ICIS Newsletter

ICIS News, Volume 5:2 (August 2007)

by User Not Found | 10/26/2011
In This Issue...
  • Leadership Updates
    • Notes From the Coeditor
    • Greetings From the Chair
  • Articles
    • The Concept of Culture Is Under Fire
    • Culture Should Be Dead
    • Culture Trouble
    • The Relevance of Culture in the EFL Classroom
    • Convergence of Values in Teaching Critical Thinking
    • (Adult) Third Culture Kids in the ESL Classroom
  • Announcements
    • New Program: The TESOL Resource Center
    • Call for Manuscripts: Fall Newsletter
    • ICIS Steering Committee Members

Leadership Updates Notes From the Coeditor

Rebekah Muir, Cy-Fair College, Cypress, Texas, USA, rebekahmuir@yahoo.com

Now that many months have passed since the Seattle TESOL convention, the glow of stimulating meetings and presentations may have long since faded for those of us privileged to attend. Even while there, we discovered that the offerings were often so plentiful that we could not attend all the interesting gatherings within our interest section. Still others of us were unable to attend the convention this time. To mitigate all of these conditions, this newsletter offers a series of articles that summarize valuable TESOL convention presentations about applied intercultural communication. By "applied" it is meant that the subject of these articles is how intercultural communication theories can and should affect our ES/FL teaching practices.

To start the newsletter we have greetings from Chair Donna Fujimoto wherein she details some exciting moments at the Seattle TESOL convention and asks for ideas and contributions from all our members to help make next year's convention even better for participants interested in intercultural communication.

The first four articles in this newsletter comprise a four-part report on the panel "Is Culture 'Really' Dead in TESOL?" The authors are Donna Fujimoto, Stephen Ryan, Dwight Atkinson, and Yuzuru Takigawa. Fujimoto introduces the controversy that led to the panel's formation and introduces the participants in the panel. Ryan outlines how the concept of culture has developed into a three-headed monster of confusion, misuse, and oversimplification. He advocates that the concept has become counterproductive in the field of ESOL.

Atkinson and Takigawa both plead on the side of the continuing usefulness of "culture" in the ES/FL classroom. Atkinson presents three reasons why, despite serious problems with how to define culture, paying direct attention to culture is still of use to our profession and our students. Takigawa speaks specifically from her experience of teaching English to Japanese students. She offers some examples of how knowledge of "cultural" background can make a real difference in how and what she teaches her students.

The next two contributions to this newsletter are strongly related to the above-mentioned panel discussion. Ken Enochs and Mike Kleindl have taken the findings of Richard Nisbett on cognitive differences between Westerners and Easterners and applied them in their work with East Asian students. They offer a number of suggestions for how teachers can better take into account these differences when working with East Asians.

Finally, Rebekah Muir summarizes her presentation on (adult) third culture kids (TCKs) and their profile in the ESL classroom. On the basis of a review of the literature, a survey of a community college ESL programs and her personal experience as a TCK, she posits that TCKs are a significant population with special needs and gifts as both our students and as fellow teachers.  

In addition to the usual contact information for steering committee members, we have included a short introduction to the new TESOL Resource Center where all members can share support and resources with other members. My coeditor, Mary Huebsch, and I, hope that you will find the offerings in this newsletter a refreshing and stimulating addition to your summer months whether you are on holiday or at work.


Greetings From the Chair

Donna Fujimoto, Osaka Jogakuin College, Japan, fujimotodonna@gmail.com

Dear ICIS Members,

This is your current chair, Donna Fujimoto, sending an enthusiastic greeting and welcome to you in this issue of the IC Newsletter. The 2007 TESOL Convention in Seattle was a great success, as there were a great many solid colloquia, papers, workshops, discussion sessions, and posters. This year the ICIS again hosted the IC Networking reception, although it came as a big shock when immediate past cochair, Susan Coakley, learned—during our business meeting—that the convention center staff had not been alerted to set up light snacks and drinks in the other half of the room. It took some swift mobile phone calls, a bit of nail biting, and, most important, some adroit negotiation skills on Susan's part to get things rolling smoothly, and, in the end, there was hardly a hitch in our planned schedule. The other immediate past cochair, Sara Keyes, presented a fun ice-breaking game, which was appropriately related to people's travel and language experience. One could see lots of people meeting each other for the first time and sharing stories. Networking, after all, is the whole point of this event.

For next year's networking event, the IC Planning Committee is open to ideas on how this event can be publicized and organized. We would like to try to make this event memorable, especially because we will be in a most exciting place: New York City. This event is open to anyone at the convention, not only ICIS members. If you have any creative and fun ideas that will bring people together in a meaningful way for one evening during the conference, please contact me or any other committee member. Ideas are free; however, we will make sure that the event fits within the proposed budget. 
The ICIS is always looking for people who can facilitate good discussions at the convention. Discussion Groups are generally held during either the early or late time slots at the conference. These are not regular presentations. The leader must present the topic in a way that stimulates a more in-depth discussion around a particular issue. Be sure to contact anyone on the committee if you have an idea and are willing to lead a session.
In Seattle I was particularly busy because I participated in several colloquia and also had many organizational meetings to attend. This meant that I was able to stay at the ICIS booth only on the last day. During the short time I was there, I met an array of very interesting people. Some were already well-versed in IC-related work, whereas others were new to the field. As it was near the end of the conference, several reported on sessions that they found beneficial, so it was a great way to get a sense of how others were experiencing the convention. I highly recommend that ICIS members sign up for a few hours at our booth next year, as you will surely meet many likable and like-minded people.
At this time, we are working on the planning for next year's convention, so any and all ideas from you are definitely welcome. Please e-mail me atfujimotodonna@gmail.com. Be sure to put "ICIS" in the subject line; otherwise, your e-mail will be deleted. Remember, too, that this is your newsletter, so please think seriously of submitting reports or articles that might be of interest to our members. 
All the best,  

