The TESOL President’s Blog
In recent years, several researchers in the ELT field have raised a series of conceptual issues around how we should express our cultures in English (Honna,2005; Byram,2009; Wen, 2013,). As a speaker, should you stick to your own way of thinking? Or should you adapt to the listener’s way of thinking? As a listener, should you impose your own way of thinking on the speaker? Or should you be sensitive to and tolerant of the speaker’s different way of thinking and speaking?
Honna (2005) shared a study that she and her colleagues conducted back in 2000 using the following story (p. 78). The story was told by an Australian to a Japanese professor. It took place in the office of a superintendent of the Hong Kong Police Force prior to 1997. The superintendent was British and the constable was Chinese.
There was a quiet knock at the door and in came a young Chinese police constable. He was, of course wearing his uniform. He saluted the superintendent and stood smartly at attention in front of the large wooden desk.
“Yes?” inquired the superintendent.
“My mother is not very well, sir,” started the constable.
“Yes?” repeated the superintendent, beginning to frown.
“She has to go into hospital, sir,” continued the constable.
“On Thursday, sir.”
The superintendent’s frown was replaced by a look of exasperation. “What is it that you want?” he asked sternly.
At this direct question, the constable’s face fell and he simply mumbled, “Nothing, sir. It’s all right,” and turned and left the room.
As soon as the door had closed, the superintendent turned to me and said, “You see. A classic case. They can’t get to the point.”
“So, what would you want him to say?” I asked.
“Well, instead of beating around the bush, he should come straight to the point. He obviously wants some leave so he can look after his mother. He should ask for leave
and not waste my time going on about his poor mother.”
“You want him to say something like, ‘Can I have some leave please, sir?'”
“Yes, exactly,” replied the superintendent.
Honna surveyed 138 students asking them who they think was responsible for the communication breakdown in the interaction. Sixty-nine percent of the respondents expressed sympathy with the Chinese constable who used a common Chinese way of making a request in English. They believed that it was the British superintendent, not the Chinese constable, who was responsible for the communication breakdown because he was not able to accept the Chinese style even though he perfectly understood what his interlocutor said and meant.
If this exchange happened among two nonnative English speakers, for example, a Chinese and a Hispanic speaker, the outcome would be very different:
Chinese: “My mother is not very well, sir.”
Hispanic: “Oh, you must be worried. Would you want to take a leave and take care of your mother?”
Very often, nonnative speakers of English deviate from American or British norms of communication and thereby understand each other and establish rapport. They could communicate with each other better when they did not follow the native speakers’ norms than when they did (Honna, 2005; Wen, 2013).
These studies show that when teaching intercultural communicative competence, teachers need to teach both the local and international cultures. Teachers and native speakers of English need to be aware and respect nonnative speakers’ different ways of communicating. Nowadays, language teachers focus less on mimicking the culture and communication protocols of native speakers of English unless the goals of the interaction require it. The goal of English language teaching is not to produce language users who mimic inner circle countries’ language and culture but to produce language users who can use English as a lingua franca in a way that reflects their local language and culture.
The United States and the United Kingdom used to be considered the best places to go to learn English. But this idea is losing credence. What is important in intercultural communication is one’s competency and willingness to understand what the other has to say, not the disposition to impose one’s values and norms onto the other. As Honnar (2005) stated, “With some degree of intercultural awareness, one is capable of understanding the other even if the two persons’ communication styles are different” (p. 80). It is clear that communicating effectively and appropriately involves both the speaker and the listener.
In recent years, there have been more discussions and research focusing on the importance of intercultural communicative competence (Byram, 1997, 2009; Alptekin, 2002; Kohn, 2013). Intercultural communicative competence is the ability to communicate effectively and appropriately with people from other language and cultural backgrounds.
Effective intercultural communication requires
- empathy: an understanding of other people’s behaviors and ways of thinking
- respect: genuine admiration and appreciation of different ways of thinking and communication
- tolerance: the ability and willingness to accept and acknowledge different behaviors and ways of thinking, the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with
- sensitivity: the awareness and responsiveness to other people’s behaviors and ways of thinking
- flexibility: willingness to adapt and open to change and different ways of thinking
Lippi-Green (1997) has emphasized the importance of “sharing the communicative burden.” She pointed out that oftentimes, “members of the dominant language group feel perfectly empowered to demand that a person with an accent carry the majority of responsibility in the communicative act. Conversely, when such a speaker comes in contact with another mainstream speaker who is nonetheless incoherent or unclear, the first response is usually not to reject a fair share of the communicative burden, but to take other factors into consideration” (p. 70).
To achieve effective intercultural communication, she emphasizes that speakers from dominant cultures need to apply the same willingness to share the communicative burden when interacting with a person who speaks with an accent, i.e., nonnative English speakers and people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and not to reject their fair share of the communicative burden.
As TESOL educators, I hope you’ll agree with me that the willingness to share the communicative burden and apply empathy, respect, tolerance, sensitivity, flexibility, and openness in communicating with speakers from different culture and linguistic backgrounds is more important for successful intercultural communication than just imposing the native English speaker’s norms. I’d like to hear your perspective on this issue.
By the way, Prof. Michael Byram will be a part of a panel discussion for the James E. Alatis Plenary at the TESOL 2015 convention in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The panel, which also includes Jun Liu and Lourdes Ortega, will lead a discussion titled “Redefining Communicative Competence and Redesigning ELT in the 21st Century.”
Alptekin, C. (2002). Towards intercultural communicative competence in ELT. ELT Journal 56(1), 57–64.
Byram, M. (1997). Teaching and assessing intercultural communicative competence. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters
Byram, M. (2009). The intercultural speaker and pedagogy of foreign language education. In D.K. Deardorff (Ed.), The Sage handbook of intercultural competence (pp. 321–332) Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
Honna, N. (2005). English as a multilingual language in Asia. Intercultural Communication Studies 14(2), 73–89. Available from http://www.uri.edu/iaics/content/2005v14n2/06%20Nobuyuki%20Honna.pdf
Kohn, K. (2013, March). Intercultural communicative competence: an English as a lingua franca perspective. Paper presented at TESOL Arabia, Dubai, UAE.
Lippi-Green, R. (1997). English with an accent: Language, ideology, and discrimination in the United States. London: Routledge.
Wen, Q. (2013, November). What kind of English do Chinese students need to learn in the future? Paper presented at TESOL International Symposium in Guangzhou, China.