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Review of Foreign Language Teachers and Intercultural Communication
AUTHOR(s): Lies Sercu et al. TITLE: Foreign Language Teachers and Intercultural Competence: An International Investigation SERIES: Languages for Intercultural Communication and Education 10 PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters, Clevedon YEAR: 2005
Leonhard A. G. Voltmer, lecturer in Intercultural Mediation at the University of Trento, Italy.
How do foreign language (FL) teachers feel and act with respect to the intercultural dimension of their language teaching? In 2001, 424 FL-teachers in seven countries (Belgium, Bulgaria, Poland, Mexico, Greece, Spain and Sweden) answered a questionnaire for a quantitative, comparative study.
The objectives of FL teachers are to motivate and enable students to use the FL in practice. Therefore they place more emphasis on teaching language than culture. As a consequence they lack time, training and appropriate teaching materials for the teaching of the culture in question (chapter 2). Teachers claim that they are familiar enough with the FL-culture (chapter 3). Teachers in different countries have different views of their students' predisposition towards FL-learning, towards the FL-culture and FL-contact. In Bulgaria pupils are positively biased towards the foreign language, its people and culture, whereas in Spain they are not (chapter 4). The picture teachers give of the type, frequency and time they devote to culture-teaching is complex. On average the results are satisfying, but there are significant disparities between the countries (chapter 5). Teachers use text-books extensively, even if they deem them useful only to a certain degree (chapter 6). Teachers organize exchange programs and school trips to expose their students to the target-language. They know that this creates an opportunity for intercultural learning (chapter 7). Teachers would like to promote intercultural competence through their FL-teaching, but they are unsure about the methodology, the timing and the effects of such teaching (chapter 8). Hence they prefer an integrated approach of teaching language and culture together, but ultimately hesitate to put it into practice (chapter 9). Teachers treat topics depending on how familiar they are with them, and they generally teach culture based on their level of personal valuation. Finally, some teachers are willing to integrate intercultural competence teaching but don't apply it in practice (chapter 10). Cultural competence should become an attainment target of FL-teaching (chapter 11).
The authors recommend the following educational policy: Teachers should be provided with examples of how language and culture teaching can be joined together. They should be assisted in choosing and adapting teaching materials and be encouraged to use experiential learning techniques for that purpose. Therefore teacher education should comprise: methodology courses in culture learning theory for younger learners, including theories of ''culture shock''; courses for how to create experiential learning environments; courses in anthropology, ethnographic investigation techniques and social psychology focussing on the individual.
The book is well structured. The main findings are clearly stated, but could have been further highlighted graphically. The policy recommendations are sensible and clear.
The study defines an average profile of all FL-teachers despite the ad-hoc sampling of the participating teachers with respect to the age of teachers and students, mother-language of teachers and students, language taught, hours of teaching and teaching experience, public or private employment, the institutional role of language teaching, national particularities, etc.
The study compares the different countries where the FL teaching takes place. It deviates only once from this principle: With regard to the pupils' views of the culture associated with the target language, the target languages English, French, German and Spanish are compared instead of the countries.
In fact, this imperfect quantitative approach has been criticised by Bai Rui (2006), who would have preferred a multiple methods approach to provide more insight into teachers' beliefs. Nevertheless, the reader may reach the same conclusion by filling out the questionnaire (Annex 1, pp. 186-214 of the book) with a sufficient degree of introspection.
Although the book does not pretend to be about theory (p. ix), which makes it difficult to judge the impact of some of the findings (as Bai Rui (2006) remarks), some comments of conceptual nature may be appropriate.
1. The study is based on the premise that language and culture cannot be separated and should therefore be taught together. Language courses should become integrated language-and-culture courses.
If culture is always an inseparable part of language, then language courses have always been language-and-culture courses. Teaching the use of the polite form of address, for example, requires context and has always been taught through the use of dialogues. One should expect an automatic, at least implicit, comparison with the student's own cultural standards for politeness.
Transferred to the study, this means that the culture awareness of the teachers does not necessarily correspond to the level of culture in their FL-teaching. It may correspond much more to their level of intercultural communication skills. The difference between the two is that ''cultural competence involves ... a specific cultural area ... whereas intercultural competence involves knowledge, skills and attitudes at the interface between several cultural areas'' (p. viii). Intercultural competence is surely a useful skill, but it does not substitute cultural competence and even less so linguistic competence. If the ''cultural turn'' in language teaching does not take the language-and-culture path, but the language-and-intercultural competence path, then not only does it alter the path to the same goal, but it changes the goal itself. There is no doubt that psychology, economic geography and intercultural competence facilitate communication, but we wouldn't want to integrate all of them into a language course. The opposite is the case. The more we think that those skills are important, the more we should focus on them individually and teach them separately in special courses.