Articles The Concept of Culture Is Under Fire

Donna Fujimoto, Osaka Jogakuin College, Osaka, Japan, fujimotodonna@gmail.com

On March 24, 2007, at the TESOL convention, the ICIS sponsored an Academic Session entitled, "Is Culture 'Really' Dead in TESOL?" One participant commented that the title looked like a ploy to bring in TESOLers in the early morning (8:30 a.m. to be exact) on the last day of the conference. I had to concede that this was partly true, but, to be honest, I was motivated more by the fact that I believed that the average ICIS member (and the average TESOLer) was not aware that the concept of culture is under fire. I got a blank stare even from a TESOL board member, not to mention many novice and veteran teachers that I had talked to last year when I brought the subject up. This lack of awareness was true despite the colloquium organized by Gayle Nelson in 2006 titled "Is Culture Dead in TESOL?" My goal was to attract the attention of all TESOLers, and as coordinator of the ICIS, I felt it was my responsibility to make sure that ICIS members in particular became aware that this is a heated issue. IC practitioners and researchers should be prepared to address the criticisms that have been directed at the field.
When I opened the session, I asked how many people in the room were ICIS members, and I counted only about a half a dozen raised hands among the 80-plus members in the audience. Clearly, the criticism of culture within ICIS circles had not registered on a number of the audience members' radar screens, and this is the reason I am making sure that this report gets into this newsletter. Although I cannot possibly capture the kind of "buzz" that was created by the interactive debate among panelists and audience members at this session, I attempt here to encapsulate some of the main ideas presented by three of the panelists. 
I begin first with the most critical of the panelists, Stephen Ryan, who told me facetiously (but in earnest) last year, "If culture isn't dead in TESOL already, then it ought to be killed off!" I immediately demanded that he be on the panel, as I felt we needed the most extreme view to help us see the areas where ideas clash more clearly. Then, of course, we needed someone who had already spent a considerable amount of time researching the topic of TESOL and culture, so I turned to Dwight Atkinson who raised the issue of culture in TESOL a number of years ago in several TESOL Quarterly articles. Finally, I made sure we had a classroom teacher who has firsthand experience having to learn English as a second language. Yuzuru Takigawa is a colleague of mine with whom I have often had interesting conversations about the contrasts between the practices and attitudes of the Japanese and American people that we know. We have often puzzled over what exactly were the sources of friction. Hopefully, these short reports will give readers a good idea of the issues involved.

In this series of articles, I was unable to include the questions and comments generated by the panel. Perhaps there will be an opportunity to share their contributions at a future date as I recorded the session and a digital copy is now in my computer. A number of participants contacted me after the session to say that they had learned a great deal about this controversy and had not previously realized its significance to our field until our session. I would like to thank all the panelists and participants for making the ICIS Academic Session as rich and as thought provoking as it turned out to be.

(Note: The two panelists not included in this series of articles were Gayle Nelson of Georgia State University and Kimberley Brown of Portland State University. We welcome their comments in a future issue.)


Culture Should Be Dead

Stephen M. Ryan, St. Thomas University, Amagasaki, ryanyama@hcc5.bai.ne.jp

In my panel presentation, I argued 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. Any word that can be found in such diverse expressions as "a culture of violence," "bringing culture to the people," and "youth culture" is clearly being stretched close to the breaking point. 
In light of this, TESOL has tended to turn to the field of intercultural communication (IC) for its definition of culture. Alas, the picture here is, if anything, more confused. Many IC textbooks shy away from offering a definition, or offer a multiplicity of them, which frequently contradict each other. Is culture something that we have, anyway, or is it something we belong to? In 1998, Cargile reviewed a large number of definitions used by IC scholars and concluded that culture is both learned and shared. This is more of a characterization than a definition, and it does not even begin to take into account the views of those who see culture as a "site of struggle."
Instead, IC researchers have tended to operationalize "culture" rather than define it. In the design of research studies, culture is usually conflated with nationality, with gender, or with ethnic identity. By far the most widespread of these "working definitions" is nationality, a concept that is hardly less problematic than culture itself. 
Border-crossings and hybridity are the hallmarks of 21st-century life; whether electronically or in person, it has never been easier to share experiences with people and communities beyond the borders of one's nation. Not surprisingly, fewer and fewer people can identify a single nation as being the source of their nationality or culture.

Nevertheless, the search for national cultural essences in IC has been fervid. In my own former incarnation as an IC researcher, I was interested in comparing the expectations of the Japanese students I was teaching with those of a group of Australian students. My co-researcher and I collected questionnaire data in our respective countries and then, in order to exclude any respondents whose "Japanese-ness" or "Australian-ness" might be contaminated by contact with non-Japanese or non-Australian cultures, removed from our samples the responses from foreign students, from those who had been educated abroad, from those who had been abroad for a substantial period, and from ethnic minorities. Who was left? Not many people, and certainly not a representative cross-section of students to be found in our two countries. On reflection, I now think we threw away our most interesting data when we removed all responses from people living close to the borders of nationality as this is where much of the communication between "cultures" occurs. 
A further objection to the whole notion of culture as used in IC is a little more technical. In most IC studies, culture is both the unit of analysis ("Japanese culture" vs. "Australian culture") and the main explanatory variable. The process goes something like this: (1) choose two culturally distinct groups from whom to collect data; (2) control all the variables (age, gender, level of education, etc.) you can think of; and (3) call any residual differences between the two sets of data "culture." That's it! The two different cultural groups are culturally different! Of course this circular logic fails to fulfill even the minimal role of an explanatory variable; it explains nothing.
When these IC notions of culture are imported to TESOL materials, the result is usually far from satisfactory. We find snippets of information about the "target culture" based on the study of national essences, with a distinct lack of complexity, hybridity, or anything else that might be useful to our learners in a real-life encounter with somebody from a different background. 
I proposed 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). The sooner the notion of "culture" is dead and buried in TESOL, the better.


