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Article 4 in 2005
First published in ejcjs on 19 August 2005

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Investigating the Cognition Behind the Intercultural Interactions of Four Japanese Teachers of English as a Foreign Language


Natasha N. Walker

EdD Candidate
School of Cognition, Language and Special Education

Griffith University

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The quality of teachers' daily social and intellectual interactions is influenced by effective communication and interpersonal skills. Moreover, when considering the relationships between Japanese and non-Japanese teachers who work together, the quality of their relationships may need to be assessed in terms of their willingness to communicate with persons from different cultures, and the ability to do so while respecting cultural differences. This paper examines these two issues in the cognition of four Japanese teachers at a senior high school in Japan. The principles for communicating with people from other cultures are first defined in terms of cultural fluency and the Willingness to Communicate (WTC), which two determinants of successful intercultural communication. Repertory grids were used to elicit teachers' perceptions of effective intercultural communicators, and they used concept maps share their understanding of intercultural communication. Conversations with the four Japanese teachers revealed that they do not see cultural fluency as a special skill but as a combination of experience and insight gained from intercultural interactions. The consensus among the four teachers is that it is natural for them to use interpersonal skills in communicating with people from different cultures because they are interacting with other individuals. The conclusion to this investigation was that the four teachers realise that communication with non-Japanese colleagues requires a purpose beyond the practice of language skills. However, while they understand that intercultural communication requires effective interpersonal skills, they also believe that good language skills will give them the confidence to communicate in English.


Since the year 2000, Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology has been working steadily towards cultivating a rich intellectual environment in which youth can develop the skills to represent the nation's interests at home and abroad (MEXT 2002). The promotion of national interest in a borderless society requires the expression of ideas in English, the lingua franca of an international society (Arita 2003). Accordingly, an important aspect of educational reform is the raising of school students' competence in English by employing native speakers of English to teach in schools. However, it is widely believed that this move may have a negative effect on Japanese teachers' perceptions of their own English competence. One concern is that native speakers of English may reinforce the notion that students should strive for native competence in English (Kubota 2004). Another concern is that Japanese teachers may feel that they should know English perfectly to be effective teachers (Murphey & Sasaki 1998). Compounding these concerns are reports that Japanese teachers have refused to cooperate with their native English-speaking colleagues. The reasons may include non-Japanese teachers' dependence on their Japanese colleagues (Akiyama 2004), and the expectation that conversations between them should only be conducted in English. Japanese EFL teachers who have lived overseas may understand that establishing new rules for communicating with their non-Japanese colleagues may take time and effort (Yamaguchi & Wiseman 2003; Yashima, Zenuk-Nishide & Shimizu 2004), but those with little international experience may feel apprehensive about speaking in English if they have low confidence in their ability (Allen, Long, O'Mara & Judd 2003). The latter situation may present a problem within the spatial arrangement of the staff room in the Japanese school, where the presence of native English speaking teachers in the staff room indicates a tacit agreement to communicate with others in English (Vanderstraaten 2001).

The quality of teachers' daily social, emotional and intellectual interactions is influenced by the practice of effective communication and interpersonal skills (Griffith, Steptoe & Cropley, 1999; Jarzabkowski, 2002). Moreover, when considering the relationships between Japanese and non-Japanese teachers who work together, the quality of their relationships may need to be assessed in terms of their willingness to communicate with persons from different cultures, and the ability to do so while respecting cultural differences. This paper examines these two issues in the cognition of four Japanese teachers at a senior high school in Japan. This examination is pursued in an investigation of cultural fluency and the Willingness to Communicate (WTC), which are two determinants of successful intercultural communication (Fantini 2000; Yamaguchi & Wiseman 2003). The investigation is facilitated by concept mapping and repertory grids, two approaches that allow researchers to observe the cognition that influences individual behaviour.

