December 2019
TESOL HOME Convention Jobs Book Store TESOL Community


Sharon Tjaden-Glass, Sinclair Community College, Dayton, Ohio, USA
Jennifer A. Lacroix, Boston University, USA

Sharon Tjaden-Glass

Jennifer A. Lacroix

Open any yoga journal and you can read many program descriptions for radical listening or learning how to be a more effective listener. National Public Radio features stories around the holidays on how to be a better listener during heated family conversations. Listening is an automatic skill that adults seemingly take for granted and children seemingly develop implicitly. But as the world continues to expand and the role of English as a Medium of Instruction continues to grow, how humans learn to effectively communicate in various international and intercultural contexts continues to be convoluted. When communication is in one’s second, third, or nth language, it can become even more complicated as sensitivity to pragmatics and cultural context affect performance and understanding. In many ways, what constitutes effective intercultural communication is not just strong speaking skills (e.g. sounding intelligible and knowledgeable), but also listening skills. Yet, how one demonstrates intercultural competence via listening in a multilingual classroom remains an open question.

Many second language acquisition scholars agree that effective listening skills involve intricate cognitive, metacognitive, and social/affective processes (Chen, 2013; Field, 2004; Goh, 2014; Graham, 2017; Vandergrift & Goh, 2012; Yeldham & Gruba, 2014). In fact, much research exists on the role of speaking in intercultural communication, such as the role of pronunciation instruction at the segmental and suprasegmental levels (Baker, 2014; Couper, 2017) and various discourse strategies for effective communication such as discussion skills (Holmes, 2004) to combat perceived challenges leading and participating in discussions as well as speaking clearly (Caplan & Stevens, 2017). True, intercultural communication skills require strong speaking and listening skills, but our knowledge of what effectively composes the role of listening competence in intercultural communication is limited. In this article, we will connect theories from the field of intercultural communication to the second language classroom and highlight some practices that teachers and students can use in a multilingual classroom to improve their intercultural listening skills.

What Is Listening Competence?

Research on the listener’s role and processes in intercultural communication is not as robust as research concerning the speaker (Janusik, 2016). To address the question of what constitutes listening competence, Fontana, Cohen, and Wolvin (2015) reviewed 53 relevant listening scales and identified three common traits associated with listening competency: responding or giving feedback, asking questions, and using nonverbal communication. However, before speakers have the opportunity to use these strategies, they must first listen.

What Can Teachers Do to Help Learners Improve Their Listening Skills in Intercultural Situations?

Building learners’ knowledge of (1) how people develop intercultural competence, (2) how culture can influence interactions, and (3) how one’s individual cultural identity is multilayered provides a strong foundation for learners to respectfully and appropriately negotiate meaning across cultures.

How Do People Develop Intercultural Competence?

The Process Model of Intercultural Competence (Deardorff, 2006) is the most widely cited model of intercultural competence development because it distills the knowledge and experiences of many scholars in the field of intercultural communication into a unified theory. However, in this article, we will focus on Ting-Toomey and Chung (2012), as it speaks more directly to the importance of consciousness-raising, which enables multilingual learners to recognize and access their funds of knowledge in intercultural situations.

Ting-Toomey and Chung (2012) view the development of intercultural communication competence in terms of flexibility, achieved through increased consciousness-raising and intercultural sensitivity. In their Staircase Model of Intercultural Communication Competence, Ting-Toomey and Chung explain that different levels of awareness and sensitivity to intercultural communication manifest in personal knowledge, skills, and behaviors.

When L2 teachers of multilingual classrooms teach within their own cultural context, consciousness-raising can be particularly challenging. They may have conceived of intercultural competence as a set of knowledge and skills to learn in order to help them understand people from other cultures, without recognizing the need to critically reflect on their own cultural lens. However, Ting-Toomey and Chung (2012) point out that flexible intercultural communicators need to have an awareness and appreciation for the fact that everyone, including themselves, is a unique cultural being.

