Learning Cross-Cultural Competencies:
An Interview with a Cross-Cultural Trainer
The ACIE Newsletter, November 2006, Vol. 10, No. 1
By Kimerly Miller, ACIE Editor
[Editor’s note: Mary Beth Lamb came to our attention when a principal in a Twin Cities area immersion school told us a parent was interested in writing an article for this newsletter. We discovered that her background as a cross-cultural trainer gave her a unique perspective on the immersion education her children were receiving. This interview, conducted in the fall of 2005, is printed here coincidentally with the previous research report on measuring intercultural sensitivity in elementary age immersion students. Together these articles raise interesting questions about the cross-cultural competencies that children may be acquiring in foreign language immersion programs.]
CIE Editor: Describe your professional background and work in cross-cultural training.
Mary Beth Lamb: I’ve been working in global performance improvement and cultural competency since about 1990. I got interested in this area when I was a journalist working in Europe in multicultural teams usually under severe deadlines. When I moved back to the U.S. I did some cultural communication consulting and developed a [cross-cultural communications] business with two partners who were international businesswomen.
ACIE: Talk about your definition of cross- cultural competence and whether or not it can be learned.
MBL: Cultural competency is simply a set of skills and behaviors that allow people to bridge language and cultural differences so that they can work effectively and achieve their business goals. My observation is that anyone who experiences immersion, especially children, develops cultural competency subconsciously as part of the immersion process.
ACIE: It’s obvious that children are learning another language but it seems that the cultural competency you’re talking about is a more subtle by-product of that. What are you observing?
MBL: There’s a dimension in cultural differences we call context communication. A simple definition of context is all the information that surrounds an event. Most of how [children in immersion] learn is not through the words because they don’t understand the words. They have to use all these other aspects of context communication like gestures, silence, space, touch, to help them understand what’s going on. When I work with adults, we have to teach them how to recognize different ways to communicate. Immersion children know in the second month of kindergarten that they can’t ask a direct question to get a direct answer and they immediately adapt. If I ask the parents [of immersion kindergartners] to name five ways their child understands, the parents can name them off. They watch body language, they observe, they practice by trial and error, they make mistakes, they listen, they mirror, on and on. These are all high context behaviors that you have to learn in an immersion environment when you don’t understand.
ACIE: So how would this be different from an English-medium kindergarten classroom?
MBL: In [an English-medium kindergarten classroom] if a child doesn’t understand, the tendency is to raise her hand and say, I don’t understand, and the teacher will amplify. It’s word-based. In immersion it’s the exact opposite. Only as a last resort is the teacher going to give a verbal explanation in English because that would defeat the whole purpose. [Ed. note: Immersion teachers understand that exclusive use of the immerison language is key and use English only in emergency situations.] I watch the kindergarten teacher saying, after two months, “Here’s a pattern: red, red, orange; yellow, yellow, blue; red, red, what’s next?” And I can see [the kindergartners] going … (makes a quizzical face and laughs). That’s hard to do even in English. I watch them do all these high context things to try to figure it out. I think it is unconscious, but I believe that it’s a requirement in order not to just survive but thrive in an immersion environment. You develop a different set of muscles—cultural competency muscles.
Another example [of cross-cultural competency] is valuing differences and demonstrating global versatility. I watched this where children were giving examples of things they like to do with their families. One child said, “ We like to go camping.” Another one said, “We like to go skiing.” Another said, “We like to read books.” And then there was a little boy who said, “I like to om.” I was reading these to the class and I thought maybe he mixed the letters up and meant to say, “I like to do something with my mom.” Then, I realized he was Hindu and he was saying, “I like to pray.” I waited. I could feel my muscles start to tense because I made the assumption, coming out of a non-immersion environment as a child, that the kids would start to laugh. Instead what I heard was, “You like to om, oh, you like pray.” And these were first graders. “When do you like to pray?” “ Where do you pray?” “Whom do you pray to?” “What kind of things do you pray for?” And then one of the little kids said, “ You know, I like to pray, too.” And another one said, “I think we all pray for the same things in the end, don’t we?”
