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Review of  An Intercultural Approach to English Language Teaching

Reviewer: Karma C. Dolma
Book Title: An Intercultural Approach to English Language Teaching
Book Author: John Corbett
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 16.925

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Date: Wed, 23 Mar 2005 14:26:18 -0800 (PST)
From: Karma C. Dolma
Subject: An Intercultural Approach to English Language Teaching

AUTHOR: Corbett, John
TITLE: An Intercultural Approach to English Language Teaching
SERIES: Languages for Intercultural Communication and Education 7
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
YEAR: 2003

Karma C. Dolma, Ed.D.


John Corbett presents in ''An Intercultural Approach to English Language
Teaching'' a theoretical examination of ELT (English language teaching)
paradigms and provides practical examples of intercultural teaching and
learning methods, techniques and strategies. The chapter topics which are
both succinct and comprehensive explore ELT pedagogy through a study of
casual conversations, written genres, ethnographies, literary studies,
media, visual and cultural pedagogies influence ELT theory, practices and


Chapter 1: An Intercultural Approach to Second Language Education
The first chapter provides a synopsis of significant trends in ELT in
different continents such as i) Linguistics in North America, Britain and
Australia, ii) Literary, Media and Cultural Studies and iii) The Rise of
British Studies. Some major trends are described and explained, such as
how linguistic interaction in the age of international travel, performance
and assessment standards based on the concept of communicative competence,
and cultural interaction have influenced the field of ELT. ELT programs
have different goals and therefore different curricula to meet those
teaching and learning goals. An intercultural ELT approach prioritizes
the need for a critical, multicultural curriculum which actively educates
and facilitates the construction of learners' personal and social
identities in the process of developing speaking, listening, reading and
writing skills.

Chapter 2: Implementing an Intercultural Approach
The second chapter major influences in ELT such as intercultural
competencies, academic and social benefits of intercultural learning, the
use of ethnographic research to implement ELT, issues in adapting
curriculum to situational learning needs, and designing tasks in an
intercultural classroom. Corbett draws on Byram's (1997) 'five savoirs'
which facilitates the development of intercultural skills in negotiation
and mediation. The intercultural curriculum utilizes ethnographic methods
and critical thinking to develop culturally contextualized knowledge.
Second, it motivates learners by making learning topics and activities
more complex, thereby challenging learners to build higher levels of
intercultural competencies. The 'five savoirs' provide a framework for
developing analytical, reflective and critical thinking skills. These
skills help English language learners acquire and negotiate intercultural
experiences in new social environments and help them position their social
identities through critical analyses and self reflection.

Chapter 3: Culture and Conversational English
Corbett describes ways to integrate intercultural ELT activities through
casual conversations in the classroom. Historically, Intercultural
Communication approaches have often overlooked a critique of socio-
politics such as race, gender and economic inequities between individuals
and groups of people. The ELT field challenges practitioners on how best
to integrate into its curriculum authentic cultural topics and activities
that provide opportunities for reflection and critique of both native and
target cultures. Casual conversations are difficult to analyze because of
its wide variations across cultures and complexities in language usage
that leads to multiple interpretations and implications, and therefore
different conclusions. Ethnographic methods developed by Hall (1999) and
Judd (1999:162) provide useful models for developing data analysis and
interpretations. Casual conversations often seem circuitous and
multidirectional in development but it provides authentic data on how
participants mediate self identities and group memberships. Conversation
genres include examples of talk during mealtimes, chat, stories in
conversations, storycapping, gossip, etc. The design of curriculum
materials should integrate the key characteristic that marks interactional
conversations, that is, the influence of power relations in shaping
cultural situations, and the influence of participants' identities and
roles in different casual conversations and cultural situations. Corbett
concludes this chapter with some useful guidelines on how to develop an
interactional syllabus to achieve both linguistic and humanistic goals.

