Intercultural awareness as a component of HE Modern Language courses in the UK

Author: Robert Crawshaw


This study traces the growing importance attached to intercultural awareness within Modern Languages Higher Education in the UK. It differentiates between the incorporation of intercultural insight into language learning and the development of 'intercultural studies' as an emerging interdisciplinary field. This development, it is argued, is changing the character of the relationship between Modern Languages and Cultural Studies in the UK. The role of intercultural awareness within the curriculum entails not simply innovative pedagogies and the inclusion of periods of residence abroad as part of undergraduate programmes. It has underlined the value of linking ethnography, history, language, literature, philosophy and psychology in new course combinations. The article reviews the background to this change and the various teaching practices associated with it.

Table of contents


Interculture at the Crossroads

Recent developments in the HE ncurriculum and in society at large have seen intercultural awareness emerge as a key component of Modern Languages and Area Studies in the UK (Phipps & Gonzales 2004). However, the term is highly diffuse in its interpretation and is applied differently in different HE environments. In its narrowest definition, intercultural awareness may be seen as an attribute of personal outlook and behaviour which can be developed in an individual, rather than as an objective field of study in its own right. However, when applied in practice, it emerges as the central but diversely constituted core of an integrated curriculum As such, it draws on various academic traditions and combines a range of disciplines which, until recently, have been thought of as disparate. When viewed from this perspective, the study of cultural diversity and its learning outcomes take on the aura of a distinctive, eclectic, field, having its own defining properties, and which, for the purposes of this exercise, I shall refer to as Intercultural Studies

In some respects, Intercultural Studies can be said to be breathing fresh life into the study of modern foreign languages and cultures in UK universities. It places what were previously termed 'Modern Languages Departments' at the crossroads of a number of different subject areas. Apart from teaching language to an appropriately advanced level, the mission of many newly amalgamated units is to enhance students' understanding of the meaning of the term 'culture', to increase their insight into the relationship between 'culture' and 'language' and to enable them to account for the nature and experience of cultural difference.

Nevertheless, the ways in which these objectives are realised vary considerably from university to university in the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, as in the EU as a whole.

Intercultural Awareness or Communication Studies or both?

Intercultural awareness in UK Higher Education is often seen as an adjunct to foreign language acquisition or as a specialised component of Translation Studies . Increasingly frequently, within what can still be termed the 'standard' Modern Languages curriculum, it supports preparation for periods of residence abroad However, intercultural awareness may also be the defining element of independent modules, thereby causing the meaning of the term to become more fragmented. Generally, the objectives of such modules are either cognitive or communicative.

From a cognitive perspective, intercultural awareness can be understood to have its own theoretical foundation. As a field of investigation, it may be approached through the study of philosophy, anthropology, ethnography, literature, and film. Seen from this angle, its study impinges on the domain of Cultural Studies . Increasingly, however, the teaching of intercultural awareness also draws on a more established humanistic tradition, in which personal narratives of the experience of 'living interculturally' are seen as valid objects of analysis.

By contrast, in more practical modules, intercultural awareness is approached from the standpoint of 'real life' behaviour, generally involving professional situations for which students or employees can be trained. In such cases, the modules are often components of 'vocationally orientated' courses, for example in management and tourism, and draw on the more applied, North American tradition of Communication Studies (Talkington & Lengel 2004). The emphasis on behavioural outcomes in courses of this kind has given wider currency to the term ' intercultural competence ' When mooted by Byram & Zarate (1997) as an integrated learning objective in primary and secondary education, intercultural competence was clearly represented in terms of the 'whole person', entailing not simply the acquisition of a number of key skills, but also the ethical and cognitive understanding or ' savoirs ' which should accompany them. More recently, however, within UK Higher Education its connotations have become more restricted. A distinction is drawn between the development of intercultural competence as a component of integrated language learning programmes and what is arguably the deeper awareness derived from more wide-ranging curricula offering a grounding in cultural theory, institutions, ethnography, sociology and literary studies.

A Decade of Development

Research and Teaching Practice

Since the mid-1990s, an increasing body of academic literature has grown up in the UK describing pedagogical approaches to the acquisition of intercultural awareness. These normally derive from an analysis of the attitudinal changes undergone by learners during intercultural experience. They have been fuelled by publicly funded projects which have succeeded in bridging the gap between research and practice, accompanied by the establishment of an institutional base to the new field of Intercultural Studies already referred to.