Cargile, A. C. (1988, March). Looking for "America": Identifying mainstream cultural members. Paper presented at the Conference on Interdisciplinary Theory and Research on Intercultural Relations, Fullerton, CA.


Culture Trouble

Dwight Atkinson, Purdue University, IN, USA, datkinso@purdue.edu

The concept of culture, our loyal servant for so long in intercultural communication, is under attack from all sides. Although reasons for the attack differ, they usually boil down to the following: (a) the culture concept "essentializes"—that is, it reduces individuals to cultural types; (b) the culture concept is a product of colonialism, and even today it encourages us to view non-Western, non-White people as Others; and (c) the culture concept, though it once may have made some sense, has ceased to have meaning in today's thoroughly globalized world.
These critical portrayals of culture have made their way into TESOL. Starting in the late 90s, powerful critiques of the concept began to appear in the field. Ruth Spack (1997), for example, wrote that "teachers and researchers need to view students as individuals, not as members of a cultural group in order to understand the complexity of writing in a language they are in the process of acquiring" (p. 772). By around 2002, TESOL scholars were generally adopting a cautious and critical attitude toward culture.
I, too, support a cautious and critical attitude toward the culture concept. For many years, TESOL professionals used the term loosely and uncritically—as a commonsense explanation for many of the issues in our field (Atkinson, 1999). However, common sense can be wrong and is almost always simplistic. Still, unlike some in our field, I believe it would be a great mistake to banish the culture concept from TESOL. There are three reasons why doing so is not in our best interest. 
First, people do in fact live culturally. That is, people continue to be influenced by the patterns of social life they are exposed to—for example, whether you are born into a social group that favors male over female children; whether you sleep with your parents in infancy or alone in a crib; whether you learn to be literate, and how you learn to be literate; whether religion enters all areas of your life, from your diet to the words you use to whom you befriend and marry; and whether your country requires you to join the military. All such practices leave their imprint on our lives.
Second, culture, if properly used, can help us understand people better. As mentioned above, a major criticism of culture has been that it constructs the individual as a cultural type. But what do we mean by individual? Is it the modern Western liberal individual: the indivisible unit of our existence and our rights? In a strong sense, the notion of the autonomous individual is anticultural, in that it is in opposition to the notion that, in the words of Jean-François Lyotard (1984), "no self is an island; each exists in a fabric of relations that is now more complex and mobile than ever before" (p. 15). If this interdependent model is valid, and if part (not all!) of the complexity mentioned by Lyotard concerns local cultural practices, then using the culture concept—in a careful, intelligent way—is likely to help us to understand people better.
Third, it is simply not the case that all versions of the culture concept are guilty as charged. In fact, the critiques themselves have sometimes offered textbook cases of essentialism. The founder of cultural anthropology, Franz Boas, is widely known to have viewed culture much as his first student, Robert Lowie (1920) did, as "that planless hodgepodge, that thing of shreds and patches" (p. 440). Thirty-two years later, another student of Boas and a collaborator collected 162 different definitions of culture stretching back over the preceding 100 years (Kroeber & Kluckhohn, 1952). Granted, yet two other students of Boas—Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead—were complicit in turning the culture concept in an all-determining, individual-neglecting direction, but this does not mean that other ways of viewing culture simply disappeared. Anthropologists at the end of the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first, have continued to wrestle with these concerns. 
Let me end this too-brief discussion with two concluding remarks. First, in no way am I arguing that all is well with the culture concept. As still commonly used in intercultural communication and TESOL, the concept has serious problems, and we owe it to our students to know what those problems are. At the same time, these problems do not mean that we should simply dump the concept. With knowledge, thoughtfulness, and sensitivity, we can still use the culture concept (or in any case a culture concept) to help us understand whom we are teaching and what we are doing in the classroom.


Atkinson, D. (1999). TESOL and culture. TESOL Quarterly, 33, 625-654.

Kroeber, A., and Kluckhohn, C. (1952). Culture: A critical review of concepts and definitions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Peabody Museum.

Lowie, R. (1920). Primitive society. New York: Harper.

Lyotard, J.-F. (1984). The postmodern condition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Spack, R. (1997). The rhetorical construction of multilingual students. TESOL Quarterly, 31, 765-774.

The Relevance of Culture in the EFL Classroom

Yuzuru Takigawa, Osaka Jogakuin College, Osaka, Japan, ytakigawa@yahoo.com

I interpret the question "Is culture really dead in TESOL?" as asking if it is useful to consider the cultural background of students to whom I am teaching language. In my experience as an EFL teacher, it has, in fact, been useful to know this kind of information. Taking into consideration the cultural background of students does not necessarily reduce them to some cultural stereotype or norm. Every student always deserves individual attention. By the same token, however, knowing a student's cultural and educational background helps teachers efficiently organize classes and adjust their style of teaching.

When we language teachers have some knowledge of students' backgrounds, we can take steps to help resolve any conflicts associated with ideas that students have that can impede language learning. For example, one well-known trend among people in Japan is their love of and desire to speak English. Interestingly, this desire is commonly associated with the counterbelief that English is unattainable for them. Among a group of Japanese college students, the odds are very high that a high level of expressed motivation and desire to study English will be coupled with a very low level of individually expressed confidence in their ability in English.

