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Spotlight on intercultural encounters – an interview with Ms Mittaphone Sichampa and Ms Phovang Inthavong

Dear readers,

First of all, let me (re-)reintroduce two of my lovely tandem-teachers: Ms Mittaphone “Mit” Sichampa and Ms Phovang “Noy” Inthavong. “Re-“, because you might already know them as they were amongst the first teachers to join the project. Alternatively, you might have read some contributions by them in the blog series “Letters from England”. Their impressions and experiences of their time in Europe1 will, in fact, make up the biggest part of this interview.

But first things first – how did this come about?

Both intercultural learning and intercultural competence have been given much attention and become prominent teaching goals in the Western world of language education and in business. This is owed to societal changes and globalisation on the one hand, and a change in the perception of the relationship between languages and cultures on the other.2 Nowadays the two are seen as inextricably interwoven, as every utterance is culturally embedded. The result is a new understanding of “successful communication” for which linguistic proficiency is no longer enough but which demands an intercultural component in order to be sufficient for communication across languages and cultures (cf. Grimm, Meyer & Volkmann 2015).

 

Intercultural (Communicative) Competence (ICC)

This was soon taken into account and applied to foreign language education. The – till then – predominant communicative approach was extended by an intercultural component, thus making Intercultural Communicative Competence the overriding principle and ultimate goal.

According to Byram (1997), ICC consists of three different components, which are distinguished into cognitive, pragmatic, and affective competences. The cognitive component consists of factual knowledge about the other culture and its customs, but goes beyond that in that it also includes the rational knowledge that cultures differ from each other.
The affective component, in the widest sense, comprises the willingness to accept these differences, and engage with them with an open mind.
Pragmatic competences consist of linguistic skills which are flexibly used during communication with regards to culture-specific norms such as politeness. All three together have to be developed in order to reach the desired outcome of critical cultural awareness, which then encompasses both the ability to successfully communicate in a foreign language and appropriately act within the corresponding culture.

 

Development of ICC & intercultural learning

What was now shortly outlined does in reality span a huge field with a high range of indispensable sub-competences, whereby the linguistic ones are much easier to define than the culture-related counterparts. The fact that culture itself is a heterogeneous concept with a variety of relevant facets associated with it further adds to this notion. Consequently, scholars have turned to research the formation of ICC, rather than the outcome. Bennett (1986, 1993, 2004), for instance, researched six different steps towards Intercultural Sensitivity. While his model links up with Byram’s affective component, Grosch & Hany (2009) concentrated on the development of cognitive aspects. 

Scientific evidence suggests that the development of ICC builds up gradually, and to a large extent depends on recurrent intercultural learning opportunities, which holistically take all components into account. There is a consensus for this to be a life-long process,3 which should therefore be an integral part of foreign language learning.

These theoretical considerations gave rise to further thoughts as to how intercultural learning can be initiated and fostered. Nowadays, there is an understanding that intercultural learning does not only consist of learning about and from the other culture, but of learning about one’s own culture at the same time. Contrasting different cultural phenomena to each other and reflecting on similarities and differences seems to be a sensible way to foster intercultural learning, and should be done with growing complexity, thereby allowing to delve deeper each time (cf. Brunsmeier 2015; Kirsch 2011).

 

Intercultural learning & “The Laos Experience”

“The Laos Experience” project holds extensive potential for intercultural learning processes for everybody involved,4 which lies within the nature of the project itself.

One the one hand, the project relies to a large extent on tandem-work, i.e. close cooperation between Lao and German teachers, during which both partners are inevitably confronted with the other culture. This both necessitates and facilitates learning about and from each other, in order to establish an environment of trust, which is the basis of working well together. These bi-directional learning processes, in turn, do not only foster but also require a minimum of intercultural competence(s) in that positive attitudes and a willingness to engage with the other culture are essential.