Cultural Fluency

In the Japanese staff room, teachers create social relationships that are conducive to teamwork (Ninomiya 1990) by talking about themselves and their teaching activities (Williams, Prestage & Bedward 2001), and by physically arranging the work space to reduce isolation (Phillips, 2003). Within this workspace, Japanese teachers who interact with non-Japanese may feel dissatisfied with their working relationships if communication is frequently disrupted by misunderstandings (Elfenbein & Ambady 2003). Cultural fluency may be a key requirement for efficient communication, as it is a combination of effective interpersonal skills, behaviours, attitudes, knowledge, and proficiency in a foreign language (Fantini 2000). When people of two different cultures interact, cultural fluency is the appropriate application of respect, empathy, flexibility, patience, interest, curiosity, openness, the willingness to suspend judgement, tolerance for ambiguity and sense of humour (Dawson, et al 1999; Nixon & Dawson 2002; Frankel 2003; Flowerday, Schraw & Stevens 2004; Hojat, et al 2003; Huber 2003; Indiana University School of Medicine 2004; Irmsher 1996; Lane & Klenke 2004; Martin & Anderson 1998; Sonnenberg 2004; Torrance & Goff 1990). Definitions of cultural fluency traits will be shown later in this article.

Willingness to Communicate

The Willingness to Communicate (WTC) is defined in terms of low communication anxiety, which is also known as communication apprehension. Communication apprehension (CA) is a learned condition that may be caused by unfamiliar social situations, cultural dissimilarity, and the use of a second language (Yoon Jung & McCroskey 2004). Individuals with low CA may be more likely to start conversations, and they are expected to have the willingness to communicate with people in a new culture (Cole & McCroskey 2004). Individuals with WTC are thought to be more open, self-confident, willing to share their ideas with others, and curious about new cultures (Yashima, Zenuk-Nishiide & Shimizu date). However, Japanese teachers who are apprehensive about their English speaking ability may appear reluctant to converse with their non-Japanese colleagues. At the same time, Japanese teachers who are confident in their speaking ability may make little effort to converse with their colleagues in English (McIntyre 2003). This may mean that for Japanese teachers to enjoy harmonious collegial relationships, they should be confident in their English language competence and make the effort to converse with their colleagues.

The Repertory Grid Technique

The repertory grid technique is used to elicit qualitative information about an individual's perceptions and interpretations of everyday phenomena. This elicitation takes place in an interview, during which a physical grid is used to elicit prior knowledge and experiences. The technique is based on Personal Construct Theory (PCT) (Marsden & Littler 2000a), which states that individuals choose the interpretations and perceptions that they apply to everyday phenomena. Individuals use similarities and contrasts to create mental pictures of their experiences and make sense of the world (Senior 1996; Marsden & Littler 2000b). While individuals differ from each other in the way they see a particular phenomenon, they may have similar perceptions of the same phenomenon or of some aspect of that phenomenon if they share similar social contexts. For example, the four Japanese teachers have shared the same workspace for a number of years, and their behaviours are influenced to a great extent by the established school culture, so the repertory grid interviews may uncover similarities in their constructs. Accordingly, repertory grids were chosen because they permit the retrieval of Japanese teachers' definitions and descriptions of intercultural performance. They were also chosen because (a) their underlying purpose is to generate subjective information and because (b) the elicitation of constructs and contrasts is done without the imposition of predetermined concepts by the researcher (Myers, Brewin & Winter 1999; Coshall 2000; Baddoo & Hall 2002).

The repertory grid's physical layout is designed to elicit elements, constructs, and contrasts (Harris 2001; Baddoo & Hall 2002), which are three types of information that will help to interpret teachers・ principles for intercultural communication. Elements were presented on the grids as two sets of individuals whom the Japanese teachers believed to be effective or ineffective intercultural communicators. Constructs were the qualities that describe individuals or elements who were effective intercultural communicators. Contrasts were presented as the qualities that differentiated ineffective communicators. The distance between each element and its construct or contrast was measured with rating scales that were anchored in respondents・subjective experiences. In other words, the Japanese teachers were asked to rate the distance of each individual on the grid from the related construct or contrast. The procedure for the repertory grid interviews is discussed in the 'Procedure' section below.

