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The Intercultural Classroom

In this essay I will present the main content of two books attempting to
address the increasing need to acquire cultural and intercultural skills and
competence. I will focus on aspects of the two books which is relevant for my
profession as a teacher in an international secondary school in Trondheim,
and then go on to discuss to what extent the information given helps me
develop the necessary skills needed to be a modern language teacher.

The main target, or business, of Edward T. Hall and Mildred Reed Hall's book
Understanding Cultural Differences (1990) is namely to cater to Fig 1.
business travelers and people who engage in
cultural exchanges with Germans, French and/or
Americans. In this paper I will focus on the latter
as I am an English language teacher, and through
my presentation of the content of this book I will
focus on the first chapter, but refer to the focus
chapter on Americans. As the English cultural
sphere expands way beyond the American one it
is intercultural, or at least intracultural, in its
nature, and I would therefore deem the
importance of what is being presented by Hall
and Hall on Americans to be limiting in a world of 760 million speakers, or
users, of English (see fig. 1). The authors discuss many universal issues of
cultural differences which are still relevant today, although the book was
published almost 20 years ago, and the key concepts are highly applicable to
not only English-speaking cultures, but also other cultures.

Hall and Hall writes that "Culture is communication" and divide


communication into "words, material things and behavior", and they compare
culture to a giant, extraordinary complex subtle computer (Hall and Hall: 3). I
fall for the temptation to upgrade their metaphor. To understand culture and
how to interpret and assess it is as challenging as to navigate the world wide
web. For argument's sake one could argue that the skills necessary to surf
the internet critically is more or less the same skills necessary to traverse the
world's numerous cultures and communicative systems. How does one teach
these skills? In their introductory chapter "Underlying Structures of Culture"
Hall and Hall attempt to present some key concepts for the reader in order
to equip her for the challenge of deciphering the "complex, unspoken rules
of each language" (Hall and Hall: 4). The main concepts are context, space,
time, information flow, action chains and interfacing. I would deem them all
relevant for my work as a modern language teacher.

"Context is the information that surrounds an event; it is inextricably bound


up with the meaning of that event" (Hall and Hall: 6). Edward T. Hall
presents a scaling device in which all cultures can be compared in terms of
high or low contexts. High context (HC) communication is marked by the
fact that most of the information passing is already known by the involved
communicators, while low context (LC) communication is the opposite, "i.e.,
the mass of the information is vested in the explicit code" (Hall and Hall: 6).
Low-context cultures tend to "compartmentalize" their personal lives, which
in turns leads to the need for them to seek background information from the
people they interact with. On the other end of the scale high-context cultures
do keep up to date on the events in the lives of people who are important
to them. Examples of high-context cultures include Japanese, Arabs and
Mediterranean while low-context cultures include American, German, Swiss,
Scandinavian and other Northern European countries. Although this is a
rough generalization Hall and Hall are careful to point out that there exist
individual differences in the need for contexting, meaning "the process of
filling in background data" (Hall and Hall: 7). Perhaps the most notable
information given in regards to context is that "any level of context is a
communication" (Hall and Hall: 7). This of course is relevant for a L2 user of
English in an English-speaking culture, or for a L2 user of Japanse in Tokyo.
There are tremendous differences in relationships and to what extent it is a
high or low context communication which is taking place. "One of the great
communication challenges in life is to find the appropriate level of contexting
needed in each situation" (Hall and Hall: 9). This is intercultural knowledge.

