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Review of  Foreign Language Teachers and Intercultural Communication

Reviewer: Leonhard A. Voltmer
Book Title: Foreign Language Teachers and Intercultural Communication
Book Author: Lies Sercu
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Book Announcement: 18.477

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AUTHOR(s): Lies Sercu et al.
TITLE: Foreign Language Teachers and Intercultural Competence: An
International Investigation
SERIES: Languages for Intercultural Communication and Education 10
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters, Clevedon
YEAR: 2005

Leonhard A. G. Voltmer, lecturer in Intercultural Mediation at the
University of Trento, Italy.


How do foreign language (FL) teachers feel and act with respect to the
intercultural dimension of their language teaching? In 2001, 424
FL-teachers in seven countries (Belgium, Bulgaria, Poland, Mexico, Greece,
Spain and Sweden) answered a questionnaire for a quantitative, comparative

The objectives of FL teachers are to motivate and enable students to use
the FL in practice. Therefore they place more emphasis on teaching language
than culture. As a consequence they lack time, training and appropriate
teaching materials for the teaching of the culture in question (chapter 2).
Teachers claim that they are familiar enough with the FL-culture (chapter
3). Teachers in different countries have different views of their students'
predisposition towards FL-learning, towards the FL-culture and FL-contact.
In Bulgaria pupils are positively biased towards the foreign language, its
people and culture, whereas in Spain they are not (chapter 4). The picture
teachers give of the type, frequency and time they devote to
culture-teaching is complex. On average the results are satisfying, but
there are significant disparities between the countries (chapter 5).
Teachers use text-books extensively, even if they deem them useful only to
a certain degree (chapter 6). Teachers organize exchange programs and
school trips to expose their students to the target-language. They know
that this creates an opportunity for intercultural learning (chapter 7).
Teachers would like to promote intercultural competence through their
FL-teaching, but they are unsure about the methodology, the timing and the
effects of such teaching (chapter 8). Hence they prefer an integrated
approach of teaching language and culture together, but ultimately hesitate
to put it into practice (chapter 9). Teachers treat topics depending on how
familiar they are with them, and they generally teach culture based on
their level of personal valuation. Finally, some teachers are willing to
integrate intercultural competence teaching but don't apply it in practice
(chapter 10). Cultural competence should become an attainment target of
FL-teaching (chapter 11).

The authors recommend the following educational policy: Teachers should be
provided with examples of how language and culture teaching can be joined
together. They should be assisted in choosing and adapting teaching
materials and be encouraged to use experiential learning techniques for
that purpose. Therefore teacher education should comprise: methodology
courses in culture learning theory for younger learners, including theories
of ''culture shock''; courses for how to create experiential learning
environments; courses in anthropology, ethnographic investigation
techniques and social psychology focussing on the individual.


The book is well structured. The main findings are clearly stated, but
could have been further highlighted graphically. The policy recommendations
are sensible and clear.

The study defines an average profile of all FL-teachers despite the ad-hoc
sampling of the participating teachers with respect to the age of teachers
and students, mother-language of teachers and students, language taught,
hours of teaching and teaching experience, public or private employment,
the institutional role of language teaching, national particularities, etc.

The study compares the different countries where the FL teaching takes
place. It deviates only once from this principle: With regard to the
pupils' views of the culture associated with the target language, the
target languages English, French, German and Spanish are compared instead
of the countries.

In fact, this imperfect quantitative approach has been criticised by Bai
Rui (2006), who would have preferred a multiple methods approach to provide
more insight into teachers' beliefs. Nevertheless, the reader may reach the
same conclusion by filling out the questionnaire (Annex 1, pp. 186-214 of
the book) with a sufficient degree of introspection.

Although the book does not pretend to be about theory (p. ix), which makes
it difficult to judge the impact of some of the findings (as Bai Rui (2006)
remarks), some comments of conceptual nature may be appropriate.

1. The study is based on the premise that language and culture cannot be
separated and should therefore be taught together. Language courses should
become integrated language-and-culture courses.

If culture is always an inseparable part of language, then language courses
have always been language-and-culture courses. Teaching the use of the
polite form of address, for example, requires context and has always been
taught through the use of dialogues. One should expect an automatic, at
least implicit, comparison with the student's own cultural standards for

Transferred to the study, this means that the culture awareness of the
teachers does not necessarily correspond to the level of culture in their
FL-teaching. It may correspond much more to their level of intercultural
communication skills. The difference between the two is that ''cultural
competence involves ... a specific cultural area ... whereas intercultural
competence involves knowledge, skills and attitudes at the interface
between several cultural areas'' (p. viii). Intercultural competence is
surely a useful skill, but it does not substitute cultural competence and
even less so linguistic competence. If the ''cultural turn'' in language
teaching does not take the language-and-culture path, but the
language-and-intercultural competence path, then not only does it alter the
path to the same goal, but it changes the goal itself. There is no doubt
that psychology, economic geography and intercultural competence facilitate
communication, but we wouldn't want to integrate all of them into a
language course. The opposite is the case. The more we think that those
skills are important, the more we should focus on them individually and
teach them separately in special courses.

