Intercultural…what was it, again?

Author: Staff

Language In Motion Collage

In higher education, we often become desensitized to buzzwords. We hear them all the time, their meanings become convoluted at best. "Intercultural competence" is one of those hot topic phrases. It goes by a couple of monikers: intercultural sensitivity, intercultural humility, intercultural communication (skills), intercultural this, that, and the other. We often see the word “intercultural” and just equate it with “international” and keep on reading or doing whatever we were doing before.

At the Center for the Study of Languages and Cultures (CSLC), we want to make sure we don’t become desensitized to intercultural competence. We think that this set of skills–intercultural skills–is so much more than a buzzword and we’re here to prove it. For the purpose of this article and in most of the CSLC’s practices and resources, we adopt the definition used by the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) of intercultural competence being “the capability to shift cultural perspective and appropriately adapt behavior to cultural difference and commonalities.” Practitioners and proponents of intercultural development like the CSLC’s own Mary Davis and other IDI Qualified Administrators on campus use the intercultural assessment tool in a variety of ways to support their various learning communities on campus. She explained that, “When we’re talking about the academic field of intercultural studies and communication[s], intercultural sensitivity, development, awareness, communication [...] they all have different meanings and are distinguishable from each other. As practitioners or people trying to hone this skill, most people probably call it intercultural competence.” Even though we call this interpersonal skill a "competence," Mary elaborated that she personally prefers development as in implies more that the work is always ongoing rather than an thing to be achieved, put on the wall, and forgotten about.

There are a few reasons why an academic support unit like the CSLC has any sort of involvement in intercultural competency. We sat down with Mary to get some of her perspectives. “I love being able to work on intercultural development through language learning. It’s part of what drew me to the CSLC in the first place,” she reported. When asked about the connection between language learning support and intercultural skills, Mary went on, “It’s a natural connection, from my viewpoint. Developing intercultural competence is predicated on being able to shift your [own] perspective. Language learners are already doing this almost every time they have to formulate an utterance in their target language [...] you’re always thinking about the difference between what you’re trying to say and what you really mean, which kind of primes you for being in the 'self-and-other-aware' mindset that’s fundamental for intercultural growth.” For context, it is a common misconception that in order to advance your intercultural competence, you must spend a significant amount of time traveling abroad or you must have mastered many languages. While it is entirely possible to enhance these skills without doing either of these, learning another language is “as good a vehicle as any to help you get to where you’re going," according to Mary.

“Language learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum. You’re always learning about its speakers and their cultures [...] so, language classrooms are a great environment to capitalize on developing these kinds of skills,” Mary elaborated what she sees as the natural connection between language acquisition and intercultural development for ND students. It makes sense that when learning to communicate in any language, you must become familiar with new social contexts and cultural perspectives, which forces you to broaden your pre-existing viewpoints and (try to) respond appropriately in cross-cultural situations. For our students, this can mean anticipating joining an ever-more globalized workforce, where they will inevitably encounter colleagues, clients, and teams from many different walks of life. Even for our newest class of 2027–for whom graduation and job hunting seems so far away–our campus community is one that prides itself on the diversity of its student body; classmates at ND come from an array backgrounds, experiences, and worldviews. Whether in an ND language classroom or any other classroom, students are constantly put in situations where these skills will be put to the test.

Even if you're is only proficient in your native language, understanding how to appropriately interact with people in any language from different backgrounds is an essential life skill. When asked to speak about the relevance of intercultural skills in the context of joining the workforce, Mary chuckled a bit, “Where to start? Unless you’re planning on working in a box with no connection to the outside world or anyone in it, you’re going to be interacting with someone from a different cultural background than you.” This is where the CSLC comes in: because of this inherent connection to language and the way we use it to exercise our intercultural skills, we would be remiss to not support students in this journey. Several surveys of employers that hire recent college graduates, such as those conducted by The American Association of Colleges & Universities (AAC&U), Pew Research Center, and others show that “soft skills” are of paramount importance for the workforce. InsideHigherEd breaks down the AAC&U data set and shows the two most desirable traits that employers seek in new hires are (1) the ability to work effectively in teams, and (2) critical thinking skills. When we reviewed the report together, Mary replied, “I’m not surprised [...] most of the soft skills on this list go hand-in-hand with intercultural development. For employers, there’s a lot of stuff out there that shows how much benefit a diverse team can bring to your organization. The flip side is that if the team [or its members] doesn’t know how to harness those cultural differences and perspectives effectively or meaningfully, it can hurt you just as much.”

This is an apt bridge to the importance of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) initiatives not only in the workforce, but our own community. Mary agreed, reflecting that tools like the IDI are important assessments that are used by her DE&I colleagues, within and outside of the university. Notre Dame is not complete without the people who come from every corner of the Earth to study, live, and grow collectively. By following the three principles of diversity and inclusion, respect the dignity of every person, build a Notre Dame community in which all can flourish, and living in solidarity with all--particularly the most vulnerable--each and every one of us are chooses to make a statement to be actively committed to inclusion and diversity on our campus. The University of Notre Dame emphasizes intercultural competence as an essential part of its mission to build a strong Catholic community. As President Father Jenkins stated in his Fall 2016 University Statement of Diversity and Inclusion:

“In our commitment to diversity, we hope to reflect a global Church that is richly diverse ethnically and culturally, yet bound together in a family extending across the whole of the earth. At this moment, let us recommit ourselves to ensuring that every person who lives, teaches, studies and works on our campus is embraced into such a community.”

Each decade, the University implements a new transformational planning process to map out the future of our community in order to adapt to an ever-changing world. The 2033 Notre Dame: A Strategic Framework was recently released and emphasizes the tenet intercultural development across the ND community. In order to be responsible and productive global citizens at home and abroad, prioritizing intercultural skills within our faculty and staff members, as well as facilitating their development in our students, is critical to our success as a world-renowned university.

Mary and CSLC realize that adding one more “thing” to faculty’s plates may not be the most effective strategy and that as a support unit, we find ourselves in an excellent position to do just that – support. “I’m actually going to go do an intercultural development workshop marathon later today for a bunch of language classes,” Mary said in our interview as she checked the time. While anyone can work on their intercultural skills any time, the CSLC aims to facilitate this skill for the languages and cultures community. We’re always working to develop more, but you can find some of our resources here:

About the CSLC

The Center for the Study of Languages and Cultures (CSLC) aims to support language learners at ND by facilitating meaningful experiences with linguistic acquisition and exchange - both in our campus community and abroad. We believe that access to the world's languages and cultures allows us to seek out new perspectives, to value the diversity of the world's cultures, and to embody global citizenship.