Making a Difference: Language Teaching for Intercultural and International Dialogue

By Byram, Michael; Wagner, Manuela | Foreign Language Annals, Spring 2018 | Go to article overview

Making a Difference: Language Teaching for Intercultural and International Dialogue


Byram, Michael, Wagner, Manuela, Foreign Language Annals


1I INTRODUCTION

In 2010, then-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan proclaimed, "To prosper economically and to improve relations with other countries Americans need to read, speak and understand other languages" (U.S. Department of Education, 2010, para. 12). The significance of this statement, 8 years later, scarcely needs to be underlined. Global and national challenges increase daily, and the modes of talking across frontiers and languages become ever more aggressive. In this article we argue that in this new context, language teaching must include intercultural communicative competence as its aim, and this means that language teaching professionals must accept their social and political responsibilities and change their professional identity.

While proclamations in favor of foreign language education and its effects on international or intercultural understanding are by no means rare, language educators and administrators in Englishspeaking countries often face challenges from skeptics. They either doubt the validity of foreign language study because they believe that English suffices as a means of communication or they claim that language study in schools cannot prepare students to achieve the desired level of proficiency. The Anglophone perspective is currently very significant in Britain. In the British newspaper The Guardian, at a moment of European divisions and Brexit, one of its pundits argued that language learning is not necessary and that there are always other ways to understand other countries. He took the example of Germany to make this point:

Germany is Europe's most important country of our day. Teach its history, revel in its culture, analyse the strength of its economy. Visit its cities and countryside-and see how much better they are planned and protected than ours. In comparison, learning Germany's language is not that important. (Jenkins, 2017, para. 7)

A well-known academic refuted Jenkins's view, with panache:

Even where in Europe the lingua franca of (academic) papers is English, I can promise you that the language of the bar isn 't (or the toilets, for that matter). You get left out of an awful lot of what is really going on if you can only communicate in English. (Beard, 2017, para. 6)

In this article we show that learning about countries and cultures from an interdisciplinary perspective (including history, geography, and mathematics) related to the languages we teach is and should be part of world language education for intercultural communication and that intercultural skills as well as knowledge are required. Language education needs to play a leading role in the development of our students' intercultural communicative competence, i.e., combining language skills with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that help them become "intercultural citizens" (Byram, 2008), able to engage in intercultural communication, to think and act critically, and to negotiate the complexities of today's world.

While we review the most relevant current theory and practice on teaching languages for intercultural communication-including the implications for teaching methodology, educators' professional identity, and the role of language education in the broader educational mission-we cannot be exhaustive as that would require a book-length treatment, available, e.g., in Garrett-Rucks (2016), Kramsch (2013), Liddicoat and Scarino (2013), Risager (2007), and others. We hope nonetheless to assist language educators in considering their important role and responsibility in educating intercultural citizens ready to live and thrive in multilingual and multicultural societies, including their own.

2I THE LANGUAGE AND CULTURE NEXUS

That teaching culture is part of language teaching is an axiom widely shared among world languages educators. That this assertion is interpreted in many ways is well known. That teaching culture as information about a country or countries where the target language is spoken is a common yet misguided interpretation is perhaps less self-evident, for this approach is often present in textbooks and is hence widely adopted because many educators rely on a textbook as their mainstay. …

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