Projects and latter-day Pioneers

The pioneering work in education and teaching training by Byram & Esarte-Sarries (1991) and Byram & Zarate (1997), and the closer attention brought to bear on residence abroad, has led to anthologies edited by Byram (1997), Byram & Fleming (1998), Byram, Alred & Fleming (2003), Coleman (1997, 1998), Parker & Rouxeville (1995), McBride & Seago (2001) and many others. In parallel with this, the HEFCE Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning (FDTL 1998-2002) produced an upsurge of interest in the UK in the development of intercultural awareness. It encouraged the development of new undergraduate teaching modules at Universities such as Sheffield, Central Lancashire, Southampton, Oxford Brookes and Westminster and the creation of taught MA programmes in Intercultural Studies , for example at Luton, Manchester and Liverpool. It also helped to focus attention on the rapid growth of cross-cultural electronic communication whose integration into the curriculum, developed for example at Hull University by Mozzon-McPherson, and by Lewis and Stickler at Sheffield and The Open University, has since become an increasingly important component of many Modern Language degree programmes. This has been linked to tandem learning , piloted at Sheffield University by Walker and Woodin, where students are 'paired' with peers at partner institutions abroad and benefit mutually through sharing their learning experiences.

Of particular note within the FDTL programme was Lancaster University's Interculture Project which has led to the creation of an extensive yet easily accessible database of students' personal accounts of residence abroad. This was paralleled by the development of ethnography modules in the context of the LARA and RAPPORT projects run by Oxford Brookes and Portsmouth Universities (see Roberts 1998, Baro, Jordan & Roberts 1998, Jordan 2002, 'Work and Study Abroad' and associated papers on Residence Abroad).

During the same period, a sub-project on Cross-Cultural Communication (1997-2000), chaired by Kelly of Southampton University, undertook an investigation into the teaching of intercultural awareness within Europe under the aegis of the European Language Council's Thematic Network Project (TNP1: 1997-2000); see also Kelly, Elliott & Fant 2001).

Most recently, an ESRC-funded project (2003-ongoing) on Pragmatics and Intercultural Communication , co-ordinated by Lancaster and Cambridge Universities, is examining the cross-cultural communication between foreign language teaching assistants and those responsible for their professional integration in French and English schools. This project, informed by the work of Bremer et al. (1996), Thomas (1995) and Spencer-Oatey (2000), amongst others, is giving a new impetus to the important field of Cross-Cultural Pragmatics . It is providing new analytical tools which can be applied by teachers and students to the study of spoken discourse in intercultural situations.

The Institutional Base

The dissemination of the findings arising from such initiatives has been facilitated by the establishment of the International Association for Languages and Intercultural Communication (IALIC) and its associated journal Language and Intercultural Communication . IALIC emerged as a fully international organisation from the series of annual conferences on Cross-cultural Capability held at Leeds Metropolitan University and leading every year to the publication of proceedings (see Parry & Killick 1997, 1998, 1999). The Association has allowed the inter-relationship between the various disciplinary strands of Intercultural Studies to be better understood. The approach to teaching and researching interculture propounded by IALIC has been termed 'critical' in the sense that it prioritises the theoretical understanding of linguistic and cultural difference over behavioural outcomes.

IALIC's approach is paralleled by the activities of the Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research (SIETAR) whose global constituency has successfully aligned professional practitioners with academic researchers. Finally, as has been argued above, the concentration and dissemination of information by CILT, The National Centre for Languages in conjunction with the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies (LLAS) has underlined the fact that the development of Intercultural Studies is increasingly identified with the future of Modern Languages and Area Studies within and beyond Europe.

A Global Field

All the above organisations have offered fora enabling Intercultural Studies to establish an independent identity as a field of research and teaching. To these developments should of course be added the interest in the topics of migration, identity, displacement and exile within Arts and Humanities and Social Science in the UK, as elsewhere in the world. These 'issues of our time' are increasingly reflected in university curricula throughout the country. Their link with the past has brought about a new engagement with history in which the study of cultural difference in the widest sense supersedes what has, until recently, been referred to as 'post-colonialism'.

In the wake of social theorists and philosophers such as Derrida, Fanon, Kristeva, Said and more recently Bhabha, Gadamer, Gilroy, Habermas and Todorov, to name but a few, topics like travel, diaspora, hybridity and alterity have lent a new impetus to the understanding of identity. In a spirit of contemporary interculturalism which is only now being challenged anew by the global confrontation between neo-liberal Christianity and Islam, many university courses in what can broadly be termed 'modern humanistic and cultural studies' offer the opportunity to study literature, film and other forms of cultural production from a fresh perspective.