Concept Mapping

A concept map is a two-dimensional web diagram that is used for gathering and exploring information about a specific topic. Concept mapping is the technique used to create a concept map. The technique was developed by Prof. J. D. Novak at Cornell University in the 1960s as a way of eliciting the prior knowledge of learners before teaching them new concepts (See for example: Novak 1990). Concept maps are made up of networks, nodes and links. Networks answer the question: 'What is the central research question around which to build the map?' Nodes represent concepts related to the central research question. They answer the question: 'What are the words that you can associate with the research question?' Links show the relationships between concepts, and they are usually drawn as lines with an arrow symbol to denote the direction of the relationship between concepts. Links are usually labelled with prepositions, or other phrases that answer the question: 'How are any two concepts related to each other within the network, or to the central research question?' Researchers use the above questions to guide respondents in communicating complex ideas or in sharing their understanding of an issue.

Concept mapping is a cognitive exercise that assumes that individual actions are guided by cognitive schema composed of generalisations, assumptions or images (Stoddart, et al 2000). The Japanese teachers interviewed for this research were not conscious of the connections within their own schema, and they had no experience with concept mapping so they had to be trained to create two dimensional representations of their thinking processes (Cossette 2002). The sensitivity of concept maps to the structure of individual knowledge allowed the observation of teachers' contextual knowledge (McClure, Sonak & Suen 1999; Nicoll 2001; Bign・ Manzano, Kuster & Vila 2002) or individual approaches to intercultural communication.

Concept maps were created and developed with the English language in mind, the construction of a perfectly hierarchical map, in which the concepts can be read top-down, was not considered a realistic goal (Kilic 2003). Therefore, modifications had to be made to the process used in this research, so as to accommodate non-native English speakers. The procedure used for creating the concept maps is discussed in the 'Procedure' section below.

Research Setting

The respondents are four Japanese teachers of English as a foreign language, who work at a senior high school in Japan. They are fluent speakers of English who have worked together for between 6 and 15 years. Two of the respondents have travelled extensively and have lived in English speaking countries. All respondents have had a number of non-Japanese EFL colleagues since starting to work at this senior high school. They are all actively involved in international exchange programmes so they, as well as other members of the department, continue to develop their speaking skills by using English in everyday conversations with their English-speaking colleagues. For ease of reference, they have been given the pseudonyms Tame, Rosh, Chui and Kane.


This research was a single case study in which the unit of analysis was 'cultural fluency'. The data was interpreted to create a working theory of cultural fluency from the perspective of second language speakers. This was achieved by comparing the results with the literature on cultural fluency and the Willingness to Communicate. Triangulation was achieved with the use of two separate approaches, concept maps and repertory grids, which are explained later. The researcher's interpretations were also discussed with respondents at the end of the study. The case study protocol involved (a) defining the case, (b) specifying cultural fluency as the issue under investigation, (c) selecting and interviewing respondents, (d) displaying respondents' descriptions of their intercultural activities in detail and, (e) generalising the results to the relevant literature.


Repertory Grid Construct Elicitation: 'Intercultural communication'

The repertory grid sheet, shown in Appendix A, defines 'intercultural communication', 'intercultural communicator', and 'communication' so the teachers could focus their thinking before attempting to complete the grids. This was necessary because the constructs were personality traits inferred from observed behaviour (Peters 1994). These interviews began with explanations of personal construct psychology in English and Japanese. The interview protocol saw the researcher following respondents through each row to keep them on task, to assist with the choice of words and to reduce the misunderstanding of instructions. The teachers were asked to choose two examples each of an 'excellent intercultural communicator' and a 'poor intercultural communicator' from the breadth of their experiences, in addition to the elements 'myself as an intercultural communicator' and 'the intercultural communicator I wish to become'. On the grid, elements were marked with Xs and Os in pre-selected triads. Respondents wrote down shared constructs in the left hand column, and indicated dissimilar characteristics in the right hand column. The teachers were then asked to rate each 'communicator' on a scale of one to five, with 1 being descriptions of poor intercultural communicators, and 5 being descriptions of excellent intercultural communicators. Comprehension checks and a review of all the constructs elicited completed each interview.

