Navigating the Multicultural Landscape Can Feel Like a Minefield

Diversity brings together a blending of cultures, heritages, languages, and norms that makes society more dynamic, interesting, and fulfilling. When this diversity is reflected in the workplace, it can bring the benefits of a variety of skills, cultural insights, innovative and creative ideas, as well as increased productivity and engagement, which gives a competitive advantage to any organization. At the same time, differences can also cause misunderstanding, conflict, and diverging perspectives that can make any leader, colleague, or employee feel like they are navigating a multicultural minefield.

Language proficiency and cultural competency are effective tools to infiltrate an increasingly multicultural linguistic world that requires clear communication in language, in culture, and in context. Communicating with others in their preferred or native language helps remove barriers of understanding that may result in conflict and unsettled diverging perspectives. Understanding cultural attributes, such as indigenous heritage, nationality, abilities, and accessibility, etc. all help in addressing the various perspectives individuals bring to the workplace. This includes understanding the terrain of language competency, proficiency levels, and cultural sensitivity each person on the team has.  Whether it’s reading, writing, speaking, listening and other communication skills, they are all powerful tools that will allow you to be an actively engaged and effective leader in your company or industry. It’s strategic and critical to assess the language proficiency of members of your organization (corporate, government or nonprofit). . Certifying your team members’ language proficiency will allow you to effectively navigate the multicultural landscape with certainty. 

Getting Back to Business with Language and Cultural Proficiency

One million vaccinations a day was certainly a lofty proposition as we began the year grappling with how to effectively rid ourselves of COVID-19 and get back to business. As a business owner, diversity specialist, and community advocate, I wondered how this would be accomplished because I know there are still so many gaps in addressing the United States’ diverse populations through linguistically and culturally appropriate initiatives. This is especially true in underserved and underrepresented communities where people, including senior citizens, have little to no access to reliable transportation, major healthcare facilities, or the technology needed to secure an appointment to get vaccinated. Let’s face it, we need everyone to have access to one of the three available vaccines, regardless of their socioeconomic status, ethnicity, cultural background, or language proficiency, so that we can get back to business and to our lives. But how to gather individuals with the linguistic and cultural competence required to effectively communicate with members of these communities in order to promote and provide access to vaccines? 

And then it happened. On a busy morning of back-to-back Zoom calls, I received a text from Father José Rodríguez, a community leader at the local Hispanic Episcopal church in Orlando, Florida where I participate as a volunteer and as a bilingual resource to develop educational programs. He had an opportunity to secure 500 vaccines for local residents of a neighborhood where 59% of working-class families live under the poverty level. Residents are mostly essential workers who have kept the economy going  and many are English language learners, not proficient enough to navigate making an appointment to get the vaccine. His question to me was: “Do you think we can get all the community leaders together, from non-profits to small businesses and government officials, to support the National Guard to administer the vaccines in ten days?” My answer: “Absolutely!”

Language and cultural competency were at the epicenter of every tactic used to accomplish this goal as we assembled a team of talented bilingual workers for the cause. Local Hispanic supermarkets were contacted to serve as sites to enroll predominantly Spanish-speaking people 65+; local media made announcements on TV stations and radio shows, Spanish-speaking elected officials helped with logistics. They were so happy to see Father José scheduling appointments with a brigade of bilingual volunteers from various grassroots organizations. Many senior citizens had tried to secure appointments with the help of their loved ones, but the vaccination sites were a long drive from the neighborhood and they didn’t have transportation. There was a general sense of relief that now all they had to do was show up on Saturday, February 20 to the church’s parking lot at their scheduled time for the National Guard to administer the vaccine. Our organizations’ and bilingual volunteers’ efforts would bring the vaccines to the community.

That Saturday morning, I realized we were experiencing a major breakthrough that was a direct result of the measurable language skills of our team and their cultural competence. Having advocated and volunteered during several crises in Central Florida that lacked any true exercise of cultural competency (the Pulse Night Club tragedy and the displacement of over 200,000 Puerto Ricans after Hurricane María), this vaccination effort was efficient, effective, and smooth because the importance of language and cultural context was taken into account from the get-go. 

