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Essay on Intercultural Competence

Essay on Intercultural Competence

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Published by Morten Oddvik
In this essay I will present the main content of two books attempting to address the increasing need to acquire cultural and intercultural skills and competence. I will focus on aspects of the two books which is relevant for my profession as a teacher in an international secondary school in Trondheim, and then go on to discuss to what extent the information given helps me develop the necessary skills needed to be a modern language teacher.
In this essay I will present the main content of two books attempting to address the increasing need to acquire cultural and intercultural skills and competence. I will focus on aspects of the two books which is relevant for my profession as a teacher in an international secondary school in Trondheim, and then go on to discuss to what extent the information given helps me develop the necessary skills needed to be a modern language teacher.

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Published by: Morten Oddvik on Dec 03, 2009
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01/17/2013

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The Intercultural Classroom
In this essay I will present the main content of two books attempting toaddress the increasing need to acquire cultural and intercultural skills andcompetence. I will focus on aspects of the two books which is relevant for myprofession as a teacher in an international secondary school in Trondheim,and then go on to discuss to what extent the information given helps medevelop the necessary skills needed to be a modern language teacher.The main target, or business, of Edward T. Hall and Mildred Reed Hall's book
Understanding Cultural Differences
(1990) is namely to cater to
Fig 1.
business travelers and people who engage incultural exchanges with Germans, French and/orAmericans. In this paper I will focus on the latteras I am an English language teacher, and throughmy presentation of the content of this book I willfocus on the first chapter, but refer to the focuschapter on Americans. As the English culturalsphere expands way beyond the American one itis intercultural, or at least intracultural, in itsnature, and I would therefore deem theimportance of what is being presented by Halland Hall on Americans to be limiting in a world of 760 million speakers, orusers, of English (see fig. 1). The authors discuss many universal issues of cultural differences which are still relevant today, although the book waspublished almost 20 years ago, and the key concepts are highly applicable tonot only English-speaking cultures, but also other cultures.Hall and Hall writes that "Culture is communication" and dividecommunication into "
words, material things
and
behavior" 
, and they compareculture to a giant, extraordinary complex subtle computer (Hall and Hall: 3). Ifall for the temptation to upgrade their metaphor. To understand culture andhow to interpret and assess it is as challenging as to navigate the world wideweb. For argument's sake one could argue that the skills necessary to surf the internet critically is more or less the same skills necessary to traverse theworld's numerous cultures and communicative systems. How does one teachthese skills? In their introductory chapter "Underlying Structures of Culture"Hall and Hall attempt to present some key concepts for the reader in orderto equip her for the challenge of deciphering the "complex, unspoken rulesof each language" (Hall and Hall: 4). The main concepts are
context 
,
space
,
 
time
,
information flow, action chains
and
interfacing
. I would deem them allrelevant for my work as a modern language teacher.
"Context 
is the information that surrounds an event; it is inextricably boundup with the meaning of that event" (Hall and Hall: 6). Edward T. Hallpresents a scaling device in which all cultures can be compared in terms of high or low contexts. High context (HC) communication is marked by thefact that most of the information passing is already known by the involvedcommunicators, while low context (LC) communication is the opposite, "i.e.,the mass of the information is vested in the explicit code" (Hall and Hall: 6).Low-context cultures tend to "compartmentalize" their personal lives, whichin turns leads to the need for them to seek background information from thepeople they interact with. On the other end of the scale high-context culturesdo keep up to date on the events in the lives of people who are importantto them. Examples of high-context cultures include Japanese, Arabs andMediterranean while low-context cultures include American, German, Swiss,Scandinavian and other Northern European countries. Although this is arough generalization Hall and Hall are careful to point out that there existindividual differences in the need for
contexting
, meaning "the process of filling in background data" (Hall and Hall: 7). Perhaps the most notableinformation given in regards to context is that "any level of context is acommunication" (Hall and Hall: 7). This of course is relevant for a L2 user of English in an English-speaking culture, or for a L2 user of Japanse in Tokyo.There are tremendous differences in relationships and to what extent it is ahigh or low context communication which is taking place. "One of the greatcommunication challenges in life is to find the appropriate level of contextingneeded in each situation" (Hall and Hall: 9). This is
intercultural 
knowledge.Space. Hall and Hall defines space in the context of cultural differences asinvolving territoriality, the gradations of personal space, the multisensoryspatial experience and the unconscious reactions to spatial differences.Territoriality is basically a deeply rooted human characteristic related topossession and ownership. One's house, one's office or one's car are allexamples of places one might have a strong sense of territoriality. Again,there are considerably differences both on a cultural and individual level.Personal space do also have varying gradations, and people's 'bubbles',meaning the threshold of intimacy, tends to be large in Northern Europewhere people keep their distance to others while in Southern Europe thecommunication taking place can be very intimate and hardly any distancebetween the interlocutors. Interestingly, Hall and Hall mention the fact thatspace is perceived by all our senses, and there are great cultural differencesin the "programming" of the senses (Hall and Hall: 11). This multisensoryspatial experience include auditory (listening), thermal (touching), kinesthetic(muscles) and olfactory (smelling) space. An obvious example is theperceived 'noise' of Mediterranean conversations for a Scandinavian ear.
 
Time. Time is interesting as it is often a cause for great distress, annoyanceand grudge for tourists and business travelers as they visit other culturesthan their own where the perception of time differs. Hall and Hall presentthe division between monochronic and polychronic time. This is just a simpleclassification as there are many time systems around the world, but theycan be roughly grouped in the two perceptions of time. Monochronic culturesexperience time as something linear, and is divided into segments whichrequires it to be scheduled and planned. This allows for focus andconcentration on one task at the time. Schedules are important inmonochronic cultures, and might often take priority before anything else.Hall and Hall make the interesting comparison between monochronic timeand money - as something tangible and measurable. Time can be 'wasted','spent' or 'lost'. Polychronic systems on the other hand are the completeopposite. "There is more emphasis on completing human transactions, thanon holding to schedules" (Hall and Hall: 14). The focus on flexibility and theability to focus on "simultaneous occurrence of many things and by a
great involvement with people
" characterizes polychronic cultures. Geographically,Latin and Mediterranean cultures belong to the latter, while US and NorthernEuropeans would characterize themselves as belonging to a monochronicsystem. As mentioned, this is cause for a great deal of challenges forScandinavian or American tourists traveling to Mediterranean destinations, oreven further to Subsaharan countries where a polychronic time predominates.Patience, then, is truly a virtue for the person with a monochronic timesystem.Time is a fascinating topic within cultural and intercultral discourse as itis deeply embedded in a culture. Many misunderstandings arise from thedifferences in perceptions of time. Polychronic cultures might be accusedof laziness, inclined to interrupt, noise and disruptive while monochroniccultures are easily accused of being unfriendly, impersonal, too private andreclusive. On a personal note I would again use the earlier introducedupgrades metaphor of the internet when Hall and Hall write "Polychronicpeople live in a sea of information" (Hall and Hall: 16) and that they preferto surround themselves with people and information. It is hard to live bya monochronic time in global reality, although differences are still wellembedded in national cultures.Furthermore, time affects the information flow and the exchanges of information and whether it is 'in sync'. Rhythm, tempo and synchrony areimportant components in communication, and obvious pitfalls forinterlocutors from different cultures with respectively monochronic andpolychronic systems. "When we take our own time system for granted andproject it onto other cultures, we fail to read the hidden messages in theforeign time system and thereby deny ourselves vital feedback" (Hall and

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