Table of Contents
2. Byram’s Model of Intercultural Communicative Competence
3. Liverpool – Expectations and Experiences
3.1 Liverpool- Expectations
3.2 Liverpool- Experiences
4. Critical reflection of my experiences in Liverpool
It is without a doubt safe to assume that a stay abroad is a life-changing experience. Choosing to stay abroad is a great opportunity to practice one's language skills and develop intercultural competences. Whenever I thought of my stay abroad, I was intrigued by the idea of discovering new cultures and exploring new places. For someone who is attached to the familiar, the sheer thought of leaving one’s comfort zone might be the biggest obstacle in this journey. And still, each year, thousands of people flock to other parts of the world, perhaps to gain awareness of different people, cultures, and places. As professor O’Dowd (2006: 50) states, “the (d)irect contact with members of the target culture can offer opportunities for developing the skills and attitudes of ICC, even though it’s not proven that such a contact will easily lead to intercultural learning.” Nevertheless, these people come with a particular set of attitudes and stereotypes regarding the different people and cultures of the countries. Therefore it is crucial to know how the perception can change through interaction with others. According to this, it can be said that offering broader access to cultures might enable people to mingle in these cultures. This requires a certain finesse and knowledge. Otherwise, a welcoming encounter of different people and cultures cannot be assured, but rather a clash of different cultures. Therefore, “language learning cannot be separated from culture learning as language manifests many of the social actions of a society and expresses the values and beliefs which underlie these actions” (O’Dowd: 2006: 62). Michael Byram’s model of Intercultural Communicative Competence, in short, ICC, can serve as an explanatory model to trace my development during my stay abroad. Mind you, although I spent more than three months in Liverpool, I cannot draw fixed conclusions about certain things. Therefore, my knowledge and attitudes might differ compared to a person who spent a year abroad.
The following report gives an insight into my experiences and my process of developing intercultural communicative competences. First, Michael Byram’s approach of Intercultural Communicative Competence will be introduced. Byram’s approach of ICC forms a framework for my development and experiences in Liverpool . After this step, the question: “Did my study abroad expectations meet reality?” will be answered. In doing so, my expectations will be contrasted to my experiences to show that some of my expectations did not meet reality. Comparing my expectations to my experiences might reveal noteworthy details about my development. After working through this, a critical reflection on my development and experiences will be provided. Finally, a conclusion and an evaluation will follow regarding my gained knowledge. This part will also give an insight into how and if the stay abroad benefited my teaching career.
Hence, the following research question must be addressed. In how far did my stay abroad contribute to the development of intercultural communicative competences?
2. Byram’s Model of Intercultural Communicative Competence
Strategies for developing intercultural communicative competences have become a huge field for further research. Many language teaching researchers underline the importance of intercultural understanding, cultural awareness, and the development of certain skills and attitudes. Michael Byram sees the key to successful language learning in the “ability to understand and communicate with each other across all kinds of cultural divisions." (Barett et al., 2013: 3). Rather than simply capturing linguistic and grammatical forms in a classroom, communication within intercultural exchanges comes to the fore (Byram et al. 2002: 4). The idea of Intercultural Communicative Competence (ICC) emerged out of the realisation that focusing only on grammatical rules, vocabulary, and good pronunciation of the target language, will preferably not enable the learner to become an open-minded and intercultural speaker (Byram et al. 2002: 5). Byram combines the concept of communicative competence with emphasis on the ability to use language on different cultural exchanges. As stated above, the attempt to become a native speaker has long enough dominated language teaching, and perhaps itself will not lead to ICC (Byram 2012: 89). He further describes the intercultural speaker as a mediator who crosses cultural frontiers and can engage with people of different social identities (Byram et al. 2002: 5). So, one can assume that approaching others with respect and recognising others as their own being forms the basis of intercultural communication. In 1997, Byram provided a model of intercultural communicative competence, in which he describes how the language learner can effectively develop ICC. He argues the importance of five components, which will be explained in the