Teaching and Learning Intercultural Awareness


It is possible to distinguish between approaching cultural difference 'through language' and the use of learning techniques whose objectives are more overtly 'behavioural'. Linguistically orientated approaches can be said to include courses in translation and rewriting, contrastive stylistic analysis and the sociolinguistics of a foreign language. However, a number of undergraduate and postgraduate courses extend the study of translation beyond the acquisition of technical skills. Rather, they address the problems of cultural equivalence by promoting creative re-writing.

Initial Intercultural Studies approaches to translation may involve gist re-writing of text in the native language, the modern adaptation of texts from earlier historical periods or their transfer from one genre to another. Although cognitively similar to exercises in the development of L1 literacy, in this approach, defined in practical terms in the first chapters of the 'Thinking Translation' series created by Hervey & Higgins (2002), the learning process goes further. It engages the learner's imaginative capacity to project into a different cultural context and to respond accordingly in writing, first in L1 and then in other languages. Generally, exercises of this kind are based on an understanding of the theory which lies behind them, as outlined for instance in Lefevere (1992), Bassnett & Trivedi (1999) or Gentzler (2001).

An alternative, though more traditional, linguistically-based approach to the development of intercultural awareness is through the comparative analysis of lexis and, particularly, of metaphor (e.g. Aitchison 2002, Lakoff 1980 etc.). A typical application in the Saussurean tradition is to consider the items characteristic of a particular semantic field derived from a range of texts in language A and then to compare them to a sample from a broadly equivalent set in language B. It is then possible to make informed generalisations about cultural difference based on semantic mapping.

This synchronic approach can be complemented by its diachronic analogue: the philological analysis of the origins of words within a given field, considering the similarities, differences and crossovers between two cultures whose histories overlap. These are well worn, some would say commonsensical ways of considering cultural relationships from a linguistic starting point, but they are nevertheless effective and easily accessible to students. They are widely practised within modern languages courses in the UK, as components of language programmes or independent modules or dissertations on comparative linguistics.


Over the last 20 years, an increasing number of exercises: games, simulations, quizzes and so on have been developed. Their object has been to raise learners' intercultural awareness , either as an intrinsic, universally applicable attribute of character or with respect to a particular national constituency. The idea is to learn to see the world from the point of view of 'the other' and to make decisions in situations which are designed to be destabilising or at least unfamiliar to the learner. The former type of activity has typically been developed as an ingredient of management training and several are marketed commercially.

More information on the range of activities available can be obtained from the SIETAR and The Interculture Project websites. Many are deemed confidential by cultural training consultancies and are difficult to access. However, the effort usually pays off, since the degree to which cultural management training techniques are used within Modern Languages programmes is still limited. Whatever their shortcomings they can be deconstructed after use, which is itself an essential part of the consciousness-raising process.

Self-knowledge Activities

At the most fundamental level, self-knowledge individual or collective is a necessary prerequisite for intercultural understanding. It is an ingredient of most modules seeking to address the issue. If used as a learning instrument, the outcomes of specific activities should be discussed as an integral part of a developmental programme, since all exercises in this domain have their limitations. Also, it is worth deploying a range of exercise types so that their results can be compared.

Examples of exercises designed to promote self-awareness feature in Byram & Esarte-Sarries (1991) and Byram & Fleming (1998) Alternatively, self-assessment questionnaires can be accessed on The Interculture Project website. Better still are fully-fledged, accredited personality tests such as ' The Big 5 ', which can be downloaded from the web. However, as so often, discursive writing the sempiternal self-portrait remains a highly effective starting point but should almost certainly be used in conjunction with other types of exercise. The essay activity can of course be 'inverted' by inviting students in pairs to find out as much as possible about their ' alter ego ' in a finite amount of time, write a self-portrait in the persona of 'the other' and then subject themselves to group interrogation in that character. The results can be startling and highly entertaining!

Knowing the other? Quizzes and Intercultural Incidents

In extending self-awareness to knowledge of other cultures or the modelling of behaviour in intercultural situations, the most common activities are culture quizzes and intercultural incidents . Culture quizzes are simply a series of questions on aspects of behaviour which reflect the cultural codes of a given national constituency. They can be either open-ended or multiple-choice.

As an exercise, culture quizzes are highly controversial since they can be seen to be reinforcing stereotypes and failing to differentiate between regional or situational variation. Treating them as quantitative tests is obviously more dangerous still but they are very effective as a basis for debate. The principle of grounding the development of intercultural awareness in an understanding of national cultural attributes was strongly reinforced by the work of Hofstede (1984 , 1994). In the last ten years Hofstede's methodology and, by extension, the relationship between culture and national constituencies has been called seriously into question. Intercultural awareness is now perceived much more as a property of the individual rather than the outcome of knowledge of behavioural trends said to characterise specific nations. For this reason, the interest of quizzes lies in the fact that, while offering practical guidance, they provide an opportunity to scrutinise the relative truth of their answers.

