The importance of the development of students’ sociocultural competence at the Kazakh-American Free University

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №3 - 2011

Author: Yezhitskaya Svetlana, Kazakh-American Free University, Kazakhstan

The beginning of the 21st century is characterized by the impetuous development of economic, political, and cultural relations and perspectives. Globalization creates a world in which an increasing number of people are moving all over the world for overseas work or studies.

A major challenge that expatriate workers and students face in the increasingly globalized world is how to function successfully in a new cultural environment, in a country with different values, sociocultural rules, and norms of behavior Hence, one of the main features of a successful person nowadays is the skills in intercultural communication.

Culture learning is more than getting over culture shock or getting used to life in a new country. It is the process of personal growth and transformation. I should emphasize the role of sociocultural competence for achieving proficiency in a foreign language. Defective knowledge of the target culture, especially of the cultural implications embedded in the target language, very frequently causes breakdowns in communication. Just as there are strategies for being a good language learner, there are also characteristics that promote successful culture learning. Generally speaking, a good learner of culture believes that he/she is beginning a journey from a “monocultural point to a larger world view in which he/she develops new perspectives, learns new mental, emotional, and behavioral responses. In short, that person learns to build intercultural bridges and in the end becomes a new cultural person.

Sociocultural competence helps not only to survive but achieve success in an increasingly interdependent global society.

Below we provide a review of literature on approaches that have been used for socio-cultural competence development and draw conclusions for KAFU.

What is Sociocultural Competence?

Sociocultural competence has become a significant part of foreign language teaching. There are a number of different theories of sociocultural competence, which mostly reveal the interdependence of culture and language and draw some implications for language teaching. Each of these theories has provided professionals in the field with valuable tools and paved the way towards a culture-based pedagogy.

Sociocultural competence can be defined as the students’ ability to accomplish proper cross-cultural communication (Sut, 2003). Juan C (2006) describes a person with some degree of sociocultural competence as someone, who is able to see relationships between different cultures - and is able to mediate, that is interpret each in terms of the other, either for themselves or for other people. It is also someone who has a critical or analytical understanding of their own and other cultures, someone who is conscious of their own perspective, of the way in which their thinking is culturally determined, rather than believing that their understanding and perspective is natural. In the approach of Z.I. Nikitenko and O.M. Osianova (2005) sociocultural competence is represented in knowledge of the language (non-equivalent and normal vocabulary), knowledge of national culture, and the norms of behavior.

We will define sociocultural competence as the ability to behave appropriately in the specific situations, to choose the appropriate form of social etiquette, to decode the social code of the partner, to use different vocabulary, to understand the meanings of the words in the definite context, etc.

According to the Common European Framework (2005), sociocultural competence involves five elements:

- Attitudes: curiosity and openness, readiness to suspend disbelief about other cultures and belief about one's own.

- Knowledge: of social groups and their products and practices in one's own and in one's interlocutor's country, and of the general processes of societal and individual interaction.

- Skills of interpreting and relating: ability to interpret a document or event from another culture, to explain it and to relate it to documents from one's own.

- Skills of discovery and interaction: ability to acquire new knowledge of culture and cultural practices and the ability to operate knowledge, attitudes, and skills under the constraints of real-time communication and interaction.

- Critical cultural awareness/political education: an ability to evaluate critically and on the basis of explicit criteria perspectives, practices and products in one's own and other cultures and countries.

Sociocultural competence is comprised of the following attitudes and skills:

- observing, identifying and recognizing

- comparing and contrasting

- negotiating meaning

- dealing with or tolerating ambiguity

- effectively interpreting messages

- limiting the possibility of misinterpretation

- defending one's own point of view while acknowledging the legitimacy of others

- accepting difference

Achieving sociocultural competence requires that one lowers his/her defenses, takes risks, and practices behaviors that may feel unfamiliar and uncomfortable. It requires a flexible mind, an open heart, and a willingness to accept alternative perspectives.

How to develop students’ sociocultural competence?

