I recently moved to Bangkok to take up a position as Lecturer at the Graduate School of English (GSE) at Assumption University of Thailand. Established in 1969, Assumption University is the first international university in Thailand, and the majority of the programs are taught in English, including two MA in English Language Teaching courses I am teaching this trimester. This opportunity to work and live in Bangkok is a dream come true for me for two reasons. To begin with, I have been fascinated by the city’s linguistic diversity, and the flows of people from diverse backgrounds and their interactions. The other reason is that I finally have the opportunity to teach what I’ve always wanted to teach, i.e., intercultural communication-related subjects, and I get to do so with Ingrid Piller’s freshly published book – Intercultural Communication: A Critical Introduction – as a course textbook! News tells me that Prof. Jan Blommaert of Tilburg University in the Netherlands is also adopting the book for his course on Intercultural Communication, and many others are considering following our suit. For those wondering how the book could be of use in your teaching, I will be blogging about my experience right here at Language on the Move.
So, how am I using Ingrid’s book? As part of the participation assessment, students write a one-page review of each chapter on a weekly basis. Each week they share their review in class, taking turns to lead the in-class discussion. Last week, we had the very first discussion on Chapters 1 and 2. Chapter 1 provides the overview of the book, including the author’s reason for writing this book (in case anyone is wondering why yet another intercultural communication book?!), her intended audience and aims. Chapter 2 introduces three key terms – cross-cultural communication, intercultural communication and inter-discourse communication – and offers fascinating examples that contextualize these terms. Perhaps I’m biased, but terms and concepts are usually hard to get, and they don’t necessarily make for inspiring reading… With this kind of mindset, I was particularly struck by the opening comment by this week’s discussion leader:
This book is so easy to read. Other academic books I’ve read are so difficult to understand, and it’s like what’s written there has nothing to do with my life! I think they are writing just for themselves [the class laughs]. Of course it [Ingrid’s book] is an academic book, and it has many difficult discussions, and unfamiliar terminologies, BUT she gives us so many everyday examples. That’s what makes this book so easy to read.
The class – most of them highly proficient speakers of English-as-an-additional-language – nodded enthusiastically as he made this comment. From then on, the discussion got heated up, focusing on what they understood, aided by the examples, but more crucially, on what they were not clear about, and what they wanted to know more about, in the most engaged manner. “Thai students are shy” stereotyping comments I had heard so often prior to arriving here are definitely out the window!
The discussion leader’s comment on ‘difficult academic books’ reminded me of my own experience as a PhD student; I often felt defeated in reading much of the academic literature as it was so excruciatingly difficult to read! In many ways, the fact that I eventually finished my PhD degree was largely thanks to those academics who made theories interesting and relevant to my life and everyday experience in their writing. For me, some of those books I read back then, and that I still hold dear to date are Bilingual Couples Talk: The Discursive Construction of Hybridity (Ingrid Piller, 2002), Identity and language learning: Gender, ethnicity and educational change (Bonny Norton, 2000) or Language and Sexuality (Deborah Cameron and Don Kulick, 2003). What these books have in common is that they provide a clear direction for each chapter, and nuanced explanations of concepts with examples, which all leaves you with the desire to know more. I’ve selected Ingrid’s book for my course both with the hope and the belief that this book will have a profound impact on the way in which my first students in Thailand will approach the importance of intercultural communication in our globalising world.
So far it seems to work as their desire to know more is apparent already. At the end of last week’s in-class discussion, my students all agreed with the discussion leader’s final comment: “I think this “discursive construction” business is the key. The second chapter didn’t give away too much, but I hope we will get more in the rest of the book”.
You bet you will.