Space. Hall and Hall defines space in the context of cultural differences as
involving territoriality, the gradations of personal space, the multisensory
spatial experience and the unconscious reactions to spatial differences.
Territoriality is basically a deeply rooted human characteristic related to
possession and ownership. One's house, one's office or one's car are all
examples of places one might have a strong sense of territoriality. Again,
there are considerably differences both on a cultural and individual level.
Personal space do also have varying gradations, and people's 'bubbles',
meaning the threshold of intimacy, tends to be large in Northern Europe
where people keep their distance to others while in Southern Europe the
communication taking place can be very intimate and hardly any distance
between the interlocutors. Interestingly, Hall and Hall mention the fact that
space is perceived by all our senses, and there are great cultural differences
in the "programming" of the senses (Hall and Hall: 11). This multisensory
spatial experience include auditory (listening), thermal (touching), kinesthetic
(muscles) and olfactory (smelling) space. An obvious example is the
perceived 'noise' of Mediterranean conversations for a Scandinavian ear.
Time. Time is interesting as it is often a cause for great distress, annoyance
and grudge for tourists and business travelers as they visit other cultures
than their own where the perception of time differs. Hall and Hall present
the division between monochronic and polychronic time. This is just a simple
classification as there are many time systems around the world, but they
can be roughly grouped in the two perceptions of time. Monochronic cultures
experience time as something linear, and is divided into segments which
requires it to be scheduled and planned. This allows for focus and
concentration on one task at the time. Schedules are important in
monochronic cultures, and might often take priority before anything else.
Hall and Hall make the interesting comparison between monochronic time
and money - as something tangible and measurable. Time can be 'wasted',
'spent' or 'lost'. Polychronic systems on the other hand are the complete
opposite. "There is more emphasis on completing human transactions, than
on holding to schedules" (Hall and Hall: 14). The focus on flexibility and the
ability to focus on "simultaneous occurrence of many things and by a great
involvement with people" characterizes polychronic cultures. Geographically,
Latin and Mediterranean cultures belong to the latter, while US and Northern
Europeans would characterize themselves as belonging to a monochronic
system. As mentioned, this is cause for a great deal of challenges for
Scandinavian or American tourists traveling to Mediterranean destinations, or
even further to Subsaharan countries where a polychronic time predominates.
Patience, then, is truly a virtue for the person with a monochronic time
system.

Time is a fascinating topic within cultural and intercultral discourse as it


is deeply embedded in a culture. Many misunderstandings arise from the
differences in perceptions of time. Polychronic cultures might be accused
of laziness, inclined to interrupt, noise and disruptive while monochronic
cultures are easily accused of being unfriendly, impersonal, too private and
reclusive. On a personal note I would again use the earlier introduced
upgrades metaphor of the internet when Hall and Hall write "Polychronic
people live in a sea of information" (Hall and Hall: 16) and that they prefer
to surround themselves with people and information. It is hard to live by
a monochronic time in global reality, although differences are still well
embedded in national cultures.

Furthermore, time affects the information flow and the exchanges of


information and whether it is 'in sync'. Rhythm, tempo and synchrony are
important components in communication, and obvious pitfalls for
interlocutors from different cultures with respectively monochronic and
polychronic systems. "When we take our own time system for granted and
project it onto other cultures, we fail to read the hidden messages in the
foreign time system and thereby deny ourselves vital feedback" (Hall and
Hall: 18). Knowledge of time systems are vital for seamless communication
and would embody undeniable prerequisites for the intercultural aware
person.

Interfacing. All of the discussed key concepts amount to five basic principles
presented by Hall and Hall which they choose to call cultural interfacing.
The degree of difficulty will increase if the context is higher, more complex,
distance greater and levels more abundant. However, very simple, low
context, highly evolved, mechanical systems tend to produce fewer problems
than the systems which require human talent for their success (Hall and Hall:
27).

Americans. In "Part 4: The Americans" Hall and Hall set out to describe
the cultural characteristics of Americans, which, considering the size of the
country and the population, is rather daunting and close to impossible.
Nevertheless, despite "its ethnic diversity, the U.S. has managed to absorb
bits and pieces of many cultures and weave them into a unique culture that is
strikingly consistent and distinct" (Hall and Hall: 140). For historic reasons are
many of the chief characteristics of the Northern American culture strongly
influenced by its roots in northern Europe or Anglo-Saxon culture. The chapter
discusses Americans' perspective on time, space, education, mobility and
work ethic, and creates a knowledge base important for English language
learners and users who will spend time in the US, or deal with American
nationals. I will return to particulars in my discussion later on. Hall and
Hall sum up their book at the end by reminding the reader "that culture
is many things, but it is primarily a system for creating, sending, storing,
and processing information" (Hall and Hall: 179). Understanding Cultural
Differences does present, prepare and equip the reader with the necessary
knowledge, but leaves the experience and the reflection to be explored.