Following the study, Lies Sercu, the author of 80 and co-author of the other 120 pages, conducted research to understand if FL-learning is more effective when it integrates the cultural context or when language and cultural context come as two separate units. This fundamental research question is, in fact, preliminary to the 2001 study.
Chapter 6 is dedicated to what teachers think FL teaching materials should be like. While the results are surely interesting as market research, it cannot be taken for granted that the desired textbooks for teaching are also the most efficient for learning.
2. There is another hidden presupposition for the study: Intercultural is taken as international. It is apparent the authors are aware of the underlying problem. The questionnaire asks ''What percentage of your school's population are ethnic minority community children?'' (Question 2.2, p. 189) and the situation is ''unclear'' (p. 215) in the sense that some teachers are in front of a rather homogeneous class, while others are not.
It is clear that the reflection on one's own cultural background is different in a (socially, ethnically, etc.) heterogeneous group, although not necessarily easier. Once you have a couple of Indian students in your class, the 450,000 Indians in London will appear less as a surprise. From this point of view it is a sign of self-awareness when teachers claim to be ''sufficiently familiar with the culture of the foreign language they teach'' (p. 47) rather than ''very familiar'', because that would require an insight into, for example, the Greek community in Melbourne of more than 800,000 persons.
The FL-teaching situation cannot easily be limited to one-on-one cultural contact. We know that. But when the study gives the example of Belgian teachers being familiar with German culture, the point might be missed that the Belgian students may not all be of a classical Belgian culture and the motivating part of German culture might be Turkish rap rather than Goethe. Intercultural competence is becoming increasingly complex. It is little wonder that teachers are not always satisfied with their textbooks, and prefer to stick to language teaching, which already requires all of their intercultural competence.
The very progressive Holliday, Hyde & Kullman (2004) are skeptical of the concept of ''national culture'', as such. All the same, FL-teaching seems to have the cultural component already in the language and does not need to make further reference to national cultures. But one thing is clear: Teachers will need more intercultural competence, as will students. Therefore the conclusion of the book, and the policy proposals, are conducive.
Bai Rui, Review of Foreign Language Teachers and Intercultural Competence by Lies Sercu et al., in: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 8, 2006, p. 1589-1592.
A. Holliday, M. Hyde, J. Kullman, Intercultural Communication - An advanced resource book, Routledge Applied Linguistics, Routledge 2004, Linguist List review: http://linguistlist.org/issues/16/16-3585.html.
Research project of Lies Sercu: http://www.kuleuven.be/research/researchdatabase/project/3H03/3H030507.htm
Table of Contents Foreword Preface
Chapter 1: Teaching foreign languages in an intercultural world Lies Sercu
Chapter 2: Objectives of foreign language education and culture teaching time Paloma Castro and Lies Sercu
Chapter 3: Familiarity and contacts with foreign cultures Phyllis Ryan and Lies Sercu
Chapter 4: Pupils' culture-and-language learning profile María del Carmen Méndez García and Lies Sercu
Chapter 5: Culture teaching practices Ewa Bandura and Lies Sercu
Chapter 6: Culture in foreign language teaching materials Leah Davcheva and Lies Sercu
Chapter 7: Experiential culture learning activities: school trips and exchange projects Chryssa Laskaridou and Lies Sercu
Chapter 8: Opinions regarding different facets of intercultural competence teaching Lies Sercu
Chapter 9: The foreign language and intercultural competence teacher Lies Sercu
Chapter 10: The future of intercultural competence in foreign language education: Recommendations for professional development, educational policy and research Lies Sercu
Library of Congress Subject Headings for this publication:
Language and languages - Study and teaching. Intercultural communication. Multicultural education. Communicative competence.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Leonhard A. G. Voltmer is jurilinguist. He studied law in Munich and Paris, Legal Theory in Brussels and Lund, and Romance Languages in Salzburg and Munich. From 2001 to 2005 worked for the European Academy of Bolzano (Italy) in terminology, translation and language normation. His experiences in the computational linguistic treatment of multilingual legal data have become a Ph.D. thesis at the University of Munich (http://edoc.ub.uni-muenchen.de/archive/00003716/), which was awarded a magna cum laude. Dr. Voltmer is increasingly involved in lecturing and has given courses for all age groups. In 2006-07 he is teaching Intercultural Mediation in Degree and Master Courses at the University of Trento, and German at the School of Translators and Interpreters (SSLMIT) at Forli. Dr. Voltmer's research agenda focuses on the combination of disciplines and discourses: The dialogue between cultures (Intercultural Communication or Mediation), between lawyers and laymen, between computational linguists and language practitioners, and between the different scientific disciplines in Legal Theory. For more details, visit his website at: http://dev.eurac.edu:8080/autoren/mitarbeiter/lvoltmer/.