It's More Than Just Language: It's About the Process, Fall 2011

Accessible Version

By Nadine Le Gros, Language & Communication Instructor, Teaching Support Centre

Internationalization is a buzz word on campuses all across Canada, and it involves many elements ranging from inviting greater numbers of international students to our campuses to making changes in curricula that reflect different paradigms. The most visible and audible aspect is, of course, the increase in numbers of international students. International students contribute enormously to the Western campus, and I would argue they help prepare Canadian students for the workforce in which they will one day work, as our students can be guaranteed to have supervisors, colleagues, patients, customers, constituents, etc. who come from different cultures. The increase in international students also creates challenges for staff and faculty who are unsure of how to support these students. The most obvious skill people believe international students need is English language fluency, but living successfully in another culture is not just about language. In fact, a person who is highly proficient can still experience extreme difficulty living in a new culture. As a host institution, it is vital to be cognizant of what individuals undergo in the face of cultural difference so that we can both support them and recognize when we need support as much as possible. The Intercultural Development Continuum (IDC; Hammer, 2009) offers a framework through which we can consider how individuals will generally respond to cultural difference. The IDC is a five-stage model of intercultural cognitive development, which is an adaptation of the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS; Bennett, 1993). But first, a word of caution: I’m a fan of models from the perspective that they create a forum in which to discuss issues. But Shakespeare was right--"there are more things on heaven on earth ... than are dreamt of in [our] philosophy." Therefore, we need to be tentative about how we use this model. Having said that, the IDC is a good model, and it’s a helpful model.

The IDC consists of five stages of development, three of which are characteristic of a Monocultural Mindset and two of which are characteristic of an Intercultural/Global Mindset. With a Monocultural Mindset, individuals tend to experience cultural differences through their own worldviews. If people see a behaviour they don’t understand from somebody from a different culture, they will interpret it through their own cultural lens--through their own value system. For example, a graduate student might agree to do something that his supervisor has asked him to do knowing full well that he will not be able to get it done. If his professor has a Monocultural Mindset, he might think, "This student has been dishonest with me; he should not have said he could do the work." With an Intercultural/Global Mindset, individuals can acknowledge that their own worldviews are not central to all paradigms. If they see behaviour they don’t understand, they will be more likely to consider alternate explanations. In the previous example, a professor with an Intercultural or Global Mindset might realize that the student did not say ‘no’ out of respect. The professor might then a) have a conversation with the student about the importance of being direct; and/ or b) be more mindful of how he phrased questions and directions to the student.

The IDC posits that as one’s experience with cultural difference becomes more sophisticated, one moves further along the continuum of stages developing cognitive structures and developing intercultural competence. The Monocultural Mindset features three stages: Denial, Polarization, and Minimization. The Intercultural/Global Mindset features two stages: Acceptance and Adaptation.

Denial is the default stage, in which one does not recognize that cultural differences exist between people. While people who have never had experiences with other cultures can be in Denial, even those who have been in a culture for a period of time can still be in this stage if they constantly separate themselves from the host culture or are simply apathetic to differences. I once had a student who registered in Denial on the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI), the psychometric tool which measures orientation to cultural difference. He had been in Canada and the United States for years but had immersed himself entirely in his studies. He once said, "I know about Canadian culture, because my family has been in the United States for years." He subsequently ‘failed dinner’ at a faculty interview because he was unable to partake in any discussions unrelated to his discipline. He had done nothing during his PhD except work and study. While this might seem ideal to a supervisor, it is in nobody’s best interests for students to wear blinders while in another country. Students need to be able to see cultural difference in order to be able to negotiate being in a new culture.