ACIE: This is in first grade?
MBL: This is in first grade. I know that could happen in a non-immersion environment, but I think in an immersion environment you’re constantly forced to look through a minimum of two lenses—the lens of the primary language and the lens of the immersion language. It forces you to have at least a bicultural perspective. Then, when you have people from eighteen different countries [as in my children’s school] you have very different perspectives and ways of being, acting, and behaving. One thing that children do (another cultural competency) is to look for commonalities. They look for where we are the same because there are so many things that are different.
ACIE: It seems a little bit like the way they are learning the [immersion] language. They don’t realize that what they’re doing is different. They are just doing it and they’re doing it partly because they know no other way.
MBL: It’s what we would call unconscious competency. We also see this is in children who live in multiple cultures. A child will integrate [many different ways of thinking, acting, and behaving] and create sort of a unique third culture.
If we look at how competencies develop, we start at unconscious incompetence where we don’t even know [a cultural competency] exists. Then we have conscious incompetence where we know we don’t possess a behavior but we don’t know how to develop it. Then our next level is unconscious competence where we somehow acquire it [like children in multicultural environments]. The final level is conscious competence, and I don’t know if immersion children get there. It’s when they are able to name what they do to adapt to be successful and they’re able to coach others. I don’t think children in an immersion environment can do that.
ACIE: So by identifying some of these cultural competencies you could, at some point, say to the kids, this is what you’re doing when you have your [Peruvian] kindergarten teacher and your [Mexican] first grade teacher teaching you in different ways.
MBL: I’ll give you an example. Here are some very simple tips we give adults to work across language and cultural differences: focus on listening to the message rather than the accent, be patient, allow for time, watch body language, be careful of assumptions. Immersion children do all of these things. They don’t know that they’re doing this. My premise is they’re all unconsciously competent, but wouldn’t it be powerful if we could take them to the level of conscious competence because that’s what we’re spending millions of dollars on in a professional environment?
ACIE: So these kids would leave immersion programs with a conscious understanding of what they’ve gained, aside from the language, that they could then translate into work skills, for example.
MBL: Work skills, life skills. When Robert Rosen and Patricia Knight interviewed the heads of the top 1000 companies in the world, 78% of them said the thing they’re most worried about is being able to [find] leaders qualified to run global organizations in the next ten years because there are not enough leaders who possess cultural competencies.
ACIE: Can these kinds of things be learned without learning another language?
MBL: I think you can, but we’ve found through research that the best way to develop cultural competency is to immerse yourself in another culture. I believe that immersion learning is as close to living in another culture as you can get because you are forced to figure out how to think, adapt, behave, and learn how to communicate in a totally different culture. A different language is a different culture. Even if we never step foot outside this country, we’re all living in a multicultural world whether it’s the person who lives in the house next door, the kid at the bus stop, or the person you’re buying something from at the 7-Eleven. These skills are helping our children whether they’re working right here at home or whether they’re going to work half way around the world. These are life skills. How do I communicate, how do I resolve conflict, how do I motivate, and how do I have a fulfilling life in a diverse world?
ACIE: You have just spoken to the parent organization at your school. What was the parent response?
MBL: They were a little bit shocked. I think we go into the immersion experience saying, “My children are going to learn a language and they’re going to learn some things about different cultures and we value that.” But I don’t think they realize that this gives immersion children an enormous advantage. In my work I tell people if they’re culturally competent they have a job for life because there are very few of us who a) recognize differences, b) know how to deal with differences, and c) actually like to do it. It’s frustrating; it’s dealing with ambiguity; it’s having your own values challenged; it’s all these things that most of us would prefer not to have to address, and immersion children grow up thinking it’s not hard or difficult. They think it’s kind of fun.
Immersion schools, I believe, are the training ground for effective global and, today, domestic business people. Immersion is doing the work. If I were running a global company I would go and look actively for those who have immersion experience on their resume. If they haven’t lived in other countries I’d look for immersion students and that would already be my pool. I can teach business skills, but I can’t teach cultural competency very easily. Or I can, but my clients spend millions of dollars to do it.