In addition to that, the German volunteers immerse themselves in a wholly different world, have to get used to being surrounded by another language, and adapt to differing cultural elements such as food, customs, religion, and beliefs. It is therefore not surprising that I have frequently observed a phenomenon I could not fully make sense of myself, and therefore turned to my tandems Mit and Noy for an explanation. Luckily, they never grew tired of my questions but were kind enough to answer them patiently each time, thereby providing me with a better understanding of the Lao way of life and thinking. This learning on my side, I hope, also made my teaching better in the sense that I learnt to customise it to the Lao conditions.

At some point, I realised the two of them must have found themselves in a similar position when they were invited to come to Europe for 2 months in the summer of 2017, and so I was curious about their impressions, experiences, and memories of this time. I was wondering about how they found their way around, what they learned and thought of the place that I come from, and whether they found some things strange or curious that I consider “normal”. Was it easy for them to adapt, and how did it make them feel to be in a country in which they could not communicate in their mother tongue for the first time? At first, these questions would arise every now and then, and then became the subject of many conversations during both our shared English lessons and free time spent together. When I finally asked them both for a more structured and extensive conversation on the topic, they kindly consented to this interview. 

 

Conclusion & findings

What started off with my interest in Mit’s & Noy’s experiences and seeing my own culture through their eyes happened to be very interesting for different reasons: Many of the things they said I could relate to very well, on other occasions my own experiences differed, and other statements simply made me smile.

In the end, the interview turned out to entail additional value insofar as this was the first time to receive an insight into subjective impressions rather than “objective” descriptions of everyday life and trips. This form of feedback is beneficial insofar as it helps the project to uncover and shed light on (possible) “blind spots” by finding out what was (and stayed) difficult or problematic, and making use of that knowledge in the future by thinking of ways in which these challenges could be reduced or avoided. 2 months seem to have been a reasonable time to overcome challenges such as homesickness and culture shock, and to adjust to new surroundings and learning to live in them, thus returning home with the pride of having managed.

As would be expected, their stay was both intense and challenging at times, but on the other hand also a memorable and formative experience. So now, I hope you enjoy reading about their journeys through a variety of impressions, experiences, and memories.

 

Interview

Meike: First of all, thank you for letting me interview you. So, I’m ready to start with my first question: I already know that you both were predominantly happy and excited about the opportunity of going to England and Germany.  What were your first impressions when you arrived, was it like you imagined it to be?

Mit:  Look like I dream. Why I am here? Because I can’t believe I can go there. And is first time for me for this very long journey, I never have been before. Very long flight. And before, I worry that it’s very cold, but it wasn’t cold. I like the weather, it is good, just warm. Not too cold, not too hot.

Noy: I don’t know a lot about before I go. Yes, I feel very excited. Before I never go another country, I only live Lao country. I am very excited. And I think really surprise me, because different everything. The first airport. Because in Lao small airport, but there very big, I think difficult for the find the gate or something. I ask some people. Yes and food, the same.

Meike: You gave me an excellent keyword right there! Because my next question would have been what differences you encountered. We can start with the food, what about it – did you like it?

Noy: Yes. I like fish and chips. Famous of England.

Meike: Yes. You also said one of your favourite dishes here is grilled fish?

Noy: Yes, fish and chips there. Really good, I think. But I heard about the … we eat fish a lot, almost every day. And there, we never.

Mit: Yes, I like some food, I forgot the name. Some food is good, yes. But I really like spaghetti with tuna.

Meike: Did you miss Lao food?

Mit: Yes, very much. Especially papaya salad! Sticky rice and grilled fish… But sometimes I can cook.

Meike: Oh, good! And was it easy for you to find all the ingredients for cooking?

Mit: Not easy. But before I also bring a few ingredients from Lao.

Meike: What did you bring?

Mit: I brought seasoning for the soup. And also rice I bring from Lao.

Meike: Is the rice different from the one here?

Mit: Yes, very. Very different. In Lao, the colour is white. But in England, big one and the colour also, looks like brown. So different from here, yes.

Meike: Did you like the rice there, or not so much?

Mit: Yes, I like. Just different. And we only eat sometimes, because they don’t eat rice much. Only maybe two or three times per week, but in Lao we eat rice every day.

