5 takeaways from #nectfl16

by Anthony Quintano via Flickr license

Last week I went to the NECTFL (Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) Conferences in New York City. It was excellent! In addition to being back in Manhattan -- which was wonderful, despite the Arctic temperatures -- all of the sessions I attended were very good. The conference's theme was intercultural competence, and almost all of the sessions I attended addressed that topic. Here are my 5 takeaways from the conference.

#1: What the heck is intercultural competence (ICC)? 

There are many definitions, but I'm partial to Michael Byram's, which I am going to butcher here: roughly speaking, it's a set of knowledge, skills and attitudes that allows learners to engage productively and sensitively with cultures that are not their own. (I'm paraphrasing multiple presenters here, as well as drawing on my notes from a course I took in 2013 -- please, please see Byram's seminal text here for more precision, or Google it!) Basically, it's not just language, but rather a savviness about cultural and linguistic norms that permits a non-native speaker to be successful in many different types of interactions. So, for example, you could speak flawless French but still come across as rude, or aggressive, or awkward in certain situations with native speakers if you don't possess this intercultural competence. On the other hand, if you have highly developed intercultural competence, your linguistic mistakes are much more likely to be forgiven and forgotten, because you will come across as being comfortable, open, savvy.

#2: The cultural iceberg (or onion). 

I've seen this model before, but many of the presenters made explicit connections between ICC and visible/invisible culture that I hadn't considered previously. One presenter (Julie Baker of the University of Richmond) described how she uses the coffee cup -- either ceramic, in France, or paper, in the United States -- as a vehicle for examining how cultural values of rest, sociability, productivity and efficiency vary between the two countries. She even uses a list of cultural values that students can refer to constantly to inform their observations and conclusions. Another presenter, Beth Slocum of Genesee Community College (@SlocumBeth) prefers the culture onion because the layers can be peeled off (and there's no Titanic association). Both models communicate the idea of visible vs. invisible culture in a way that students (and, let's face it, teachers too) can understand more readily than just this vague, nebulous idea of Culture.

#3: The trickiness of assessing ICC and the importance of student reflection.  

Because ICC is about developing "soft" skills, assessing whether learners possess it or not can be difficult. Here's an example of what I'm talking about. Let's say you're teaching about the cuisine of the target culture. A student whose intercultural competence is not fully developed might say, "That's weird," "That's gross," "I would never eat that," "Why would you ever eat that?" etc. Meanwhile, a student who does have some intercultural competence would respond differently -- with curiosity, with receptiveness, without judging the cuisine according to what she is used to in her own culture. I'm pretty sure that we'd all rather have classes full of the second type of student rather than the first. But how do assess those behaviors, let alone evaluate them and reduce them to a letter or number on a report card? Julie Baker had some great ideas for how to teach students ICC: it's an integral part of the courses she teaches, and she models a process for considering cultural products and practices that helps students understand the perspectives of that culture. Click here for my notes on the session. Once you develop a model for approaching culture and students practice, you can assess it. It might be through student journals, or test questions where you ask students to consider a cultural product (such as the coffee cup) and the cultural values that it may represent. Students could be evaluated on depth and precision in their response, or even, in the case of a journal, on growth, or the presence or absence of certain skills and attitudes. 

#4: The importance of providing MULTIPLE perspectives, viewpoints, etc. 

If you've spent a lot of time in another culture interacting with the people that live there, you know that "national culture" (if it exists) is as varied as human beings are.  But our students don't necessarily know that. They can quite readily and un-ironically spout statements like "All Hispanics love soccer." I went to one three-hour workshop called "Ethnography and Mobile Devices" with Harry Tuttle (@harrygtuttle) that addressed this issue. He uses Google Image search to have students find and interpret images from other cultures, which I also do, but his approach is much more systematic and I will definitely integrate it into my future lessons. He has students use specific Google search sites from the target culture (google.es, google.mx, google.fr etc.) to search for (for example) "deportes argentina". For a single image, he asks students to identify facts (not assumptions!) about it. Once they have seen several or many images, he'll ask them to draw conclusions about what they have seen ("Based on X, I think Y"). There are many benefits to this approach: besides developing media literacy, students are exposed to many current images of the target culture, not just the few chosen by a textbook company which are, let's face it, often stereotypical. One memorable jigsaw activity the group did in this session was to search for sports in several different Spanish-speaking countries on Google Images ("deportes argentina", "deportes cuba" etc.) and identify the top 3 sports, based on quantity of photos, in each country. Once we compared the results, we could see that soccer was popular but that so were baseball, polo, basketball, etc. BAM! Stereotype smashed. 

#5: I need to learn more!

I could write so much more about this conference. I learned a lot, and it was all fascinating. But there's still so much I don't know! Like what the "dimensions of culture" are, and how to integrate them purposefully into ICC activities. I am also hungry to learn more about the Leadership Initiative for Language Learning's Core 6 Teaching Practices (see an overview here by the excellent Amanda Robustelli-Price @robuprice). So much to learn, so little time!

Did you go to NECTFL this year? What did you learn? 


  1. It was so great to see you at NECTFL! Thank you for the mention!


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