Beyond language acquisition
As I embark as the coordinator of a new nine-week exchange program with Arabic and English speaking women, with some anxiety about exactly how we will introduce Arabic with seven different Arabic-speaking countries represented in the room, and how we will introduce English at very different levels, I am heartened to go back to a paper I wrote in 2011, during my M.Ed program at UBC. It outlines the ways in which tandem language exchange (two people from different linguistic background helping each other improve) is about much more than language acquisition; it is also about real intercultural competence and valuing multicompetence.
Intercultural competence without the monolithic “culture”
I generally hate the term “intercultural competence” because it implies there is something monolithic like a “Canadian culture” or “Arab culture”, when of course there are just lots of individuals with different interests, amounts of money, ages, religious beliefs, etc., that just happen to live in a place. Tandem language exchange can get around this problem, though, when a participant gets to know a single person from a different background, and recognizes that just as she herself doesn’t represent an entire culture, neither does her partner.
In spite of a history of linguistic diversity in British Columbia, including a multitude of First Nations languages, English native-speaker fluency has been valued most highly, even higher than multicompetence, which is the knowledge of two or more languages. In a tandem language exchange setting, where people are constantly looking for translations between languages, and constantly trying to communicate meaningfully, people inevitably begin to recognize that better than native speaker fluency is the range of skills that tend to come with multicompetence, including the ability to switch languages easily and to use accommodation strategies such as offering synonyms, using metaphors, and imagining which words the other person will know. Multicompetence becomes the ideal, and something increasingly recognized and valued outside the room – in neighbourhoods, work places, and new friendships.
I could go on, bringing in discussions of “border-crossing communication”, identity negotiation, and transformative pedagogy, but we’ll leave it there for now. I look forward to seeing a group of amazing women on Tuesday and overcoming monolithic ideas about culture and the over-inflated value of native speaker fluency.
Note: This spring program is full, but if you are interested in participating in Arabic-English exchange in the fall, for both men and women, please shoot me an email at mary(at)esperanzaeducation.ca.