November 2016
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Ramin Yazdanpanah, Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida, USA

The global demand for English language learning continues to increase global movement of ELTs and ELLs alike. In Yang’s (2012) article, Overseas Teaching Jobs: a lesson in supply and demand, the author reports that the Toronto based recruiting agency Teach Away has “seen a 400-percent increase in job applications since December [2009]” (p.1). In the U.S. alone there were 974,926 international students from over 300 countries worldwide studying at U.S. universities in 2015, a 10% increase from the previous year (Institute of International Education, 2016). This increase in migration throughout the world also increases the need for greater understanding of how culture influences expectations, behavior, and practice within educational contexts. Liu and Gallois (2014) cite that “Intercultural competence is increasingly recognized across the global spectrum of educational institutions, corporations, government agencies and non-government organizations as a central capability for the 21st century (Hammer, 2011)” (p.11).

Centers of learning that are increasingly diverse are obvious places for intercultural education and exchange to take place. Byram and Feng (2004) point out, “The need to ‘rethink’ cultural differences and identities is directly related to the issue of what world educators should prepare their students for, and this has clear implications for setting educational objectives” (p.158). Specifically within EFL/ESOL teacher preparation programs, professional standards emphasize the importance thatcultural awareness has on effective English language teaching. The Commission on English Language Program Accreditation (CEA), TESOL/CAEP Standards for P-12 Teacher Education Programs, and TESOL Standards for ESL/EFL Teachers of Adults all highlight the importance for teacher education and English language programs to prepare students to understand how culture influences teaching and learning. As Fenner and Snyder (2015) affirm, “To understand the effect of specific cultures on language learning and classroom behavior, candidates must have a general knowledge of world cultures and understand the potential implications of culture on student performance” (p.11). This statement clearly asserts the importance that intercultural competence has within methodologically sound second language teaching and learning.

However, second-language teacher education has traditionally focused more on theory, methodology, and language, than on culture (Byram, 1997). Research shows that teacher preparation and development programs have not been adequate in preparing pre-service or in-service teachers for cultural variations and intercultural communication, leading to feelings of professional inadequacy (DeVillar and Jiang, 2012). This of course can be especially true for ELTs with little experience working within different or diverse cultural contexts, as well as teachers with little or no explicit intercultural education. Actual experiences with individuals of diverse cultures and identity that enable non-judgmental discussions and exchanges about beliefs and behaviors, as well as connections between culture, teaching, and learning, have been suggested as ways to develop teachers’ abilities to understand the complex relationship between language learning and culture (Romano and Cushner, 2007).

Cultural Synergy

Establishing a safe environment that encourages open, equal and active participation of everyone involved is fundamental to facilitating intercultural exchange. Cultural synergy is an approach to intercultural education that captures this spirit. Jin and Cortazzi (2001) explain that cultural synergy “implies mutual effort from all participants to learn about, understand, and appreciate others’ cultures and their interpretations of learning and reciprocally to learn with and from others” (p.211). The researchers present the following example of the utility of cultural synergy for understanding cultural notions and variations, in this case within the context of the learning and teaching of English for academic purposes (EAP):

The enactment of cultural synergy, with some degree of explicitness, is useful for EAP learners because it clarifies expectations of practices regarding uses of English in social and academic contexts; it should expose some underlying presuppositions about academic cultures of learning as they apply to the local institutional context and target disciplines. It is useful for teachers because it sets appropriate but challenging goals for professional development: learning about others’ notions of learning and finding ways to enhance them in relation to relevant host institutions (

The process of intercultural exchange through cultural synergy also involves the understanding of diverse cultures of learning through greater awareness of “meta-cognitive and meta-affective” aspects of learning in relation to both others and ourselves. As Jin and Cortazzi (ibid) state, the goal of cultural synergy is to promote, “a respect for others and dignity for oneself, a sense of integrity about one’s own participation in a range of cultures of learning, an aspiration for confirmation or enhancement of identity for both learners and teachers”. The application of culturally synergistic activities between domestic and international students has been used to reduce learning shock among and between students. Griffiths (2004) reports from the context of classes within the College of Business where intercultural exchanges help to establish a “culture of support rather than competition” (p.27). Liu (1998) discusses how cultural synergetic activities have helped international students within the researcher’s TESOL graduate program: “In our sociolinguistics course, we ask them [international students] to team up with American students to investigate, using real-life data, the differences between American cultures and their own. Many of them feel that they have gained much insight this way” (p.9). In discussing the need for pre and in-service teachers to build more awareness of deep culture and move towards a more ethnorelative understanding of ELLs, Pappamihiel (2004) advocates for teacher education programs to enable hands-on practicum and exchanges with adult ELLs who can articulate and express differences in culture.