As a group, Japanese people commonly underreport confidence in their own abilities, but in this case, there may be an actual basis for a lack of confidence in English speaking. The fact that they have taken at least 6 years of English instruction but still have difficulty speaking reinforces beliefs that speaking English is unattainable unless they have lived or have studied abroad. The Japanese and English languages are also often viewed as being almost completely opposite. In addition, many students tend to get stuck searching for the "correct" response to a conversation opportunity. If teachers recognize and address these attitudes directly, they can be overcome and removed as obstacles.

One easy way of addressing these issues is by showing that in spite of the obvious differences between English and Japanese, there are certain similarities as well. Once these similarities are recognized, students are able to identify with the target language and it becomes easier for them to use. Teachers can remind students to use the knowledge they have about their own language and apply it when studying other languages.

Beyond deconstructing students' beliefs about the target language by showing them how it is similar to their native languages, teachers can also aim to correct students' assumptions about their own language. Japanese people, for example, tend to think that communication in Japanese is almost telepathic, and many sayings in Japanese support the idea of telepathic communication. However, Japanese people are not actually telepathic. In fact, Japanese communication does have an implicit, high-context component. Thus, it can be challenging for Japanese students when they are repeatedly asked to practice explicitly stating everything in English. One solution here is to explain to the students that native speakers of Japanese communicating with each other are not using telepathy as much as using shared knowledge between conversation participants. In other words, when both participants are on the same page culturally, less information needs to be directly exchanged between them. It is as if they are literally reading from the same page. Japanese students can be taught that though Japanese people have a tendency to try to "read from the same page" in any language, in English communication, people may not do that. In fact, more information may need to be stated when speaking English.

It is important to understand students' backgrounds, including aspects such as the syntax, semantics, and pragmatics of their native language, beliefs, education system, and so forth. If all aspects of this background are labeled as "culture," then it is helpful for foreign language educators to learn about their students' culture. The language educator should incorporate knowledge of students' culture into target language learning. We can use this knowledge of their culture when explaining the target language cultures and when considering similarities and differences. We may sometimes have to correct students' inaccurate thoughts and beliefs about the target language as well as about their own language. Failure to consider the cultural background of students and the way it relates to the cultures associated with the target language seriously disadvantages teachers and students. In this sense, I believe that culture is not dead at all in TESOL. On the contrary, it is very vital in TESOL and in any other type of language education.

Convergence of Values in Teaching Critical Thinking

Ken Enochs, International Christian University, Tokyo, Japan, enochs@icu.ac.jp, and Mike Kleindl, International Christian University, Tokyo, Japan,kleindl@icu.ac.jp

By publishing The Geography of Thought, cultural psychologist Richard Nisbett (2003) has posed a provocative challenge to the notion that human beings basically think the same way. Through his research, Nisbett has determined that profound cognitive differences cause Westerners and Easterners (specifically East Asians) to perceive and think about the world in fundamentally different ways. After having confirmed these differences by replicating some of Nisbett's tests with our Japanese university students, we have found our previously held Western assumptions about the nature of perception and rational thought need to be reexamined. The purpose of this TESOL convention presentation was to provide a broad outline of Nisbett's findings and to offer a number of suggestions based on those findings as to how both critical thinking, reading, and writing can be taught and assessed in ways that better take into account Eastern ways of thinking.

A Sampling of Nisbett's Tests

One of Nisbett's most interesting findings was that Easterners tend to perceive the world in terms of relationships whereas Westerners do so in terms of categories. In our presentation, we gave the participants a short quiz drawn from work explained in Nisbett's book, the same quiz we give our students. One exercise in particular illustrates the different worldviews: A sketch of a cow is depicted below a sketch of a chicken (labeled A) and a sketch of grass (labeled B). The students are asked, "What goes with this cow, A or B?" Most East Asian students tend to choose B, the grass. They choose this because of the relationship: cows eat grass. Most Westerners, according to Nisbett, choose A, because a chicken and a cow are both in the same category of animals.
Another interesting exercise deals with logic. Two argument sets (Nisbett, 2003) were shown to the participants:

Set 1:
Lions have enzyme Q in their blood
Tigers have enzyme Q in their blood
Therefore, rabbits have enzyme Q in their blood

Set 2:
Lions have enzyme Q in their blood
Giraffes have enzyme Q in their blood
Therefore, rabbits have enzyme Q in their blood. (p. 146)

Participants (as with our students) were asked which set was more convincing. According to Nisbett, Westerners tend to select Set 2, whereas Easterners  tend to choose Set 1. This result is explained by an unconscious diversity principle held by most Westerners. The range between lions and giraffes, which are different species, is more encompassing than the range between lions and tigers, which are both felines; thus there is more coverage of the concept. For Westerners this unconscious principle of categorizing things based on diversity guides their logic and argumentation. For East Asians this principle is not as strong. The results of these two exercises, and several others, prompted us to reexamine how we were teaching critical thinking, logic, and argumentation.

Eastern versus Western Value Differences

We are all aware that the Eastern part of the world (primarily China, Korea, and Japan) and the Western part of the world (primarily Europe and North America) have very different cultural traditions. Particularly influential in the East has been the role of China and the teachings of Confucius and in the West the role of ancient Greece and the teachings of Aristotle. The result of these traditions is a dichotomy of value differences (see Table 1).

Table 1
Dichotomy of Value Differences

  Eastern                 Western 

 Collectivism                     Individualism  

 Holistic                    Atomistic 

 Interrelatedness             Dichotomous 

 High context                 Low context 

 Reader responsible                Writer responsible 


Practical Applications

Though this dichotomy of values helps us to understand the cultural differences between East and West, how does it help us as teachers? What follows is an initial exploration into the insights and applications of these ideas in our teaching of critical thinking, reading, and writing.

