Culture has become an increasingly important component of English language teaching in the last three decades and has also been acknowledged as a key element in education. Language itself is defined by  culture. We cannot be competent in the language if we do not also understand the culture that has shaped and informed it. We cannot learn a second or foreign language if we do not have an awareness of that culture, and how that culture relates to our own first language/first culture. It is not only therefore essential to have cultural awareness, but also intercultural awareness.

Language teachers are key figures in preparing students for participation in an increasingly multilingual and culturally diverse world, and their practices in the EFL classrooms help to  mediate language and culture learning from an intercultural perspective; and also in terms of attitudes and intercultural awareness skills for intercultural language teaching and learning. So what are these attitudes and skills that make up intercultural competence? Among them are:

  • observing, identifying and recognising
  • comparing and contrasting
  • negotiating meaning
  • dealing with or tolerating ambiguity
  • effectively interpreting messages
  • limiting the possibility of misinterpretation
  • defending one’s own point of view while acknowledging the legitimacy of others
    accepting difference.

There are many approaches to intercultural competence and many opinions on what it is, since it is difficult to recognize the extent to which it is possible to distinguish intercultural competence from intercultural communicative competence. Basically, intercultural competence can be summarized as the ability to interact successfully across cultures, where ‘successfully’ refers to social effectiveness (the ability to achieve social goals) and appropriateness (acceptable communication in a context). Intercultural competence involves achange of perspective on self and other, and entails affective and cognitive changes.There are different theories on what intercultural competence consists of.

These theories change depending on the context or one’s point of view. According to the Common Council of Europe (Council of Europe, European Language Portfolio,104:105), “intercultural skills and knowledge include the ability to bring the culture of origin and the foreign culture in relation with each other; cultural sensitivity and the ability to identify and use a variety of strategies for contact with those from other cultures; the capacity to fulfill the role of cultural intermediary between one’s own culture and the foreign culture and to deal effectively with intercultural misunderstanding and conflict situations; the ability to overcome stereotyped relationships.” Following Byram  (2001), the components of intercultural competence are knowledge, skills, and attitudes, supplemented by values that are part of one’s multiple social identities. This model of intercultural competence consists of:

  1. Attitudes and values (savoir être), which form the foundation of intercultural competence. They represent an affective capacity to suspend ethnocentric attitudes towards and perceptions of others and their cultures, and a cognitive ability to decenter, develop and maintain intercultural relations. This component represents the ability to relativize one’s own values, beliefs, and behaviors, recognition of cultural differences, their acceptance as possible and correct, and the maintenance of a positive attitude towards them.
  2. Knowledge (savoirs), not primarily the knowledge of a particularo bjective culture, but rather subjective culture, which gives the direct insight into the worldview, functioning, processes, and practices of different cultural groups in intercultural interaction.
  3. Skills: a) skills of interpreting and relating (savoir comprendre), or the ability to interpret events from another culture, to explain and relate them to events from one’s own culture; b) skills of discovery and interaction (savoir apprendre/faire), or the ability to gain new knowledge of a culture and cultural practices, to combine and use knowledge, attitudes, and skills in communication and interaction;c) critical cultural awareness (savoir s’engager), which deals with the awareness of one’s own and other’s values and their mutual influence as well as the ability to evaluate critically practices and products in one’s own and other’s culture.

Therefore, an inter-culturally competent communicator possesses the knowledge, motivation, and skills to interact effectively and appropriately in diverse cultural contexts. Consequently, foreign language teachers’ role as mediators of language and culture in foreign language education would definitely be defined by the concept that culture and language are an integral part of the language acquisition process. Students cannot learn a language without learning its culture. But at the same time, cultural learning would only be truly meaningful if it is comparative and contrastive. Cross-cultural comparison would expose learners to a new set of values, meanings and symbols that can be understood in the light of their own cultural experience. When learning a foreign language, not only are students gaining access to a different way of viewing and understanding the world, but also of reconsidering their own world-view. When carried out in this way, cultural learning can be said to be intercultural.

References:

  • Byram,M. (2001) Teaching and Assessing Intercultural Communicative Competence.Multilingual Matters.
  • Council of Europe.  European Language Portofolio available at https://www.coe.int/en/web/portfolio



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