred when making a request because the modal verb suggests more politeness than “can”. When I was still at university, my lecturer once told me that the difference in the degree of politeness between “could” and “can” is withdrawn from the link between time distance and relationship distance. “Could”, which is the past form of “can”, presents a further distance to the present and, simultaneously, puts forward a less intimate relationship with the listener. In contrast, “can”, as the present form, creates little distance in time and suggests a closer relationship between the speaker and the listener. Meanwhile, being polite means showing respect to others and maintaining a certain role distance; therefore, “could” sounds more courteous than “can” in the formation of requests.

From my lecturer’s words, I could see that English native speakers flexibly use the tenses to indicate the nature of their relationships, which is an interesting feature of their culture. In the future, I will need to explore the interrelation between grammar and culture so that I can motivate my students in grammar learning. In terms of language skills, I apply different techniques for receptive skills and productive skills to integrate culture in my teaching practice. For listening and reading, if the topics of the input are culture-driven, I would conduct class discussions to give my students opportunities to explore the new cultures and compare with Vietnamese culture after completing comprehension tasks. In the pre-teaching stage, I usually show images or put questions in the manner that I could generate the students’ existed knowledge about cultural differences and intercultural communication. I also draw their attentions to the lexical items which are used to illustrate individual identity or group identity, or which contain extra meanings and require careful application. If the reading texts offer multicultural information, I would choose to conduct the expert-group activity in which each group of students takes the responsibility of one culture and presents about it as if they are members of that culture. By doing this, I can somehow train my students to be mindful when observing certain behaviors and interpreting their meanings. Productive skills may provide more chances for the learners to practice intercultural communication skills as speaking and writing call for their production and performance in the target language. For speaking, whenever I teach a language function, I always try to guide my students to discover the conversational patterns expected in the communicative situation and compare to ones in Vietnamese context.

After the students finish all the drilling and controlled practice, I will carry out role-play in which the students employ the scripted patterns to negotiate meanings and achieve a shared interactive outcome. I personally think that these activities are necessary because the students need to familiarize themselves with the ways English speakers perform certain language functions such as greeting, answering the phones or making suggestions. For writing, it is quite a challenge for me to help my students form the habit of expressing their ideas directly. This is due to the fact that Vietnamese people practice collectivism and use the spiral-shaped pattern of written discourse to convey their opinions (Kaplan, 1966). We tend to beat about the bush without going straightforward to the main point, which may cause difficulties understanding the actual message we wish to deliver to the readers. Therefore, I always try to search for writing samples and analyze how the paragraphs or essays are structured and how clearly the controlling ideas are transferred in English. Sometimes, I even paraphrase an idea in Vietnamese style in order to illustrate how lengthy and irrelevant a Vietnamese version can be. My students tend to get amused at my examples but eventually know how to elaborate their thoughts in a direct manner. Besides the lessons during the class hours, classroom language is also an area that I can raise my students’ awareness of the cultures of English-speaking countries. The students in each class study with one Vietnamese teacher and one foreign teacher, who may have little experience and exposure to Vietnamese culture. At the beginning of every course, I always ask my students to address me with the title “Mr.” instead of using my profession as a teacher to call me. Additionally, I emphasize the fact that they are not only going to learn the language for communication but learn the culture embedded in the language to communicate appropriately and effectively. For classes of young children and teenagers, I establish a rule according to which they are not allowed to use swearwords or sensitive language to insult their classmates or just to satisfy their need to show off to others. However, there was an incident in which one of my students, during a lesson with his foreign teacher, uttered the word “nigga” in front of the teacher. The foreign teacher was absolutely angry and asked him to leave the classroom. More importantly, he and his classmates reported the incident to me without being conscious that they had committed a case of discrimination. I then had to explain their foreign teacher’s reaction and how offensive the word actually was. The case suggests that my students, especially young learners and teenagers, need guidance and practice in intercultural communication since they are exposed to the language every day via means of media and social networking sites without the ability to decide what is appropriate to learn and imitate

In conclusion, training learners to be competent intercultural communicators is one of the responsibilities of language teachers, especially English teachers. They themselves have to be knowledgeable in the field of intercultural communication, aware of their educational role in the context of globalization, and proactive in their own teaching practice. I personally think that language teachers should be mindful of what is taking place inside their classrooms. They need to know how to integrate cultural elements into their lessons and be willing to search for sources and techniques that can help them fulfil the task. They should carefully observe their students to assess their intercultural communication competence and offer to help improve their weaknesses.

References:

  1. Cortazzi, M., & Jin, L. (1999). Cultural mirrors: Materials and methods in the EFL classroom. In Hinkel, E. (Ed.), Culture in second language teaching and learning (pp. 196-219). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Downing, A. (2006). English grammar: A university course (2nd ed.). Oxon: Routledge.
  3. Harklau, L. (1999). Representing culture in the ESL writing classroom. In Hinkel, E. (Ed.), Culture in second language teaching and learning (pp. 181-195). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Kaplan, R. (1966). Cultural thought patterns in intercultural education. Language Learning, 16(1). pp. 1-20.
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