Intercultural communicative competence (ICC) is one of a number of intercultural skills which according to the World Economic Forum (WEF) “[...] helps employees to relate to colleagues of different and diverse backgrounds, guaranteeing a respectful and inclusive working environment.” In other words, how well do your Nigerian colleagues communicate with their Cambodian counterparts – or your staff from the USA relate to your Indonesia teams – even when speaking English is not an issue?
English-language courses, even for advanced learners, have largely ignored this essential skill, instead focusing on the colloquialisms and characteristics of Global North dialects. Learners and educators alike seem convinced that the key to confident fluency in the lingua franca is in even more lists of British or North American idioms, as demonstrated by this top viewed video of one of the biggest English-teaching YouTube accounts.
The reality is that the majority of people using English are not people who speak English as their first language. That means that most English-language communication that happens globally happens in interactions between people who speak English as a second or additional language. (We call people who speak English as their first language ‘L1 speakers’ and people who speak English as a second or additional language ‘L2 speakers’.)
Think about your own situation; when you use English at work, or university, who are you communicating with? How many of these are L1 speakers?
A barrier for many learners is the ingrained idea that unless they are speaking like a “native speaker” they’ll never be communicating to the best of their potential. In fact, the use of L1 English speakers as examples or ‘role’ models by learners has been pointed to as a contributing factor towards Foreign Language Anxiety, as any differences in speaking styles perceived by the learner between their own output and the L1 speaker are perceived as errors on the part of the learner.
As a learner, and/or someone who speaks English as an additional language, one of the most impactful realisations you can have on both your own confidence as a communicator and your English-learning journey, is that you own this language. While intercultural competence is of course more complex than this, understanding that actually, you (and not the L1 speakers) are generally the most effective communicators, is a very useful and productive first step towards mastering the necessary skills.
This is just one of the ideas we talk about in our language courses at Upskilling For Change. We don’t teach grammar or common phrases. We discuss with learners the biases and injustices that exist in the world of English-language learning and teaching, which are likely impacting confidence and learning capacity. As adults, we bring a lot of baggage with us to our language-learning classrooms and our lingua-franca interactions, which in linguistics we often refer to as our Affective Filter. This filter creates a barrier to our learning, but rethinking and reframing the whole idea of English as a lingua franca, its historical context, and our relationship with it can help us to break down that barrier and feel more confident communicating, working, and cooperating across cultural divides.
This work is, of course, ongoing, and pausing to think about our relationship to the language is only one step in the journey. Becoming proficient intercultural communicators doesn’t just happen naturally for most people but needs to be “[...] systematically taught, consciously fostered, and gradually internalised [...]” - LJD Huang (2021). On our pilot course running this March (2024), we’ll be discussing these issues with learners, including native-speakerism, profit-driven testing and exams, culturally inappropriate learning materials, and the impact that all of these have on the psyche of the English-learner.
Fiona Locke is a qualified and experienced ESOL teacher with experience in the third sector and works as Activities Coordinator for Upskilling For Change. She believes strongly in expanding justice in education, including the field of English as a Lingua Franca, as well as the importance of continuing education.