Teachers' roles and training in intercultural education

Authors: Inma Álvarez and Cecilia Garrido


Foreign language degree programmes have been engaged, more than ever, in an active dialogue with other disciplines. In addition, these programmes can now be delivered in various environments. These recent developments have enhanced the learning experience, but they have also highlighted important implications for the roles and responsibilities of foreign language teachers. Here the authors summarise their investigation into the extent to which new approaches to foreign language teaching have had an impact on current established models of teacher education, and in particular, on how effectively the intercultural agenda has been incorporated in language teacher education programmes.

This article was added to our website on 11/01/05 at which time all links were checked. However, we cannot guarantee that the links are still valid.

Table of contents

This paper was originally presented at the Navigating the new landscape for languages conference (www.llas.ac.uk/navlang), 30 June - 1 July 2004.

1. Redefining language teaching and learning

Language and culture are widely accepted as an interrelated inseparable pair for the purpose of language teaching and learning (e.g. Furstenberg et al., 2001; Sercu, 2002a), for some it has added a critical ethical and political angle to language communicative competence (Kramsch, 2002; Guilherme, 2002).

The new context requires professional and personal development on many fronts: "changes in their [the teachers"] self concept, in their professional qualifications, in their attitudes and skills" (Sercu,1998:256); "to be acquainted with basic insights from cultural anthropology, culture learning theory and intercultural communication" (Sercu, 2002b: 152). In addition, teachers are asked to anticipate and understand their learners' needs and professionally cater for them (Field, 2000; Willems, 2002), and to "develop an understanding of the learners" investments in the target language and their changing identities" (Norton, 2000:137).

The redefinition of the subject has triggered the reformulation of educational policies. Even though intercultural competence appears in many programmes, in practice, the integration of intercultural skills remains behind the teaching of the language. This integration hasn't proved easy. First, the teaching of culture remains unproblematic, uncritical, teacher-centred and mainly geared towards the transmission of information (Byram, 1997; Freeman and Johnson, 1998; Sercu, 2002b). Second, the lack of a consistent methodology for the teaching of culture makes it difficult for practitioners to identify cultural objectives and in many cases such objectives remain outside core language teaching and learning (Starkey, 1990). Third, even when cultural objectives have been outlined, further decisions have to be made as to what cultural elements should be included to enhance communication. Fourth, research has shown that most teachers neither have "a systematic plan as to how to go about teaching intercultural competence, or as to how to deal with stereotypes and prejudice in the foreign language classroom" (Sercu, 2002b: 162), nor clear criteria that could facilitate such decisions (Met, 1993). This is reasonably linked to the fact that teachers are not getting an appropriate preparation and often find themselves sponsoring a variety of aims that they feel unable to fulfil (Byram and Morgan, 1994; Sercu, 2002a).

2. New demands and training for language teachers

Language teachers now have to perform educational, technical, ethical and psycho-social functions, with various responsibilities attached to each of them. Separately, and equally important, teachers also have to become learners side by side with their students (Sercu, 1998).

Of all these, it is the ethical dimension that makes many language teachers uneasy due to the high social and political involvement it implies. They have been told that "[t]heir aim is to enable their students to understand the world around them, to communicate across linguistic and cultural boundaries, and to play an active role at many levels in the world" (Kelly, 2002: 3). Their role as cultural workers means that they need to facilitate and challenge "the on-going interaction between learners and the other culture" (Jones, 2000: 169). This role can be specifically linked to their responsibility to transform students' consciousness (Boylan, 2001). Teachers are asked to fully embrace a critical pedagogy that understands that they shouldn't be neutral, but committed to "moral and political struggle" (Phipps and Guilherme, 2004; Guilherme, 2002). However, not all are willing to proclaim language teachers as educators with a political agenda, some doubt the role should reach that far (Ruane, 1999).

How prepared teachers are to fulfil all their roles and to carry out their responsibilities depends greatly on their training and professional development. There are always two cohorts of student teachers: those who are getting ready to get into the profession and need initial teacher training (ITT) and those with experience, who require in-service teacher training (INSET). Unfortunately, the education agencies responsible for each type of training in many cases seem to work independently from each other and do not address teaching and learning needs within their common context.

The main gap in current teacher education programmes seems to be in the connection between "philosophical and educational theoretical frameworks" and practice (Guilherme, 2002:5). This connection between theory and practice should come from a critical reflective exercise from the student teachers themselves (Richards, 1990; Halbach, 2000; Vélez-Rendón, 2002). Other gaps seem to point at little subject specific training during teachers' careers (Easton, 2001) and lack of opportunities for keeping up to date with changing practices (Lieberman, 2003; Sercu, 1998; Ruane, 1999). More specifically, recent studies in the United States report that, the ethical dimension is absent in teacher education (Sockett and LePage, 2002). In Europe it has been recommended a more extensive integration of intercultural or socio-cultural pedagogy in language teacher education (Kelly, 2002). Indeed, it is widely acknowledged that training does not prepare teachers to deal with the specifics of the intercultural dimension (Dunnett et al., 1986; Met, 1993; Lázár, 2001; Ruane, 1999; Guilherme, 2002; Gundara, 2003). The absence of a systematic approach to intercultural education means that teachers lack depth of knowledge of the nature and implications of the cultural dimension in their subject (Castellotti and Moore, 2002).

Finally, it has also been suggested that training programmes should ideally include periods of residence in the countries where the language is spoken to support cultural understanding (Glisan, 2001).