The same can be said of 'intercultural incidents'. These originally derived from the concept of the critical incident developed by Brislin et al. (1986). Brislin's notions (a) that there is 'one right answer' amongst the alternative solutions to the 100+ situations set in a global cross-section of cultures, and (b) that it is possible to assess an individual's 'intercultural competence' on the basis of an aggregate score, are now generally discredited. But authentic, culture-specific, intercultural incidents can be recorded by real-life participants, written up retrospectively and used for learning purposes. Once again, they serve as excellent catalysts for analysis and discussion.

Both quizzes and intercultural incidents feature at a number of UK universities as elements in modules on intercultural awareness and in preparation courses for periods of residence abroad. Their advantages as learning activities are their simplicity, their groundedness and the fact that they can easily be renewed and updated.


As an aid to developing self-awareness, open-ended written discourse can also find its place. A 500/1000-word written 'meditation' without any pre-conceptions whatsoever on the 'NESS topic' (FrenchNESS, GermanNESS and so on) produces some surprises and gives rise to sharp debate when the outcomes are shared and discussed in small groups. It is especially effective if you can access a group or groups of native speakers of other cultures and get them to do the same on 'EnglishNESS'. When collated in plenary session, the 'usual suspects' inevitably surface; but so too do basic questions of principle which subvert the truth value of labels while clearly identifying perceptions of cultural difference.

Simulations and Role-plays

Finally, and associated with the above, the situation-based simulation or role-play is a highly powerful means of raising consciousness and preparing students to confront intercultural realities. Success in this exercise depends first on identifying potent communicative events (Hymes 1972 and Thomas 1995). These can be derived empirically for example from students' accounts of residence abroad using outline scenarios where each party is unfamiliar with the brief given to the other. The 'events' can then be enacted, recorded on video and retrospectively deconstructed. Obviously, native speakers with thespian aspirations are an essential ingredient, as is the process of post-hoc discussion.

Once again, vigilance is needed for the 'game' not to be seen to reinforce rather than to question national stereotypes. At the same time, most, if not all awareness-raising activities are premised on the principle that stereotypes do exist and that they need to be acknowledged and confronted if their relative falsehood is to be appreciated by the learner.

Ethnographic Projects

Another increasingly prominent feature of undergraduate and graduate courses which focus on 'interculture' is the ethnographic , or cross-cultural project . This can take various forms. As applied to Modern Language programmes in the mid-1990s by Roberts and Jordan, the approach requires prior training in ethnographic techniques of social observation and note-taking (q.v . Jordan 2002 in the GPG) . This is normally but not necessarily accompanied by a grounding in anthropology and social theory.

The strength of the ethnographic project is that it is culture-independent and can therefore be applied in an interdisciplinary framework, as well as to students intending to travel or work in a multiplicity of cultural environments. Students are guided in a choice of 'topic' and trained in basic social science research methodologies: questionnaire design, interview and focus group, the identification of behavioural codes, record-keeping, protocol analysis and so on. As a complete module for Major language students, it is customary for a second year 'pilot study' to be followed by a main 'ethnographic' project undertaken during the period of residence abroad.

A less rigorous approximation to this approach, which can be incorporated into language-based preparation for residence abroad, is the cross-cultural case study in which pairs of students collect data from non-UK citizens on campus on 'attitudes towards the British way of life'. The outcome of such a project can be written up in the target language and formally presented. It has the virtue of engaging students in self-analysis, as a precursor to keeping a record of their experiences abroad, as well as improving their communication skills.

Recording the Residence Abroad Experience

As a complement to the activities mentioned above, a number of UK university undergraduate programmes require students to keep a close record of their experiences during periods of residence abroad (q.v. Coleman 2004 in the GPG). Experiments undertaken in the context of the FDTL programme by the universities of Central Lancashire, Lancaster, Oxford Brookes, Portsmouth, Southampton and Sheffield have now led to the widespread adoption of diaries as a means of promoting intercultural awareness.