following. According to him, the first component is the foundation of intercultural competence, and it refers to the attitudes the intercultural speaker holds (Byram et al. 2002: 7). In this sense, “attitudes” refers to “curiosity and openness, readiness to suspend disbelief about other cultures and belief about one’s own” (Byram et al. 2002: 7). Meaning that to get an encompassing view of different cultures and values, the intercultural speaker needs to decentre from his own perspective to recognise different cultural orientations (Byram et al. 2002: 7). In doing so, the intercultural speaker will gain a much broader understanding of the world, where the speaker can relish different perspectives and compare them with their own view (Byram et al. 2002: 7). Furthermore, it can be said that the “ability to decentre” from one’s own perspective might enable the intercultural learner to value pluralism and cultural diversity. The next component, called knowledge, requires the learner to understand how different social groups and identities function (Byram et al. 2002: 7). This is not about acquiring pure factual knowledge about the target culture and language but rather developing a certain finesse for “internal diversity and heterogeneity of all cultural groups” (Barett et al. 2013: 9). Thus, it will contribute to a further understanding of the practices and the general processes of societal and individual interaction (Byram et al. 2002: 8). Since it is impossible for teachers and students to develop a wide range of knowledge, learners must have certain skills of interpreting, understanding, comparing, and relating to identify culturally discrepant behaviours from their own (Byram et al. 2002: 8). According to Byram, the third component interpreting and relating, is about the “ability to interpret a document or event from another culture, to explain it and relate it to documents or events from one’s own” (Byram et al. 2002: 8). Here Byram speaks of the “mediator” who can see things from someone else’s perspective. By changing one's own point of view, the mediator or intercultural speaker can resolve misunderstandings and dismantle preconceptions about different cultural groups (Barett et al., 2013: 9). It underlines the importance of multiperspectivity. Meaning that the mediator understands how misunderstandings can arise and knows how to scrutinise judgments and assumptions about cultural beliefs. The fourth component refers to skills of discovery and interaction (Byram et al. 2002: 8). It can be defined as the “ability to acquire new knowledge of a culture and cultural practices and the ability to operate knowledge, attitudes and skills under the constraints of real-time communication and interaction” (Byram et al. 2002: 9). Referencing the quote, it can be said that the intercultural learner needs to deploy and put knowledge, attitudes, and skills into practice and action. Thus, it is not enough to acquire knowledge and skills and profess attitudes (Barett et al., 2013: 10). As Byram explains, learners need to use those components within intercultural encounters actively. He further explains that intercultural speakers need to seek opportunities where they can integrate their knowledge (Byram et al. 2002: 9). Furthermore, it is crucial to cooperate with other people who share different cultural orientations on shared activities and ventures, discussing differences in views and perspectives, and constructing common opinions. (Barett et al., 2013: 10). As a result, this component provides a foundation for being a global citizen since it requires the learner to “[…] develop their capacity to build common projects, to assume shared responsibilities and to create common ground to live together in peace […]” (Barett et al., 2013: 11). It is the core competence for democratic citizenship. Finally, the last component requires the learner to develop “critical cultural awareness” (Byram et al. 2002: 9). Byram (2002: 9) defines it as an “ability to evaluate, critically and on the basis of explicit criteria, perspectives, practices and products in one’s own and other cultures and countries”. Meaning that the learner must understand the basic notion of their own values and how it can influence other people’s values. With awareness in mind, the mediator is constantly reminded of their own cultural perspective and how this affects others. As Jackson (2019: 47) adds “(w)hile identity can provide us with a sense of belonging, it can also serve as the basis for negative views and reactions to people who are different from us”. Referencing this quote, one can say that the line between generalisations and dubious judgments is quite thin. Therefore, it is crucial to gain a critical outlook towards one owns thoughts and from other people because some stereotypes are deeply embedded (Byram et al., 2002: 9). Now, regarding all these aspects of Byram’s model of intercultural communicative competence, it can be said that intercultural communicative competence is “a core competence which is required for democratic citizenship within a culturally diverse world” (Byram et al., 2002: 11).