So, as we finish the business at hand of making sure everyone gets vaccinated, I encourage corporations, small businesses, community organizations, healthcare facilities, and government agencies to be intentional in preparing to get back to work building our economy by ensuring their teams have language proficient and culturally competent professionals that can help accelerate our growth and do so in an equitable way. One important strategy for doing so is by assessing the language skills of your team members and volunteers using one of Language Testing International’s proficiency tests.

Focusing On What’s Important This Year

Chris Lemon, Northmont High School, Clayton, OH (Spanish Teacher, Department Chair)

A young woman from Spain fell in love with a man from Chile, moved there with him and made a family. Along the way Ofelia discovered democracy and political organizing and volunteered for Salvador Allende’s presidential campaign. Along with many other people at the time, she and her family were rounded up shortly after the September 11, 1973 coup and detained for many months. Thanks to her Spanish citizenship, they were deported rather than disappeared, and she has lived the last 40 years of her life in Sweden.

Two years ago, my brother and I made a trip to Santiago, Chile to see the mountains, the museums, and the stars. When we were at the Museo de la Memoria, I bought a copy of Ofelia’s autobiography, Mi historia – y un viaje al fin del mundo. She left it in the gift shop when she flew back there for the first time in many years to give a speech not long before my own trip.

This school year, our instructional time was cut by about 25%, our first quarter was remote, the rest has been hybrid, and we all know how much our students’ learning was stunted in Spring 2020. So, this year we decided to take a step back and ask ourselves what matters most. Maybe your answers are different than mine, but what I chose to focus on was an emphasis on stories, real and imagined (see Krashen article on Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition here), project-based learning and remote exchange. All three of these were already a part of our teaching practice, but they have really taken off now.

We celebrated our third year of video pen pals with la Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México, and this year we had about 80-90% of people show up regularly. This compares to about 50% or lower the past two years, in large part because the university students have been online the whole year. The students spoke half of the time in English, half in Spanish, formed new friendships, and incorporated what they learned into class.

Like most of my guests, the UAEM connection started because I met a teacher many years ago who introduced me to another, who then passed this project on to a professor who was interested. I lived in México as an English Teaching Assistant ten years ago, so it is always nostalgic for me to work with these students. I decided with my principal that it would be best to be logged into each of the conversations, which led to accusations from colleagues that I am one screen short of an intervention. I felt like “El Profesor” from Casa de papel.

Other guests joined us remotely, including a student teacher (also from UAEM) and people who live or used to live in Nicaragua, Bolivia, Colombia, Argentina, Cuba, Venezuela, Chile, Spain, Switzerland, Uruguay, and the US. Many were connections (or connections of connections), including former teachers of mine who graciously volunteered their time. In Spanish IV, we study the history of democracy and autocracy in the Spanish-speaking world, and my colleagues helped me track down a former exchange student of ours who came in and talked about how it affected her family and its legacy today.

And I got to thinking… What about Ofelia? It took a few days to get up the courage, and then I direct messaged her on social media and went about my day teaching. Within thirty minutes, she got back to me with a long message about how touched she was that I had reached out and that she would love to come! So, I had my Spanish IV students read some excerpts from her book and run some questions by me. The day came and went and I couldn’t have been prouder of them or happier to have her along. This was right after January 6th, too, so we had a lot to talk about…

So is it working? What effect does sociocultural learning have on students as they work towards language proficiency? Our upper-level students all take the AAPPL test to identify Seal of Biliteracy recipients, and this year my CCP third-year students and our fourth-year students beat the national average scores on that test in all four categories, averaging above Intermediate Mid-3 (I-3) in each area and +1.2 over the national average for the Interpersonal Listening & Speaking.  Nine students earned the Seal with I-5 or higher in all four areas and eleven got I-5 or higher in three areas. Some are still waiting on results yet to come in, along with our German students who took the test for the first time this year.

