Intercultural Communication and Acculturation: Whose Domain?

by Steve McCarty

Original print publication: Bilingual Japan, 4 (3), 7-8 (1995).

To investigate the scope of bilingualism and of our National SIG in Japan (the JALT Bilingualism N-SIG or BNSIG [now SIG and BSIG, respectively]), researching some ostensibly peripheral topics may help clarify the borderline between bilingualism and other disciplines. Let us therefore examine intercultural communication and the acculturation process from two viewpoints.

One approach is to enquire how a topic is intrinsically related to bilingualism, which I would define as the study of languages in contact in and among societies and within individuals.

Another approach is to enquire with the worldwide community of scholars where bilingualism fits in academia as a field or rather discipline, here meaning "a branch of instruction or learning" (Allen, 1990, p. 332). Borderlines may go unnoticed until someone builds a bridge too far and is perceived as fishing in others' waters. A topic may be claimed by representatives of another discipline, and a turf battle may ensue. The undisputed issues belonging to bilingualism can be identified in a university textbook on the subject (cf. Baker, 1993), whereas some topics related to bilingualism may be more central to courses in departments other than applied linguistics.

A case in point is intercultural communication. It is something intrinsically related to bilingualism which BNSIG members are involved with everyday. Yet as a discipline it grew out of speech communication (Okabe, 1988, p. 5), a distinct domain of applied linguistics according to Strevens, 1992, cited by Oda (1992). Then it developed into intercultural communication training and seminars thereof. Fees raise expectations of results, and foreign languages could not even be introduced in the time available for such seminars. Thus there seemed to arise a tendency to rationalize that this training superceded language study, placing the discipline at odds with bilingualism.

The intercultural training viewpoint supports Cisar (1994, pp. 3-4) in declining to learn Japanese, but a former editor of this newsletter (Dean, 1992, p. 4) criticizes those who hold out an easier way than language study while insisting that their formal training is necessary for cross-cultural communicative competence. A three-volume collection of papers (Landis & Brislin, Eds., 1983) catalogues the benefits of intercultural communication training, yet my research found similar results among over a hundred adults bilingual to some extent in Japanese and English without the benefit of such formal training (McCarty, 1992). One paper in the above collection could have made a strong case for foreign language education (Baxter, 1983, pp. 290-324), but appears to have been heavily edited to bow to the supremacy of intercultural training in order to be published.

Do bilingualism and intercultural communication then constitute another case of rivalry between close neighbors? Given the social side of academia, selection of study and thesis topics could be affected by departmental or compartmental politics, as it were. We may have to ask on whose turf the subject matter could stand, or who has already staked a claim, though this might take more than an ERIC search.

The way may prove difficult unless both conditions are satisfied: that the topic is intrinsically related to bilingualism and that another discipline has not already assimilated it. Say you are interested in biculturalism: if it is a hot topic, it will not go unclaimed for long. True, it is intrinsically inseparable from bilingualism. What respectable scholar in another discipline would delve into something so mushy, at such a high level of generality and overlap with other variables? The experimental approach may not isolate culture for another 50 years if ever. Nonetheless, if biculturalism were a volcanic island, it surfaced long enough ago that we might not be surprised to find stuck in it the flag of another discipline.

Here again, the letters on the flag seem to read "intercultural training." Mapping both the perils to the uninitiated and the progress achievable to trainees, the acculturation process has evidently become a focal point in intercultural communication studies. Drawing from the work of Bennett, Barnlund, Pedersen and especially Hoopes, Waring (1995) identifies six stages of acculturation from ethnocentric to "ethnorelative." The road forks at each stage, for example between becoming bicultural vs. suffering isolated marginality or anomie. What is surprising is that there is a stage after becoming bicultural, although its profile resembles bicultural characteristics such as empathy; the ability to evaluate phenomena relative to a cultural context; and "constructive marginality" or enjoying the diversity of humanity with freedom from perceptual restraints dictated by one's native culture.

Another curious area presented by Waring was "training strategies" for foreign language teaching, for example, "train the students to maintain objectivity." Here we can see intercultural training fishing in the lucrative waters of language teaching. Intercultural communication textbooks for ESL/EFL have emerged in recent years, but Waring showed example lesson plans in that genre, some of which reinforced cultural stereotypes rather than freeing students from them. Discussing which countries are violent, for instance, merely encourages the ubiquitous mental error of overgeneralization.

Getting back to the question of academic turf, we can see that the discipline of bilingualism has not been aggressive in claiming topics intrinsically related to bilingualism like intercultural communication and acculturation studies. How could proponents of bilingualism be immune to feeling a bit impoverished as though part of our identity were lost to squatter's rights in a territorial dispute? Language teachers, rather than jealously guarding their domain, could still reclaim the initiative by creating more effective materials and lesson plans for intercultural communication and bicultural development.


Allen, R. E. (Ed.). (1990). The concise Oxford dictionary of current English (8th ed., p. 332). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Baker, C. (1993). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Baxter, J. (1983). English for intercultural competence: An approach to intercultural communication training. In D. Landis & R. Brislin (Eds.), Handbook of intercultural training: Vol. 2. Issues in training methodology (pp. 290-324). New York: Pergamon Press.

Cisar, L. (1994). The case for monolingualism. Bilingual Japan, 3 (3), 3-4.

Dean, J. (1992). The latest jive. Bilingual Japan, 1 (1), 4.

Landis, D. & Brislin, R. (Eds.). (1983). Handbook of intercultural training (Vols. 1-3). New York: Pergamon Press.

McCarty, S. (1992, September). Cognitive and ethical benefits of Japanese-English bilinguality and biculturality. Paper presented at the Second N-SIG Symposium, sponsored by the JALT-Osaka Chapter.

Oda, M. (1992, September). Applied linguistics for language teachers. Paper presented at a JALT-Kagawa Chapter meeting, Takamatsu, Japan.

Okabe, R. (1988). Intercultural communication: A brief history. The Language Teacher, 12 (5), 5.

Waring, R. (1995, April). Positioning "acculturation" tasks in language syllabuses. Paper presented at a JALT-Kagawa Chapter meeting.

Updated on 27 October 2016

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