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Interculturality: the new challenge of language learning

Por Gloria Stella Quintero Riveros
Magisterio
04/12/2015 - 16:30
0
Tomada de Revista Internacional Magisterio virtual

La comunicación ha adquirido un nuevo significado debido a la globalización. Hay una necesidad imperiosa de comunicarse con personas de otras culturas en diferentes idiomas. Esta necesidad ha puesto nuevos retos en el aprendizaje de idiomas y la enseñanza. Este artículo es una reflexión sobre aspectos como la educación para la ciudadanía, el aprendizaje de idiomas, el conocimiento intercultural y las habilidades que son necesarias para hacer de nuestros estudiantes ciudadanos del mundo e interlocutores competentes con personas de otras culturas. El artículo, además, intenta presentar algunas opciones para aplicar estos principios a la realidad del aula.

Introduction

Communication has acquired a new meaning due to globalization. There is an imperative need to communicate with people from other cultures in different languages. This need has placed new challenges in language learning and teaching. This article is a reflection on aspects such as education citizenship, language learning and culture intercultural awareness and skills which are necessary to educate citizens of the world and make our students competent interlocutors with people from other cultures. This article presents some practical ideas to apply these principles into the classroom reality. 

Education citizenship

The fast changing world of the 21st century has created a new kind of learner and new learning and teaching paradigms. The world seems to be smaller due to its interconnectedness and interdependence. The digital revolution has placed a key role in the way people interact with the world and social sciences have had to redefine citizenship “… as citizens have greater opportunities to act in new international contexts” Osler and Starkey, (2005). 

Education citizenship aims at preparing individuals to engage with different communities and address human rights, which imply respect for persons with a different cultural background. Global education entails helping students open out beyond local and nationalistic perspectives to a broader outlook of the world, to a window into shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviors that characterize a society.

Venturing to learn another language shows the willingness to open that window, language teachers have the task to show students the way to discover new ways of being, acting and thinking and to develop tolerance, flexibility, respect to difference and awareness of their own identity as basic skills of intercultural learning. 

Language learning and culture

The use of only one language is not enough for the pluralistic vision of the world that is emerging. In the case of Latin America, English has become a tool to fulfill the demands of the labor, scientific, technological and cultural markets. It has been vital to understand language learning as a complex process that should lead individuals to become literate in the target culture, that is, to understand how the target culture works, to be informed of cultural modes and conventions and have sufficient awareness of others and avoid prejudice. Williams and Snipper (1990) In order to help students become culturally literate, it is necessary not only to deeply understand the bilingual process but to generate mechanisms to take people to the new world where the other language is spoken. 

Language in fact, reflects all the components of one society. According to Fairclough (1995) and Fairclough & Wodak (1997), the discourse is not just a linguistic category or a means of communication; it is a means between the social structure and the process of cultural practice. As a social process, language is linked to the socio-cultural context where it operates, it is not produced and it cannot happen in vacuum. It is through language that the values, beliefs, and knowledge of different cultures are manifest, language is rooted in culture and culture is reflected and passed on by language from one generation to the next (Emmitt & Pollock 1997). Thus, learning another language becomes the quickest way to understand that the way you think about the world is not universal Wesley (2009), but that there are other ways of interpreting and reading the world.

Cultural awareness

Cultural awareness refers to an awareness ‘of members of another cultural group: their behavior, their expectations, their perspectives and values’ and attempt ‘to understand their reasons for their actions and beliefs’ (Cortazzi and Jin,1999, p. 217).

While learning a new language, there is the encounter of two cultures that meet and interact continuously; the learners’ and the target culture. On one hand, there are the ideologies of the learner; s/he will at first express his/her own ideas and perspectives using the target language. On the other hand, there is the target language with all the load of the culture that has created it, with all its meaning. Students will need to abandon what is familiar to them in order to take a new perspective, the perspective of the target culture that is unknown to him/her. 

