Setting the context, highlighting the importance: Reflections on interculturality and pedagogy

Authors: Brigit Talkington, Laura Lengel and Mike Byram


This is a report on the IALIC/Subject Centre Pedagogical Forum on "Intercultural Lessons: Locating the intercultural in an educational context". It highlights the importance of interculturality in pedagogy. It addresses how teachers are developing curricula and unpacking learning moments which challenge students to reflect critically on their own lived experience. The classroom should be the place where both cognitive and affective challenge materializes, and where both teachers and learners can take the opportunity to reflect on one's response. The Forum, too, was a space for reflection and challenge, and a valued opportunity for the exploration of interculturality and pedagogy.

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Table of contents

This paper was originally presented at the IALIC/Subject Centre Pedagogical Forum, which was part of the 4th Annual Conference of IALIC (International Association for Languages and Intercultural Learning).

Description of the Forum

Affiliated with the 4th Annual Conference of the International Association for Languages and Intercultural Learning (IALIC) held at Lancaster University on 16 December 2004, the IALIC/Subject Centre Pedagogical Forum on “Intercultural Lessons: Locating the intercultural in an educational context” looked at intercultural education broadly and, more specifically, in terms of the learning, teaching and assessing of intercultural skills. Participants in the Forum, hailing from nine different countries, presented pedagogical research, shared teaching tools, methods and practical approaches, and explored the role of the educator in intercultural pedagogy.

The Forum was organised into an opening plenary (Chaired by Mike Byram) with papers by Laura Lengel and Brigit Talkington, and by Hugh Starkey. This was followed by three panels on “Materials for intercultural learning” (Chaired by Brigit Talkington), “Intercultural teachers and learners” (Chaired by Laura Lengel, and “Language, discourse and interculture” (Chaired by Hugh Starkey). A closing plenary afforded the presenters and delegates the opportunity to share the highlights of the three panels and discuss the possibility of future initiatives in intercultural teaching and learning.

Interculturality and pedagogy

It is a truism to note that pedagogy is never value-free, but what does it mean with respect to teaching for interculturality?

The acquisition of intercultural competence - the ability to interact in complex cultural contexts among people who embody more than one cultural identity and language - can take place outside the classroom and beyond the pedagogical influence of the teacher. Some people become interculturally competent through their everyday experience from the earliest age. Young people who find themselves traveling the world and living for a few years in one country and a few years in another, and attending ‘international schools’, may be the best examples of this. Intercultural competence acquired in this way may be largely intuitive and without reflexivity.

Acquisition of intercultural competence in educational contexts is different - and should be so. Teaching and learning takes place in institutions which have educational purposes, and individual teachers have their own versions of these. The view taken by some participants in the Forum, as reported below, is that in this case, teaching for intercultural competence should include the development of critical cultural awareness. This, then, is one crucial defining feature of intercultural competence.

It is also important to distinguish intercultural competence from being bicultural. Although there is very little research on being bicultural - despite the mountains of work on bilingualism - one can at least say that being bicultural is an outcome of exposure to more than one culture with more than one set of beliefs, values and behaviours. Like natural bilingualism, natural biculturalism is probably unreflexive, intuitive and a process of adapting to situations to be as similar as possible to others in those situations. Intercultural competence however is not the ability to adjust, to adapt, to disappear in a new situation and among new people. Nor is it an intuitive state but rather a conscious capacity and willingness to interact, to mediate, to reflect on the ways in which one is interacting with new people in a new situation.

It is this emphasis on consciousness, not least on the ability to reflect on one’s own affective responses to new situations, which can be perhaps best promoted and nurtured in the ‘safety’ of the classroom. Yet the classroom should also be the place of challenge. Classrooms should be the place where there is not only cognitive but also affective challenge — and the opportunity to reflect on one’s response.

It was evident from the sessions described below that teachers in higher education are beginning to do this, to focus not only on the cognitive but also on the affective. This is new and exciting but also risky: learners may react in unexpected ways and we have little which we can fall back on as pedagogy for the emotions.

The Forum was thus a valued opportunity for presenters and audience to share their experience and reflections in ways which need to be developed in future meetings of IALIC.

Materials for intercultural learning

The “Materials for intercultural learning” workshop/discussion session highlighted the importance of developing critical cultural awareness in teaching and of pedagogical research. Guilherme (2002) suggests that critical cultural awareness is based on “Critical Pedagogy, with close reference to both Critical Theory and Postmodernism” (p. 14). This critical stance on interculturality reinforced the opening plenary papers which focused on critical intercultural communication studies (Lengel & Talkington, 2003) and intercultural narratives of language teachers (Starkey, 2003).

The workshop/discussion session also focused on a critical reflection on culture, power, and negotiation in everyday communicative acts and how these acts can be incorporated into curricula and teaching materials. Panelists shared techniques used in their classrooms and communities, such as community partnerships and field studies. Presenters in this session travelled from several countries to the Forum to present tools, methods, and approaches and to exchange ideas to enhance interculturality in pedagogy.

The materials panel highlighted such diverse topics as how to enhance the inclusivity of the European Language Portfolio and how to encourage students to become engaged in the community so that they and their classmates can make a difference to members of marginalised subcultures and how their findings can be reported in unique formats such as poetry. Also represented in the panel were ways to make training films more than a substitute for a live instructor, how to get students honestly and actively involved in examining trans-cultural marketing, and how to prepare students for a fully engaged, submersed year abroad.