Following the study, Lies Sercu, the author of 80 and co-author of the
other 120 pages, conducted research to understand if FL-learning is more
effective when it integrates the cultural context or when language and
cultural context come as two separate units. This fundamental research
question is, in fact, preliminary to the 2001 study.

Chapter 6 is dedicated to what teachers think FL teaching materials should
be like. While the results are surely interesting as market research, it
cannot be taken for granted that the desired textbooks for teaching are
also the most efficient for learning.

2. There is another hidden presupposition for the study: Intercultural is
taken as international. It is apparent the authors are aware of the
underlying problem. The questionnaire asks ''What percentage of your
school's population are ethnic minority community children?'' (Question 2.2,
p. 189) and the situation is ''unclear'' (p. 215) in the sense that some
teachers are in front of a rather homogeneous class, while others are not.

It is clear that the reflection on one's own cultural background is
different in a (socially, ethnically, etc.) heterogeneous group, although
not necessarily easier. Once you have a couple of Indian students in your
class, the 450,000 Indians in London will appear less as a surprise. From
this point of view it is a sign of self-awareness when teachers claim to be
''sufficiently familiar with the culture of the foreign language they teach''
(p. 47) rather than ''very familiar'', because that would require an insight
into, for example, the Greek community in Melbourne of more than 800,000

The FL-teaching situation cannot easily be limited to one-on-one cultural
contact. We know that. But when the study gives the example of Belgian
teachers being familiar with German culture, the point might be missed that
the Belgian students may not all be of a classical Belgian culture and the
motivating part of German culture might be Turkish rap rather than Goethe.
Intercultural competence is becoming increasingly complex. It is little
wonder that teachers are not always satisfied with their textbooks, and
prefer to stick to language teaching, which already requires all of their
intercultural competence.

The very progressive Holliday, Hyde & Kullman (2004) are skeptical of the
concept of ''national culture'', as such. All the same, FL-teaching seems to
have the cultural component already in the language and does not need to
make further reference to national cultures. But one thing is clear:
Teachers will need more intercultural competence, as will students.
Therefore the conclusion of the book, and the policy proposals, are conducive.


Bai Rui, Review of Foreign Language Teachers and Intercultural Competence
by Lies Sercu et al., in: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 8,
2006, p. 1589-1592.

A. Holliday, M. Hyde, J. Kullman, Intercultural Communication - An advanced
resource book, Routledge Applied Linguistics, Routledge 2004, Linguist List
review: http://linguistlist.org/issues/16/16-3585.html.

Research project of Lies Sercu:


Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Teaching foreign languages in an intercultural world
Lies Sercu

Chapter 2: Objectives of foreign language education and culture teaching time
Paloma Castro and Lies Sercu

Chapter 3: Familiarity and contacts with foreign cultures
Phyllis Ryan and Lies Sercu

Chapter 4: Pupils' culture-and-language learning profile
María del Carmen Méndez García and Lies Sercu

Chapter 5: Culture teaching practices
Ewa Bandura and Lies Sercu

Chapter 6: Culture in foreign language teaching materials
Leah Davcheva and Lies Sercu

Chapter 7: Experiential culture learning activities: school trips and
exchange projects
Chryssa Laskaridou and Lies Sercu

Chapter 8: Opinions regarding different facets of intercultural competence
Lies Sercu

Chapter 9: The foreign language and intercultural competence teacher
Lies Sercu

Chapter 10: The future of intercultural competence in foreign language
education: Recommendations for professional development, educational policy
and research
Lies Sercu

Appendix 1: Questionnaire
Appendix 2: Bonferroni multiple comparison test results

Library of Congress Subject Headings for this publication:

Language and languages - Study and teaching.
Intercultural communication.
Multicultural education.
Communicative competence.

Leonhard A. G. Voltmer is jurilinguist. He studied law in Munich and Paris,
Legal Theory in Brussels and Lund, and Romance Languages in Salzburg and
Munich. From 2001 to 2005 worked for the European Academy of Bolzano
(Italy) in terminology, translation and language normation. His experiences
in the computational linguistic treatment of multilingual legal data have
become a Ph.D. thesis at the University of Munich
(http://edoc.ub.uni-muenchen.de/archive/00003716/), which was awarded a
magna cum laude. Dr. Voltmer is increasingly involved in lecturing and has
given courses for all age groups. In 2006-07 he is teaching Intercultural
Mediation in Degree and Master Courses at the University of Trento, and
German at the School of Translators and Interpreters (SSLMIT) at Forli. Dr.
Voltmer's research agenda focuses on the combination of disciplines and
discourses: The dialogue between cultures (Intercultural Communication or
Mediation), between lawyers and laymen, between computational linguists and
language practitioners, and between the different scientific disciplines in
Legal Theory. For more details, visit his website at:

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