3. Liverpool – Expectations and Experiences
3.1 Liverpool- Expectations
Thinking back about my expectations regarding the study abroad, the Erasmus programme was always an amazing opportunity to get to know other people and visit new places. The sheer thought of leaving my family and starting a new life slightly scared but mostly excited me. One of my objectives was to grow as a person, and therefore, I needed to let go of my attachments to the familiar and the fear of what may be. I have always been fascinated by the UK because of its history and its culture. Also, every time my lecturer told us something about Liverpool, I was excited to explore the surrounding areas of the city. Perhaps my lecturer was one of the reasons why I decided to study in the UK. Hearing the stories and experiences of former Erasmus students was exactly how I always envisioned my University life to be. In many ways, I thought that the study abroad would be an important step of becoming a teacher since it would open possibilities of gaining intercultural communicative competences. Also, there is no other time in your life where you will have a similar opportunity to experience an intercultural exchange. For so many years, my expectations were built up by listening to other people’s experiences and watching YouTube videos. However, the enormous diversity of the UK and the coexistence of different ethnicities and nationalities left me baffled. I also knew that the same environment of different ethnic and national backgrounds could cause friction within these groups. Moreover, various morals, ideologies, and political views can cause many misunderstandings between two individuals. Therefore, I tried to make assumptions based on what was plainly before me, rather than relying on stereotypes. Although I grew up with two cultures, I would like to assume that it takes some time to adjust to a new situation. Besides, I often tried to keep in mind that the enormous diversity and the new environment could be overwhelming. Nevertheless, I was excited to dive into the melting pot and get to know the multicultural mosaic of the UK. So, it can be said that my study abroad experience was built upon very high expectations. Before my study abroad started, I was confronted with the effects of the global pandemic. Even though it was a unique situation for everyone, I could not bear to pass up this experience. Hence, I decided not to let the external circumstances dictate my new life.
3.2 Liverpool- Experiences
As my plane touched down in Manchester, I was filled with many emotions but mostly with positive feelings. After seeing the busy people, notable architecture, and the music scene my emotions ran the gamut. When I arrived at my accommodation in Liverpool, I immediately got confronted with the Scouse accent and the friendliness of the people. My first encounter with my flatmates and landlord was the first occasion to interact with native speakers. Being confronted with this exceedingly rare accent was utterly mystifying. It sounded like a mixture of Welsh and Irish, which I had to get used to. Moreover, I noticed that I tended to be very nervous and stressed while speaking and sometimes got stuck trying to find a word. As an introvert and overthinker, I had to put my thoughts and emotions aside since I could not flee into the language I am more accustomed to. Regarding my first encounter with Byram's model of ICC in mind, it can be said that I was inquisitive and excited to get the know my flatmates. Although I am a very withdrawn and reserved person, I challenged myself to talk to other people. Even though I thought that I would make a fool of myself by approaching other people, it challenged my attitudes towards the people I was engaging with. Although I made mistakes, I thought in the back of my mind that I need to initiate conversations with my flatmates. Connecting this to Byram’s first component of attitude, one can say that I was able to converse at length conversation and to learn more about my British flatmates. The entire conversation with my flatmates was successful, and they began to ask me all kinds of questions. As soon as I told them that I am German with a Congolese background, some of them made a caricature of the German language and asked me why German’s do sound so aggressive. Soon it became clear that my flatmates did characterise Germans as strict, militaristic, and humourless people who are eager to follow the order. Of course, these are generalised and simplified assumptions about Germans, and some of these stereotypes do not correspond to the truth. While clearing up these assumptions, I realised that some stereotypes are actually based on facts. Let us take the stereotype of punctuality and order. As a German, I can firmly confirm that we rather are too early than too late. However, the line between generalisations and stereotypes is quite thin, yet it contributes to a negative perception of a stigmatised group. Moreover, a lack of cultural awareness can cause a lot of harm and friction; therefore, I was very pleased to educate my flatmates and break these