By John Corbett
Professor of Applied Language Studies. University of Glasgow
It is a pleasure and a privilege to introduce this resource pack, which has been designed to support teachers and learners of English in their intercultural explorations of language. Intercultural language education is becoming increasingly visible in courses and classrooms around the world, and the materials gathered here demonstrate the excitement and energy of intercultural language learning. But why has language learning ‘gone intercultural’?
The globalisation of language, commerce and electronic communications means that practically everyone on the planet now has a stake in English. On the one hand, English-speaking culture is the domain of South Americans – as well as Britons, North Americans and Australians. If you don’t believe me, look around the store signs and advertisements in your neighbourhood shopping. On the other hand, not so long ago, South American learners outside the big cities might seldom come into direct contact with speakers of English from elsewhere – but nowadays, in all but the remotest villages, learners can go online and instantly be part of a chat-room discussion with speakers of English worldwide. Electronic communications have eliminated time and space and the world wide web invites us all to share our experiences of global citizenship. This resource pack links, for example, to Intercultural Voices, a website where teachers and learners can share their experiences of the resource with others around the country, around the continent, and around the world [http://interculturalvoices.googlepages.com/home].
The pervasiveness of global English and the immediacy of contact with English users worldwide are two reasons why intercultural language learners must first of all become ethnographers. That is, language learners must become systematic, critical observers and describers of cultural behaviours and the attitudes and beliefs that motivate these behaviours. To become intercultural ethnographers, language learners must first explore and understand their own culture and be prepared to explain it to those whose experience of life and formations of belief are often very different from their own.
Thus the focus of many of the materials in this resource pack are characteristically South American: some Sections cover New Year festivals, common cultural points of reference like Canaima, Ipanema and forro, contemporary forms of behaviour (such as the Brazilian way of ‘going out’), and so on. The stereotypes are viewed critically and deconstructed, as the underlying systems of belief are made explicit and critiqued. Other Sections focus on the impact of globalisation – learners, for example, consider the opposing forces of consumerism and environmentalism in South America today. And there is always space to consider the universal and eternal issues of poverty, diversity and social justice.
A further feature of globalisation is the mass media, and the Sections explore the response to the American series Desperate Housewives in both Brazil and Argentina, two countries famous for their own telenovelas. How does popular culture in the USA, Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela construct gender roles and stereotypes? How do these programmes translate from one country to another? Do concepts of beauty travel intact across national, ethnic and cultural boundaries? The intercultural agenda revolutionises the language curriculum by placing such issues at the heart of the learning experience. Intercultural knowledge and skills combine with language knowledge and skills to investigate topics such as:
how we construct our notions of the Self and the Other
how we interact through speech and writing in different contexts
how we respond politically to globalised language, commerce and media
how we might relate the behaviour of others to their attitudes and beliefs
how we can empathise with, respect and value the beliefs of others
Earlier formulations of the ultimate objectives of language learning tended to focus, explicitly or implicitily, on the mythical goal of ‘native speaker competence’. The intercultural curriculum focuses on the goal of intercultural exploration, description, mediation and empathy – goals which are attainable and which learners can begin to achieve today. This resource pack is an excellent place to start.
John Corbett is the author of “An Intercultural Approach to English Language Teaching” (Multilingual Matters, 2003), and he is the editor of the journal Language and Intercultural Communication.