Intercultural competence and early foreign language learning

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In 1966, the American linguist, Howard Lee Nostrand, stated with regret: “Enlightened language teaching today shows gratifying progress in all its component parts except one: the teaching of the foreign cultural context”. According to him, foreign language learning could never truly succeed unless teachers paid as much attention to the cultural content of learning as to the linguistic content. Of the same opinion was the British educator H.H. Stern who in 1968 complained about the neglect of foreign languages in most primary schools and demanded: “If education is to reflect the realities with which we live, other languages and other cultures should impinge on children from the earliest stage of formal education”. Thirty years have passed since these statements were made and it must be admitted that notable progress has been made in the cultural areas of language learning. Cultural Studies have become an integral part of most languages programmes and the teaching of foreign languages has been introduced to the primary curriculum in a great number of countries. But still, the cultural aspects are only taken seriously at secondary level. There are not many theorists who have come to the conclusion that the need for cultural learning arises at the very beginning of formal education. The final report of the “Language Learning for European Citizenship” project, presented in Strasbourg 1997 by the European Centre of Modern Languages (ECML) of the Council of Europe, lists a number of priority areas that need intensive consideration:

  1. Learning to learn
  2. Linguistic competence
  3. Intercultural competence
  4. Communication technology
  5. Assessment
  6. Bilingual education

These areas are of equal importance, however, I would like to focus on the intercultural matter. First, what is intercultural communicative competence? We can say it is the ability to integrate the hitherto disparate cognitive, pragmatic and attitudinal domains of FL learning and regard them as components of one comprehensive whole. The knowledge of other cultures and languages, the competence to perform speech, and the attitudes of open-mindedness and tolerance are no longer separate individual skills but interdependent. Some researchers of the ECML have developed a model of intercultural communicative competence that includes:

  •  Knowledge
  • Attitudes
  • Skills
  • The ability to learn

All except the last one correspond to the three domains of education mentioned above. Knowledge represents the traditional notion of cultural reference, considering the special needs of learners in their interaction with speakers of other languages. Attitudes can be developed in the context of one particular language although they can be transferred to other cultural systems. Skills refer to the ability to combine the aforementioned skills in a situation of bi- or multicultural contact. It implies the appropriate use of academic knowledge within the intercultural frontiers of a non-educational setting. The demands in these passages are justified in terms of political and educational needs. These abilities to be acquired should not be restricted to situations that have to do with the language students are learning. They should be learnt with universal orientation. It is the competence of communication with people of other cultures that intercultural education has to aim at.

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