stereotypes. Due to this incident, I learned how to deal with the feeling of being “othered” and do understand the complexity of this concept. So, according to Byram, it can be said that my skills of comparison, interpreting and relating were tested since I gained a critical outlook on my own thoughts and those of my flatmates. Due to this, I was able to spot indifferences and raise awareness about dubious judgments and misconceptions. During the online Freshers Week, the Edge Hill University devised an online orientation programme to ensure that all new students settle into their new surroundings. The online programme included various activities such as Virtual Quizzes, talent shows, and movie nights. Since everything was held online, clique formation and friendship groups did not fully establish yet. During the online meetings, we had the opportunity to get to know each other and chat about various topics. While introducing myself and telling everyone that I am German, I noticed that no one questioned my background. For the first time, my background became irrelevant, whereas, in Germany, I have always been confronted with stereotypical assumptions based on my physical features. As a young German woman with kinky hair and dark skin – I was fully seen as German and did not experience racism nor discrimination, as I anticipated. This may perhaps sound a little bit arid, but the fact is that in Germany, I have always been confronted with a series of comments such as “Where are you really from?”, “You don’t look German!”, “You don’t act like a black person” or “Why is your German so good?” whereas, in the UK, no one ever questioned my background. For some reason, my mind was occupied with what it means to “look” and “being” German. Discussing this topic with my fellow students made me realise that my background did not really matter in England, while in Germany, moments of ranging microaggression determine my daily life. Of course, these kinds of attitudes do not apply to all Germans. Discussing such a sensitive topic as race, identity, and belongingness helped me acknowledge my identity and embrace my Blackness. Furthermore, through the discussion, I noticed a huge lack of diversity in my discipline. Connecting this to the component of skills of interpreting, understanding, comparing, and relating, it can be said that the discussion mainly contributed to grasp my own reality to a depth of which I was not aware. I was able to digest my reality and reflect on certain things that did not come to the surface before. With regards to the components of knowledge and attitude, it can be said that I was willing to listen to the experiences and stories of my fellow students. According to this, one can say that the encounter with different students led to an exchange of different perspectives and views on race and identity. As I mentioned before, my background became irrelevant, and I was not only seen as German but, most importantly, as an individual. One might not believe this, but during the online Freshers week, I formed ties with my British fellow students, which allowed me to immerse myself in the British culture. Even though I thought that the online encounter would create a huge impediment, it actually helped me to get to know my fellow students on a deeper level. Referencing this to Byram’s component of attitude, the regular contact through social media sparked my interest in getting to know the local people. I was actively integrating my new acquaintances into my daily life. Making friends during the online Freshers Week was completely new to me and thus mostly out of my comfort zone. The encounter through online platforms allowed me and my friends to get closer emotionally, which enhanced the companionship. The online encounter mainly contributed to a further understanding of the practices of the local culture and people. During my study abroad, several moments fostered the development of Byram’s components. One example is where I went to a convenience shop called Bargain Booze to buy some snacks. As I wanted to pay for my snacks and drinks, the cashier suddenly asked: "Hiya, are you alright”? At this moment, many thoughts were going around my head. Mainly because I was confused why the cashier would ask about my well-being. Also, in Germany, no one would ever ask you how you are feeling. So, deep in my thoughts, I wondered why he would ask that and if I did not look alright. From this context, I was assuming to tell the cashier something about my day since he was engaging a conversation with me. Promptly, I started to tell him about my day and my study abroad. As one can imagine, the cashier did not truly inquire about my well-being. Of course, my stories did not bother him, and he simply smiled just to be polite and continued to scan my items. The awkward moment left me mortified, and I tried to override this embarrassing situation. Back in my mind, I thought that the cashier was stressed and overworked; therefore, I tried not to question the situation. However, this would keep happening to me very often, and one day I decided to ask my British friends why British people would ask how you feel, although they seem not to care. So, generally, it can be said that “Hiya how are you doing?” is the British way to greet someone, and it does not require a response. As my British friends told me at this particular moment, the cashier simply followed the social convention to ask. Hence, he was not trying to start a long-winded conversation. The common reply to this question would be a statement like “I’m good” or a repeated question like “You alright?”