Repertory Grid Analysis

The data from the repertory grids were analysed manually because of their small size and because the constructs were chosen by the teachers. This was justified because the intention was to compare the data with the literature, maintain flexibility in interpretations and stay close to the original information (Easterby-Smith 1996; Marsden & Littler 2000b; Leach, Freshwater, Aldridge & Sunderland 2001; Peters 1994; Stewart 1997). The constructs and contrasts from the repertory grids of Tame, Rosh, Chui and Kane are listed in Figure 1 and Figure 2.

Figure 1: Repertory Grid Constructs

Figure 2: Repertory Grid Contrasts: 'Characteristics of poor intercultural communicators'

The data from the repertory grids were cross-referenced with definitions of cultural fluency traits that were mentioned in the introduction. These definitions are defined in the literature (Dawson, et al 1999; Nixon & Dawson 2002; Frankel 2003; Flowerday, Schraw & Stevens 2004; Hojat, et al 2003; Huber 2003; Indiana University School of Medicine 2004; Irmsher 1996; Lane & Klenke 2004; Martin & Anderson 1998; Sonnenberg 2004; Torrance & Goff 1990). Explanatory statements from the Japanese teachers during the repertory grids interviews assisted in the organisation of the trait definitions. The aggregated traits from the concept maps (procedure described below) and the repertory grids are presented in Figure 3 and highlighted with a maru or circle, which in Japanese is equivalent to a check mark.

Figure 3: Cultural fluency traits found in repertory grids and concept maps

Concept Map Interviews 'Communicating with people of different cultures'

The concept map protocol was derived from the literature (Shavelson, Long & Lewin 1994; Safayeni, Derbentseva, & Cas 2003), and featured a pre-interview training component. In the research interview, teachers were asked to contribute nouns instead of ideas when creating their maps because they taught grammar and would understand this term more clearly. They were asked to write down ten nouns related to their own communication experiences in these sessions. Using the networking technique, the link labels were elicited with the question 'How does noun A relate to noun B?' so that the teachers could freely discuss relationships between the links (McClure, et al 1999) before deciding on appropriate definitions or modifiers (Ferry, Hedelberg & Harper 1997; Bign・et al 2002). When the concepts needed to be explained, teachers were asked to write examples above or near link lines (Kilic 2000). The concepts they chose are listed in Figure 4, and the number of links leading to and away from each concept is shown in brackets. The number of links leading to and away from each noun is significant in the analysis of the maps, because it may indicate the importance of that particular idea or feature to the main research question, which is 'communicating with people of different cultures'.

Figure 4: Concept map concepts related to 'Intercultural Communication'

Concept Map Analysis

The concept maps were analysed with close attention to information found in the links (McClure, et al 1999; Bign・et al 2002). The ideas were reorganised by writing down the relationships between concepts in terms of link modifiers (Shavelson, et al 1994; Kilic 2003) and as mentioned above, respondents were asked to verify those statements (Bign・et al 2002). As shown in Figure 5, the statements were written in such a way that they would correspond to the number of links leading to and away from each noun. The purpose of this rewriting was to highlight concepts that teachers emphasised as being important to intercultural communication. These emphases will be discussed in the 'interpretation' section below.

Figure 5: Re-written links from concept maps

Interpretation of Data from Repertory Grids and Concept Maps

Comparisons between the literature on cultural fluency and the data from teachers' concepts maps and repertory grids (Stewart 1997; Bign・et al 2002) revealed that Tame, Rosh, Chui and Kane described intercultural communication as a combination of cultural fluency traits (Figure 3 and Figure 5) and language skills (Figure 1 and Figure 4).