Nowadays a great attention is given to sociocultural component in teaching a foreign language which is a requirement for the appropriate use of a foreign language in specific cultural situations. Marianne Celce Murcia (2008) points that culture should be taught as a process. She describes in detail an interactive process that relates target and native languages, cultures, and perceptions. The process incorporates the following eight basic stages, the first five of which are primarily teacher-associated and the final three are student-associated:

1. Identification of a cultural theme

2. Presentation of cultural phenomena

3. Dialogue (target/native cultures)

4. Transition to language learning

5. Language learning

6. Verification of perceptions (target/native culture)

7. Cultural awareness

8. Evaluation of language and cultural proficiency.

She proposes organizing instruction around four basic categories:

- Convention, which provides students with information about the common everyday behavior of people;

- Connotation, which helps students develop their skills to recognize that the meaning of a word is determined by each individual's frame of reference;

- Conditioning, which helps students develop observational and interpretive skills and understand that the actions of individuals reflect an already established cultural frame of reference;

- Comprehension, which helps students develop the skills of analysis and hypothesis formation, thereby recognizing that the behavior of one person does not necessarily reflect the behavior of society as a whole.

Chen & Starosta (1998) suggests the following models of intercultural trainings: cognitive (intellectual, classroom) model, self-awareness and cultural awareness models, simulation model, and interactional model.

The cognitive (intellectual, classroom) training promotes understanding of cultural differences and similarities. It helps participants to get more information about a culture. As the emphasis is laid on cognitive understanding of customs, values, people, geography, and habits of a specific culture, the normally applied methods of teaching are lectures, films, readings, and different kinds of presentations.

This model, however, has its limitations. It only teaches participants "what to learn" but not "how to learn", teaches them to gain knowledge of a culture without knowing how to perform and to adapt behaviorally to it. Overall, this model cannot guarantee success at living or working in a new culture.

The self-awareness training helps participants identify attitudes, opinions and biases embedded in their own culture that influence the way they communicate. The emphasis in this model is laid on understanding oneself as a cultural being. Working in groups the participants learn how their own behaviors influence others and what psychological forces operate in groups.

The limitation of this model is its ethnocentric orientation. Although self-awareness is important for being effective in intercultural communication, its focus on the internalized processes of an individual cannot adequately teach participants about factors involved in cultural interaction.

The cultural awareness training requires participants to understand the aspects of culture that are universal and specific. It assumes that in order to successfully interact with people of other cultures we have to understand our own and others" cultural norms, customs and social systems. The cultural awareness model aims to teach participants to overcome ethnocentrism, to help them understand that our own cultural identity is only one possibility among numerous others. This training model is very popular among Russian educators as it is built on a strong theoretical base. Another strong point of this model is that the participants can reach not only intellectual understanding but also an affective tolerance of cultural differences in the process of intercultural communication. This training model also has its limitations. First, it may be difficult for the trainees to apply general knowledge in dealing with a specific cultural task; second, in comparing their own culture to others the participants may neglect similarities and exaggerate differences; third, to become thoroughly aware of one's own culture as the base for understanding others is a complex process and may take a long time.

The simulation training focuses on the affective and experiential processes of training participants by involving them in an environment that closely resembles a specific culture. The basic assumption of this model is that it is very important for trainees to gain personal experience in living in a place resembling the host culture, to develop a set of new behaviors and attitudes that will enable them to better adjust to the foreign culture. The main advantage of this model is a strong focus on the participant rather than on the trainer. It is a trial-and-error process, through which participants acquire intercultural communication skills.

However, there are also some limitations. First, it is difficult to simulate overseas environment. Second, it is impossible to gain extensive cultural knowledge through personal experience in a limited time. Most frequently, the simulation model is used as a complementary part of the classroom (cognitive) model.

The interactional training presupposes face-to-face interaction with the host/ foreign nationals. Through the experiential learning process participants are supposed to figure out the value systems and appropriate behavioral patterns of the host culture. The model is commonly applied to the intercultural workshop programs held on college campuses. As any other model, interactional model also has its advantages (real life communication with foreigners, authentic source of information) and disadvantages (encountering cultural differences that may cause cultural misunderstanding or culture clash).

According to Zhanna Korotkikh an effective intercultural training can increase the learner's capacity for intercultural awareness, intercultural sensitivity, and intercultural competence, thus enabling him or her to function effectively in intercultural context.

