February 2017
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Interview by Natalia Balyasnikova, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Dr. Díaz-Rico, a founder of ICIS, is professor of education at California State University, San Bernardino, where she coordinates the MA in TESOL program. Her books, Course for Teaching English Learners; The Crosscultural, Language, and Academic Development Handbook; and Strategies for Teaching English Learners are widely used in teacher education programs to prepare teachers for culturally and linguistically diverse classrooms. She is a past president of CATESOL and a frequent presenter at CATESOL and TESOL conferences on topics of intercultural education, language development, and innovative teaching methods. Her favorite people are poets and literacy/English-language development specialists.

To begin with, could you tell us about your background and how you got involved in the study of intercultural communication (IC)?

Growing up in western Pennsylvania and attending the University of Pittsburgh as an undergraduate, I was exposed to diversity in a cosmopolitan context, especially when I spent a year totally immersed in learning Mandarin and Chinese culture. After my degree, I earned an elementary teaching certificate by spending 2 years in Des Moines, Iowa—that was not a diverse place, but the Midwest was a new experience for me! Spending 8 years in Puerto Rico, I acquired Spanish as a second language, a skill I use daily in Southern California. Becoming bicultural in that context, I used IC on a daily basis.

Around the year 2000, the IC leaders in CATESOL, our TESOL affiliate, simultaneously founded both the Intercultural Communication Interest Group (ICIG) in CATESOL and the Intercultural Communication Interest Section (ICIS) in TESOL, and in 1 year (2000) the CATESOL-ICIG membership grew from 400 to 1,000 members. We had to scramble to forge a common vocabulary among experts coming from the Silicon Valley business community and those of us whose expertise was in the K–12 schools. Both arenas have IC issues—in the case of my university, with its large teacher education mission, the challenge was to build IC expertise into teacher education so our K–12 educators would become intercultural experts. That’s been a huge goal for us.

What's your personal philosophy on teaching English to speakers of other languages?

ESL/EFL teachers have a special role in the classrooms, as language emissaries and mediators, as agents of introduction to the target culture, and as sources of professional knowledge for their colleagues. Teachers who are aware of students' needs at various stages of their adjustment to the academic demands of schools and the stresses of life can help students to be more successful. Our prospective teachers are expected actively to build personal knowledge about the interdependence of language, culture, and schooling. Teachers need a solid foundation in second-language literacy and language-development techniques, but this has to be embedded within an IC framework. We are especially vigilant to honor the first language(s) of our English learners. This has to be the central pillar of IC work.

Tell us about someone who has influenced your work the most.

Last January, I presented with Michelle Kohler at the CERCLL conference in Tucson. I have enjoyed reading her book Teachers as Mediators in the Foreign Language Classroom. We used some of the ideas from this book to set up IC mentoring in our master’s degree program.

You have published numerous books and handbooks on teaching English language learners. As an expert, how would you define the goals of IC in our work?

The threshold concept is using culture to teach language, whether for communication purposes or for academic success. Culture influences the teaching of English to speakers of other languages in six basic ways. Each can become a component of instruction. First, the learner has learned how to learn by means of native culture patterns, values, and behaviors. Teachers who are acquainted with the norms and patterns of the native culture will better understand how students learn, especially how they learn an L2. This is the component of culturally derived learning styles and strategies.

Second, the intercultural educator accommodates students' culturally derived learning styles and strategies in order to deliver effective instruction. Because cultural patterns are difficult for the individual to analyze or alter, it seems unlikely that a group of learners can or will change their culturally based habits as they learn English. Teachers of English learners make whatever accommodations may be necessary. This is culturally compatible, culturally responsive instruction.

Third, learning a language becomes easier when the whole personality of the learner is engaged. A certain amount of culture acquisition may accompany second-language acquisition. The learner who acquires English takes on a set of patterns, habits, and behaviors suitable to a multilingual lifestyle. Learning to add facets to one's identity rather than suffering identity conflict or loss is an element that might be called assuming a bicultural identity. The intercultural educator helps students to adapt to shifts in identity and values that may occur.

