Delivering the international agenda - are we, as language lecturers, the best people to do it?

Author: Marie-Odile Leconte


Language and culture are inseparable. Or are they? Do you necessarily deliver cross cultural awareness through the teaching of a module on Italian literature or Spanish politics? Does being a French specialist automatically equip you with the ability to contribute to the international agenda of your institution? The assumption is yes. And yet, there is a need to challenge such assumptions. As the European Union refers to pluriculturalism and is gone beyond a 'binary' system, as there is clear evidence of a decline in the number of undergraduates taking language degrees, I would argue that there is a need for language lecturers to re-invent themselves, reflect on their practice and methodological approach as well as content of delivery if we are to come closer to matching these assumptions. This paper is proposing to look briefly at the challenges faced by language specialists in Higher Education, offer reflections on language learning and language teaching and finally offer a positive, researched answer to the question in the title.

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Conference 2006

This paper was originally presented at our conference: Crossing frontiers: languages and the international dimension, 6-7 July 2006. Download print version: this paper is also available as a pdf (85Kb)


The purpose of this paper stems from a certain discomfort - present at the start of any investigative journey- at the assumption that the teaching of culture is inherent to the teaching of languages. Like all assumptions, it oversimplifies and hides a complex web of meanings around the concept of culture, let alone the teaching of it in the language classroom.

This assumption is present in numerous documents from the Council of Europe, it is present in the National Language Strategy, it is there in the textbooks we use to deliver the curriculum, it is present also in many of us, as a response to the decline of languages as a discipline in the UK. In some of these cases it is political, in others it is pragmatic. In all, it is value-laden. In a world in which international communication, commerce and travel as well as greater population mobility lead to globalisation, one talks of the internationalisation of the curriculum, of global citizenship as party to that cultural element.

The response from the 'sector' is illustrative of the complexity of that 'cultural element': one talks of cultural, intercultural, multi, pluri-cultural or cross-cultural..awareness, communication, competence, capability, training.

As a practitioner, both as a teacher and curriculum developer, I ask myself: in this context, what is the role of language specialists? What are the practical possibilities? How do I help and support a seasoned lecturer in German, or a new lecturer who recently graduated in Spanish, to deliver global citizens? There has been and continues to be a shift in our professional identity as language specialists.

The purpose of this paper therefore is to reflect on this changing identity, briefly review the work done on the cultural dimension of language teaching, illustrate it by offering my own piece to the jigsaw by talking about what we are doing in my institution, and open that experience to questioning again, for further reflection.

A shift in our professional identity

Once upon a time, as an aspiring teacher, you were taught the 'skills, knowledge and attitudes' model. Conveniently, there were language departments and language units, and many churches. You taught knowledge/content (e.g. French Renaissance Literature) or skills (using for example the communicative approach), attitudes bumbled along and the world was ordered. Nostalgia as a discourse is seductive in times of change, but it is essentially reductionist. Furthermore, this model still exists and works, and rightly so in some places. In such a model, culture is essentially knowledge-based, applicable to one particular culture and transmitted from teacher to learner. It often - but not always - refers to Culture as opposed to culture and sub-culture. A new emphasis has emerged in more recent years however where culture is redefined in terms of understanding rather than knowledge and these is where the terms multiply (see above), essentially because we are dealing with attitudes, with learning (student-based and therefore variable) rather than teaching, a mode of learning which is experiential, multi-dimensional, interpretative. It is not easy to deliver in a classroom situation and as Michael Byram (2004) notes, it is not surprising that new communication technologies (email contact, electronic conferencing etc) are promoted as a means of giving learners experience of interaction with native speakers. It is also far more difficult to assess and control. In its best guise, cross-cultural competence -if I pitch for that one-is immensely valuable. It encourages critical awareness and analysis of one's own culture, it is transformative, leading to qualities of empathy and tolerance, it is transferable from culture to culture and thus responds to the internationalisation agenda.

Culture and language learning

A considerable amount of work has taken place in the field of culture and language learning since the late eighties and an excellent overview is provided by Michael Byram who argues in his review article (Byram & Feng, 2004) that

The focus has been largely on the elaboration of conceptual models and theories and the development of teaching and training approaches.and an emphasis on approaches which draw on ethnographic techniques and theory, on approaches from critical theory and the politics of language teaching, and on teaching of cultural knowledge.