Advice for Facilitating Cultural Synergy through Intercultural Exchange

There is really no one better than us, educators of language and culture, to both advocate for and facilitate intercultural exchanges. After all, as TESOL professionals we engage in intercultural exchanges on a daily basis! The following are some tips based on my experiences facilitating intercultural exchanges between international ELLs and US-American university students:
  • Work with a co-facilitator: Having someone to plan and work with during the IC exchange, as well as debrief after the IC exchange is essential. A co-facilitator can be a colleague, teacher, or student. Someone of different gender, ethnicity, and/or experience can also bring diverse perspectives useful to the process.

  • Prepare participants: Providing activities and rational before the IC exchange can save time when participants actually meet. It also gets participants to start thinking about the concepts involved in the activities. This is especially useful for ELLs, as it can provide clarity on what is expected of them, as well as build confidence through experience with the activity. This also provides an opportunity to apply and practice language skills before and within the IC exchange.

  • Be explicit in rational: Don’t assume participants understand the goals of the IC exchange. Being clear and explicit by discussing rational with the participants before, during and after the IC exchange will help participants connect the dots and understand how to apply skills outside of the exchange.

  • Get buy in from participants: Motivation and attitude are key characteristics to successful IC exchanges. Present the IC exchange as an opportunity to both share and learn (i.e. cultural synergy!). Students of language, culture, and international studies often have intrinsic motivation and genuine interest in culture. Providingclass credit or recognition on transcripts can also serve to provide extrinsic motivation. ELLs often look forward to the opportunity to get out of classroom and interact with native speakers.

  • Provide opportunities for reflection: Having participants reflect on the IC exchange through journals, blogs, class discussions and 1-1 debriefings can help them to process their experiences within the IC exchange. This also enables the facilitators to better see and understand how the participants are conceptualizing what they are learning and adjust IC activities to fit the needs of the participants.

  • Set ground rules: Establishing an environment of respect and trust is imperative to IC exchanges. Ask participants to hold off judging different perspectives, as this can shut down communication quickly. Mindful, conscious and engaged listening should be encouraged. A good tool to teach to participants is the R.A.S.A. technique: Receive by paying attention to the person; Appreciate, by making little noises like “hmm, “okay”; Summarize, “so” is very important in communication; Ask, ask follow-up questions afterward (Treasure, 2011).

  • Encourage an ethnorelative perspective: Finally, enable participants to describe their own culture(s) objectively by discussing ways culturally diverse people within the society think, live, and behave. The aim is to avoid reinforcing both negative and positive stereotypes, and develop more complex understandings of cultures, countries and people.

The following resources can help you and your colleagues in developing the skills and activities to facilitate intercultural exchanges. This is a short list, so if you have any other resources, please do share.

Byram, M. (1997). Teaching and assessing intercultural communicative competence. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Byram, M. and Feng, A. (2004). Culture and language learning: teaching, research and scholarship. Language Teaching, 37, pp 149-168 doi:10.1017/S0261444804002289

DeVillar, R. A., & Jiang, B. (2012). From student teaching abroad to teaching in the U.S. classroom: Effects of global experiences on local instructional practice. Teacher Education Quarterly, 39(3), 7-24.

Fenner, D. S., & Snyder, S. (2015). Standards for Short-Term TEFL/TESL Certificate Programs. Alexandria, VA:TESOL Press.

Griffiths, D. S.,Winstanley, D., & Yiannis, G. (2004). Learning shock: The trauma of return to formal learning. Management Learning, 36(3), 275-297.

Hammer. M. R., Bennell, M. J., & Wiseman. R. (2003). Measuring intercultural sensitivity: The intercultural development inventory. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 27(4). 421-443.

Institute of International Education (2016). Open Doors Data Special Reports: International Students, All Places of Origin 2014/2015. Retrieved 5/1, 2016, from

Jin, L., & Cortazzi, M. Retrieved 6/21, 2016, from

Liu, D. (1998). Ethnocentrism in TESOL: Teacher education and the neglected needs of international TESOL students. ELT Journal, 52(1), 3-10.

Liu, S., & Gallois, C. (2014). Integrating intercultural communication and cross-cultural psychology: Theoretical and pedagogical implications. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 2(1).

Pappamihiel, N. E. (2004). Hugs and smiles: Demonstrating caring in a multicultural early childhood classroom. Early Child Development &Care, 174(6), 539–548.

Romano, R.,&Cushner, K. (2007). Reflections on the importance and value of the overseas student-teaching experience In K. Cushner, & S. Brennan (Eds.), Intercultural student teaching: A bridge to global competence (pp. 215-225). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.

Treasure, J. (2011). Julian Treasure: 5 Ways to Listen Better [video file]. Retrieved from

Yang, J. (2012). Overseas teaching jobs: a lesson in supply and demand. Retrieved from

Ramin Yazdanpanah is the Director of TEFL Program at Florida State University. A visionary with a global perspective, Ramin strives to apply effective and creative methods to learning and teaching, with the goal of developing greater understanding of ourselves and others. Ramin is completing his PhD in International and Comparative Education, with a focus on intercultural competence training in ESL contexts. You can also catch him playing didgeridoo and cajon in his band the Maharajah Flamenco Trio, as well as at TESOL conventions.

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