Chapter 4: Culture and Written Genres
Corbett here provides a brief history of English for general and specific
purposes, how education systems and curricula differ, and development of
genre studies and its applications to an intercultural approach to
teaching writing skills in ELT. Linguistic genres cover three main
traditions of systemic-functional, applied linguistic and new rhetorical.
This chapter focuses on the genre of writing academic English in the
sciences. The genre-based approach accepts that language usage occurs in
social places and serves individual's cultural goals, thereby resulting in
the formation of different discourse communities which provide evidence of
shifting individual and group memberships. Writing is a formal genre since
it has to be taught to both native and second language speakers of
English. The process approach to writing is a favored method to develop
writing skills since it includes such strategies as writing through trial-
and-error, experiential knowledge and research, and developing writing
through re-writing, peer feedback, and accessing other writing skills
resources such as writing centers, language centers, and CALL

Chapter 5: Ethnographic Approaches to Culture and Language
This chapter provides a summary of the different uses of ethnographic
research methods in a variety of disciplines such as linguistics, cultural
studies, media studies and ELT education. The adoption of an
intercultural ELT approach requires most educational organizations to
provide teacher development and curricular changes. In addition, new
teaching practices and rationales also need to be introduced to learners
and other stakeholders who may be unfamiliar to an intercultural ELT
approach. The author provides useful examples of ethnographic activities
that can be used in the classroom and in more large scale educational
projects. Examples of intercultural ELT activities using small-scale
ethnographic research include concept training, making cultural
associations and cross-cultural comparisons, and problem identification
through analysis of critical learning incidents.

Chapter 6: Exploring Culture Through Interviews
Highlights here include some intercultural ELT perspectives in the use of
interviews, how to conduct interviews and analyze interview data.
Interviews are a source of cultural information and are gained through
direct interaction with native speakers in the community. Though speech
genres are imbedded in and are influenced by cultural influences, casual
conversations help elicit a variety of socio-cultural information such as
learner identities and group memberships whereas interviews are directed
to discovery of specific information. Corbett also describes briefly the
research process in conducting an ethnographic investigation based on
interviews with English language learners on how they apply speech genres
to present their selves through narration, comparison, or argumentation
with the purpose of mediating and constructing their identities through
culture specific situations. Intercultural activities using an interview
form help to identify and explore multiple cultural assumptions and
interpretations which are usually not expressed directly but emerge
through weaving conversational segue ways. Significant barriers to data
gathering are the influences of insider/outsider roles, cultural
assumptions and bias held by participants, the use of unintentional
leading questions, and the influences of unequal power relations and
contexts, all of which need to be explored in data analysis and
interpretation. Corbett recommends that speech content be given equal
importance to speech styles in interaction during the course of the
interviews and in recording interview data. Intercultural activities in
the classroom range from listening to taped interviews, analyses of
recorded data, and role-playing authentic real-life situations.

Chapter 7: Developing Visual Literacy
Visual literacy is defined through socio-economic knowledge and use,
linguistic purposes and textual presentations, and its applications in ELT
in developing countries. Visual literacy is the study of signs or
semiotics which serves to raise awareness of intercultural factors and
influences in ELT. The use of visual literacy in ELT has a long history
through its influences in developing reading, writing, listening and
comprehension skills in ELT. The traditional focus on developing 'content
learning' has shifted in the last decade to an emphasis on developing
skills such as critical thinking, discovery learning, and multiple
perspectives, interpretations and conclusions. Interpretation of visual
media requires the development of interpretive skills where visual
messages are decoded and a systematic means of linguistic and cultural
interpretations are developed. Skills needed to develop visual literacy
are identified as observation, interpretation, and critical cultural
awareness. It is important to develop analytical and interpretative
skills to understand the socio-cultural meanings and influences of the
symbols and images in the environment. The ease in which visual media
materials can be brought to the classroom and introduced to learners make
it a viable ethnographic learning resource. In addition, the influences
of western linguistic traditions as well as western popular culture on
visual media provide a framework for multicultural interpretations and
critical analysis. In developing countries, the English language is
generally associated with power, wealth, scientific advancement, glamour
and popular culture. However, media in developing countries also use
indigenous scripts and images as well as those inspired by local popular
culture. Corbett recommends that ELT curricula use visual images of
diverse people through an analysis of the relationships, associations,
significance, meanings, and interpretations they represent in both
popular, native and other sub-cultures.