Veien til interkulturell kompetanse


The world has gotten smaller, and coined expressions such as the 'global
village', the 'networked community' and other images giving the impression
of a smaller world have perhaps prompted the Norwegian book Veien til
interkulturell kompetanse by Henrik Bøhn and Magne Dypedahl, which has
a more updated and universal take on intercultural competence. In the
preface of the book the authors write "Hvis kunnskap om interkulturell
kommunikasjon kombineres med erfaring og refleksjon, er sjansene store
for at man får bedre interkulturell kompetanse" (Bøhn and Dypedahl, 6),
which roughly translates: If knowledge about intercultural communication
is combined with experience and reflection, the possibilities for a better
intercultural competence are greater (my trans.). If one could sum up the
main message of the book it is the mantra of how intercultural competence is
developed through knowledge, experience, and reflection or attitudes.
The 11 chapters all begin with various scenarios from everyday life including
exchanges from hospitals, business meetings, diplomatic encounters and
exam situations - the recurring theme being confusion and 'loss of face' due
to lack of intercultural competence. Intercultural competence is needed in
most situations in today's society, but it is perhaps the school's mandate and
challenge to teach intercultural competence to equip students for a global
'networked society'? Key components to intercultural competence according
to Bøhn and Dypedahl are mutual understanding and respect. Is it possible to
teach respect and attitudes in a language classroom?

Again, the book opens and concludes with the trinity of knowledge,
experience and reflection, but spends considerable time on presenting and
discussing concepts such as etnocentrism, multiperspectives, cultural
relativism, stereotypes, prejudices, tolerance, verbal and non-verbal
communication, perceptions, value systems, honor, conscience and
adaptability. All of these discussed concepts are more or less components of
knowledge, but can only be reflected upon during and following experience of
culture.

Perhaps the most interesting point made by Bøhn and Dypedahl is presented
in the final chapter. It is not revolutionary, and has been part of intercultural
discourse for decades, but nonetheless it is an important one. Finding a
'mellomposisjon', or a 'third place' (Kramsch 1993: 233) requires the
knowledge of the mentioned concepts as well as the personal experiences
which one can apply the knowledge to, and then in turn reflect upon one's
practices and perspectives.

This 'third place', or 'mellomposisjon', is yet another position, or perspective,


and early on in Bøhn and Dypedahl's book they discuss the interesting
topic of multiperspectives. In order to attain such a position it requires
training and experience to see the world from different perspectives (Bøhn
and Dypedahl 16). One of the most substantial problems in intercultural
communication is the assumption that others are like us (16). People do
have different views of the world and differences in values, norms, traditions,
habits and a range of preferences for how communication should take place
(16). Bøhn and Dypedahl call for a constructive dialogue which leads to
'perspektivflytting', or shifts in perspective, ideally, if I have understood
it correctly, a multiperspective. This is a lifelong process and can only be
acquired through experience and reflection according to the authors of Veien
til interkulturell kompetanse.

The most relevant and interesting points of the authors' discourse in the book
are perspectives, context and communication. If I have to focus on skills to
teach in the language classroom in an intercultural framework I would choose
these.

Perspectives. We all perceive the world differently, on a personal level based


upon our values, norms, background, and experiences, but also on a cultural
level based upon where we have been raised and lived our lives. All of
these components embodies a persons' views of the world, and it will always
be biased. "It gives us a flooring to view and assess what is good, right,
desirable, positive and necessary" (Bøhn and Dypedahl: 52) (my trans.) This
in turn leads to a perception of the world, and a perception is described as
the process in our brains which takes place as a result of our observations
and how we interpret them in such a way that they give meaning to us
(Bøhn and Dypedahl: 52). Our perceptions are seen through a kulturelt filter,
cultural filter, which means that our interpretation of our observations are
colored by our cultural background of internalized values, assumptions and
comprehension (Bøhn and Dypedahl: 55). Interestingly, the authors use the
Norwegian school as an example of kulturbærere, or cultural transferrals (my
trans.) which transfers values such as gender equality, democracy and the
individual's rights. This of course, is of great importance for a Norwegian
student who travels abroad. Naturally, it is important to add that there are
a distinction between partly individual personal traits, cultural characteristics
and universal human traits. It might not be easy to distinguish the three
levels of influences in one's perspective of the world, but it should perhaps
be obligatory to teach this knowledge and create an awareness of the
learner's perspective in order to understand the relationship between different
perspectives which can be vital for reflection and developing an awareness of
"the other".

Relevance
Bøhn and Dypedahl understand 'intercultural competence' as an ability to
communicate with people of different cultural backgrounds than their own.
This requires a combination of knowledge, skills and attitudes (Bøhn: 152).
I strongly believe this combination to be my mandate as a modern language
teacher. Students need to be taught about stereotypes, cultures,
communication styles, verbal and non-verbal communication as well as
values (Bøhn and Dypedahl: 153). This embodies the basic knowledge of the
target culture, in my case English, and involves both national cultures as well
as subcultures as pointed out in figure 1 earlier.