Fourth, the native culture and the target culture each provide a rich content for instruction. Like all languages, English is a vehicle for ideas rather than a set of ideas in itself. However one defines culture—as literature, art, or music, or as the daily life of a people—the ideas that language conveys give English learning meaning and purpose. Whether these ideas come from the native culture or from the traditions embodied within English, culture serves as content.

Fifth, building upon the idea of culture as content, English teaching can incorporate the comparison of cultures, whether the comparison of culturally based learning styles and strategies or the comparison of ideas or behaviors. This shall be called the issue of cross-cultural studies.

The sixth component is using IC to teach English. As an international language, English is often learned by individuals who share no other common language. English in intercultural contexts is most useful in lingua franca situations. This is a huge area of potential growth in IC. So, these six areas are the core of building intercultrual communicative competence (ICC).

You have been an influential member of TESOL and ICIS for many years. Could you share your most memorable experiences as a part of our community?

For the past few years, the ICIS has made “a night” of it, going out as a group after the ICIS meeting [at TESOL conventions]. In Baltimore, we took over one huge table in a restaurant down by the harbor. We had a lot of fun—it’s not to be missed!

How have you seen the field of IC change since you started?

The idea that one cannot teach a foreign language without a cultural component has gradually become accepted, although there are still some governments that mandate that English be taught decontextualized of its target-culture content. We have gradually developed ways that cross-cultural comparison and IC techniques can supplement target-culture content—as well as the use of native cultural content to teach English. For example, the Saudis are convinced that English is an excellent medium for communicating the Islamic customs and values relating to the Hadj, using English as a lingua franca as millions of visitors enter Saudi Arabia for the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. So there is now a wider range of ways to use cultural content to teach English.

We have also seen an increased awareness that schools and other institutions have their own cultures, which can mean that outsiders immersed in these cultures are disadvantaged if they cannot intuit the unspoken and unexplained norms and behaviors. We have been working with teachers for the past 25 years to help them become aware of the extent to which they can accommodate and modify the culture of their schools to make it easier for English learners to succeed. This effort is paying off, at least in California, as we see more minorities achieving success in higher education.

What changes would you like to see in our field in the future?

Technology has been used since the beginning of IC to connect native English speakers and English learners. In the future, this will increasingly be supplemented with nonnative/nonnative contact. I would hope the world becomes increasingly safe as a place for young people to travel, so that study abroad becomes more common for middle- and high-school students around the world. My next-door neighbors are home-stay parents for an 11-year-old boy from Mainland China: what an experience he is having! Such opportunities for young people will do a lot to promote intercultural understanding.

The theme of our newsletter—Cultural Synergy—came from a general meeting at TESOL 2016, which you attended. How do you understand this theme? What does it mean for you as a researcher and practitioner?

When we speak of cultural synergy, again we are aware of the cultural contexts of schools and other organizations. When these organizations are open to the values and behaviors of diverse participants, people from a variety of cultures feel freer to add their input and creativity. Then the whole truly becomes more than the sum of its parts. We are seeing these efforts grow in U.S. corporations and institutions that have embraced diversity; conversely, we are seeing the tensions in other communities where some constituents still feel neglected and unappreciated. IC is central to these efforts, whether it is called “cultural synergy,” “cultural competence,” or some other term. It’s the most vital competence of this century.

Tell us about a project you are most proud of. Why did you decide to undertake it? What have you learned as the result of implementing it?

In the master’s degree program at my university, we have become increasingly aware that not all graduate students are as open to IC as others; in fact, there is great diversity in this regard. We embarked on a long-term project of using the Kozai Group’s Intercultural Effectiveness Survey (IES) to encourage master’s candidates to examine their own intercultural profile, and to work with a peer coach to develop the competencies they need to move forward as an intercultural educator. It’s been an area of rich learning for all of us, as we work with partners and mentors to further our ICC skills.

What suggestions would you give to those teachers of English who want to gain intercultural awareness?

I strongly advocate self-examination. There is simply no substitute for being able to profile one’s own strengths and challenges in this regard. And then to have a mentor to work with who shares the vocabulary of necessary skills and competencies—that’s a strong recipe for growth; it’s really showing gains for participants in our research in this area.

Natalia Balyasnikova is a doctoral candidate in language and literacy education at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. Originally from Russia, Natalia moved to Canada in 2013 to pursue her degree in TESL with a focus on intercultural communication.

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