Understanding Professional Intercultural Communication Competence

The materials in this toolkit are strongly informed by intercultural communication theory and in particular by the concepts of intercultural and interactional competence. They are also informed by recent research on teacher education, professional communication, continuing professional development and best practice in language education.

Intercultural competence refers to ‘the appropriate and effective management of interaction between people who, to some degree or another, represent different or divergent affective, cognitive, and behavioural orientations to the world’ (Spitzberg & Changnon, 2009, p. 7). Barrett et al. (2013) extend this definition by arguing that intercultural competence is a combination of attitudes, knowledge, understanding and skills applied in intercultural encounters. Intercultural competence allows intercultural communicators to understand and respect individuals they perceive to have different cultural affiliations; to respond appropriately, effectively and respectfully when interacting and communicating with such individuals; to establish positive and constructive relationships with such people; to understand themselves and their own multiple cultural affiliations through encounters with cultural ‘difference’ (Barrett et al., 2013).  One of the reasons why intercultural competence is important in an increasing globalised and diverse society, is the fact an interculturally competent person will have key skills that employers look for in potential staff.

Over the past 25 years, a number of models of intercultural competence have been developed. This toolkit has been inspired by the work of Michael Byram (e.g., 2001; 2008) and in particular by his Intercultural Communicative Competence Model, or ICC (1997), which Spitzberg and Changnon (2009) categorise as a co-orientational model, as it sees the ability of interlocutors to reach mutual understanding and a shared level of worldviews as fundamental to initiate intercultural competence.  The ICC model was initially conceived for application within the context of foreign language education. In his work, Byram challenges native speaker models of language learning where learners are judged by native speaker standards. Instead, he emphasises the importance of engaging, through a foreign language, in intercultural communication and interaction with interlocutors with different culturally influenced values, beliefs, and assumptions.

The model is constructed around five savoirs or factors in intercultural communication that reflect skills, knowledge, attitudes, behaviours, and critical cultural awareness. These are:

  • Savoir être (intercultural attitudes): the ability to suspend disbelief towards individuals’ own and other cultures. Curiosity and openness are central to this savoir, which enables individuals to ‘decentre’ and see the world from the perspective of an outsider who might have a different set of values and beliefs.
  • Savoirs (knowledge): not primarily knowledge about a specific culture, but rather knowledge of how social groups and identities function and what is involved. It focuses on social groups in one’s own culture as well on social groups in other cultures and on general interaction processes.
  • Savoir comprendre (skills of interpreting and relating): it involves the ability to interpret symbols and events of other cultures and to relate such interpretation to one’s own culture and experience. It points up the importance for learners to acquire the skills of finding out new knowledge and integrating it with knowledge(s) they already have.
  • Savoir apprendre/faire (skills of discovery and interaction): it refers to the ability to acquire new knowledge of a culture and cultural practices and the ability to operate knowledge, attitudes and skills in real-time communication and interaction.
  • Savoir s’engager (critical cultural awareness): concerns the ability to interpret, evaluate and negotiate perspectives, practices, and products in one’s own and others’ cultures. It highlights the importance for teachers not to try to change learners’ values, but to develop their awareness of how such values might influence their interactions with others.

The units comprised in this toolkit are informed by the five savoirs.  Essentially, we took components of competent professional communication and ways to develop these, and related them to Byram’s (1997) ICC model.  The resulting framework draws on contemporary thinking and research in a number of distinct yet inter-related areas:

  1. Socio-cultural theory (references), which highlights the social nature of learning and the fact that all learning is mediated by language. Of particular relevance is the need to describe, develop and promote interactional competence, as one element of PICC.
  2. Problem-based and experiential learning (references), which are considered to be key to many types of workplace learning, especially where adults are involved;
  3. Reflective practice (references) and the need for professionals to engage in and learn from their experiences through a combination of data, evidence, dialogue and action.

The notion of ‘intercultural speaker’, an individual possessing the five savoirs presented in Byram’s (1997) ICC model, is also central in this toolkit. In Byram’s words: ‘[Individuals] may also be called upon not only to establish a relationship between their own social identities and those of their interlocutors, but also to act as mediator between people of different origins and identities. It is this function of establishing relationships, managing dysfunctions and mediating which distinguishes an ‘intercultural speaker’, and makes them different from a native speaker’ (1997, p. 38).

Here, we extend the concept of intercultural speaker to professional contexts, with particular interest for the experiences of highly-skilled refugees in Europe and of professionals working with them. In defining professional intercultural communicative competence, we focus on professional communication between people who are members of different groups, with an emphasis on people in social interaction with each other (Scollon & Scollon, 2001). In the words of Holmes (2015): ‘intercultural encounters in the workplace are frequently plurilingual, intercultural, socially constructed interactions that are situated in time, place, space, and purpose. Competence in one encounter can very quickly manifest as incompetence in another supposedly similar context’ (p. 1).   A key element of professional competence in any workplace setting is the ability to communicate clearly and interact with colleagues on a number of levels and in a range of contexts. It is apparent when studying spoken interaction that different speakers have different levels of competence and varying abilities to express their ideas and achieve understanding.  This is true in any setting, but particularly so in the workplace, where competing agendas, priorities, deadlines, a mix of personalities, and so on may create difficulties and result in tensions. This is especially the case in professional settings involving people from a range of social, educational and cultural backgrounds. Put simply, effective communication is essential to getting a task done.

In professional settings, effective communication rests on an ability to interact with others and to collectively reach understandings. Some form of Professional Intercultural Communicative Competence, then, is needed in order to ‘survive’ most communicative encounters where cultural difference’ is present in some way. Being accurate or fluent in a language are, arguably insufficient. Speakers of an L2 must be able to do far more than produce correct strings of utterances. They need to be able to pay attention to the professional context, to listen and show that they have understood, to clarify meanings, to repair breakdowns and so on. All of this requires extreme mental and interactional ability, the kind of ability, which will not, arguably, be trained by taking part in typical language classrooms. Additional skills, related to professional interactional and intercultural competence, are required.

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