Applying a single model of intercultural training may not sufficiently prepare participants to function properly and effectively in a new cultural environment. Better results may be achieved through a combination of several training models. A more effective outcome may be achieved by devising specific training techniques: case studies, critical-incident case studies based on real-life experience of the learners, simulations, role playing, team projects, experiential learning, etc.

Implications for KAFU

There are many opportunities for the students of KAFU to go global and to get invaluable cultural experience. They participate in different international programs that operate successfully at KAFU. These are International Leadership program, Language and Culture program in the USA, grant programs for Education in the United States, Professional internship program in the USA, American Diploma program, distance education at American Universities, Visiting Foreign faculty program, and Business and Culture program in the United States. Moreover, a lot of students succeed in such international programs as CCUSA, Work and Travel, Global Undergraduate Exchange program in Eurasia and Central Asia, AIESEC, DAAD, and other.I consider that students of all linguistic and non-linguistic majors at KAFU must be culturally armed in order to accomplish the dialogue of cultures and avoid cultural shock when communicating with the representatives of different cultures.

Paying attention to the sociocultural aspect in teaching would-be interpreters is very important because translation is vital means of accomplishing sociocultural communication. To reflect the meaning of the sentence a translator must first decode the message and then convey its sociocultural coloring correctly. The ability to interpret the information in a proper way and to draw conclusions is the attribute of the translators’ sociocultural competence.

Developing students’ sociocultural competence of non-linguistic majors is of great importance too, because the specific feature of their future work is based on communication with people. They must know the way of life, patterns of behavior of people of different cultures. Being not socioculturally competent, the students may fail in communication with the representatives of another culture.

There are many possibilities that KAFU students may use to increase their sociocultural awareness, sensitivity and competence. Namely, participation in Language Discussion clubs, e-mail correspondence with native speakers, communication with people of different cultures at the lessons, attending special course of Intercultural Communication. They all are means of exploration of another culture.

The objectives of these activities are the following:

1) To manage the students’ activity through the use of sociocultural component in the process of study

2) To expand students’ linguistic and country study knowledge, and teach them how to apply sociocultural knowledge in practice, in verbal and written communication

3) To develop students sociocultural competence using authentic materials

At the lessons the students take part in guided discussions, role-plays, solving intercultural incidents, doing exercises on critical thinking, presentations of projects. These techniques enable the students to:

- understand the concept of intercultural awareness;

- recognize the origins of their own cultural values, assumptions and attitudes and the way in which their values affect their perception of others;

- identify causes of intercultural misunderstandings;

- explore how their perception of their own character, attitudes and behavior might influence their cultural learning;

- recognize personal skills affecting their ability to adapt to living and working abroad;

- develop attitudes and strategies which will help adapt to life in a foreign country and operate autonomously in that country;

- observe, monitor and report on their own cultural learning;

- transfer their intercultural competence into their employability

Therefore, KAFU students should get sufficient knowledge and skills in cross-cultural communication in order to adjust properly to a new culture or multicultural environment, to be able to establish interpersonal relations within the culturally different community, and to behave adequately in some cross-cultural situations.


1. Common European Framework (2005). Acquiring Sociocultural Competence

2. Galskova N.D. (2000) Modern Methodic of Teaching a Foreign Language. M.: Arkti-Glossa, 265 p.

3. Juan C Vegas Puente (2006) Different Views on Sociocultural com/

4. Kohls L.R. (2006) Developing Intercultural Awareness. Yarmouth. 365p

5. P.Lantolf, James. (2000). Sociocultural Theory and second Language Learninng. Oxford.

6. Marianne Celce – Murcia. (2008) Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language. Thomson Learning. 584 p.

7. Nikitenko Z.I. (.2005) The Problem of Teaching a Cultural Component in the Content of Education in primary school. Foreign languages.№3. P.13-17.

8. Sysoev P.V. (2004) Cultural determination in the system of multicultural education. Foreign languages. №4. С. 14 - 20.

9. Sut U.J. (2003) The opportunities of the usage of the Internet as a means of development of students’ sociocultural competence in teaching English. Foreign languages. № 2. P. 31 - 36.

10. Vorobyov V.V. (2009) Lingvocultural theory: theory and methods М.: UDN. 332p.

11. Zhanna Korotkikh. Training For Effective Intercultural Communication http://www. prof. msu. ru/ publ/ omsk2/ o32. htm

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №3 - 2011

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