Meike: Ah yes, it’s the same as what Noy said about fish. We eat more bread or potatoes.

Mit: Yes, there was one dish with potatoes I didn’t like. Mashed potato, I think.

Meike: What about you, Noy, did you miss Lao food or were you happy with your fish and chips?

Noy: I’m happy, but I’m also very lucky, because my host family is very kind. And the wife is from Thailand and only the husband is from England.

Meike: Oh, that’s good to hear! Because I read your posts, and in one of them you said you also feared a bit to live in a house with people you don’t know. Was that okay with you? 

Noy: Yes, they are friendly, and they are kind. Very kind. And they take care of me. I think I really lucky, because the friend, they can come and eat with us. My friends, Mit and Donekeo, I never go to their house. But my host, “This week my friend, they can come?” and she said “yeah”. So I invite them and she cook food or something a lot, or we make together.

Meike: That sounds nice! Could you then also have food that you know from home?

Noy: Yes. Because sometimes she cook for me and have papaya salad, the same – and sticky rice or steamed rice, the same. Lao and Thai food, some food similar.

Meike: Sounds good! So apart from the food, what else was different for you?

Noy: Ah some things I think are different in Lao. Because anything different in Lao. Example: Food or people and language.

Mit: I think it’s very clean. In Laos, I clean my shoes a lot. And in England, I can wear them a long time before I have to clean them. Also, I think they don’t have mountains, only small ones. But here I think there are many mountains, if you go to Vang Vieng or Luang Prabang, right? But I cannot see mountains in England. And there is no traffic jam in the city we stayed, different to Lao. Only in London.

Meike: Yes, there are no big mountains. Only hills, which are a lot smaller than the mountains in Laos. Ah, I didn’t know you went to London, too! What did you think of it?

Mit: Many people, I think, very crowded. And the clothes and food very expensive, I think. Also in Germany, I go and buy perfume – very good smell, I like it, but very expensive. I bought, I think 25€. In Laos 250.000 kip.

Noy: I forgot something, about the money. Really funny. When I bought something, I don’t know. I bring the money, and they should look for the money. Pound or – I forgot – when I go there, I bring enough. But I don’t know what to give them. The same you, when you came to the market – you show about the money.

Meike: Yes, because in the beginning your currency really confused me. Even now, sometimes I still mix up the note for 1,000 and 10,000 kip. And if I have to pay like 8,000 kip, I often accidentally give the wrong note, and I don’t even realise until the ladies at the market show me. But it’s getting better now!

Noy: Yes, and in the school, we have restaurant. In the first weeks, I show the money and they pick, really funny. But in Lao, no coins. Only the paper. But have coins and small coins, and big coins, a lot. And then the colour is different, I think three colours. But in Lao only paper.

Mit: And I think free style for the clothes, right? I think they don’t need to wear uniform in school.

Meike: School children in England have to wear them. But for teachers, no, they don’t. They just have to make sure they dress appropriately, e.g. cover their knees and cleavage.

Mit: But for students in the school I was, free style. I like that, we can wear what we want.

Meike: Ah, for you at Hilderstone College, you mean! I see, I understand now.

Mit: Yes, and also, they can smoke. A lot. The students and also the teachers. I think they like to smoke. Also my host family, they like to smoke a lot. One classmate asked me “Do you want to try?” I said “no, thank you”. And I saw a couple kiss at an activity, I think karaoke in the evening. And after break, they have a table where we can sit and relax. So not in the classroom, but in the school area.

Meike: Ah yes! So now you both mentioned many interesting aspects that you observed! Were some of them, or also other aspects, difficult to get used to for you?

Noy: The first week difficult for me, because everything new for me – the road or the people and anything is new. I think the first week, I worry. And then the time, the same. The first week, I can’t sleep. And when I go to school, I really tired. Some teacher asked why. Because in my country it’s different, it’s afternoon. But in this country, it’s morning. Six hours different!

Meike: Yes, I’m all too well familiar with this!