More recently, Lies Sercu conducted a large international investigation based on empirical research which considers the impact of theoretical models and focuses on data about how teachers -424 in all and in seven countries- perceive the cultural dimension of language teaching, and their experience of it (Sercu & al., 2005). The aims of the study were to describe foreign language teachers' current professional self-concepts and to relate these to the profile of an intercultural FL teacher, and also to determine their degree of willingness to 'interculturalise' foreign language education. It is a good study in that it demonstrates that the debate is worldwide and affects the whole profession, hence my claim that we are looking at a shift in professional identity. It is a good study also in that it is one in which, as the authors says, most teachers will be able to recognize themselves. It provides fascinating insights into what is happening 'in the classroom', which leads me back to my earlier question: are we, as linguists, the best people to deliver the internationalisation agenda?

The findings are numerous and the one I find most interesting is that the teachers surveyed shared the same conviction that, as educators, they had to prepare learners for life in an increasingly multicultural world in which they have to be fluent in more than one language and interculturally competent (2005:163), but in practice, their teaching of culture was still essentially knowledge-based, was still a teacher-centred approach to culture and that teaching was viewed as peripheral if language and culture could not be taught in an integrated way.

Towards an integrated approach: learning as an experience

In an environment in which pressures from the curriculum and assessment are high, it is essential that the delivery of language and culture are integrated and I would argue that it need not be on a knowledge base. As expressed above, culture knowledge does not necessarily lead to intercultural competence which relies on experience, perceptions and understanding. As a brief aside, I will make a case for the teaching of literature in the target language as it develops understanding of another culture, and qualities of empathy as one identifies with the characters, albeit fictional.

Learning itself is an experience of course and I would argue that if one focuses on the experience of learning a language, as well as the transmission of skills and knowledge, it goes a long way towards integrating language and culture. Considering three specific dimensions of the learning experience namely the cognitive, behavioural and affective dimensions, I would argue that a knowledge and skills approach favours the first two dimensions whereas the third dimension, affect, is the one in which language and cultural competence connect, it is the one in which one can understand personal as well as geographical boundaries.

A brief example will illustrate this point. Turn-taking rules are quite different in French and English. At a cognitive level, the learner will be told that when French people 'interrupt' a discussion or do not let someone else finish an utterance it is not because they are rude but because turn-taking rules are different. This is supported by research. At a behavioural level, a simulation exercise or case study will contribute to the learning (even comparing TV presenters interviewing politicians in both countries e.g., although passive). The affective dimension deals with our personal reactions to situations. It is one thing to know that French people who monopolise conversation do not do so on purpose, it is quite another to acknowledge and understand the feelings of frustration or anger that one may experience and deal with them appropriately.

Although affect has often been overlooked in language teaching, some work is being done on this dimension. Some close colleagues of mine for example are developing cultural awareness activities to be used in the language classroom and which draw on affect. As language teachers, it is crucial that we make more use of this dimension to encourage learners to reflect on their experience and develop critical awareness of their own culture. It is important also that it is integrated. If not, it will remain knowledge based and peripheral for the teacher. It will remain peripheral for the learner too, as we found out through student feedback on the delivery of a generic module called 'Observing culture' which prepares our second year students for their Period Abroad. That particular module adopts an ethnographic approach and is delivered in English rather than the target language. Students consistently find it difficult to see the relevance of this delivery, albeit most do realise the importance of it when they return from their period abroad. It is clear that a more integrated approach would improve dramatically students' interest.

Language learning goes beyond the instrumental, it is a social activity which requires engagement on the part of the learner and I would suggest that a lot more needs to be done in the field of teacher development to equip existing and new teachers with the theory as well as practical examples around using the affective dimension. It is through the experience of language learning that one can begin to get a sense of what it is like to be 'Other'. Whereas one will know people who are not linguists and are highly inter or cross culturally competent, we have, as linguists and reflective practitioners, a unique opportunity to consider how we teach as much as what we teach in order to contribute fully to the internationalisation agenda.


ARNOLD, J. (1999). Affect in Language Learning . Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

BYRAM, M & FENG, A (2004). Culture and language learning: teaching, research and scholarship. Language Teaching 37 , 149-168

SERCU, L & al. (2005). Foreign Language Teachers and Intercultural Competence . Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

TOMLINSON, B. (2003). Developing Materials for Language Teaching . London : Continuum.

TOMLINSON, B. & MASUHARA, H. (2004). Developing cultural awareness: integrating culture into a language course. Modern English Teacher 13/1, 5-11.