Chapter 8: Using Literary, Media and Cultural Studies
Literary, media and cultural studies share some common methodologies,
practices and controversies, and these contribute to the field of
education and ELT. Discourse conventions include cultural texts such as
speech, writing, images, art, performance, etc. which inform learners of
specific discourse conventions and prompts exploration of how different
audience construct meanings and understandings. Interpretative
competencies can be developed by using Stuart Hall's (1980) model
of ''encoding-decoding'' of discourse production and reception to clarify
aims and outcomes of intercultural ELT activities. Corbett distinguishes
unmediated discourse as spontaneous conversations and interviews, and
mediated discourses as texts in cultural studies such as TV interviews and
sitcoms. Corbett illustrates how cultural texts can be incorporated into
ELT syllabus design. Gajdusek (1988) adapted MacDonald's and his
colleagues ''Four Phase Learning Cycle'' which include: pre-reading
activities related to the content, small group or pair question and answer
response activity, and small group discussions on key aspects of content
reading followed by sharing new information in a large group, with follow-
up activity of small group projects shared while in progress and on
completion. Corbett notes that research on this learning cycle has
provided evidence of a high degree of learner satisfaction and sense of
achievement. Developing learners' competencies in encoding-decoding,
semiotics and ethnographic methods provide useful tools in discovering,
analyzing and interpreting cultural texts in media.

Chapter 9: Assessing Intercultural Communication
The role of assessment in intercultural ELT consists of subjective and
objective test formats, and formative and summative assessments. Factors
to consider in determining learners' progress are test validity and
content validity on both languages and cultural knowledge being assessed.
Corbett reminds us that cultural rewards are often realized in the
classroom as well as reaped over time. Though Communicative ELT approach
is generally accepted, its assessment methods are still challenged.
Corbett has synchronized the book chapters to Byram's (1997) ''Five
Savoirs'' which are how interaction occurs in different contexts, how
images in literary media and cultural studies are interpreted and relate
to different types of information, critical reflection, and developing
open-minded inquiry to promote understanding and tolerance through
linguistic and intercultural studies in ELT.

Intercultural communication goals in language education emphasize the need
to increase language proficiency, gain factual and cultural knowledge,
promote acculturation, and mediate between different cultures. Test
formats include pre-tests, on-going assessment, and post-test at different
stages of the course. Tests may also combine both objective and subjective
types. Objective tests consist of multiple choices, true /false
questions, and short questions and answers. Difficulties in testing and
quantifying subjective tests and in combination subjective /objective
tests lie in differences in subjective judgments made by assessors.
Corbett provides a helpful guide on how teachers can test students on this
book by using the following test types:
i) identifying genres by grouping /justification;
ii) selecting appropriate language; examples are gap filling, cloze
exercise, and justification;
iii) transformation and rewriting tasks to produce genre specific texts,
editing test, rewriting and shifting genres;
iv) reflective essay tasks such as essays on personal experience,
different points of view, evaluating alternative systems, and describing
key characteristics;
v) role plays and simulations using conversations, interviews and
retelling stories; and
vi) student projects and portfolios which use formative, multiple skills
assessment, reflective writing, using media, literary and cultural images
to assess developmental progress and come to an accumulative summative

Formative assessments are used to provide student-centered guidance and to
assess on-going progress. These tests help increase student motivation
and collaboratively draw attention to their learning needs and strengths.
Corbett adds that cultural learning does not develop through a step-by-
step process, but falls into place metaphorically like a jigsaw puzzle,
through time and maturation of learners. Summative assessments provide an
overall or concluding assessment of what the student has learned at the
end of a term or period of education. Significant recent developments
include the efforts of Byram and his colleagues to develop assessments to
measure a 'threshold' for establishing intercultural competencies in
different contexts.