  • We now know why our students resist the structure of a typical five-paragraph argumentative essay. We have traditionally told them the rhetorical functions of the parts are to say what you will say, say it, and say what you said. Though this approach may be natural for Westerners, an Easterner is likely to consider it as overly direct, simplistic, and even insulting. It is overly direct because the conclusion (the thesis) is stated at the beginning without the necessary context being established. Japanese historian Masako Watanabe, in fact, has called such an approach "backward" reasoning (quoted in Nisbett, 2003, p. 128). It is overly simplistic because the number of causal variables, the points, are isolated and (frequently) limited to three. Nisbett's research, for example, has shown that Easterners are likely to see more factors as relevant to a given cause and effect analysis than are Westerners (p. 129). Finally, to an Easterner, all this repetition of the writer's position and points can seem insulting to the intelligence of one's readers.
  • We are now more likely to offer students a middle position when making an argument. Whereas previously we asked our students to take either a pro or a con position on a controversial issue, we realize now that such an approach is representative of the Western tendency toward dichotomous thinking. Our students, on the other hand, are more comfortable acknowledging positives and negatives on both sides of an issue. Therefore, our approach now is to provide our students with the opportunity to take a position in between the two sides of an argument and to better equip them with ways in which they can acknowledge various points of view.
  • Knowing that East Asians tend to view the world in terms of relationships has changed the type of questions we ask in writing tutorials. We ask more questions that lead students to think about further or deeper relationships. For example, "What other examples or support could you think of that might be related to your main point?" On the other hand, knowing that Easterners don't tend to think of categories immediately also helps us focus our teaching. Thus, we can use questions such as "Can you think of another group of people who might be affected by your proposal?" These may not be terribly original questions, perhaps. However, knowing how our Japanese students and Western readers tend to think helps us assist students to write in ways that will make sense to Westerners.
  • Understanding the effect of the "diversity" principle helps us teach critical thinking, reading, and writing. When students are struggling to put together a logical argument, we can more easily suggest changes to strengthen the range of coverage expressed in their supporting examples.

These are a few of the changes we've made to our teaching because of Nisbett's work. We certainly don't believe that the Western—in particular, American—way of thinking is best. Learning and understanding more about how our East Asian students view the world and how we, as Western university instructors, view the world can only make our teaching more effective. We aim, like Nisbett, for a convergence of thought and ways of thinking, incorporating two ways of thinking in our teaching and learning so that these complement each other.

Nisbett, R. (2003). The geography of thought: How Asians and Westerners think differently . . . and why. New York: Simon & Schuster.


(Adult) Third Culture Kids in the ESL Classroom

Rebekah Muir, Associate Professor, Cy-Fair College, Cypress, Texas, USA, rebekahmuir@yahoo.com

What do Senator John Kerry, actress Kathleen Turner, and chef Mario Batali have in common (other than the obvious attributes of being successful, White, and American)? They are all (A)TCKs or (adult) third culture kids. Kathleen Turner's father was a career diplomat (and a TCK himself) and she grew up in Canada, Cuba, Venezuela, and the United Kingdom while maintaining her American citizenship. John Kerry's father was also in the Foreign Service. The senator grew up in various European countries as well as in the United States. Chef Mario Batali was born and lived mostly in the United States but went to high school in Spain before returning to the United States for his college studies. Though none of these (A)TCKs have anything to do with ESL programs, they are well-known individuals who exemplify TCKs, the multicultural individuals who regularly appear in the ESL classroom. TCKs take part in ESL as teachers, students, and, indirectly, children of ESL students. This article addresses the general questions of who these TCKs in the ESL classroom are and in what ways, if any, they are different from other ESL classroom participants. The answers to these two questions, in turn, have implications for ESL teachers and program managers.

TCKs in the ESL Classroom
To understand TCKs in the ESL classroom, one must first understand who a TCK is. David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken (1999) identified three main characteristics of a TCK background. A TCK (a) grows up in multiple cultures (before age 18), (b) lives in a setting where cultures are constantly mixing, and (c) has parents who live a highly mobile lifestyle often as a result of their jobs (p. 10). Common careers of parents of TCKs are corporate professionals, diplomats, military personnel, missionaries, media professionals, academics, and, last but not least, ESL teachers (Gillies, 1998, p. 36).

The complex interaction of these three characteristics results in a highly individualized mixture of culture. The term third culture kid was first used by Ruth Useem ( "Third Culture Kids," 2005) in the 1960s, after she and her family lived for several stretches of time in India during her academic career. She used this term to describe her own children, who were influenced by a mixture of cultures as they grew up partly in the expatriate community in India and partly in the United States (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

An example of the sometimes extreme mixture of identities that can result from a TCK lifestyle is reflected in my upbringing as the child of missionaries. I was born in Angola to an American father who was born in Portugal and an American mother born in Egypt. My first language was Portuguese although English soon became dominant as it was the home language and I was educated nearly completely in English-language schools. I eventually graduated from a boarding school in Kenya after having lived 6 years in both Angola and Portugal and having traveled or lived in many other countries of both Europe and Africa. I graduated from a U.S. college and my only nationality is U.S. Nonetheless, thus far 60% of my life has been spent outside of the United States. I have always subjectively felt neither American nor Portuguese nor Angolan.

A brief digression is important at this point to contrast ESL students who are TCKs with those who are generation 1.5, as first generation immigrant children in the United States are often called. Figure 2 below shows some significant overlap between the two.

Figure 2

Generation 1.5   vs. Third Culture Kids

The overlap includes a tendency to value family ties highly (often as a defense against external change) and a shared need to learn English in order to achieve goals. However, generation 1.5 children have families that have chosen to settle in the United States, and these children usually perceive their residence here as long-term if not permanent. As a result, most of their education or job-related goals must be met through the dominant local language and culture. Conversely, TCKs have multiple options as to where and how they can pursue their studies and occupational development. As discussed later, this subjective experience of any location as potentially temporary is a mark of a true TCK ESL student.