Considering the teachers' feedback and the constructs in Figure 1 as a whole unit, it appears that a person who has a good command of English will be categorised as an excellent intercultural communicator if (s)he is easy-going, likes to try different things (Tame), is broad-minded and friendly (Rosh), is positive, is not afraid of talking (Chui) and is sympathetic (Kane). Conversations with Tame, Rosh, Chui and Kane revealed that they do not perceive cultural fluency as a special skill but as the result of insight gained from accumulated experiences in intercultural communication. The consensus is that it is natural for them to use interpersonal skills in communicating with people from different cultures because they are interacting with fellow human beings. They are also aware that differences in culture and language obscure similarities in the expression of emotions and personal beliefs.

The literature points to a clear distinction between language fluency and cultural fluency, and there we can see examples of Japanese students who were fluent in English, but who could not communicate effectively with others in a new country (Allen, et al 2003; Yamaguchi & Wiseman 2003; Yashima, et al 2004; Witteborn 2003). It was interesting, however, that none of the elements in the original grids reflect this distinction. That is, a 'poor intercultural communicator' was never said to be fluent in English, or have good language skills (Figure 2). This may have happened because respondents organised elements and related activities in a coherent way to fulfil the requirements of the interview. That is, in order to retrieve the contrasts, a 'poor intercultural communicator' had to be chosen to exemplify undesirable traits (Grainger 2004). The elicitation of contrasts (Figure 2) that are not direct opposites of constructs (Peters 1994; Senior 1996) thus revealed that interpersonal traits such as 'selfish' 'arrogant' and 'negative' (Figure 2) outnumber references to inadequate language skills to describe poor intercultural communicators. This led to the initial assumption that personality traits would be more important for judging cultural fluency. This assumption was later tested in the post-research interviews. Kane's repertory grid, for instance, did not refer to 'language' but in the post-research interview her initial response was that Japanese people who are unable to express themselves in English are basically poor intercultural communicators since language is a tool for communication. However, the assumption was supported by her explanation that 'language knowledge is superficial because by itself, it cannot allow people to express deep ideas and concepts' and the clarification that language skills alone do not guarantee 'humane communication' if persons have 'no interests outside of [their] present experiences' (Fantini 2000).

Language related statements from repertory grids and concept maps, as shown in Figures 1 and 4 indicate that respondents value 'communication competence' which is the adequate ability to give information by talking or writing (O'Mara, Long & Allen 2003). Indeed, respondents have asserted that it would be difficult to demonstrate openness (a cultural fluency trait) without communication competence. Taking examples from the repertory grids of Tame, Rosh and Chui (Figure 1), the constructs 'good at expressing oneself', '1st Grade of STEP test', and 'can speak English well' refer to 'communication competence' but a closer look at other constructs such as 'comfortable speaking English', 'experience living in a foreign country' and 'any chances to meet foreigners' refer to another aspect of language competence. It is known as the Willingness to Communicate and is defined as the end product of self confidence, the motivation to communicate in English, familiarity with foreign cultures, and the ability to assume cultural norms related to talking (Allen, et al 2003; Yamaguchi & Wiseman 2003; Yashima, et al 2004). The issue of self confidence is strongly exemplified by Chui's repertory grid (Figure 1), which emphasises communication competence and her concept map (Figure 4), which has five links to 'difficulties'. Discussions during the concept map interview uncovered her feeling that people who did not receive positive early exposure to English tend to develop negative attitudes towards the language, non-Japanese persons and intercultural communication in general.

The researcher is aware that communication is driven by personal choice and situational demands (Allen, et al 2003; Witteborn 2003), so concept maps were used primarily to judge the willingness to communicate because respondents were asked to describe their own interactions with people of different cultures. Awareness of diverse cultural norms and the motivation to communicate are suggested by the concept map statements that (a) 'gestures and languages are specific to cultures', (b) 'if we are eager to learn and master language and to listen to others we can become good communicators', (c) 'it is fun to speak with others and discover new things' and that (d) 'social status and gender influence how we communicate, for example the register we use when speaking' (Figure 5). This interpretation was confirmed by Kane's statement that people need to be motivated to communicate across cultures and that curiosity is the starting point for expanding one's world view.

