Supporting the Intercultural Growth of Advanced and Superior Level L2 Speakers in the Overseas Context
The Flagship Culture Initiative Cultural Roundtables build on themes similar to those in the online modules in the Culture App, but are designed for on-site, moderated group discussions that draw upon the actual experiences of Language Flagship capstone students as they undergo the process of socialization into the host country culture.
Maria D. Lekic, American Councils for International Education
Nadra Garas, American Councils for International Education
Goals of the Cultural Roundtables
The goal of the cultural learning roundtables is to support students’ successful cultural and intercultural development while studying and living abroad through cooperative learning and moderated group discussions. Each roundtable session is designed for student-centered structured discussion, perspective-taking and critical reflection intended to assist and provide practice for students in recognizing and managing cross-cultural differences when they emerge, while minimizing the levels of uncertainty and anxiety experienced by virtually all capstone students at this level.
Upon completion of 10-12 cultural roundtables over the course of two overseas semesters, as recommended by the project, students (L2 learners at or near the ACTFL Advanced-High or Superior Levels of proficiency in speaking, listening and reading) will demonstrate improved skills for anticipating, recognizing and adjusting their linguistic, cognitive and socio-emotional responses to manifestations of cultural differences they encounter in host-country values, belief systems, attitudes and behaviors, some or many of which the student may have previously assumed to be common across most cultures, if not universal.
Instructional Approach and Formats
The approach of the roundtables is based on experiential and cooperative learning, on oral and written individual reflection by participants on authentic cultural experiences, interlaced with role-plays, and on small and full-group discussions and exchanges of alternative views on the potential meanings of statements or practices encountered in the host country that have been a cause of concern or potential misunderstanding. As with the online modules in the Culture App, the roundtables recognize the variation and fluidity that characterize any discussion of cultural or cross-cultural “norms.” The roundtables do not provide “correct” answers to the questions raised, but instead offer suggested strategies for recognizing and making some sense of cultural difference that might otherwise be disorienting for the student. Each individual student is ultimately responsible for the conclusions they reach at the end of the roundtable session. Participation in small groups ensures that all students contribute to the discussion within a face-to-face environment. The strength of the cooperative learning model depends on what each participant is able to bring to the discussion to help construct or sharpen the models for recognizing and understanding the cultural differences under consideration.
The developers strongly recommend that the roundtables take place in a setting in which participants feel psychologically and emotionally “safe” and comfortable in order to be able to to step back, compare and reflect on their cultural experiences; the tasks for each discussion are clearly set out in the Discussion Leader’s Guide and hand-out materials, but de-personalized, so that individuals can work together critically and without bias. It is expected that participants are respectful, attentive and empathetic with one another and facilitator throughout each session.
Regarding choices of a location for the roundtables, during test-teaching of the materials, one group conducted roundtables in a student lounge reserved exclusively for this purpose; others were hosted by their respective American resident directors at their apartment not far from campus. Refreshments were provided and discussions were conducted in English (rather than the target language) to avoid any sense of competition among participants regarding their respective levels of language proficiency.
The Roundtable as Affordance of Cultural Development
During the cultural roundtables, participants have been observed to move through identifiable stages of critical reflection on the cultural challenges they face, similar to those noted in the literature on transformative learning:
- A disorienting dilemma: The participant experiences a disorienting dilemma that shakes the student’s culturally conditioned expectations.
- Premise reflection: The participant, as a learner, reflects on the sources of their own reaction(s) to the particular behaviour in question, both from a cognitive-analytic and emotional-integrative standpoint.
- Critical reflection: During this stage, the participant re-examines their assumptions about the intended or usual meaning within the host country culture of a particular utterance, behavior or social practice observed
- Action plan: Participants start to develop a plan of action for integrating the new or revised perspective into their communicative repertoires and anticipated interactions in the target culture.
Within the overseas Flagship capstone programs in which the cultural roundtables were piloted, the four-stage (transformative) learning process outlined above is best characterized as an on-going, non-linear, cumulative process, resembling what Mezirow (1994) characterized as “a set of progressive transformations in related meaning schemes,” alternating with occasional setbacks. Overall, however, participants sharpened their ability to recognize and anticipate cultural, cognitive or attitudinal differences across cultures, and develop their capacity for reflection on those differences, as well as on their own personal or culturally bound reactions to difference (Davidson, Garas & Lekic, 2020).
Discussion Leader’s Guide
The moderator presents the theme to the group, distributes one-page scenarios to participants for individual review and initial brief written comments. After participants have each noted down their first reactions to the situation described in the scenario, the moderator opens discussion. Student responses are shared and compared for the purpose of developing a more nuanced understanding of the cultural behaviors, uses of language, and underlying belief structures or local perspectives reflected in the scenarios under discussion. As the sharing of student impressions and perspectives progresses, the moderator may introduce additional perspectives on the scenario that have not been raised by the students. When the discussion period (usually 45-60 minutes) ends, students are then asked to write a further brief commentary or analysis of the cultural points they find most salient in the situation under discussion. The individual written analyses are collected by the moderator and reviewed.
Sample Discussion Leader’s Guide
Davidson, Dan E., Garas, Nadra, Lekic, Maria D. (2016), “Assessing Language Proficiency and Intercultural Development in the Overseas Immersion Context.” In Eds. Murphy, Dianna & Evans-Romaine, Karen, Exploring the US Language Flagship Program. Professional Competence in a Second Language by Graduation. Multilingual Matters, Bristol, pp. 156-176.
Davidson, Dan E., Garas, Nadra, Lekic, Maria D. (2020) “Transformative Language Learning in the Overseas Immersion Environment: Exploring Affordances of Intercultural Development,” Transformative Language Learning and Teaching, (edited by Betty Lou Leaver, Dan E. Davidson and Christine Campbell). Cambridge University of Press, pp. 108-119.
Mezirow, Jack (1994), “Understanding Transformation Theory,” Adult Education Journal, Vol. 44, No. 4, pp. 222-232. https://doi.org/10.1177/074171369404400403
The developers of the Cultural Roundtable Scenarios, Maria D. Lekic and Nadra Garas, American Councils for International Education, are pleased to acknowledge the contributions and helpful suggestions for the improvement of these materials of Dr. Jianhua Bai (Kenyon College), Dr. Laila Familiar (NYU-Abu Dhabi) and Dr. Dan E. Davidson (American Councils); to Dr. Alexander Groce, Chase Smithburg, and Dr. Alex Tullock for their invaluable work as overseas resident directors leading the test-teaching of the Roundtables; and to our colleagues on the Flagship Cultural Initiative (FCI) Team for their interest in the Roundtable concept and support of its development and test-teaching. Finally, the developers owe a particular debt of gratitude to the many Arabic and Russian Capstone students, whose useful feedback and wholehearted participation in the monthly Cultural Roundtables over the three-year project period have permitted the developers to improve the design and focus of these materials.
The Flagship Culture Initiative was supported by a 3-year grant (2017-2020) to the University of Maryland from the Institute of International Education (IIE), acting as the administrative agent of the National Security Education Program (NSEP), Defense Language and National Security Education Office (DLNSEO) for The Language Flagship.
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