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Intercultural learning 2

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This is the second of two articles that deal with the topic of intercultural awareness and learning. The first article - Intercultural learning 1 - sets out the methodological background to this topic, and this, the second article, offers practical suggestions for the classroom.

Intercultural learning 2 - methodology article


  • Introduction
  • When should we introduce this?
  • Intercultural awareness and perspectives on communication
  • Ways to develop intercultural communicative competence
  • Conclusion
  • Further reading

There will have been points in most teachers' careers when we have stopped to wonder "What am I actually doing?". Sometimes, filling our students up with all the requisite grammar and vocabulary, and polishing their pronunciation and honing their communicative skills doesn't actually seem to be helping them to achieve the wider goal of being able to genuinely communicate with and understand the real world outside the classroom at all.

For too long, we have been concentrating on structures and forms and producing materials that may help our students to have perfect diphthongs or a flawless command of the third conditional while leaving out anything approaching real, valid, meaningful content. Major ELT publishers have produced materials so carefully calculated not to offend anyone that they far too often end up being vacuous if not completely meaningless. If our students are to have any hope of using their language skills to genuinely comprehend and communicate in the global village, intercultural awareness is crucial.

When should we introduce intercultural awareness?
Previously, "cultural awareness" has often only been seen as something for advanced learners, an extension exercise that can be "tacked on" to an ordinary lesson. This is partly due to the all-too frequent error of assuming that students with a low level of English also have a low intellect generally, or that it is impossible to explain intellectual concepts in level one English.
Intercultural awareness, as a fundamental feature of language and an integral part of language learning, is important at all levels.

Intercultural awareness and perspectives on communication
It has been suggested that intercultural awareness consists of having four different perspectives on communication with a different culture. Interculturally competent students should be able to...

  1. look at their own culture from the point of view of their own culture (i.e. have a good understanding and awareness of their own culture)
  2. be aware of how their culture is seen from outside, by other countries or cultures
  3. understand or see the target culture from its own perspective (i.e. understand and be aware of what other people think of their own culture)
  4. be aware of how they see the target culture

Ways to develop intercultural competence
An example of how to deal with each one of these steps could be:

  1. Produce a guidebook, poster or webpage for visitors to their town, country or region. This should not only describe famous sites and places to visit, stay or eat, but also give visitors advice about what they may find strange or unusual about their own culture.
  2. Read articles or extracts from books, newspapers, magazines or websites written by people who have visited the students' town, country or region. (A good source of texts for this are guidebooks such as the Rough Guide, Lonely Planet or Time Out series, articles from the travel sections of newspapers such as The Guardian or The Independent or extracts from books by travel writers such as Colin Thubron, Bill Bryson, Paul Theroux, Jan Morris or Bruce Chatwin.)
  3. Familiarise students with sources of information about the target culture. Again, newspapers and websites can be an invaluable source of reading materials here. Films and literary texts often depict and interrogate their own cultures. (For the UK, for example, popular films such as The Full Monty, Bend it like Beckham, East is East, Billy Elliott or Calendar Girls are vital and engaging depictions of contemporary British culture.)
  4. The non-native teacher has a valuable role to play here, being a person from one culture who has a certain amount of knowledge and/or experience of the target culture.

If students have visited the target culture, they can recount their experiences - perhaps by giving a written or oral presentation with advice for other students. If there is no such source available, students can do a valuable creative writing activity - imagining a journey into the target culture, predicting the problems and misunderstandings they may encounter and creatively resolving them. At this fourth step, students can measure their knowledge and awareness of the target culture at the end of a course compared to the beginning of the course. How have their attitudes and perceptions changed (if at all)?

A reaction of some teachers when faced with these ideas is "Why bother?". There is a feeling that we help our students to communicate anyhow, and that if culture is an integral part of the language then students will just pick it up, that culture is impossible to teach, that we shouldn't in any way be seen to be foisting values on our students.

I would argue that to make our job relevant and meaningful, teaching intercultural awareness is absolutely vital.

"What am I actually doing?". All teachers have asked themselves that question - here's an answer: helping your students to understand, interact with and - hopefully - change for the better the world we all live in. Given the current global situation, there are few jobs more important than this.

Further reading
Two key theoretical books on the subject are...

Context and Culture in Language Teaching Claire Kramsch (OUP, 1993)
Language and Culture Claire Kramsch (OUP, 1998) (This is a condensed version of the above, and makes a good introduction to the subject)

Commercially published coursebooks and materials have so far been disappointingly slow to pick up on intercultural learning. Two brave attempts to rectify this are below.

Changing Skies
Alan Pulverness (Swan Communications, 2000) Specifically designed for higher level European students, and those from Central and Eastern Europe in particular, this may not be usable for classes outside Europe, but is worth looking at to gain ideas and see an example of the approach in action.

Zoom In Mark Andrews and Csilla Hos (Swan Communications, 2000) This book is specifically designed for Hungarian teenagers. While, therefore, of no classroom use outside Hungary, it is an interesting example of how to make the approach work.

Two recent practical collections of activities...

The Culture Pack: intercultural communication resources for trainers
Derek Utley (York Associates, 2002)

Intercultural Activities Michaela Cankova and Simon Gill (OUP, 2001)

For a more detailed list of the skills that comprise intercultural awareness skills, see the appendix to the Unesco report at...

The Common European Framework at...

(pages 43, 103-5) also has an interesting discussion of intercultural learning and awareness.

Chris Rose, British Council, Italy

The BBC and the British Council are not responsible for the content of publications and internet sites mentioned in this article.