In their Principles of Process Consciousness, Ting-Toomey and Chung provide eight key points pertaining to the nature of intercultural communication that, when kept at the forefront of intercultural experiences, can help increase intercultural communication flexibility. These principles direct attention to and reflection on a range of factors that influence communication, including (1) interlocutors’ expectations, (2) bias, (3) encoding and decoding messages, (4) goals, (5) communication styles, (6) culture clashes, (7) context, and (8) the embedded nature of intercultural communication. In summary, by increasing awareness of the intricacies of intercultural communication, teachers and students can improve their ability to adjust their communication to diverse audiences and contexts.

How Can Culture Influence Interactions?

To help multilingual learners find a middle ground in intercultural situations, Starosta and Chen (2000) propose Third Culture Theory, which employs a “double-emic listening” approach, in which, “interactants … are aware that their own Culture One is a theory; that another’s views could provide alternate views; and that information is needed to grow and survive as a global citizen” (p. 290). In this view, effective intercultural communication requires that interlocutors move toward “a space-between” cultures, where they can more fully engage in cultural perspective-taking and reach agreement on, “an interpretation that belongs to neither party” (p. 279). This restructured view of the world in which values are “negotiated and adjusted among parties so as to render them mutually palatable” (p. 291) encompasses Starosta and Chen’s notion of Third Culture Theory. Using Third Culture Theory to inform classroom approach and lesson design is particularly useful in a multilingual classroom, where learners from different cultures must continually navigate the spaces between cultures. When learners are able to conceive of their communication as emerging from a shared cultural space, mutual respect, learner autonomy, and ownership of language follow.

How Does Our Individual Cultural Lens Color Our Interactions?

Gaining cultural knowledge and being tolerant of the Other is not enough for effective intercultural communication (Gorski, 2008). A healthy amount of cultural self-awareness is also needed. In an increasingly globalized and multilingual world, Hybrid Theory (Babha, 1994; Holliday, 2018) advocates for self-reflection that helps learners understand that, “hybridity is how we all are” (Holliday, 2018, p. 6, emphasis in the original). In addition, helping learners see their own cultural hybridity helps them also reconcile the fact that, although we may reside within Cultures, our cultural boundaries are not fixed. Indeed, we may sometimes feel that we share more in common with people from other cultures than we do with people from our own. What intercultural communicators need to be effective in an increasingly globalized world is to find ways to be “new selves in new domains” (Holliday, 2018, p. 6). In this view, the role of the teacher is to help students (1) recognize the interconnectedness and relationships with people and (2) “understand their positionality in the wider world” (Holliday, 2018, p. 6).

In summary, while responding or giving feedback, asking questions, and using nonverbal communicationcontribute to listening competence, promoting effective listening skills in a multilingual classroom requires preparing learners for intercultural interactions through building knowledge about intercultural competence development, an awareness of the complexities of intercultural communication, and cultural self-awareness.

What Types of Activities Can Teachers Use to Promote Effective Intercultural Listening?

Table 1. Overview of Classroom Listening Activities to Promote Intercultural Communication (IC)

IC Goal


Using listening strategies

Practice active listening. Model how to ask questions that show you’re listening and the provide the speaker opportunities to clarify meaning or intention.

Increasing knowledge about intercultural communication

Help learners articulate the values and beliefs that guide their interpretations of the world. See Berrardo and Deardorff (2012) for examples of activities.

Creating a Third Space for multilingual students to engage in intercultural communication

When discussing controversial topics, provide learners time to write down their reflections on how their beliefs and values may influence their position on the topic. Provide space and time for all learners to express their viewpoints. Guide students in short post-discussion debriefings that focus on raising their awareness of how their cultures may influence their decisions and how cultural may influence others to arrive at different positions.

Applying knowledge about intercultural communication / Raising cultural self-awareness

Reflection journals: Provide questions to learners that direct them to make connections between what they are learning about intercultural competence and communication and what they are experiencing in their intercultural interactions.