The presence of TCKs in the ESL classroom is likely on the increase as the overall number of TCKs worldwide appears to be growing ("Higher Education's," 2005). Twenty-seven years ago the estimated number of TCKs with U.S. nationality was 10,000 (based on those graduating from overseas schools). This number has increased since then as a result of factors such as increased ability to travel by air and the ever-widening reach of corporations, nongovernmental organizations, military groups such as NATO, missionary organizations, and so on ("Higher Education's," 2005, p. 5). In addition, more and more intercultural marriages are resulting in part from the above, which can also add to the number of TCKs. Several decades ago, most TCKs were U.S. in nationality, but now more and more are from many other countries—a trend that implies an increase of TCKs in the ESL classroom.

The ESL programs most likely to work with TCKs are in the international schools, the main stomping  grounds for these global nomads. For example, I worked as an ESL teacher at the secondary level in the American International School of Lisbon (AISL), Portugal. The classes were small at that level, but over half of the students in the primary grades were ESL students whose first language was not English and who were only temporarily living in Portugal or were from non-Portuguese families. The ESL students at AISL had nationalities representative of every region of the world including Brazil, Japan, Israel, and Sweden. Global nomad parents will often opt for an English-language international school as these are the kind of school most easily found in any other country where they might later find themselves living.

I also found during a year of teaching ESL at Westside High School in Houston, Texas, that TCKs were present in those classes. Out of approximately 100 students I taught directly, four were clearly identifiable TCKs. Three of these had parents who were connected to consulates (Angola and Indonesia) and the fourth was the child of an intercultural couple and was living with relatives in the United States. Other TCK students were also present at the same school (and other schools in Houston) but were not in the ESL program because they had long since mastered English at overseas international schools. Their parents moved to Houston because of its international oil corporations and its reputation worldwide as one of the most prominent and foreigner-friendly U.S. cities. This anecdotal evidence indicates merely that TCKs can appear even in U.S. public schools, but it cannot speak to what the overall numbers might be in secondary-level ESL classes.

TCKs in Adult ESL
At the adult ESL level here in the United States, several kinds of (A)TCKs can be present. Out of over 200 ESL students and teachers surveyed at Cy-Fair College in Cypress, Texas, only one student was clearly identified as an (A)TCK (with six more possible but unconfirmed by interviews). A much larger number, however, proved to be parents of TCKs—in other words, global nomads whose children are now also growing up in part in the United States. Nine students were eager to share their odysseys and their children's experience of multiple cultures. None of these TCKs is  currently enrolled in ESL classes as their parents have worked very hard and early on to develop their children's English skills through tutoring, international schools overseas, or parental support, which sometimes meant opting to speak English in the home rather than their native language. These parents' dedication to their children's education is truly impressive. It is interesting to note that the total number of ESL students reporting having TCK children was larger than those reporting generation 1.5 children. This was an unexpected result given the large number of immigrants in the Houston area and the community college nature of Cy-Fair College. One possible explanation is that the classes selected for the survey were largely those in the daytime intensive program where nonworking parents are often the majority. Immigrant students (and therefore generation 1.5 children) may be more numerous in the evening classes.

In addition to the one (A)TCK and the parents of TCKs at Cy-Fair College,  a third kind of (A)TCK presence revealed by this survey is that of ESL instructors who have gravitated to ES/FL as a career because it makes good use of their multicultural and linguistic backgrounds. Out of 11 instructors who took the survey (out of 30 overall in the program), four are clearly (A)TCKs and three of these have TCK children. Another teacher has children who are TCKs as a result of her international career in ES/FL. Again, none of their school-age children are in an ESL program for the same reasons given by the ESL students interviewed (see above).

Unique Attributes of TCKs
On the basis of my above experience, the interviews of the Cy-Fair ESL teachers, and the available literature, it seems that TCK children do contribute some unique elements to any class, including classes in ESL programs. TCKs are generally comfortable with and appreciative of authority. An example of this was when the daughter of a Cy-Fair College ESL student walked right up to the principal of her high school in Houston and introduced herself. As a result, the principal now calls her by name and checks on her well-being himself. TCKs are clearly decisive and self-motivated, as this example also illustrates. They make good students because of this and overall show early maturity while under age 18. Interestingly, over the age of 18, many can show delayed psychosocial development as a result of too many disruptions of their early relationships. These frequent losses make it harder for them to grow into their own person away from their family or to settle down into long-term relationships or jobs (Pollock & Van Reken, 1999, p. 48).

In the ESL classroom, TCKs show a deeper, first-hand knowledge of the world. This can add real spice to class discussions, such as when one partly Japanese TCK informed us of what Japanese people really eat everyday (not sushi but pickled vegetables and noodles), dishes that she thought didn't taste very good. TCKs are also generally open-minded and unprejudiced toward their classmates as a result of the same first-hand experience of diverse cultural settings. The survey mentioned earlier revealed that one of my most insightful and enthusiastic students in an intercultural communication class is a TCK. He shines in this topic because of his childhood years living in Israel, the United States, and Colombia.

Last but not least, TCK students often have strong educational backgrounds from an early age ("Third Culture Kids," 2005, p. 1). Two ESL students in my classes brought their children to the United States to live for several years just so that they could learn English well. Most of the global nomad parents surveyed in the Cy-Fair College ESL program share a fierce determination to provide their children with the best opportunities in education that they can find. Some also expressed a desire for their children here in the United States to participate in local culture and language in public schools (rather than opting for private schools). The result of these choices is usually broadly educated TCKs.

