by Alvino E. Fantini
Intercultural exchange experiences are on the rise. Increased contact among people of the world and increased diversity in many societies has made it imperative to promote understanding, tolerance, and respect among people of different cultures. Developing intercultural communicative competencies (ICC) has become a sine qua non for today’s students. Universities are responding with internationalization efforts that include curricular changes, increasing diversity on campus, and language and intercultural study. Educational exchange programs offer even greater promise by providing direct experience in another culture.
The Federation of The Experiment in International Living (Federation EIL), which has promoted educational exchange for over 85 years, has consistently offered such programs through its member organizations and partners in many countries around the world. Beginning in 1932 with summer exchange programs, The Experiment added academic study abroad programs in the 1950s in conjunction with many universities around the country. Today, the Federation’s U.S. member, World Learning, Inc., continues to conduct high school study abroad programs through its Experiment division while its School for International Training (SIT) provides more than 80 study abroad programs on all seven continents through Academic Study Abroad.
EIL and SIT programs involve careful participant selection, orientation, family homestays in the host culture, intercultural interventions conducted by teachers or leaders throughout the sojourn, and often a program theme, language study, local travel, and civic service internships or field research. At the heart of all these programs, however, it has become clear that living with a host family and developing host language proficiency are not only key to developing intercultural communicative competencies, they also lead to lifelong relationships across cultures.
These findings are substantiated through research regarding the impact of exchange experiences, and were recently published in the book Intercultural Communicative Competence in Educational Exchange: A Multinational Perspective (Routledge, 2019). The work is based on extensive research conducted by a multinational tem that explored the nature of intercultural communicative competence, its development during intercultural exchange programs, and the impact of these experiences on the lives of alumni up to 20 years later.
Intercultural communicative competencies are commonly defined as “the complex of abilities required to interact effectively and appropriately when dealing with members of another language-culture.” But identifying ICC components is more challenging. Components identified through the research were: specific characteristics or attributes, three specific abilities, four areas or dimensions, and host language proficiency, developing through a longitudinal process.
Research was conducted in eight countries (Brazil, Ecuador, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, Japan, Switzerland, and the United States) and involved more than 2,000 participants plus over 200 host families. The impact of programs in transforming people’s lives was reflected through both quantitative statistics and qualitative narratives obtained through surveys and interviews. Data also yielded important implications for program design and implementation, the relative value of program components, selection processes (for sojourners and hosts), cross-cultural orientation and ongoing interventions, monitoring and measuring of ICC development, and assessing outcomes upon participants long after the sojourn. In the end, findings substantiated the value of intercultural experience as one of the most holistic and profound educational experiences of their lives.
Several assertions were also strongly supported by the research, to wit:
- Intercultural experiences are life-altering.
- Homestays are the most compelling component of the sojourn abroad, helping participants to integrate into the culture, developing life-long relationships, aiding language learning, and providing a sense of security.
- Learning the host language is a fundamental component of ICC development.
- Intercultural contact affects all parties (host family members as well as sojourners).
- Participants develop new abilities and lean toward specific job areas, life partners, lifestyles, values, and more.
- When they return, alumni often engage in activities that impact others through education, service, and development (the multiplier effect).
- And many other unexpected benefits were cited (most respondents spoke of the program as the “most important educational experience of their lives”).
Clearly, internationalization also helps commerce, increases competition, and enhances our ability to interact politically in the world. But it is even more powerful than that. International, intercultural education transforms lives by developing new perspectives and alternative ways of conceptualizing, of being, of understanding, of interacting. Intercultural experiences help to transcend one’s singular worldview, to see anew, to learn more about others and oneself. As students develop friendships across cultures and become comfortable with difference, they contribute to the more important goals of peace, social justice, and equality.
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