3. Conclusions

The adequate development of learners' intercultural competence can't be achieved exclusively through policies, materials or residence abroad (Byram and Zarate, 1996). Without teachers' awareness and understanding of the main issues in intercultural communication, students' progress is under threat (Sercu, 2002b). In turn, language teachers' intercultural skills cannot develop without appropriate training.

It is clear that "Professional growth is thus essentially a question of time, struggle, commitment and support" (Kohonen, 2002:49). Time, struggle and commitment are clearly in teachers' hands; support, however, needs a strong external coordinated hand. Only through the combined effort from institutions and education agencies, teachers will be able to fulfil their responsibilities with a greater confidence.


Boylan, P. (2001). Cross-cultural Accommodation through a transformation of consciousness, (http://host.uniroma3.it/docenti/boylan/text/boylan)

Byram, M. (1997). Teaching and Assessing Intercultural Communicative Competence. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Byram, M. and Morgan C. (1994). Teaching-and-learning language-and-culture. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Byram, M. and G. Zarate (1996). Young people facing difference. Strasbourg: Council of Europe Publishing.

Castellotti, V. and D. Moore (2002). Social representations of languages and teaching. In Language Policy Division Guide for the development of Language Education Policies in Europe From Linguistic Diversity to Plurilingual Education, Strasburg: Council of Europe.

Dunnett, S. et al. (1986). English language teaching from an intercultural perspective. In J. M. Valdes (ed.) Culture bound: Bridging the cultural gap in language teaching, 148-161. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Easton, R. (2001). Collection of case studies on examples of good practice in Teacher Education with a focus on organisational aspects and integrated concepts of language education. European Centre for Modern Languages: Council of Europe Publishing.

Field, K. (ed.) (2000). Issues in modern foreign languages teaching. London: Routledge.

Freeman, D. and K.E. Johnson, (1998). Reconceptualizing the knowledge-base teacher education. TESOL Quarterly 32(3): 397-417.

Furstenberg, G. et al. (2001). Giving a virtual voice to the silent language of culture: the Cultura project. Language Learning and Technology, 5(1), 55-102.

Glisan, E. W. (2001). Reframing teacher education within the context of quality, standards, supply and demand. In R. Lavine (ed.), Beyond the boundaries: changing context in language learning, 165-200. Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

Guilherme, M. (2002). Critical Citizens for an intercultural world. Foreign language education as cultural politics. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Gundara, J. S. (2003). Intercultural teacher education and the curriculum in Britain. Studi Emigrazione/Migration Studies XL (151): 475-490.

Halbach, A. (2000). Trainee Change through teacher training: a case study in training English language teachers in Spain. Journal of Education for Teaching, 26 (2):139-146.

Jones, B. (2000). Developing cultural awareness. In K. Field (ed.), Issues in modern foreign languages teaching. London: Routledge.

Kelly, M. et al. (2002). The Training of Teachers of a Foreign Langage: Developments in Europe. A Report to the European Commision Directorate General for Education and Culture . Yarmouth: Intercultural Press.

Kohonen, V. (2002). From isolation to interdepence in ELT: Supporting teacher development through a school-university partnership. In J. Edge (ed.), Continuing professional development. Some of our perspectives, 40-49. Whitstable: IATELF.

Kramsch, C. (2002). Language and culture re-visited. Plenary delivered at the AILA Congress in Singapore.

Lázár, I. (co-ordinator) (2001). Incorporating intercultural communicative competence in pre and in-service language teacher training . European Centre for Modern Languages: Council of Europe Publishing.

Lieberman, A. (2003). Practices that support teacher development: transforming conceptions of professional learning. In A. Lieberman and L. Miller, Teachers: restructuring their world and their work. New York: Teachers College Press. (www.her.nsf.gov/HER/REC/pubs/NSF_EF/lieber.htm)

Met, M. (1993). Teaching language and culture: A view from the schools. In J. E. Alatis (ed.), Language, Communication and Social Meaning, 259-274. Washington: Georgetown University Press.

Norton, B. (2000). Identity and language learning: Gender, ethnicity and educational change. Harlow: Longman.

Phipps, A. and M. Guilherme, (2004). Political approaches to language and intercultural communication. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Richards, J. C. (1990). The language teacher matrix. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ruane, M. (1999). Teaching culture: implications for language teacher education. In A. Chambers and D. Ó Baoill (eds.), Intercultural communication and language learning , 93-103. Dublin: IRAAL.

Sercu, L. (1998). In-service teacher training and the acquisition of intercultural competence. In M. Byram and M. Flemming (eds.), Language learning in intercultural perspective. Approaches through drama and ethnography . 255-289. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sercu, L. (2002a). Autonomous learning and the acquisition of intercultural communicative competence: Some implications for course development. Language, Culture and Curriculum, 15 (1): 61-74.

Sercu, L. (2002b). Implementing intercultural foreign language education. Belgian, Danish and British teachers' professional self-concepts and teaching practices compared. Language Awareness, 16 (3): 150-165.

Sockett, H. and P. LePage (2002). The missing language of the classroom. Teaching and Teacher Education, 18 (2): 159-171.

Starkey, H. (1990). World studies and foreign language teaching: converging approaches in textbook writing. In G. Alred et al. (eds), 209-227. Intercultural experience and education . Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Vélez-Rendón, G. (2002). Second Language Teacher Education: A review of the literature. Foreign Language Annals, 35 (4): 457-467.

Willems, G. M. (2002). Language teacher education policy promoting linguistic diversity and intercultural communication. In Language Policy Division, Guide for the development of Language Education Policies in Europe From Linguistic Diversity to Plurilingual Education. Strasburg: Council of Europe.