Foreign language teaching and intercultural training

Written by:Maria Momchilova, Sofia University, Department of Language Learning
momchilovabg@yahoo.com

The ever expanding global mobility, the increased economic interdependence in the world of business and trade, the development of modern information and communication technology has enhanced our knowledge and awareness of people from other cultures. To be able to communicate effectively with representatives of other cultures, one should know more than the language of the target culture. Therefore, the role of the foreign language teacher is to provide intercultural training to her/his students in addition to the teaching of a foreign language. The acquisition of intercultural communicative competence is the underlying and essential aspect of modern foreign language teaching and intercultural training.

Intercultural training in the foreign language classroom focuses on the interpersonal dynamics that take place when individuals from one culture interact and communicate with people from another culture.(Hammer) The intercultural training provided by the teacher of a foreign language should be aimed at helping students learn and adapt to new and unfamiliar cultural values, practices, and behaviors surrounding them in the foreign environment. Cultural differences between people can arise because of differences in what they do (actions), what they produce (artifacts), and what they mean by what they do and what they produce (interactions).

The efforts of the foreign language teacher providing intercultural training should cover three main areas (Kealey; Blake, Heslin and Curtis):

  1. Personal adjustment and satisfaction
  2. Intercultural interaction
  3. Professional effectiveness

Personal adjustment and satisfaction of the student of a foreign language placed in the target culture is connected both with the temporary effects of culture shock, which arise from the initial adjustment to a foreign culture environment, and with the long-term psychological satisfaction with living in the foreign culture. To soften the culture shock the foreign language teacher should alert the students of any great cultural differences between students’ own and target culture. Students should know that culture shock is often triggered by exposure to unfamiliar aspects of another culture(food, environment, nonverbal communication, body distance). Still it is a natural and normal part of the adaptation process to a new cultural setting. Failing to experience culture shock, on the other hand, may be an indication that the student is mentally distanced(remains emotionally apart) from the target culture.(Brislin)

Intercultural interaction – the main concern here is with the dynamics of social interaction. “Intercultural interaction refers to being socially involved with nationals and demonstrating interest and knowledge of the host culture”(Kealey). Many foreign language textbooks develop some of their teaching materials around topics such as national holidays, cuisine, historic and literary heritage. The foreign language teacher should focus on these and raise the learners’ interest and awareness of the relevance of such knowledge. Additional materials should be brought into the classroom, inviting students to share personal experiences and discuss different cultural perceptions.

Professional effectiveness refers to the ability of a person to accomplish her/his professional goals in a culturally appropriate manner, and in so doing to successfully transfer knowledge, skills, and/or technology to target country nationals. The foreign language student should not forget that s/he is the ambassador of her/his country no matter where s/he goes, so s/he must be fully aware of the image s/he creates of her/his native culture in the target culture.

Learning a foreign language should no more be viewed as simply mastering an objective of academic study. The focus for both teachers and students should be on grasping how discourse in the target language conveys specific cultural meanings and values in and across all target language-using cultures. Intercultural learning and the acquisition of intercultural communicative competence are the essence of modern foreign language teaching, therefore, the foreign language teacher needs to identify and develop the five core intercultural communication skills (Hammer) relevant to the cross-cultural interaction of their students.

Interaction management is the first of those skills. It reveals how participants engage one another and take turns in the conversation.

Immediacy shows the degree to which the participants are approachable during an interaction.

Social relaxation relates to how the people interacting manage the stress and anxiety felt in the process.

Expressiveness shows to what extent participants are able to express their opinion and ideas during an interaction.

Other orientation – are participants attentive, interested in, and adaptable towards one another during interaction.

These five skills seem to be culture-general in their underlying dimension, but culture-specific in their behavioral manifestation. A foreign language student, who has developed these skills is viewed as a highly competent communicator by members of other cultures.

The foreign language teacher should establish the model of the effective intercultural communicator focusing on self-awareness, realism (realistic expectations when faced with target culture), tolerance, openness to others, sensitivity, non-judgemental attitudes, which are essential in minimizing misunderstanding and building trust and affiliation with a representative of another culture. The foreign language teacher is the person to encourage her/his students to become both fluent in the target language and multiculturally literate.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

  1. Blake, B.F., R.Heslin, and S.C.Curtis, Measuring the Impact of Cross-cultural Training, Handbook of Intercultural Training, SAGE, 1996.
  2. Brislin, R., Understanding Culture’s Influence on Behavior, Harcourt, Fort Worth, TX, 1993.
  3. Hammer, M.B., Cross-cultural Training: The Real Connection, Intercultural Sourcebook Vol.2, Intercultural Press, Inc., 1999.
  4. Kealey, D.J.,The Challenge of International Personnel Selection, Handbook of Intercultural Training, SAGE, 1996.

APPENDIX

Never underestimate the importance of local knowledge

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