The student will automatically be placed in a situation of risk in which he may several times act the wrong way until s/he gets the knowledge about the social patterns and practices of the culture he is trying to access. Frequently students have access to facts about the culture, but this will not guarantee that they are developing the ability to develop empathy and compatible interactions with people from other cultures. They will need to move beyond “learning about” the culture to “understanding” the culture, exercising their tolerance to difference, developing flexibility to accept other ways of perceiving the world and developing the behaviors and attitudes that will allow them to build healthy and harmonious relationships with others, avoiding cultural misunderstandings.

Little by little the learner needs to approach a new reality and starts exploring new ways of thinking and acting. The ability the learner has to see things from a new perspective will determine the right approach to the target language and the success as a language learner. In this process, learners need to reflect upon their own identity, become aware of their own values, beliefs, knowledge and practices so that they can contrast them to the ones in the target culture. By doing it, language learners will be able to move confidently in their own context as well as in contexts that are not familiar to them. 

Implications for the EFL classroom

What to do in the EFL setting to help our students develop the necessary skills to become inter-culturally competent? Understanding intercultural competence allows curriculum designers and teachers to think of ways to help students develop the necessary skills to access and develop empathic understanding of other cultures. Some aspects that should be taken into consideration are the kind of situations that are built within the classroom, the use of technology and the role of cultural awareness. 

Class situations

To understand others requires us to interact with others. Class situations should aim at facilitating students work with others. Amongst the most relevant characteristics of language learning in the classroom, it has been found that practices that promote student-student interaction and promote collaborative work, present students with new perspectives that facilitate reflection and innovative ways of thinking (Wollman-Bonilla, 1993).

Even though, the above mentioned facts seem to be enough reasons to promote interaction in the classroom, it is also important to observe the other intercultural skills that this practice will help students develop. Skills like behavioral flexibility, tolerance of ambiguity, empathy and respect for otherness can only be learned and tested while working with others. Every time students deal with people with different ideas or even a different subculture in an open way, in their own country or abroad, their intercultural skills will improve.

While students interact with others, they are exercising their ability to express their personal opinions and actively listen to others. This activity offers them the possibility to perceive other ways of thinking, students engage in conversations in which they negotiate meaning and ideas and more important than that they exercise empathizing and respecting others.

If teachers promote interaction along with tasks that demand students to solve problems, they will not only practice the target language but they will be given the chance to build knowledge and develop tolerance of ambiguity, that is, to accept lack of clarity and fixed responses to questions and they will learn to adapt to new, unknown situations.

By doing this, students are not only rehearsing but also applying the skills, knowledge, understanding and attitudes required to form relationships and collaborate with others across cultures.

The use of technology in the classroom

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Technology has been one of the most important causes for what is known today as globalization. The possibility for instant communication, fast access to information, the experience of interactive video, sound, pictures, motion and texts keep the world interconnected. Besides being one of the main reasons for this interconnection, it also, has to be the tool to serve the purpose of allowing students to be in touch with the target culture. The focus on communication, language and culture for language learning (Standards,1999) has motivated curriculum designers and teachers to look for authentic resources to create meaningful tasks that integrate the two cultures; the learners’ and the target culture. As technology has transformed the world, it is normal that it plays a major role in the curriculum of language learning programs and for individual teachers to design their classes. 

The goals of the curriculum and of each task and lesson plan designed for language learning, should address the development of intercultural skills and they should be evaluated so that students can progressively demonstrate that they are achieving and developing the competence to interact with other cultures. Well-structured learning experiences, along with the use of the appropriate technological tools can motivate language learning, foster autonomy, facilitate memorization, present language in context, address each student learning style, personalize knowledge, allow students to construct knowledge and social relationships, broaden classroom reality taking students beyond the classroom to other cultures and offer vast options to promote and help students develop intercultural competence. 