The working theory of cultural fluency from the perspective of second language speakers of English, as derived from this study, is that it is the extent to which cultural fluency traits are combined with the willingness to communicate in English as a foreign language. As mentioned earlier, the respondents and their colleagues had instituted a policy of 'English only' for communicating within the English department prior to the researcher's arrival. This indicates the willingness to support each others's language development as well as a high motivation to improve language skills for the purposes of teaching (Ben-Peretz 2000; Williams, Prestage & Bedward 2001; Yashima, et al. 2004) and for the practical purpose of communicating with hosts when accompanying students on overseas exchange programmes. There was no direct measurement of the willingness to communicate, but from the constructs in the repertory grids 'self confidence', 'many chances to meet foreigners', 'experience living in a foreign country' (Allen, et al. 2003; Yashima, et al. 2004) and discussion with respondents, it has emerged as an important dimension of intercultural communication.


The outcomes of this study indicate that Tame, Rosh, Chui and Kane use extra-linguistic themes in their own communication, and use these themes to assess the cultural fluency of other individuals (Perry 1989; Witteborn 2003). They realise that communication with non-Japanese persons requires a purpose above and beyond the practice of language skills (Yashima, et al. 2004). They had never reflected deeply on the issue of interpersonal communication before this study, but they believed implicitly that personality and personal beliefs will influence the quality of their intercultural interactions.

The tentative conclusion to this research is that while Chui, Kane, Rosh and Tame understand implicitly that intercultural communication requires effective interpersonal skills, they also believe that the confidence to communicate comes from having good language skills. In a sense, their cooperation with this research indicated openness, risk taking (tolerance for ambiguity) and the Willingness to Communicate. These characteristics augur the ability to shift attitudes and skills according to the demands of a continually changing educational culture, which is a positive indicator for professional practice (Armour & Fernandez-Balboa 2001). Subsequent studies on this topic should attempt to glean information from those persons who are labelled 'poor' or 'excellent' intercultural communicators. An understanding of the socio-historical issues that impact on their constructs will also facilitate a richer commentary on their intercultural interactions (Witteborn 2003).

Rereading literature and the reports of interpersonal problems experienced by Japanese and non-Japanese teachers (McConnell 1999; Nishiyama 1999; Benoit & Haugh 2001; Lotbini駻e 2001), it seems that teachers are unaware that pedagogy is a community effort whose primary objective is to meaningfully connect students with the world. Interactions with persons of different cultures can provide valuable insights into the challenges that students will face in the wider society once they leave the formal education system. In that regard, professionalism must be reconceived as the application of pre-existing interpersonal and social skills in unfamiliar situations, bearing in mind the educational target that is being pursued (Cheng & Tsui 1996; Williams, Prestage & Bedward 2001). During the repertory grid interviews, participantss' focus on interpersonal skills significantly blurred cultural dissimilarities and obviated the need for specific cultural knowledge. Maintaining this focus and channelling interpersonal skills towards the fulfilment of students' learning needs are the starting point for the negotiation of teachers' roles in the staff room and the classroom (Lewis 2003).

There is a process/skill relationship inherent in 'intercultural communication' and 'cultural fluency'. The former is a straightforward awareness that two people who interact are different from each other in relatively superficial terms such as language, nationality and power position. The latter, which refers to their engagement on a deeper, human level is also straightforward, but may be obscured by the focus on difference. Reframing dissimilarities without the national and socio-political labels, teachers may come to realise that they are capable of more effectively working together towards their mutual goals.


Instructions: Please enter the information on the grid in English or Japanese (kanji with furigana or hiragana).


Intercultural Communication


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About the author

Natasha N. Walker has lived in Japan for 5 years, and is currently pursuing the EdD (Doctor of Education) degree at Griffith University, Australia. Her research is based on the social and cognitive dimensions of intercultural communication, as well as the impact of these dimensions on professional development and personal growth. Ms. Walker coaches Japanese professionals who use English for interpersonal communication and public speaking in their everyday work. She has also developed intercultural communication training workshops for the Japanese public.

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Copyright: Natasha N. Walker
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