Chapter 10: Prospects for Teaching and Learning Language and Culture
The last chapter provides an overview of past and future directions for
intercultural ELT. Intercultural ELT approach is associated with the
works of Byram and his colleagues in Europe through the International
Association of Language and Intercultural Communication (IALIC) and
launching of the Journal for Language and Intercultural Communication. A
review of literature indicates that intercultural language education is
common in teaching languages other than English. Educational patterns
show that state institutions focus more on teaching English as the target
language compared to commercial institutions. Byram (1997B: 50) outlines
curricular goals for intercultural ELT approach with the following
assumptions and ethical implications that:
i) individuals relate to each other as equals,
ii) develop multiple and critical perspectives about one's native and host
iii) are willing to question one's and others values and assumptions, and
iv) readiness to engage in intercultural communications.

Though intercultural ELT is practiced more in liberal democratic societies
and less in totalitarian regimes, it is becoming popular in newly
liberalized societies, such as in Eastern Europe. Moral dilemmas in
introducing and continuing ELT in developing nations are the imperialistic
assumptions of status, power, glamour and marginalization of local
languages and cultures. Corbett notes that ''It would of course be facile
to say that intercultural language education can solve the problems of
global inequality'' though English language education does have the
potential to empower learners by giving them access to a broader
humanistic education. Intercultural ELT offers the development of English
language proficiency and multicultural competencies through critical and
reflective thinking, thereby enabling learners to make more informed
decisions in their lives. White (1988:24) describes intercultural ELT as
a 'neo-humanistic' approach which places respect for individuals and their
cultures at the heart of its enterprise where learners are empowered and
enriched by their education. Intercultural ELT provides a process to
better understanding individual and cultural diversity. Most importantly,
Corbett adds, it has the potential to make a modest contribution to
broadening individual perspectives and promoting open minds and


This text clearly channels language teaching through various cultural
contexts and emphasizes the need to switch from the traditional goal of
linguistic assimilation to learning English for lifelong learning and
survival needs. The clearly outlined presentation of topics and sub-
topics at the beginning of each chapter provide a useful visual guide.
Theories, concepts and examples culled from an array of multi-disciplinary
fields make reading this book interesting and lively and the prospect and
practice of ELT an exciting and challenging one.

The inclusion of some challenges that learners face provide a valuable
addition to intercultural ELT since theoretical literature on language
teaching often alienates learners and presents it generally from a
teaching perspective only. Secondly, critical ELT educators should aim
towards developing English language fluency for academic purposes or ESP
rather than furthering the notion of a fixed Standardized English since
the context for many English language learners is an international and/or
a culturally and linguistically diverse one. What intercultural ELT needs
then is an opening up of and reconceptualization of Standard English
towards a more broad-based goal of developing intercultural learners who
are knowledgeable, competent and fluent in English and its usage in
intercultural contexts.

This book takes the reader on a comprehensive and insightful tour of ELT
through three steps consisting of a historical, methodical and practical
approach to the uses of intercultural ways of learning in the English
language classroom. Each of the chapters provides a thoughtful study of
its topics and invokes and encourages further reading. This text is a
useful guide for orienting new teachers to the field of ELT and for added
reading for experienced ELT professionals.


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

Hall, J. K. (1999) The prosaics of interaction: The development of
interactional competence in another language. In E. Hinkel (ed.) Culture
in Second Language Teaching and Learning (pp. 137-51). Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

Judd, E. L. (1999) Some issues in the teaching of pragmatic competence. In
E. Hinkel (ed.) Culture in Second Language Teaching and Learning (pp. 152-
66). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hall, S. (1980) Encoding/Decoding. In S. Hall, D. Hobson, A. Lowe and P.
Willis (eds.) Culture, Media, Language (pp. 128-38). London: Hutchinson.

Gajdusek, L. (1988) Towards a wider use of literature in ESL. TESOL
Quarterly 22, 227-57.

MacDonald (2000) Strangers in a strange land: Fiction, culture, language.
In K. Seago and N. McBride (eds.) Target Language - Target Culture? (pp.
137-155). London: AFLS/CILT.

White, R. V. (1988) Introduction. In R.V. White (ed.) Academic Writing:
Process and Product (pp.4-16). London: British Council.

I graduated with an Ed.D. from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in
May 2001. I have been working in the field of ESL language teaching for
the past ten years, and more recently in ESL/EFL teacher training and
research. My research and teaching interests are ESL, SLA and
intercultural communication.

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