Mit: For me, on the first day, I went the wrong way. This is difficult for me, because I didn’t know which way to go, is this north or south, I didn’t know the way. And yeah, the first month we find out how to go, my life will change, how to get along with them. We almost took almost one month. In that month, we feel some a little bit difficult to live.

Meike: What was difficult for you?

Mit: I mean, how are we… we don’t know how to stay with the host family, and we worry that “how can we help them?” and what we should do when we stay at home. First month, yes, I’m confused a little bit.

Meike: Yes, so you needed some weeks to settle in properly.

Mit: Yes. But yes, I think, after the second month everything will be good.

Meike: So in your family, what were you confused about in your first weeks? Like how can you help with the dishes or …?

Mit: Yes, how can we help them to… with the house. And then what should we do, what should we not do?

Meike: Okay, did they have any rules? Like did they tell you what you can do or cannot do?

Mit: No. Because I wanted to help and then she told me “you don’t do anything. You have only study, you have to go to school and study. And come back home and just rest.”

Meike: I see. That must have been very different for you, because you are used to coming home and doing different things and she wanted to be nice and therefore said “oh, don’t worry about it, you’re my guest”.

Mit: Yes. And sometimes, I wash the dishes. And clean the bed. And wash my clothes by myself. But for the clothes, she said “just put here, I will do for you”. That was nice.

Meike: What about you, Noy? In one of your articles you said your host family told you that there are some things you can do, and some things that you can’t do. Do you remember some of the things?

Noy: They said something I can do, example she said when you go visit some friend at the house, you should go inside, you waiting until they invited you come, they said. Or something, if you want something you should ask they. If they say yes, you can; yes, I can.

Meike: Alright! So during that first one month you needed time to settle with your host family. What about the school?

Mit: Yes, and also with the school as well.

Meike: How did you deal with that, did they help you in the school to settle in? What did you have to get used to, what was different to here maybe? What was new for you?

Mit: About the time. We have to go on time. If you come late, you cannot go inside. You have to go to the office, and we have to get a note or a ticket. And then the teacher lets you wait, maybe 30 minutes, and then you can go next hour but you cannot go to the lesson. So that’s different. So, they say you have to go on time, and then I always go on time.

Meike: Anything else that was different at school, maybe how they taught you? How did they teach you English?

Noy: Yes, the first. I think different the first about the classroom. Different, because in Lao a lot of students – there, it look quite a lot of students, but one class small. Only six or eight people.

Mit: And they teach by like projector, just a little bit, but they use projector and Internet almost yes, every lesson. And we work in groups a lot, also in pairs. And we walk. And they have lots of activities like sport and listen to story and karaoke in the evening.

Meike: Were there other things that you found funny or strange, or were curious about?

Mit: Just one classmate. A Turkish girl, she is unfriendly. She said she doesn’t understand me. But I think they have three men from Turkey, but they understand. But only she. She really didn’t want to speak with us.

Noy: For me, I think, it’s market. Yes, market different. Over there, they said market, but it look like a supermarket or shopping mall in Vientiane but market in Lao no! Different in Lao. And when we bought something, I never know about the plastic. If we want, we should buy plastic for the give something inside.

Meike: The plastic bags! Because you have to pay for them, you mean?

Noy: Yes. But in Lao no, if we buy they put in the plastic. Over there, Souvanh bought something, and quite a lot, and “why you don’t have plastic bag?” he say. “If you want plastic bag, you pay”. And then “Why?!” (sounds surprised)

Meike: Yes, they introduced that rule maybe 3 or 4 years ago. Before you always got plastic bags for free. But now they said you have to pay for it, because maybe it will stop people from using so much plastic by bringing their own reusable bags from home instead.

Noy: Yes. And the same, bottle of water – you get money back! I never – I saw teacher Martin, Prof. Martin, in the car have the bottle of water. When we go to, I don’t know the name, she bring us the bottle for free, and then I saw she put the bottle in the machine and there’s money come out.

Meike: Yes, then you get money back, so you don’t throw it everywhere, and the plastic can be used again in the future.

