Intercultural learning is an issue that is often discussed, debated and disagreed upon. Nonformality is one of the places where strong critique has been voiced about ICL and new paths have been called for.
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A training kit on intercultural learning has been published, there have been many training courses and even long-term training courses, and last but not least an expert-seminar (report: pdf) tried to deconstruct and reconstruct intercultural learning, searching for ways forward.
Ironically, in none of the publications available you can actually find a definition of intercultural learning. And there are signs that the interest in intercultural learning is waning: not much has happened after the report of the expert seminar was published in 2009—two years after the seminar itself—and the T-Kit on Intercultural Learning, while it has been heavily criticised and could definitely use some updating, remains untouched in its tenth year of existence.
At the same time, a new term, yet not so new concept, seems to be entering the European youth field: intercultural competence.
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Intercultural competence is an old star of international business. First definitions appeared around 1960, when the first steps of globalised economy were taken. A person who is interculturally competent, according to some researchers in this field, is rich in skills, knowledge and attitudes expressed by (among others): frustration tolerance, patience, communication skills, openness, tolerance of ambiguity, has self distance, speaks languages and so many many more characteristics that essentially describe an unachievable super-human perfectly equipped for any kind of social interaction, regardless where those that are interacted with are from. A problem of vagueness that in it’s core seems to be strangely familiar to the debates around intercultural learning, isn’t it?
One idea of putting intercultural competence at the focus of international youth work is that it is regarded to be the result of intercultural learning. Linguistically this seems to be quite logical. If learning leads to competence than evidently intercultural learning must lead to intercultural competence.
Not to step on anybodies toes, but it is difficult to fight back the thought that both concepts, learning and competence, are so conveniently vague (and can be so nicely attributed with ‘intercultural’) that by putting competence at the focus of discussions now, one can pretend to have progress in the discussions, while the confusion continues.
What is both interesting and confounding about intercultural competence is that definitions change from field to field (just as definitions about intercultural learning differ).
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Economists refer to different sets of personal attributes than those active in developmental co-operation and probably those would again be different in the youth field. In fact, it is difficult to actually find definitions from the youth field. Is this simply owed to intercultural competence being a relatively new concept in the youth field, with many people not yet knowing what to do with it?
Simultaneously, the question arises whether intercultural competence is the purpose of international youth work. Since it is widely considered a key soft skill in the business field, this would make a lot of sense with regards to employability – admittedly a key motivation for the public support for international youth work.
And yet, scholars argue that intercultural competence is highly context-specific and context-sensitive and that using the term in a generalized manner only feeds the confusion already attached to the notion – among them Prof. Jürgen Straub in his German handbook on intercultural communication and competence.
Guo-Ming Chen and William J Starosta define intercultural competence as
“effective and appropriate interaction between people who identify with particular physical and symbolic environments” [source]
However, what is effective and what is appropriate does not only change from ‘culture’ to ‘culture’ but also depends on the specific context and the connected values, habits, implicit and explicit rules that are embedded implicitly and explicitly in these contexts.
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In a business context, effective may mean to seal a deal quickly and sustainably and employ appropriate means to achieve that goal. But what does effective really mean in international youth work? And what does appropriate mean in international youth work?
Can intercultural competence acquired in the youth field— inyouth exchanges, seminars or training courses—become operational in an international business setting? Could it, possibly, even be contra-productive for the current economic system to be interculturally competent in a youth work style?
It is, this much is clear, a tricky and brave undertaking to put a fuzzy concept from one field and apply it to another. Let’s start to question some of the fuzziness.