Special Needs of and Challenges Faced by TCKs
The highly mobile nature of a TCK's childhood results in some general problems in the classroom. In my experience, many become preternaturally independent or even withdrawn from their peers and teachers (Pollock, Van Reken, & Gould, 2002, p. 152; "Higher Education's," 2005, p. 5). This is a method of self-protection from further loss of any new friends after previously unprocessed losses. As the TCKs grow older and experience further disruptions of relationships, some of them may even develop depression that carries into adulthood (Pollock & Van Reken, 1999). Several of my TCK students in Westside High School were extremely quiet. They were bright and quite good in English but maintained virtual silence in the midst of sometimes very noisy classes full of voluble generation 1.5 Hispanic students.

TCKs can also be cultural chameleons: natural observers and adapters but often too quick to assume their own cultural competence or likely to blend in only skin-deep (Bowman, 2001, p. 4). One TCK of my acquaintance wrote a paper that spoke authoritatively about Japanese culture after he spent only 2 weeks in that country. Given their multiple and usually temporary stays in each culture, they may not feel the need to gain in-depth knowledge of the new culture (and language) nor be able to perceive the limitations of their first impressions. As a result, they can act in a superior manner toward fellow students because they find their less-traveled and merely bi- or monocultural ESL classmates shallow (Pollock & Van Reken, 1999, p. 56). This difference can also translate into a fear of sticking out, so TCKs will often lay low and be unwilling to share their special knowledge, changing their accent or clothes or doing whatever may be needed to blend in.

Being picked on by bullies may be a particularly difficult issue for TCKs, who are, like immigrant children, perceived as vulnerable newcomers and who lack the cultural knowledge of how to deal appropriately with teasing or bullying. Some may react to bullying by simply waiting for their parents to move on to the next location whereas others may take evasive action. I experienced severe bullying here in the United States during Nixon-era busing when I was bussed from an inner city neighborhood to a suburban elementary school. The experience was deeply shocking to me given my protected, private school education until that point overseas. Rather than complaining to the teachers or to my parents, I attempted to escape the problem by skipping school, but my American mother took matters into her hands and straightened the problem out in the culturally accepted way of complaining to the principal. ESL teachers of TCKs may need to be vigilant for evasive behavior such as this as it may be the only way the student can figure out how to deal with bullying.

Finally, TCKs need, oddly enough, to learn flexibility. They can become rigidly loyal to their parents' beliefs or the organization their parents work with (Pollock & Van Reken, 1999, p. 70). They become inflexible in their opinions partly because they feel so experienced in life at an early age and partly out of their need to maintain family ties at all costs in order to survive in the midst of constant change.

Specifically in the ESL classroom, TCKs have some marked assets and needs. Generally because of their early and sometimes repeated language acquisition, they can more quickly acquire English than can other students. They are self-confident in the classroom because they have successfully learned another language before. They may also prove unusually open to or aware of different sounds and grammatical or cultural patterns in English. These assets lead often to quickly acquiring English as their second or third or more language.

The problems of TCKs are related to the multiple moves many experience. Because they feel their stay anywhere is temporary, they may be satisfied with an imperfect knowledge of English language or English-related cultures. They may also be overconfident and blind to the superficiality of their knowledge of English language or culture. This imperfect knowledge of English may be added to a series of incomplete languages and cultures the TCK may have previously acquired. One TCK I taught in Portugal was a Nigerian boy who felt his first language was English rather than any tribal language, but whose skills in English were not developed enough for him to be placed in the regular classroom. Leaving schools too soon or too often can mitigate against full self-expression in any one language, making the TCK a second language speaker in every language he or she uses. The associated emotional issues of multiple moves can also block learning spoken English because of the social reticence mentioned earlier and the lack of motivation to learn the local language and culture in depth.

TCK ESL Teachers
Before I offer some conclusions based on the above findings, (A)TCK ESL teachers merit a closer look. These instructors are self-reportedly very comfortable with multicultural classes and feel they can help students of many linguistic and cultural backgrounds because of their first-hand experience of varied countries and languages. Having gone through cultural adjustment and learned a new language many times themselves, they have great empathy for ESL students going through the various phases of adjusting to the U.S. or other cultures, and are patient with the process of learning a language. Having often experienced frustration because of not being able to express themselves fully in a new language and place, they feel that they can usually quickly connect to and calm down students who are upset and impatient with how little they have learned in the ESL classroom.

The (A)TCK teachers interviewed in this study said they find it easy to build bridges between the many cultures present in the ESL classroom by using multiple communication and learning styles in their classes. A further skill that may be unique to (A)TCK teachers is the ability to step outside of English-related cultures and explain these communication patterns to their ESL students. Native teachers may find their own patterns so natural that they can neither explain them clearly to ES/FL students nor understand how these patterns may appear odd to their students. Overenthusiasm for "American" values such as democracy and diversity may lead native speakers to give an idealized version of U.S. politics and society that may in fact neither be comprehensible to their ESL students nor actually serve these students well in the nitty-gritty of street-level reality outside of the classroom.

My research thus far shows that TCKs in ESL are statistically most significant in international primary and secondary schools. They are present but in much smaller percentages in U.S. public schools, and many never enroll in ESL classes because of the strength of their education in English overseas. The above-mentioned study of the Cy-Fair College ESL program found that (A)TCKs in adult ESL classrooms are few, but the number of students with children who are TCKs is quite high, sometimes even higher than those with generation 1.5 children. The percentage of (A)TCKs among ESL instructors is also quite significant.

