Developing Intercultural Competence for the Masses

By Ashwill, Mark A. | International Educator, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Developing Intercultural Competence for the Masses


Ashwill, Mark A., International Educator


Language instruction and study abroad are two universally acknowledged cornerstones of international education, but what about the vast majority of U.S. students who neither learns a second language nor studies overseas?

At the risk of being labeled a viper in the bosom of the profession, let me pose several tough and, dare I say, heretical questions. How many ULS. students who study a foreign language are actually able to use the language in any meaningful way? To what extent is the development of intercultural competence the focal point of these classes? How many U.S. students are able to study abroad for any length of time? Are there other effective and meaningful ways through which to develop intercultural competence? What about the majority who neither studies a foreign language nor studies abroad?

Fluency m a specific foreign language may reflect academic mastery of literary usage that is not necessarily functional in real-world task contexts; serious negotiations will always require professional translations.

I ask these questions not as an outsider with his face pressed against the proverbial glass but rather as a consumer, producer, and passionate advocate of foreign language and culture instruction, a two-time study abroad alumnus and scholarship recipient, and a concerned international educator who has taught, lectured, and conducted research abroad. I ask these questions as someone who would like to expand the focus of this debate about foreign language training and education abroad, both of which we all agree are valuable and deserving of more support in thought, word, and deed, and shine the spotlight squarely on intercultural competence as a pivotal skill in "global workforce development," one of the cornerstones of NAFSA's mission and our raison d'etre as international educators.

There is an urgent need to develop intercultural sensitivity and competence among larger segments of our population, including K-12 and postsecondary students. It is what intercultural communication specialists refer to as cognitive code shifting and behavioral frame shifting-knowing that there are cultural differences, what they are and how to apply that knowledge. Simply put, it is the ability to adapt to different cultural settings, the essence of being bicultural.

In January 2004, NAFSA, the World Trade Center Institute, and the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development sponsored a conference on the theme of "Securing America's Future: Global Education for a Global Workforce." It featured William Brody (president, Johns Hopkins University), Joseph Duffey (senior vice president, Sylvan International Universities), and William Kirwan (chancellor, University System of Maryland), among other guest speakers. The conference was based on the idea that "U.S. colleges and universities have their work cut out for them ever since foreign students discovered that learning global competencies-or global skills or global literacy-are prerequisites for succeeding in a global economy and workforce acquired through cross-cultural living and learning."1 We could extend this and include not only economic competitiveness and national security but also global citizenship.

Limits of Academic Language Training, Education Abroad

"Cross-Cultural Experience: Multicultural sensitivity cannot readily be gained through academic instruction alone. Efforts to learn a second or third language provide evidence of interest in other cultures and can form a basis for understanding them, but they are not a substitute for real-world-experience," so say Tora Bikson, Gregory Treverton, Joy Moini, and Gustav Lindstrom in a recent RAND report.2

The authors conclude that what is needed to exercise leadership effectively is "a multidimensional and well-integrated set of competencies," including substantive depth (professional or technical knowledge) related to the organization's primary business processes, managerial ability, with an emphasis on teamwork and interpersonal skills, strategic international understanding, and cross-cultural experience. …

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