I believe as a modern language teacher one can teach skills and to some
extent attitudes, or perhaps more precisely facilitate and accommodate for a
learning environment based upon basic human virtues such as respect for one
another. This is particularly true being an international school with a range
of students coming from a different background than a Norwegian. What
the students might lack in knowledge and reflection they do make up for in
personal experience and herein subconscious and dormant knowledge.

How then does a modern language teacher teach the necessary skills to
interpret and make sense of the students' experience? The core skills can be
defined to be respect and responsibility for one's own culture and develop a
skill of self-reflection. (Byram?) As both the Norwegian (L1) and English (L2)
language teacher in a small school I do have the benefit of making these
skills omnipresent in my lessons and in my communication with the students.
Furthermore, I would list skills such as listening, assessment and reflection
in relation to personal perspective, the others' perspective, context and
communication awareness. One might argue that these are universal skills in
the formation of a young person, or as the Norwegian noun 'dannelse', or the
German 'Bildung', would more accurately define. Skills which are necessary
to become an independent thinking, critical and reflective citizen of the
world. Although this rings true I still think the language classroom presents
unique opportunities to teach such skills and facilitate an environment for the
students to develop sound attitudes to their own culture, their peers' and
perhaps more importantly, beyond the classroom.

The modern language teacher is able to teach knowledge and help students
to train their skills for reflection and hence equip them with necessary skills.
As mentioned earlier, the ability to assess situations and decipher contexts
to communicate appropriately and at the appropriate level is intercultural
knowledge. To find a 'third place', or a 'mellomposisjon', and treat other
cultures, in my case, the English-speaking world, with the appropriate respect
tuned to the context is a refined skills, which starts in the language
classroom.

The language classroom itself has been criticized for not being an authentic
arena for developing cultural and communicative knowledge with textbook
examples and artificial dialogues. In my case, this is not true, as the target
language is part of all instructions in all subjects (except Norwegian) as well
as part of colloquial speech in between classes. Experience, therefore, does
also start in the classroom. Treating each other with respect and acquiring the
valuable experience by putting the students in authentic learning situations in
order to focus on developing their metaknowledge about communication and
culture which in turn will contribute to the establishment of an intercultural
competence. This development will continue throughout life, through the
students' travels and adventures abroad and at home as they socialize with
other people with other backgrounds and other values and norms. Bøhn and
Dypedahl stress the fact that intercultural competence always can be refined
and developed further as it is impossible to acquire all the knowledge needed
to comprehend other people's situations fully (Bøhn and Dypedahl: 158).
Experience requires reflection and again this is part of the modern language
teacher's responsibility. To equip the students with the necessary skills for
reflecting on their experiences it is helpful to provide them with what Bøhn
and Dypedahl presents as 'refleksjonsknagger', or markers for reflection.
Understanding other peoples' set of thinking can either be explained by the
conditions which are universal, cultural or individual (Bøhn and Dypedahl:
31). Teaching 'markers for reflection' can create tools and skills for the
students to develop reflective ability which is crucial for intercultural
competence. It is important, as the Norwegian authors point out, that our own
integrity is not threatened by multiperspectivity or intercultural sensitivity
(Bøhn and Dypedahl: 33). Understanding one's own perception of culture in
the context of etnocentrism and taking the important 'third positition' is an
important component of the intercultural competence.

Conclusion

The art of teaching is not only passing on information and knowledge, but
quite possibly more importantly to equip students with the appropriate tools
and necessary skills to use the knowledge they acquire and will continue to
accrue throughout life. Skills to interpret and comprehend contexts, seeking
out different perspectives and ideally taking the role of the respectful,
responsible and reflective person who engages in constructive and empathic
dialogues with other people and aim not to necessarily to agree, but to be
amazed and interested and acquire more experience to add to the lifelong
learning which is increasingly important in a global reality. One of the
perceptions of communication is 'to do something together', which does
means that it is more important to create a constructive dialogue for mutual
understanding rather than pass one-way information (Bøhn and Dypedahl).
The constructive dialogue is, in my opinion, the goal for every lesson in the
intercultural classroom.
Understanding Cultural Differences. Hall and Hall. Intercultural Press 1990
Veien til interkulturell kompetanse. Bøhn og Dypedahl. Fagbokforlaget 2009