Noy: Yes, but in Lao no, different. And German country very clean. Very good. The first I like the flower. Look like the plastic flower, the same. But I touched, it’s real. Real flower.

Meike: You gave same very good examples there. That’s normal life for me, but I can totally understand you must have found that strange or funny, wondering what exactly we are doing and why we’re doing it. What were your favourite memories or top 3 experiences?

Mit: I really liked this place I lived (Broadstairs in Kent), because it’s close to the beach. So I always go and walk, and if I have free time I walk along the coast. It’s also good for the exercise, walking and jogging along the coast. Sometimes I walk alone, and sometimes I go with the Lao teachers, Donekeo and Noy. And every weekend we have two trips to another city, like I went to Brighton or London. I like these trips! And also Prof. Martin, I think they stay with us one week. And we stay together, I think we have lunch together at the beach. And then we go to the books, to the library. And we also went to see the film in the evening together. Looks like an old story of England. I think story about England before. And also go shopping together. I forgot the name. They said…  I can’t remember. A big center. I just bought present to bring. I brought socks for my niece and nephew, and also watch for my sister. And also cosmetic and lipstick. That was England, and back in Germany she also let us go and buy perfume. Very good smell, I like it, but very expensive. 

And John, first three days, I think. First day, he let us go the host family, and second day, he let us go to school. And third day, we go around the beach together and walk. And John, he suggest we go to a traditional pub, but some teachers are tired, and go back home, so it was only us. I also have a very good memory of Germany. The day we went to picnic together. I think, all team they come to meet together and then we go to picknick. And we went to… how to call that one, we go to the top and then you can see the city. I don’t know the name, but we go to the top and it was very nice.

Meike: Turmberg (tower hill)? How did you go there, by a tram?

Mit: I don’t know. We go by the car. Isabel’s car. We go to the top, very nice. And we go down and then we can see the nature. What was the name of the park? Schlossgarten, yes, very nice. We walk around and picnic. And afterwards we have a barbecue, very nice. We stay together until the dark.

Noy: For me about the study. I remember, example, I remember teacher, and I can learn about another country, when we study together. I know a little bit about the country of them. Example, the church. Before I never go to the church. Look like temple in Lao.

Meike: That’s something I find very interesting, too!

Noy: And people in my class are very friendly. And before we go back, my classmates they go to pub together for me to celebrate together. Some of them, he can’t drink, because he’s from the Turkish. He live far from the school, go with bicycle for the go to school. Last night, he has no signal about the phone. He drive bicycle around, for find me because tomorrow I leave. He find and he stop bicycle and he said tomorrow you go, but I can’t celebrate with you, because I can’t drink, I go home. Okay never mind, tomorrow we meet again, I said. They are friendly. When we go out, they are send me at home because I afraid go alone. Because in Lao, I know everything about people and something. I can guess about people, but foreigner, no I can’t. Because everything new for me, I should careful something, and example, cannot drink as much as [would be normal] in Laos.

Meike: Sounds like you both, and probably the other teachers, too, had a very intense – in a positive way – a nice time in Europe. I’m glad to hear you mostly liked it and were able to take home nice memories, meeting new friends in the language course, meeting former friends again…

Noy: Yes, a good experience because I never lived another house. And I never leave the country. My family missed and worry about me, because I never never far from my country. Only I go another province, or visit my friend, only two day or one day or three day. Not go a lot and long. And when I go, I live with my sister and Vientiane, I live with my brother. But the first time.

Meike: Did you sometimes feel homesick then?

Noy: Yes, sometime I am homesick about. Because when I live in another house and host family, only in my room, but in Lao when you live you can talk and say anything for dinner or breakfast or something together. But when go back from school, all in the room, after that eat.

Mit: Yes, sometimes.

Meike: Did something happen then, something bad, or just generally?

Mit: I think generally. But I miss, yes. Sometimes, it looked like. When I was in the school it was okay, but when I go home sometimes I stay alone because my host family go out and have a drink with their friend and let me stay at home alone. Then I miss home and Anna (daughter).

