Dr. Cecily Lee and Dr. Duncan Charters, Principia College, U.S.A.
The past half century has seen the publication of more than two hundred useful research studies on the topic of Intercultural Competence (IC) and how to acquire it. However, many college students in the United States spend time in another culture with little discernible growth in their cultural knowledge, attitudes, interactions and understanding. Some of the most well-known American researchers in the field are monolingual, and study cultural adaptation with little consideration of the fact that the most effective trans-cultural intercommunication depends either on choosing the native language of representatives of the other culture, or a neutral form of communication which may serve as a bridge between the speakers and their cultures.
The American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), after consulting with its substantial membership, identifies intercultural competence as one of the 15 principal learning outcomes for students in the United States. Intercultural experiences abroad are especially significant, since American students are more isolated than Europeans, who naturally experience more frequent intercultural contacts.
American students typically report that taking part in a program abroad is a “transformational” or life-changing experience. However, have they really gained intercultural competence, and if not, how do we explain their lack of growth? In light of the obvious problems observed, study program directors and researchers began to see the need to restructure these programs, and develop a more systematic and effective assessment of what the participants actually learned.
Cecily Lee and Duncan Charters have independently directed a total of 14 student programs mainly to Spanish-speaking countries. At Middlebury College, an American university known for its full-immersion language teaching programs, Professor Lee added to her general research on IC a specific study of the intercultural experiences of the 14 students who stayed in Argentina for 10 weeks during a recent program. Following the counsel advice of specialists in intercultural experiences, she arranged for “interventions”, which for innovative researchers is a key to acquiring intercultural competence.
These interventions included more intentional teaching of IC, in part substituting for learning information about the culture; pre-program orientation; mentoring on IC during the program; constant self-assessment of attitudes and reactions; and a determination of growth by the end of the program. Assessment instruments are both quantitative (statistical) and qualitative (personal or subjective). One new form of assessment for IC is interviews with people having contact with the students, in their school, their homestay families, or in other places. As a statistical measurement at the beginning and end of the program cycle, the Intercultural Development Inventory was used. Bringing together the information taken from these assessment instruments showed that these types of interventions are able to bring about a measurable increase in the students’ acquisition of IC.
Dr. Cecily Lee lived in Mexico for close to 20 years, bringing up a bilingual, bicultural family both there and in the United States. She is a professor of Spanish language, culture and literature, and coordinates the Spanish program at Principia College.
Dr. Duncan Charters teaches in the same department (Languages and Cultures) at Principia College, and professionally works with methods of teaching Spanish language and culture, as he also does for Esperanto. His service includes being President of ILEI, and he was elected to the Esperanto Academy and as a deputy senator of AIS.
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