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The power of intercultural dialogue

The power of intercultural dialogue

[Photo of Dr. Roula Salam in discussion with students]
John Ulan

Dr. Roula Salam leads a classroom discussion on intercultural dialogue.

Graduate and post-graduate international students have to contend with several obvious challenges here in Edmonton and Canada as a whole: the weather (“But it’s a dry cold” doesn’t cut it), food (you know your mom would throw a fit if she saw you reaching for that powdered falafel in a bag), homesickness (maybe you’re not that hungry after all, after it hits you like a hundred dumplings before bedtime), accommodation (you found a decent apartment close enough to campus for you to walk, but your roommate is a bully), and generally feeling at times like Melville’s Pip in Moby Dick, a speck of loneliness under a vast blue prairie sky. And if weather, accommodation, homesickness, food, bills, and tuition weren’t enough, there is the groaning burden of juggling coursework and assignments, trying to land a decent TA-ship, practicum, or internship, racking your brain to write that “sexy” (whatever that looks like) proposal or grant letter you are required to write, but wondering what your chances are of landing a job in your field if your name is Ravneet, Jihad (God forbid), or Pedro. And yet, our differences are our greatest source of empowerment.

Teaching communication skills through intercultural dialogue brings to the fore the heterogeneous capacity of the English language, its marvelous ability to take on a fluid, polymorphous quality that allows it to both absorb and depict subtle cultural and subcultural similarities and differences in communication.

Using an intercultural approach as a tool for teaching and empowering students is not a new concept. A number of scholars have discussed the benefits of adopting an inquiry-based, open approach in interactions between individuals from different cultures in academic contexts. Such interactions generate positive communication, help to approximate different socio-cultural viewpoints, and generally create a learning environment more conducive to setting and attaining common goals among the student body. Teaching communication skills through intercultural dialogue brings to the fore the heterogeneous capacity of the English language, its marvelous ability to take on a fluid, polymorphous quality that allows it to both absorb and depict subtle cultural and subcultural similarities and differences in communication. Just as in translation, for example, when the translator must convey, not just the meaning and message of the source text, but also its cultural nuances, references, and attitudes, intercultural dialogue (in this case in English) juxtaposes those cultural differences against each other through the medium of language. And it is when the language begins to stretch and strain, or when it comes across as strange or different, heavy with the cultural particularities of the non-native speaker, that the listener begins to recognize these differences and reciprocates by responding with his/her own.

It is when the language begins to stretch and strain, or when it comes across as strange or different, heavy with the cultural particularities of the non-native speaker, that the listener begins to recognize these differences and reciprocates by responding with his/her own.

To give an example, some non-native students in the class conversing in English with their peers may communicate their experiences in dealing with native speakers in academic or workplace settings, where the job of the student is to provide care, consultation, or a certain service. The student may express some concerns to their classmate, using a rapid-fire, excited tone when, for instance, describing how a client chose not to follow the student’s recommendation. The student may interpret the client's desire to consider other options as non-compliance or even a form of discrimination. However, their classmate may recognize the frustration in the student's tone and choice of words and juxtapose it against their own experiences and cultural perspective in an effort to help find alternative ways of communication that would resolve some of these issues with minimal or zero escalation. And with the instructor’s guidance, the student may also recognize that the strain in communication with the client may indicate both their own and the client's cross-cultural challenges.

The courses and workshops I teach focus on facilitating appropriate verbal and non-verbal communication skills as they are used in cross-cultural exchanges in academic and workplace settings. A broad range of intertwining topics presented through different scenarios covers various cultural and subcultural differences in norms, behaviours, beliefs, and values, where avoiding cultural misunderstanding would ensure stronger relationships. Topics range from questions such as “What would make this person regularly miss important meetings with me?” and “Why do I feel this person does not respect me or listen to me?” to other various matters of dietary, racial, ethnic, gender-based, or personal differences. The workshops also examine situations calling for communication strategies needed to address sensitive topics, where the right communication ensures safety in the workplace and academic environment. Some of the classes also address issues of bullying, harassment, and intimidation and how to respond in such situations.

Using intercultural dialogue in teaching these classes has been rewarding. Speaking from the perspective of a visibly Muslim woman, a mother, a military wife, and an educator, I find that when participants share experiences in a safe place like a classroom, they gradually build trust and self-confidence. I may give my international students a list of potential speaker profiles where the speakers are from different cultures, or second generation, or mixed, or [European] white. I may throw in different socio-economic backgrounds, genders, and marital statuses. I may add some peculiarities, stereotypical, authentic, or an uneasy mix of the two, and ask the students to rank these people based on how “cooperative” or easy to talk to they may perceive the people to be. Rather than give them any right or wrong explanation (there is no “right” answer”), I’d then ask students to share with a partner the one profile they disagreed on the most. These interactions bring about precious moments of self-awareness and generate an important understanding of different cultural perspectives that help students shape goals with one another and work towards those goals.

They learn to view differences as tools of change.

Most importantly, however, is that the students feel safe and heard, and this empowers them, as they learn how to view differences as tools of change. The Chinese client who says yes, they understand, when you are explaining a solution option, may not have understood you. The Indian man who comes to a meeting to interpret for his mother may not be your choice interpreter. And when you, the international student, feel uncomfortable if someone is making jokes because it seems disrespectful, then you may have to come up with your own terrible jokes to share with the person at the next meeting. At the same time, if a client pretends she doesn’t understand you (although your accent does appear to affect your comprehensibility), perhaps you should gently ask her whether she has a hearing issue.

Our international and minority students share campuses where they don’t always feel safe or confident, and where learning continues to be shaped by an authoritarian culture, despite the good intentions and the push for change. Adopting interculturalism in teaching and through learning not only strengthens two-way dialogue and empowers students, but hopefully will continue to erode walls of discrimination as students work together towards common goals.

Roula Salam, PhD’11 (English), is an instructor at the English Language School at the University of Alberta and the V-P North of the Association of Translators and Interpreters of Alberta.

[cover illustration of The language issue of the Queen's Alumni Review]