. Both of these responses are acceptable. It took me a while to figure out how to interact with the local people since I was not used to it. Moreover, these experiences were completely different from my experiences in Germany. In the beginning, I could not enigmatically decode the fake politeness of the locals, but within time, I got used to it. I remember perceiving British people as rude and unauthentic because of their fake politeness and sincerity. However, from the moment my friends enlightened me about this concept, I could integrate this new knowledge with what I already knew. With this knowledge, many of these awkward moments have been spared since I could properly interact with strangers. Three months later, my mindset and attitude towards others had changed. When comparing this with Byram's model of ICC, it can be said that I was able “to operate knowledge, attitudes and skills under the constraints of real-time communication and interaction” (Byram et al., 2002: 9). Meaning that I was keen to immerse into the local culture and gain a critical outlook towards my own thoughts and other people around me. Besides that, I noticed that I am not free from bias and stereotypes and that some stereotypes are deeply embedded. At some point, I perceived the British social convention of politeness as fake and unauthentic, perhaps because it seems to be just a crust and not real. Experience, however, showed that one must manage to balance honesty and politeness. This principle shaped my view of British people and their manner. As I understood that British people get along with all kinds of people which considerably eases social interaction. Generally, it can be said that all social contexts are different, and each context requires one to look at them from a different viewpoint. Meaning that in different social environments, one has to be open to re-evaluating one's own beliefs. This mindset of openness resulted in a more ethnorelative worldview where I could embrace multiculturalism. Another big aspect that differs from Germany is the university infrastructure and the university lifestyle. Regarding my studies in Germany, it can be said that it is more common to attend a lecture with 200 students in big lecture halls whereas in the UK a lecture will take place with approximately 50 people. Also, the seminars were more interactive and smaller than expected. I was particularly surprised by the fact that we were supposed to call our university lecturers by their first name. Besides that, the relationship to them was very personal. As an example, my lecturers were always accountable and tried to make us comfortable. They dd always keep an interest in our well-being and helped us to solve problems. Some of them have gone beyond their duties and always invited us to have a drink. Another big difference is the number of Sports and student Societies in the UK. The Sports and Student Societies were mostly to get to know other students and indulge one’s interest in a particular activity. The Societies mainly created a feeling of belongingness and social integration. I was able to join the Basketball team and the Multicultural Society. As a member of these societies, I received weekly emails and much information regarding our next meeting. As in Germany, I am not part of a sports team; the Basketball team enabled me to meet new people and develop a new passion. Although I had worries regarding my skills, joining the team was the best decision so far. Especially during the exam period, I was able to relax and take a break from everyday life. With regards to Byram, it can be said that I always seized opportunities to maximise my cultural experience. Of course, there were cultural differences, but I no longer perceive them as negative. This change enabled me to put my k nowledge, attitudes, and skills into practice and action. As I was actively looking for opportunities that allowed me to meet people from all over the world. Referencing this to Byram’s components of “skills of discovery and interaction” and “critical cultural awareness,” joining several societies fostered my skills of discovery and interaction. Since I was capable of cooperating with other people who shared different cultural orientations. Over the months, a bond had grown between us, and so many shared experiences have brought us closer. Although I was used to order and directness, I realised that the British culture is an exact fit for me and my lifestyle. With awareness in mind, I tried to be objective and to see the individual and thus not the individual who is considered to a cultural group.