Polarization is the stage when newcomers recognize that differences do exist and tend to view the host culture in polarities. They may see it as either inferior to their own or possibly superior to their own. A person in Polarization may find it challenging to engage in relationships with people from other cultures as they tend to have an us-and-them approach to cultural difference and may resort to using stereotypes to make sense of cultural differences. A student who views the host culture as inferior might frequently say things such as, "Oh the education system in my country is much better. I can’t believe how little these students know!" A student who views the host culture as superior might frequently say things such as, "Oh the professors here are so much better than they are in my country. They all treat their students so respectfully--they’re like equals." A difficulty of Polarization is that the separation it engenders can fossilize a person’s intercultural cognitive development and threaten goals. For some students, overcoming Polarization will be a matter of time until they have more balanced interpretations. However, I have had students who have been in Canada for more than 10 years who registered on the IDI in Polarization, which was indicative of trauma (M. Hammer, personal communication, 2006). If students have been in Canada for many years and still engage in a lot of us-and-them discourse, they might actually require counseling. (Some measure of us-and-them talk can be a permanent feature for people who have lived overseas. It’s only when the state is persistent and threatens goals that counseling might be necessary.)

In Minimization, individuals will be aware that differences exist but will gloss over the depth or significance of the differences. They tend to make assumptions about human commonalities, which diminish cultural differences. They’ll say, "All students respect their teachers" without realizing that the way respect manifests itself is different from one culture to another. Minimization can be a comfortable and productive stage; however, minimization can be problematic, as in the face of difficulties people can revert to Polarization. In addition, a person with a Minimization approach to cultural difference might miss important subtleties because they are focusing on commonalities. For example, an engineering student could easily just focus on the universality of scientific principles and completely overlook how power or collaboration might be handled differently in a group of international people working on a project. Such an oversight could result in the person being good at the science but bad at the management of a multi-national team.

In Acceptance, one appreciates and respects differences, recognizing their cultural context. If people are in Acceptance, they’ll be more able to acknowledge that behaviour which does not reflect their own value systems might be appropriate to the context of the host culture. Individuals in Acceptance will be likely to be able to experience cultural difficulty and negotiate their way through it. For example, they might be shocked by how directly and publicly a supervisor gave them negative feedback if they come from a culture where the norms would dictate a private and gentle delivery. After the initial shock, such an individual would be able to walk through an internal debrief and realize that while they didn’t enjoy the experience, it was actually not rude behaviour but was appropriate to the context. These individuals are essential to any group that has multiple cultures in it, as they can serve as bridges and view situations from multiple perspectives.

In Adaptation, one shifts one’s own behaviour and perspective to be more culturally appropriate to different contexts. A person in Adaptation will be able to approach a situation in ways appropriate for other cultures. For example, recently a student of mine was having difficulty with an individual in his working group. After a discussion about the various elements and actors involved, he took a course of action that ran counter to his own sense of propriety but which was effective as it was consistent with the other party’s expectations. Interestingly, it is this level of development that many people expect newcomers to demonstrate--and quickly. Unfortunately, it can take a very long time for individuals to achieve the Adaptation stage, and for some it may simply be beyond their ken.

While living in another culture or working with individuals from other cultures can be exhilarating, it can also initially be destabilizing. However, just because an individual is experiencing difficulty in the face of cultural difference does not mean that person will not be able to adjust to the experience. In fact, some research indicates that great intercultural difficulty can actually be experienced by those who will eventually become the most interculturally competent (Ruben & Kealey, 1979).

As our classes become more international, we need to remember that adaptation ought not to be a one-way street. While faculty and staff in the host culture might consider the behaviour of newcomers through the lens of the IDC, it is also critical that they attend to their own positioning on the continuum. So, how is movement along the continuum encouraged? Being mindful of some of the elements involved with experiencing cultural difference helps, but unfortunately, there is no short cut to intercultural competence. However, the Teaching Support Centre has a host of resources to support everybody on campus.


Bennett, M. (1993). Towards ethnocentrism: A developmental model of intercultural sensitivity. In R.M. Paige (Ed.,) Education for the intercultural experience (2nd Ed.,) Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.

Hammer, M.R., & Bennett, M.H. (1998). The intercultural development inventory manual. Porland, OR: The Intercultural Communication Institute.

Hammer, M.R. (2009). The Intercultural Development Inventory: An approach for assessing and building intercultural competence. In M.A. Moodian (Ed.), Exploring the Cross-Cultural Dynamic within Organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Ruben, B. D. & Kealey, D. J. (1979). Behavioral assessment of communication competency and the prediction of cross-cultural adaptation. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 3, 15-47.