Meike: Could you speak to your families on the phone?

Mit: Yes, I speak with Anna often.

Noy: Yes. The first, when I go to England, my sister, she pregnant. I dream about her. I dream she can’t give birthday. I go to the London, and then I say to Mit, last night I dream about my sister, but she can’t give birth, she have incision, I say. When I go back, I call my brother in-law: where are you, I want to talk about, with my sister. She… he said now I at the hospital, because your sister want to give birthday. But he… she can’t give birthday. She has incision.

Meike: Oh wow, just like you dreamt.

Noy: Yes. Mit said to me, next time you dream about lottery! (laughing)

Meike: (laughing) Yes! Okay, last question: Probably you also made a lot of progress with the English language. Do you feel it is easier to speak and communicate in English now? That was definitely the case for me after I came back from England.

Mit: Yes, before I worried to have conversation with the foreigner, or with them. But when I go there, and then I think yes, I can communicate with them. When I talk with them they understand, they know they understand what I mean.

Meike: Okay, so you got more confidence!

Mit: Yes, so I am happy to be there, so if I have chance again, I would like to study more than two months, so I think my English will be improve better if I stay longer, because also difficult the first month.

Meike: Yes, I understand!

Noy: For me, not easy I think. So so, I think. Not easy, not difficult. First, I was worried, but over there no. Sometimes when they said I don’t understand, I explain or when I don’t understand they explain. So then yes, I can understand.

Meike: Thank you, that was very interesting for me, and I bet everyone who’s going to read this is going to find it interesting, too. Again, thank you very much for your time!


Text & interview by M. Weis
Interviewees: Mittaphone Sichampa & Phovang Inthavong
Photo by P. Faix


Notes

1 In 2017, four of the English teachers were invited to come to Europe to foster their competences further by participating in an eight-week course at Hilderstone College in England. The stay was sponsored by the foundation Angels for Children, and included two visits to Germany, too – on arrival and before departure – during which the Lao teachers and the German volunteers of different teams had the chance to catch up (Team I, III) or get to know each other (Team V, VI).

2 Societal changes encompass globalisation, internationalisation, and migration, for instance, which evoked political debates about peaceful communication across languages and cultures with a focus on diversity. For the other aspect: Formerly, languages and cultures were believed to be two separate areas, or distantly related at most. 

With regard to ICC, the notion of a life-long process does not mean that the goal of successful communication can never be reached, but rather that intercultural learning does not have a defined end goal and no matter how high one’s competences already are, there is always capacity for further growth.

These learning processes and contents are very individual and can differ considerably from person to person. This circumstance is rooted in differing prior knowledge of and experiences with other cultures regarding Byram’s three components, but also owed to motivational factors. In other words, the subjective, current level of intercultural competence defines the next steps of intercultural learning.


References

Brunsmeier, Sonja (2015). “ICC? – Why, What and How!” In: Grundschule Englisch (52), 38-41.

Byram, Michael (1997). Teaching and Assessing Intercultural Communicative Competence. Clevedon, Bristol, Toronto, Artamon, Johannesburg: Multilingual Matters Ltd.

Grimm, Nancy, Michael Meyer & Laurenz Volkmann (2015). „Intercultural and Transcultural Learning“. In: Grimm, Nancy, Michael Meyer & Laurenz Volkmann (eds.). Teaching English, 151-172. Tübingen: Narr Francke Attempto Verlag.

Grosch, Christiane & Ernst Hany (2009). “Entwicklungsverlauf kognitiver Komponenten des interkulturellen Verständnisses”. In: Hu, Adelheid & Michael Byram (eds.). Interkulturelle Kompetenz und fremdsprachliches Lernen. Modelle, Empirie, Evaluation. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag.

Kirsch, Claudine (2011). Teaching Foreign Languages in the Primary School, 154-169. London, New York: Continuum.


Website

Intercultural Development Research Institute. “Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity”.
         https://www.idrinstitute.org/dmis/ (accessed: 23rd February, 2019)

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