To What Extent is Intercultural Competence Necessary?

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After reviewing some literature on intercultural competence, I’ve been asking myself to what extent is intercultural competence necessary for sojourning English language teachers? The figure above comes from a study by Darla K. Deardorff entitled, “Identification and Assessment of Intercultural Competence as a Student Outcome of Internationalization” published 10 years ago in the Journal of Studies in International Education. It starts with the premise that the development of interculturally competent students is one meaningful outcome of internationalization. But what about interculturally competent teachers? Do you need them to develop the same type of students? How do you hire or develop interculturally competent teachers?

Do administrators and hiring committees overseas have the same concerns when hiring international faculty for their internationalized university? And this brings me to my question concerning the field of English language education specifically. For the schools that seek “native speakers,” how important is their intercultural competence compared to their linguistic competence or their teaching abilities? Do many assume that most competent English language teachers are also interculturally competent?

I bring up “native speakers” because of the central issues raised by my colleagues at https://teflequityadvocates.com/. It is known that many “native speakers” are hired for their image as a native speaker, which is often Anglo-American-centric and even racist. Because some employers prefer image over teaching ability and experience, do they also disregard or care less about intercultural competence of the “native speaker?”

I assume even the least interculturally competent “native speaker” would develop some competence while living and teaching overseas, but is there any incentive for this type of person to further develop their intercultural competence? If they want to keep their job, they probably need to get to know their students better, so this brings up another question about sojourning ELTs: Does learning about one’s students overseas automatically develop one’s intercultural competence?

My experience as an intercultural communication trainer in my previous job tells me, “No.” This is because teachers can select what they want to learn about their students, which can be very narrow and superficial like what their favorite movies are. Are employers satisfied with their teachers having a superficial understanding of their students? I assume most employers don’t even know what type of understanding their teachers have of their students.

What about “non-native speakers?” If they share the same cultural and/or linguistic background as their students, they may know their students better, but does that make them more interculturally competent. To what extent does speaking and teaching in another language help develop one’s intercultural competence? I’m sure it contributes, but is it the intercultural competence that employers want more than their language and teaching abilities?

Why all these questions?

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I am seeking out to know the extent to which employers and/or school administrators value the intercultural competence of their English language teachers. I’m interested to learn if they believe a high degree of intercultural competence is the positive side effect of teaching English to students of other languages and cultures. If I am a supervisor with a teacher that has excellent rapport with their students, do I care how interculturally competent they are? Furthermore, if I have a teacher with terrible rapport, would I invest in training to develop their intercultural competence or would it be easier to fire that teacher?

I strongly believe in culturally responsive teaching and that one’s intercultural competence improves rapport and pedagogy, but that can be difficult to screen for during a hiring process and is more difficult to develop in teachers, already working for you, that resist or don’t believe in the training. Furthermore, intercultural competence is more than establishing and maintaining rapport with the students. Sojourning ELTs work with faculty and staff from many other cultures as well. So finally, from a supervisor’s perspective, what is the difference between intercultural competence and interpersonal skills?

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