One example of how to integrate authentic tools into the classroom practice is the creation of online communities. An online community is a group of people with common interests who use the Internet (web sites, email, video and photo uploads, instant messaging, etc.) to communicate, work and pursue their interests over time. An online community planned and created with language learning purposes, can help students develop a sense of community with peers and the world, they will feel the need to comment on others’ ideas and the world using the target language, they can empower students’ language skills by discussing, reading and adopting different positions, students can open the doors of who they are to the community based on their interests, and they can connect with others, share experiences, explore feelings, assumptions and develop their own identity. 

Culture as the content of the course

Culture has traditionally being presented in language learning programs and courses by exposing students to facts about the target culture, like music, geography, food, etc. This approach may help students learn about the culture but not necessarily understand it or help the learner interact with it effectively. 

Curriculum designers need to understand the importance of exposing students to reflections on topics such as the concept of culture, awareness of students’ own identity, similarities and differences with other cultures, and paralinguistic information among others, in order for students to become more open to other ways of acting and perceiving the world.

Taking advantage of these topics will not only provide students with interesting, enriching, and motivating topics to practice the new language but also with a worthy reflection on the many different ways of being and communicating..

Conclusion

The skills inherent to language learning in the new millennium are not easy explainable or teachable. The challenge for English teachers is to find ways to help students develop an awareness of the general nature of culture and start to develop the necessary skills for future culture learning. Developing intercultural awareness is an ongoing process that should be accompanied by meaningful and goal oriented class activities, that allow students to exercise being citizens of the world.

References

Cortazzi, M. & Jin, L. (1999). Cultural mirrors. Materials and methods in the EFL classrooms. In Hinkel, E. (ed.) 1999. Culture in Second Language Teaching and Learning. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press: pp. 196-219.

Cullinan, B. E. (1993). Children’s Voices: Talk in the Classroom. Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association.

Emmitt, M. & Pollock, J. (1997). Language and Learning: an Introduction for Teaching (2nd ed). Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Fairclough, N. (1995a). Critical Discourse Analysis: The Critical Study of Language. London and New York: Longman.

Fairclough, N. & Wodak, R. (1997). “Análisis crítico del discurso”. En: T. A. van Dijk (Ed), El Discurso como Interacción Social. Barcelona: Gedisa, 2, pp. 67-404.

Heller, M. F. (1995). Reading-Writing Connections: From Theory to Practice. (2nd ed.). White Plains, NY: Longman.

Lawrence, K. S. (1999). Standards for foreign language learning in the 21st century. Allen Press.

Hudelson, S. ( 1994). Literacy development of second language children. In F. Genesee (Ed.), Educating Second Language Children: The Whole Child, the Whole Curriculum, the Whole Community (pp. 129-157). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Philips, S. (1972). Participant structures and communicative competence: Warm Springs children in community and classroom. In C. Cazden, V. P. John, & D. Hymes (Eds.), Functions of Language in the Classroom (pp. 696-735). New York: Teachers College Press.

Wollman-Bonilla, J. E. (1993). “It’s really special because you get to think”: Talking about literature. In B. E. Cullinan (Ed.), Children’s Voices: Talk in the Classroom (pp. 47-65). Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association.

La autora trabaja como profesora de inglés en la Universidad de Los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia. Es licenciada en Filología e Idiomas de la Universidad Nacional de Colombia y es Magíster en Educación con énfasis en Administración de la Universidad de Los Andes. Es autora de varios artículos y ha realizado un sinnúmero de presentaciones en temas como estrategias de aprendizaje del inglés, conciencia intercultural y bilingüismo, el uso del habla del profesor de inglés, y el papel de la tecnología en EFL. Posee amplia experiencia en el entrenamiento de profesores de inglés como lengua extranjera. Su principal interés investigativo es el desarrollo profesional de docentes. Su última publicación se titula La importancia del uso adecuado del habla del profesor de Inglés que es parte del libro Bilingüismo en el Contexto Colombiano. Iniciativas y perspectivas en el Siglo XXI (2011).

Tomado de: Revista Internacional Magisterio No. 58. Multilinguismo