What is Intercultural Communication?

From Teaching Language to Exploring Culture

When People-Places-Things started in 2008 as Bridge of Language, we were really just interested in teaching English to immigrants and refugees. We knew a couple of things:

  • Immigrant & refugee families did not have the access to language skills development resources that fit their needs
  • People who were teaching English to immigrants, refugees, and other non-native English speakers did not have much training or support

So we set out “Solve the Problem of ESOL” – we needed a model that would be:

  • flexible – because immigrant/refugee experiences are incredibly varied and program resources are scarce
  • expandable – because there are 25 million people in the US who describe themselves as Limited English Proficient, and each one of those people needs thousands of hours of practice to become proficient
  • inexpensive – since many non-native English speakers fall into lower income brackets, and the shadow system of community-based ESOL is generally no cost to learners
  • effective – because we don’t have good examples of models that are working to deliver cultural navigation skills on a wide scale

In the beginning, understanding the grammatical features of a language was the focus of our instruction. Most English teachers around the world do the same, whether they are novices or experienced.  We worked very hard to try to create relevant, real-world activities for grammar practice.  And we kept getting frustrated that our grammar activities wouldn’t fit neatly into the real world. There is plenty of research questioning the effectiveness of explicit grammar teaching, and you can learn more about the role of explicit grammar in P-P-T’s pedagogy here.

But if we weren’t teaching grammar, what were we actually teaching?

In early 2009, we abandoned the grammar focus altogether, and started focusing on real-world themes.  We had a pilot class in an industrial kitchen – what could we do in a kitchen that would support language learning? We learned a few things about situating language learning in a real-world setting:

  • it involves complicated logistics
  • it can be dangerous
  • the language we thought was important was not always the language that was important
  • the real world contains a lot more communicative ambiguity than we thought
  • the difficulty of real-world tasks didn’t match the difficulty of the language structures used to describe them

But there were some unequivocal benefits:

  • if the learning environment was relevant to their needs, the learners were highly engaged
  • we could immediately hone in on the language that was really used
  • the real world was a multilevel environment – anyone could participate, and people worked together

This helped us realize that one of the reasons why people seemed to take so long to learn a language, whether they study in a classroom setting or not, was that we were often practicing unreal language, in unreal locations, in an unreal way.

And from there, instead of trying to simplify the real world to make it fit our language teaching approach; we started to collect items from the real world and use different techniques to practice the language that went with it.

We had gone from trying to explain grammar through cultural examples; to exploring culture through language practice.

The skills sets that were developing were Intercultural Communication & Cultural Navigation. These included language, but were much broader than that.

It’s Not About What It’s About