The student diary, journal or logbook varies in its format according to its degree of 'open-endedness'. In some instances, it is more explicitly linked to language acquisition and can almost resemble a 'language portfolio'. At the other end of the spectrum, it is much more personal, unstructured and discursive. In this latter instance it can be seen as the authentic application of theories of 'articulation' as defined in ideological terms by Laclau & Mouffe (1985) in the sense that the diary actualises the process of change undergone by the learner. The development of intercultural awareness is thereafter best consolidated by a retrospective essay or written reflection on the process recorded in the diary, and this should ideally serve in turn as the basis for an oral ' de-briefing '.

Whilst the diary does not readily lend itself to external assessment, the retrospective essay is an effective form of evaluation, provided that the students are made fully aware of the criteria in advance. This again demands careful preparation of the period of residence abroad both in the technique of personal diary writing and in its translation into a more objective, analytical type of discourse which avoids anecdotal enumeration.

Cross-Cultural Electronic Communication

As mentioned above, the exploitation of electronic media of communication for the development of linguistic knowledge linked to intercultural awareness is becoming increasingly commonplace as an integral element in Modern Languages HE programmes. These approaches, often linked to tandem or group learning, are underpinned by work carried out by Mozzon-McPherson at Hull , Di Napoli at Westminster and Spencer-Oatey at Cambridge. Apart from the intrinsic value of promoting communication between individuals and groups in different countries and so enhancing intercultural awareness, it is of course possible to keep a record (electronic or otherwise) of discussions within closed networks and then to analyse them closely as part of a group learning experience. Such approaches are a self-evident means of student preparation for an academic experience at a partner institution, but can also give rise to highly creative joint learning tasks which focus on cultural issues.

Teaching Intercultural Awareness through Literature and Film

Intercultural Narratives

As an accompaniment to the direct experience of other cultures and the application of the practical learning instruments described above, art, literature and film represent perhaps the most powerful catalysts of all in developing and assessing the acquisition of intercultural awareness within Higher Education. The Intercultural Narrative has emerged as a recognisable literary genre which uniquely expresses the complex experience of living in a multicultural environment, the desolation of exile, the loss and reconstruction of personal identity and so on see in this context Wagstaff (2004) and Crawshaw & Tomic (2004) .

An increasing number of books written in the last 30 years or so are generating a 'canon' which deals with the type of subject matter just mentioned. These may be taught in English with reference either to the original or to their several translations. These include modern - day 'classics' such as Harries & Oppenheimer's Into the Arms of Strangers , Hoffman's Lost in Translation , Sebald's Austerlitz , Smith's White Teeth , Kadare's The File on H. , Kundera's Ignorance , Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea and a thousand others, not to mention works by authors like Goytisolo, Phillips, Kureishi, Begag or Demirkan and major precursors such as Marco Polo, Montaigne and Montesquieu. Such works form the backbone of new syllabi in courses with titles like 'Border-Crossing', 'Writing at the Margins' and so on, and are often linked to filmic material which complement their treatment of the theme of cultural displacement.

Crossing Generic Boundaries

Courses on narrative cross disciplinary borders too, and characteristically include feature film and historical documentary as part of the curriculum, for instance in the School of European Studies at the University of Bath to name but one prominent example (Wagstaff 2004). They mark a vital way forward for linking cultural theory, personal experience and the development of cultural literacy which, alongside the acquisition of professional skills, remain core defining components of a university education in arts and humanities.

Concluding Comments

As may be seen from this brief overview, the burgeoning field of Intercultural Studies is a complex, eclectic , hybrid 'interdiscipline' which is transforming the way Modern Languages in UK Higher Education is perceived and taught. As our idea of 'culture' has changed, so too has our insight into the relationship between intercultural understanding and language. Cultural insight has become more codified, more identifiable both as a behavioural attribute of citizenship in culturally mixed societies, and as essential baggage for the globally mobile. Knowledge of what these codes comprise linked to an ability to describe and investigate them is an increasingly central component of the Modern Languages curriculum. At the same time, it has become clear that intercultural awareness should also entail a more widely informed type of 'deep learning' which can only be fully achieved by a 'grounded empathy' with the condition of displacement and an understanding of its historical origins. It is satisfying to record that the growth of Intercultural Studies is both a catalyst and an agent for institutional change which is offering Modern Languages in the UK the potential for a fertile intellectual future.


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Related links

The Big Five Personality Test.

Coleman, J. (2004). Residence Abroad.

IALIC: International Association for Languages and Intercultural Communication.

The Interculture Project, Lancaster University.

Jordan, S. (2002). Intercultural issues in foreign language learning and ethnographic approaches study abroad.

SIETAR: Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research

Talkington, B. &  L Lengel (2004). A Snapshot of intercultural communication courses: an international analysis.

Work and Study Abroad.

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