Pedagogical panels like this indicate that the presenters have integrated what it means to be teachers of intercultural communication into their curricula. These ideas are holding up in the classroom, and are standing up to critical analysis in testable and replicable ways. The professionalism and concern of these presenters is articulated through their commitment and enthusiasm, and willingness to accommodate the fast and furious pace of the Forum.

The research and examples of practice addressed issues of engagement, ethics, and the essence of the intercultural teacher or learner in tangible ways, providing an important component of the Forum.

Intercultural teachers and learners

The workshop/discussion session on “Intercultural Teachers and Learners” focused on the importance of interculturality and lived experience. The presenters and delegates engaged in dialogue about the importance of intercultural teachers and learners in differing contexts. First, the session addressed how intercultural learners interpret their world. For example, the session was launched by an exciting study on how students create and present visual narratives of multicultural London as a means of articulating location, dislocation, and re-location.

Also addressed was the importance of intercultural teachers and learners becoming ethnographers. Here the participants reflected upon the research conducted in this area (see Roberts et al, 2001; Byram and Fleming, 1998; Corbett, 2003) and shared their own experiences both in the classroom and in the field.

Participants also examined the notion of identity and participation in intercultural teaching and learning. Drawing from one of the presentations on a curriculum project in Brazil, the workshop focused on the notion of teachers and learners being transcultural translators, negotiating the complexities of disjunction, distance, agency, and intervention often experienced in intercultural education. The participants also discussed translation with regard to being the ‘o/Other’ and how systems of inclusion and exclusion impact intercultural teaching and learning.

The session was a space to commend new curricular developments, such as the Masters of Intercultural Communication at the University of Sheffield; a curriculum proposal project in the State of Parana, Brazil; intercultural courses at the University of Delaware, USA; the University of Turku, Finland; and the European Business School in London.

Finally, the workshop/discussion session was a space to critique intercultural teaching texts that provided an over-simplistic view of multiculturalism, an essentialising view of culture as conflated with nation-state, a lack of focus on concepts of privilege and power (see Kramsch, 1998), and the hegemony of dominant cultures. It addressed how intercultural teachers can encourage their learners to “resist forces of power and oppression” (Martin & Nakayama, 2000, p. 40). As these critiques run parallel with the research on critical intercultural communication studies, it is imperative that pedagogical researchers and theorists continue to inform and respect one another and collaborate as equal partners in the area of languages and intercultural communication.

Language, discourse and interculture

The “Language, discourse and interculture” workshop/discussion session focused on identity construction, specifically through the lens of post-structuralist theory and theories of agency developed by Bourdieu (1991). Dialogue also addressed the unequal power relations negotiated by second language learners and target language speakers (see Norton, 2000).

Workshop presentations addressed filling gaps in the extant literature comparing the narratives of native English and English-Chinese bilingual students, and the potential for oppression and questions of power in the classroom led by uncritical instructors who ignore contextual issues.

Overall, the content and dialogue in “Language, discourse and interculture” centred on debates within post-structuralism, contextual narrativity, and postmodern pedagogy. Participants examined ways to engage students with their own lexical and syntactical patterns through creative essay writing; an effort to teach British culture through an immersion in history – from the Celtic and Roman Britain to the late Tudor-Elizabethan epoch; and, finally, a role playing exercise in which students adopt a persona from American film to emulate in classroom participation to exhibit the complex layers of communicative diversity within a country.


The spirit of reflexivity and a desire to challenge students to apply knowledge to their own lives was evident throughout the Forum. As discussed above, the classroom should be the place where both cognitive and affective challenge materializes. It should be a space where both teachers and learners can take the opportunity to reflect on their responses. The Forum, too, was a space for reflection and challenge, and a valued opportunity which needs to be enhanced and brought back into the center of IALIC in the future.


Bourdieu, Pierre (1991). Language and symbolic power. Cambridge, Polity Press.

Byram, Michael and Fleming, Michael (1998). Language learning in intercultural perspectives: Approaches through drama and ethnography. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Corbett, John (2003). An intercultural approach to English language teaching. Clevedon, Multilingual Matters.

Guilherme, Manuela (2002). Critical citizens for an intercultural world: foreign language education as cultural politics. Clevedon, Multilingual Matters.

Jordan, Shirley (2001). Writing the Other, Writing the Self: Transforming Consciousness through Ethnographic Writing. Language and Intercultural Communication 1(1) 40-57.

Kramsch, Claire (1998). The Privilege of the Intercultural Speaker. In Michael Byram and Michael Fleming (Eds), Language Learning in Intercultural Perspective: Approaches through Drama and Ethnography (pp.16-31). Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Lengel, Laura and Talkington, Brigit (2003). A Snapshot of Intercultural Communication Courses: An International Analysis. Plenary presentation at the IALIC/Subject Centre Pedagogical Forum on “Intercultural Lessons: Locating the intercultural in an educational context”, Lancaster University, 16 December 2003.

Martin, Judith and Nakayama, Thomas (2000). Intercultural communication in contexts. (2nd edition). Mountain View, California, Mayfield.

Norton, Bonny (2000). Identity and Language Learning: Gender, Ethnicity and Educational Change. London, Longman.

Roberts, Celia, Byram, Michael, Barro, Ana, Jordan, Shirley, and Street, Brian (2001). Language learners as ethnographers. Clevedon, Multilingual Matters.

Starkey, Hugh (2003). The intercultural narratives of language teachers: identities, citizenship and values. Plenary presentation at the IALIC/Subject Centre Pedagogical Forum on “Intercultural Lessons: Locating the intercultural in an educational context”. Lancaster University, 16 December 2003.