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Intercultural learning is an area of research, study and application of knowledge about different cultures, their differences and similarities. On the one hand, it includes a theoretical and academic approach (see e.g. "Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS)" by Milton Bennett, Dimensions of Culture by Geert Hofstede). On the other hand, it comprises practical applications such as learning to negotiate with people from different cultures, living with people from different cultures, living in a different culture and the prospect of peace between different cultures.
Currently, intercultural learning is a topic which receives much interest. This is mainly due to the rise of cultural studies and globalization. Culture has become an instrument for social interpretation and communicative action. Intercultural learning is primarily important in the context of the foreign language classroom.
The main goal of intercultural learning is seen as the development of intercultural competence, which is the ability to act and relate appropriately and effectively in various cultural contexts. Intercultural competence is generally thought to require three components on the learner's side: a certain skillset, culturally sensitive knowledge, and a motivated mindset. In greater detail, the skills, values, and attitudes that constitute intercultural competence include
- intercultural attitudes (like openness, curiosity, readiness)
- general knowledge (of the theoretical aspects of how social groups/products/practices work and interact)
- skills of interpreting and relating (a document of another culture to one's own culture)
- skills of discovery and interaction (like the ability to discover information about another culture and the ability to communicate in real-time interaction)
- critical cultural awareness (that there are different cultures next to one's own)
The teacher's task is to induce the learning of all in these aspects in the learner. Being successful, intercultural learning results in culturally competent learners.
Theories on approaching Culture
In the context of intercultural learning, it is important to be aware of different subcategories of culture, such as "little c" and "big C" culture. While the latter one is also called "objective culture" or "formal culture" referring to institutions, big figures in history, literature, etc., the first one, the "subjective culture", is concerned with the less tangible aspects of a culture, like everyday patterns. In intercultural learning, a mixture of these two is to be employed, but it is especially the apprehension of subjective culture that triggers the development of intercultural competence.
Also, it is important to differentiate between "culture-specific" and "culture-general" approaches when intercultural learning is concerned:
- "culture-specific" approaches mainly aim at the achievement of competence in a particular target culture (C2) and are closely connected to specific language learning (L2). Competence in both C2 and L2 is usually thought to generate culturally appropriate behavior in a particular cultural context.
- "culture-general" approaches, on the other hand, are not targeted on a particular culture. Instead, they are concerned with "universal categories" which function as general characteristics of cultures in general. These categories can be used to make cross-cultural comparisons, for example. Thus, "culture-general" approaches provide a cognitive framework for cultural analysis.
Intercultural learning requires the teacher to employ a mix of "culture-specific" and "culture-general" approaches in order to address the larger issues of ethnocentrism, cultural self-awareness, etc. because intercultural competence cannot be achieved by the single acquisition of knowledge about a specific culture or the pure ability to behave properly in that culture.
Contexts for intercultural learning in the classroom
Contexts that are seen as appropriate for intercultural learning in the classroom are those which promote the acquisition of intercultural competence consisting of the components mentioned above. Examples:
- communication between members of different cultures via e-mail: not yet a standard in everyday schooling, but it serves many useful purposes for intercultural learning
- authentic print text: fictional texts are the ideal medium for intercultural learning since it is the substrate of a specific culture and its history, while it simultaneously contains culture-general aspects; it stimulates personal identification and it offers numerous options for creative activities; also it may induce discussions of aspects of subjective, as well as objective, culture - useful examples: Malorie Blackman's Noughts and Crosses series, Qaisra Shahraz' "A Pair of Jeans"; non-fictional texts are definitely useful in this context as well.
- film: authentic film especially improves the language proficiency (and thus intercultural sensitivity), because it means direct and authentic contact with the L2; it also guarantees access to the evaluation of audiovisual media and maybe even new media- useful examples: Bend it Like Beckham, Save the Last Dance, My Beautiful Laundrette
As with most activities employed in the classroom, activities for intercultural learning are supposed to keep the affective domain of learning in mind, that is, they are to keep the students motivated and enable them to somehow identify with topic that is dealt with. For intercultural learning this is especially true because this field is likely to turn into a delicate matter.
- An example of an activity which focuses on the stereotypes and prejudices that people are likely to have is called "Who should be hired?". This exercise animates students to choose from a huge number of people (from different cultures, of different sexes, and different ages, etc.) the person they would hire from an employer's point of view.
- Most suggested exercises that are believed to support intercultural learning, and in this especially to promote empathy, are of a role-play nature. They especially support students in making the shift in perspective: their own culture becomes a strange one and is looked at from the outside, while the target culture becomes familiar.
Future prospects - What is to be done?
The concept of intercultural learning aiming at the development of intercultural competence also requires a new understanding of the teacher him/herself. S/He is no longer a mere communicator of knowledge, but a mediator and moderator, and has to be educated accordingly. In times of globalization and hope for peace, this issue needs to be researched further and remain of huge interest.
- Bach, Gerhard. 1998. Interkulturelles Lernen, in: Timm, Johannes-P. (Ed.): English lernen und lehren, in: Didaktik des Englischunterrichts, Berlin: Cornelsen, pp. 192–200.
- Bennett, Janet M./ Bennet, Milton J./Allen, Wendy: Developing Intercultural Competence in the Language Classroom, in: Page, R. Michael/ Lange, Dale L./ Yershova, Yelena A. (Eds.): Culture as the Core: Integrating Culture into the Language Curriculum. CARLA working paper #15, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, November 1999.
- Brown, H. Douglas: Principles of language learning and teaching, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall Regents. 1993, pp. 134–240, esp. pp. 165–167 (cultural stereotypes), pp. 169–173 (acculturation) and pp. 173–176 (culture in the classroom).
- Fowler, S.M./ Mumford, M.G. (Eds.).1995. Intercultural sourcebook: Cross-cultural training methods (Vol 1.). Intercultural Press
- Fowler, S.M./ Mumford, M.G. (Eds.).1999. Intercultural sourcebook: Cross-cultural training methods (Vol 2.). Intercultural Press
- Heusinkweld, Paula (ed.). 1997. Pathways to Culture. Yarmouth: Intercultural Press.
- Landis, D./ Bhagat, R. (Eds.): Handbook of intercultural training.
- Singelis, T. M. (Ed.): Teaching about culture, ethnicity, and diversity: Exercises and planned activities. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- www.efc.be/ftp/public/cpi/TCFF%20Intercultural%20Learning.pdf, a text by Luis Amorim on the topic of Intercultural Learning for the efc (EUROPEAN FOUNDATION CENTRE)
- www.dfait-maeci.gc.ca/cfsi-icse/cil-cai/home-en.asp, the Canadian Centre for Intercultural Learning
- www.intercultural-learning.net/, Nile - A European Network for Intercultural Learning
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