Ana Wu: Could you tell us your professional background, and why you decided to became an educator?
Dr. Velasco-Martin: I studied English Language and Literature at the University of Valladolid, Spain and became a teacher very naturally, without thinking it twice. I have worked as an English teacher in Spain for many years and I have also taught Spanish as a Foreign Language both in Great Britain and in the USA. When I was teaching in LA, I decided to follow a Master’s Program in TESOL and after graduating came back to Spain, where I entered in a Ph. D. Program, also in Teaching Foreign Languages. I haven’t written my dissertation. I have also worked as an Education Advisor for the Spanish Embassy in Washington DC.
Ana Wu: I read with great interest your article “The Nonnative Speaking Teacher as an Intercultural Speaker ” (2004).
Could you tell us what you mean by the terms “intercultural speaker” and “intercultural personality”? Do you think it should be the goal of ESL/EFL teachers, NNES or NES, to increase their intercultural communication competence? How can this be achieved?
Dr. Velasco-Martin: We could describe intercultural speakers as those who know, are aware of and understand the similarities and distinctive differences between their world of origin and the world of the target community. They may be language instructors or language learners, but also plurilingual citizens who have developed interculturality. Their linguistic and cultural competences in respect of each of the languages they speak are modified by knowledge of the other and contribute to intercultural awareness. This will enable them to mediate between speakers of the different languages, to bridge differences in values and beliefs, social conventions and expectations, etc. I believe it is important for a language teacher to develop an intercultural communication competence. This can be basically achieved by acquiring knowledge of other languages and cultures, not necessarily of those of their students’. Intercultural competence is enriched by awareness of other cultures different from the learner’s and the target language culture, and helps to place both in context.
Ana Wu: Incorporating culture in teaching ESL/EFL has been a very controversial issue.
On March 24, 2007, at the TESOL convention, the ICIS sponsored an Academic Session entitled, “Is Culture ‘Really’ Dead in TESOL?” one of the panelists, Stephen Ryan, said that “if the notion of culture is not already dead, then it should be. It is a virtually meaningless term that obscures much more than it reveals, a lazy explanation for just about everything that actually explains nothing. My first point was that the way we use the word culture in daily life is so broad that it is almost devoid of meaning.”
He ended proposing that “our learners would be much better off without this,” that time spent studying “culture” would be better used in helping the learners to be sensitive to key factors in the context of communication (including but not limited to the social and educational background of their interlocutor)” (2007).
How can a NNES instructor promote intercultural and intracultural understanding without falling into stereotypes?
Dr. Velasco-Martin: The ability to overcome stereotypes can be promoted by helping students develop intercultural skills. This could be reached by relating the culture of origin and the foreign culture, finding points of contact and differences, dealing with conflicts and intercultural misunderstandings, in short, by fulfilling the role of cultural intermediary between both cultures. Intercultural awareness includes an awareness of how each community appears from the perspective of the other, often in the form of stereotypes. Being aware of stereotypes helps fighting them. In multicultural groups, it would be an excellent idea to design and include in the EFL/ESL classroom an intercultural component that raises awareness not only of the different sociocultural backgrounds of learners’, but also of their varied knowledge and life experiences, and then compare and contrast foreign students’ with those of native speakers.’
Ana Wu: In your article, you wrote, “In the EU, the figure of the ‘intercultural speaker’ – referring to both language teachers and language learners – leaves no place for the issue of native speaker versus nonnative speaker.” What do you think of the NS-NNS dichotomy?
Dr. Velasco-Martin: The question for me is not NS versus NNS. Many NS teachers/instructors have developed an intercultural personality that helps them understand, or better understand, the issues learners have when they learn a foreign language, issues that are not only referred to language, but also to cultural awareness. Some of these NS teachers/instructors have gone through that process before (by learning a foreign language, staying in a foreign country for a period of time, having contact with another culture, etc.), others have a deep interest in other languages and cultures and have done research, etc. NNS teachers/instructors are normally plurilingual and intercultural aware.
Ana Wu: Do you think that the notion of being an intercultural speaker could be a criterion for hiring a person as an ESL/EFL teacher? That is, could an interview question be, for example, “To what extent have you become an ‘intercultural speaker’?” or “How would you rate your intercultural communication competence?” How could a NNES prepare for this kind of criterion?
Dr. Velasco-Martin: Teachers should realize that they are role-models which students may follow in their future use of the language, therefore their attitudes and abilities are a very important part of the environment for language learning/acquisition. I think intercultural skills are very important when teaching a language, and therefore the notion of being an intercultural speaker could well be a criterion for hiring a language teacher. NNES have generally been exposed to at least two languages and two cultures to a certain degree. NNESs should ask themselves how good their intercultural attitudes and skills are and be able to communicate their knowledge of the social conventions, of the values and beliefs held by social groups in other countries, and their awareness and understanding of the differences and similarities with their own. I cannot image many NNES instructors who are not intercultural competent.
Ana Wu: I understand that you are not working at the Embassy of Spain in Washington D.C. Are you teaching? What do you miss from the USA?
Dr. Velasco-Martin: At the moment I am teaching English at an Official Language School (public institution) in Barcelona, Spain. The USA is like my second home, so you can imagine I miss my friends and colleagues, both in DC and in LA. But I am happy to be close to my family and my friends on this side of the world. Nowadays it is quite easy to keep in contact with people who are far away from you. And I enjoy teaching and the relationship with my students. This is very a very enriching experience for me.
Ana Wu: Thank you for this interesting interview!
Ryan, S. “Culture Should be Dead.” TESOL ICIS Newsletter, 5 (2). 2007.
Velasco-Martin, C. (2004). “The nonnative English-speaking teacher as an intercultural speaker.” In L. D. Kamhi-Stein (Ed.), Learning and teaching from experience: Perspectives on nonnative English-speaking Professionals (pp. 277-293). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.