Raising cultural self-awareness

Create activities that guide students in unpacking their cultural identities. See Berrardo and Deardorff (2012).

Raising cultural self-awareness

Use self-assessment surveys that gauge learners’ awareness of intercultural communication. See Ting-Toomey and Chung (2012) for a variety of self-assessment checklists and surveys.


In summary, promoting effective intercultural listening in the classroom requires a balance of explaining how to develop intercultural competence, modeling communication strategies, and guiding learners in reflection to make sense of their own interculturality. Taken together, these skills and concepts promote the development of IC listening skills that embrace multilingualism as an asset in any classroom, whether virtual or traditional.


Babha, H. (1994). The location of culture. New York: Routledge.

Baker, A. (2014). Exploring teachers’ knowledge of second language pronunciation techniques: Teacher cognitions, observed classroom practices, and student perceptions. TESOL Quarterly, 48(1), 136-163. doi: 10.1002.tesq.99

Berrardo, K., & Deardorff, D. (2012). Building cultural competence: Innovative activities and models. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Caplan, N. A., & Stevens, S. G. (2017). Step out of the cycle: Needs, challenges, and successes of international undergraduates at a U.S. university. English for Specific Purposes, 46, 15-28. doi: 10.1016/j.esp.2016.11.003.

Cheng, A. (2013). EFL listeners’ strategy development and listening problems: A process-based study. The Journal of Asia TEFL, 10(3), 81-101.

Couper, G. (2017). Teacher cognitions of pronunciation teaching: Teachers’ concerns and issues. TESOL Quarterly, 51(4), 820-843. doi: 10/1002/tesq.354.

Deardorff, D. (2006). Identification and assessment of intercultural competence as a student outcome of internationalization. Journal for Studies in International Education, 10(3), 241-266.

Field, J. (2004). An insight into listeners' problems: Too much bottom-up or too much top-down? System, 32, 363-377. doi: 10.1016/j.system.2004.05.002.

Goh, C. (2014). Reconceptualising second language oracy instruction: Metacognitive engagement and direct teaching in listening and speaking. The Asian Journal of English Language & Pedagogy, 2, 1-31.

Gorski, P. (2008). Good intentions are not enough: A decolonizing intercultural education. Intercultural Education, 19(6), 515-525. doi: 10.1080/14675980802568319.

Graham, S. (2017). Research into practice: Listening strategies in an instructed classroom setting. Language Teaching, 50(1), 107–119 doi:10.1017/S02614448160003

Holliday, A. (2018). Designing a course in intercultural education. Intercultural Communication Education, 1(1), 4-11. doi: 10.29140/ice.v1n1.24

Holmes, P. (2004). Negotiating differences in learning and intercultural communication. Business Communication Quarterly, 67(3), 294-307.

Siegel, J. (2016). Listening vocabulary: Embracing forgotten aural features. RELC Journal,

47(3), 377-386. doi: 10.1177/0033688216645477.

Starosta, W. J., & Chen, G. M. (2000). Listening across diversity in a global society. In W. J. Starosta & G. M. Chen (Eds.), Communication and global society (pp. 279-293). New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Ting-Toomey, S., & Chung, L. (2012). Understanding intercultural communication. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Vandergrift, L., & Goh, C. (2012). Teaching and learning second language listening:

Metacognition in action. NY: Routledge.

Yeldham, M., & Gruba, P. (2016). The development of individual learners in an L2 listening strategies course. Language Teaching Research, 20(1), 9-34. doi: 10.1177/1362168814541723.

Sharon Tjaden-Glass (MA) is an instructional media designer at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio. She previously taught ESL in higher education and intensive English programs for thirteen years.

Jennifer A. Lacroix (MA) is a senior lecturer at Boston University where she is currently working on a doctorate in language education with a focus on L2 listening pedagogy. She is actively involved in the TESOL community and presents regularly at conferences.

« Previous Newsletter Home Print Article Next »
In This Issue
Search Back Issues
Forward to a Friend
Print Issue
RSS Feed