Is it all sunshine and rainbows? Certainly not. We had a pen pal project set up with a school in Ecuador that totally flopped. There was a severe mismatch of ability levels in a couple of the video pen pal groups, and some of my students didn’t show up to their Meets. I didn’t give a few guests enough lead time to come in, and others were cancelled due to snow days. Many students who I began the year thinking were shoo-ins for the Seal of Biliteracy came frustratingly close or lost momentum this year.

As we head into the home stretch, savor those victories from the year and recognize those students who really grew. They might still sound rough around the edges but honor the work that they (and you) put in to get from where they started to where they are now. I’m looking forward to the next couple of weeks as my students will be presenting to each other about a variety of topics that they chose, from Machu Picchu to bee conservation to pets in Latin America.

Next year will be a whole new adventure, and I am proud to be an educator! ¡Feliz verano! Happy Summer!

The ACTFL Writing Proficiency Test Administered by LTI

As discussed in previous blogs, being able to speak English is not the only skill that employees who work in a global corporate environment need to have; being able to communicate by writing is also essential to remain competitive and gain success. A measure such as the ACTFL Writing Proficiency Test (WPT), administered exclusively through Language Testing International (LTI), is a valid and reliable assessment that measures how well a person spontaneously writes in a required language by comparing their performance in four to five specific writing prompts to the criteria stated in the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines 2012—Writing. Topics included in the WPT range from practical to social and professional  that are usually encountered in both formal and informal contexts. The language proficiency level for this test is measured from Novice to Superior.

The ACTFL WPT is usually administered online. In cases where internet access might not be available, or for script/character based languages that present keyboarding challenges, a fixed form paper/pencil booklet is also available. In order to ensure an individualized assessment, candidates complete a Background Survey and a Self-Assessment. While the Background Survey provides information related to the candidates’ work, school, home, and personal activities to aid in identifying appropriate content areas, the Self-Assessment asks candidates to select one of six descriptions they feel most accurately describes their writing ability. Once these details are obtained, the computer then generates a WPT that is customized to each candidate’s experience, background, and self-assessed proficiency level. The computer can generate any of the three possible forms:

  • Form 1 targets Novice and Intermediate tasks and may be rated Novice Low to Intermediate Mid.
  • Form 2 targets Intermediate and Advanced tasks and may be rated Novice Low to Advanced Mid.
  • Form 3 targets Advanced and Superior tasks and may be rated Novice Low to Superior.

Even though the paper-pencil booklet does not include the Background Survey and  Self-Assessment, the tasks do increase in complexity throughout the test, just as they would in the fixed-form option, ranging from simple informative writing to descriptive, narrative, and persuasive writing.

Scoring

While the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines are comprised of five major levels of proficiency – Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, Superior, and Distinguished, the WPT only tests proficiency through Superior. The major levels of Advanced, Intermediate, and Novice are divided into High, Mid, and Low sublevels. There are no sub-levels for Superior. The description of each major level is representative of a specific range of abilities. They also present the limitations that candidates encounter when attempting to write tasks at the next higher major level.

In assessing the writing ability of newly hired employees, or while making important hiring  decisions, having an assessment that is not only standardized but also provides individualized evaluations is highly valuable. The process of selection and hiring is one that usually requires a number of resources, not just in terms of time but also in terms of how the new hire will benefit the organization in the future. Upon hiring an employee, organizations are deciding to invest in that new incoming employee, therefore it is important that they have all the necessary information to make that decision. The ACTFL WPT, a standardized measure of an applicant’s writing ability in a given language, will enable organizations to make that decision. Prior to implementing a testing program, many clients undergo an LTI Task Analysis through which LTI works with a group of Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) nominated by the client to participate in a series of data collection activities to identify the communication tasks and functions; range of content/context areas; level of accuracy; and degree of elaboration needed to perform the bilingual position in question. This allows clients to set fair and appropriate, legally defensible minimum proficiency levels, as well as confirm/identify the necessary skills to be tested for the position. Given the increasingly globalized corporate environment that we live in today, employees that are proficient in multiple languages are more important than ever.