ESL programs and teachers can greatly benefit TCK students and parents of TCKs by identifying them as a special group within their student population and connecting them with those who can best help them ("Higher Education's," 2005, p. 6). One wonderful example of a fully developed program especially geared to help TCKs is one developed by parents and teachers at the American School of the Hague in the Netherlands (www.ash.nl). The Transitions Program Team (2007) has over the years developed a series of committees that now coordinate various subprograms such as "Arriving," "Student Ambassadors," and "Leave-taking." Each of these is designed to help TCKs and their families deal with the adjustment and loss issues of coming to a new school and country. This program is the most developed of its kind I have seen. Indeed, in many international schools such as the American International School of Lisbon (at least during my contact time with  that school), virtually no special help of this kind is given to TCKs whether in ESL classes or not. On an individual level, ESL teachers can acquaint their TCK students/parents with books and Web sites such as www.globalnomads.org, which can develop their awareness of TCKs' special needs as well as resources and programs that can help them make transitions more smoothly.

Another conclusion that can be drawn is that the ESL class in general can benefit from identifying TCKs because when they join in (rather than just blending in like chameleons) TCKs can feel more integrated themselves and the class can gain wonderful first-hand details about other languages and cultures. The teacher then can hopefully be more patient with any tendency their TCK students may have toward patronizing other students (and even the teacher). The instructor can also work directly on motivating these students to learn English and its related cultures more in-depth than their nomadic instincts may otherwise lead them to do. As with any other special needs students, both the teacher and the students will benefit from an understanding of why TCKs are the way they are and how to enhance their assets and meet their needs in the language classroom.

The final conclusion to be made is in reference to (A)TCKs as ES/FL instructors. They are drawn to the profession as a way to re-create the comfort zone of their multicultural and multilinguistic childhoods. For them the ESL classroom can be as natural as the sea is for codfish. Their background is a self-perceived asset in ESL as it contributes a flexible approach to communication and teaching styles as well as first-hand knowledge of second language acquisition. They also feel an intuitive empathy with students going through the rougher stages of cultural adjustment and can offer wisdom and advice from their personal experience. Overall, TCKs in the ESL classroom may sometimes not be large in numbers, but with the right approach and understanding, they can be exceptionally successful students and instructors as well as contributors to a uniquely global approach to language learning.


Bowman, D. H. (2001). Identities blur for 'third culture kids.' Education Week, 20(34), 4-5, 8.

Eakin, K. B. (1998). According to my passport, I'm coming home. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of State, Family Liaison Office.

Gillies, W. (1998). Third culture kids. Childhood Education, 75(1), 36-39.

Higher Education's 'Hidden Immigrants.' (2005). National On-Campus Report, 33(7), 5-6. Retrieved Jan. 18, 2007, from Ebsco Host Research Databases.

Pollock, D. C., & Van Reken, R. (1999). The third culture kid experience: Growing up among worlds. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.

Pollock, D. C., Van Reken, R. E., & Gould, J. B. (2002). Book review: Always saying good-bye. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 7(2), 151-156.

Third Culture Kids: 'Hidden Immigrants' on Campus. (2005). Recruitment and Retention in Higher Education, 19(4), 1-4.

The American School of the Hague Transitions Program. Retrieved March 10, 2007 from American School of the Hague homepage http://www.ash.nl

Announcements New Program: The TESOL Resource Center

The TESOL Resource Center (TRC) is a new online educational endeavor to allow members access to resources contributed by other TESOL members. It was started in February 2007 and is still being developed. The goals are (a) to support expanded online peer-to-peer learning and (b) to provide a clear and simple submission and review process for sharing resources. ICIS members usually have useful materials that classroom teachers from many areas of the world will find useful. You are encouraged to submit your work to the TRC and/or become a TRC reviewer. Go tohttp://www.tesol.org/s_tesol/trc_genform.asp?CID=1253&DID=7561.

For specific questions, e-mail Minoo Asdjodi at masdjodi@tesol.org or resourcecenter@tesol.org.

Call for Manuscripts: Fall Newsletter

Topic: Teaching Intercultural Communication Skills

The audience of this newsletter is composed of intercultural communication teachers, administrators, and teacher educators in TESOL. Manuscripts for the fall 2007 issue of the newsletter should be manuscript forms of ICIS-related research and classroom experiences centered on the topic above. However, papers based on events that took place during the 2007 TESOL Convention, that deal with issues that were raised by TESOL 2007, or that focus on other aspects of intercultural communication not addressed at the conference are welcome. Manuscripts will be carefully reviewed before being published, to ensure that their content and style are of a suitable quality and usefulness for the ICIS Newsletter.

Authors submitting manuscripts should be aware that some journals, including TESOL's The Essential Teacher, may not accept a manuscript that has been previously published in the ICIS Newsletter.

The deadline for submission for the fall 2007 newsletter is September 30, 2007. Manuscripts should be around 1,200 words in length (contact the editor first about longer manuscripts) and must be formatted according to the guidelines of the American Psychological Association Publication Manual, Fifth Edition. Manuscripts can be submitted electronically to maryhuebsch@hotmail.com

ICIS Steering Committee Members

Donna Fujimoto (Chair), fujimotodonna@gmail.com

Usha Venkatesh (Chair-Elect), usha.venkatesh@montgomerycollege.edu

Susan Coakley (Past-Cochair), scoakley@comcast.net

Sara Keyes (Past-Cochair), piratequeen@usa.net

Rebekah Muir and Mary Huebsch (Newsletter Editors), rebekahmuir@yahoo.com and maryhuebsch@hotmail.com

Eunhee Seo (Webmaster), ellenseo@temple.edu

Diane Trebing (Secretary/Historian), dtrebing@svsu.edu

Don Snow, Victoria Tuzlukova, and Armeda Reitzel (Members at Large), donsnow48@hotmail.comtuzlukov@jeo.ru, and acr1@humboldt.edu

Piper McNulty (Past Past-Cochair), pipermcn@aol.com

Nancy Tumposky (Past Past-Cochair), tumposkyn@mail.montclair.edu