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Commentary: Developing Intercultural Competence for the Masses

By Mark Ashwill

Buffalo, NY – At the risk of being labeled a viper in the bosom of my profession, let me pose several tough and, dare I say, heretical questions. How many students who study a foreign language are actually able to use the language in any meaningful way? How many 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?

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 study abroad alumnus, a Fulbrighter, 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 the debate about foreign language training and education abroad, both of which we can all agree are valuable and deserving of more support in thought, word, and deed, and shine the spotlight squarely on intercultural competence. This is defined as the ability to work well in different cultures and with people of different origins in a 2003 Rand Corporation study entitled "New Challenges for International Leadership."

Foreign language study and, to an even greater extent, education abroad, are the domain of the select few, worthwhile but essentially elitist undertakings, numerically speaking. According to the latest Modern Language Association survey, more college students are studying foreign languages than ever before. That's the good news; the bad news is that the total number enrolled in any modern language class in fall 2002 was 1.3 million, or less than 10% of all college students. The unfortunate fact is that, even with record increases, a mere 1 percent of all students study abroad in a given year, 90 percent of whom go for a semester or less some for just a few weeks. The greatest hope for the majority of students lies in increasing opportunities for them to develop (or improve) their intercultural sensitivity and competence.

The challenge for educators is to find ways to enable students, faculty, staff, fellow educators, and others to make progress on the journey from ethnocentrism to ethnorelativism. Intercultural competence in its many incarnations is a useful and practical skill not only in cross-cultural settings but also in interactions with people from co-cultures within diverse societies such as the United States. It is also a liberating and transcendental way of seeing the world that can be developed to a significant degree without learning a foreign language or even studying abroad.

One other high priority area is global citizenship. For many Americans, national pride is built on a foundation of cultural superiority, ignorance and arrogance in which the world is organized into us vs. "them;" "we" are superior, while "they" are inferior, and our own culture is the only good one. In their book American Cultural Patterns Bennett and Stewart define ethnocentrism as the view of one's own culture as "central to all reality, the values, assumptions, and behavioral norms of that culture may be elevated to the position of absolute truth..."

In the political arena nowhere is this ethnocentric view of the world more pronounced than in the neoconservative vision of Pax Americana, exemplified by the invasion and occupation of Iraq and the Bush Doctrine.

Education and training in intercultural communication are an antidote to this exclusionary view of the world. They hold the key to guiding young people to the first ethnorelative stage of consciousness, whereby U.S. culture "is experienced as just one of a number of equally complex worldviews" and they become "curious about and respectful toward cultural difference," according to my colleague Milton Bennett. This world view translates into empathy, concern, and a sense of connectedness with those who are different from us, be they our neighbors, or people 12,000 miles away who most of us will never have the opportunity to meet.

So the next time you hear a politician say "God bless America," think... why not "God bless France" "God bless Syria," or "God bless Vietnam"?

Dr. Ashwill is an administrator, instructor and Fulbright adviser at UB. He is also founder and executive director of the U.S.-Indochina Educational Foundation, Inc. (USIEF). His forthcoming book Vietnam Today: A Guide to a Nation at a Crossroads (with Thai Ngoc Diep, is published by Intercultural Press. This commentary is based on a feature article he wrote for the spring 2004 issue of International Educator magazine.