Beyond communicative competence

Language learning should be more cultured, says Michael Byram.

European flags“I learnt French at school but I can’t speak a word” was the frequent complaint of people who went to school in the 1950s and 1960s. They would complain that they only learnt grammar and translation. As a result, later generations have been introduced to Communicative Language Teaching, which has an emphasis on speaking and how to ‘get by’ in France (or Spain or Germany). It involves practising role-plays for shopping, booking a hotel or the like. To what extent students remember this much-practised formula is debatable, but language teaching has at least responded to the need to interest learners and be practical.

However, whether the approach is to focus on grammar or on communication, there is still the assumption that language can be learnt without connection to culture. The use of ‘authentic’ texts and role-plays introduces some factual information (much of it trivial) about the culture. But it is assumed that the language can be spoken or written, and above all that language use can be assessed in examinations, without reference to cultural knowledge or the skills of intercultural communication. In the business world, by contrast, companies ensure that their employees are prepared for the unexpected ways of living, doing business or enjoying free time that they find when working abroad, but often do so without paying sufficient attention to language competence. So we cannot find a solution here. It is evident that if learners are to use language for real purposes, they need to be both linguistically and culturally competent.

It is also obvious that even in today’s world, not all learners will become international workers. Languages are an obligatory part of the school curriculum so that language learning can ‘broaden children’s horizons’. This was the reason given to me by many of my students for why they were becoming teachers. And this aspiration is now articulated by those who write curricula and make policy statements, which often recognise the need for attention to ‘cultural awareness’, ‘intercultural understanding’ or some similar phrase. The problem is that teachers often feel they do not know how to teach this, or that since there is no assessment of it in examinations, it is not important in practice.

Over several decades I have developed an approach to language teaching (Byram, 1997) which helps teachers to identify the elements of intercultural competence for use in their lesson-planning and assessment.  It describes intercultural competence as having five elements:

  • curiosity and the willingness to see another person’s point of view, putting aside the assumption that what ‘we’ do is ‘natural’ and what ‘they’ do is ‘cultural’ and therefore strange
  • skills of understanding, through juxtaposing how ‘we’ live with ‘their’ way of living, thus gaining insight into other ways of life and a new external perspective on our own
  • skills which allow learners to make their own discoveries and to develop their own knowledge of others, especially when they interact with other people: knowing how to ask questions, analyse and draw conclusions
  • knowledge of some aspects of the culture of a country whose language they are learning, and of the social processes of intercultural communication: for example, the role of stereotypes and prejudice
  • the ability to evaluate and make judgements – as learners inevitably do in response to other ways of life – which are balanced and based on awareness of their own cultural standpoint, and which lead to critical reflection on what they have hitherto taken for granted.

These elements are the starting points for planning lessons and curricula.

The model has been cited and used in other countries, and in theoretical debates on intercultural competence in language teaching, but has had little effect in the UK. Teachers are still left with curricula which focus on language skills and, at best, with references to ‘awareness and understanding’ of a country whose language they teach. They still have no model which helps them to clarify what intercultural skills learners should be developing, and what they should be able to do at the end of their course, or even at the end of a lesson.

Michael Byram is Professor Emeritus in the School of Education at the University of Durham and guest professor at the University of Luxembourg.

References: 

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

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