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Foreign Language Teachers and Intercultural Competence: An International Investigation

reviewed by Rui Bai - 2006

coverTitle: Foreign Language Teachers and Intercultural Competence: An International Investigation
Author(s): Lies Sercu
Publisher: Multilingual Matters, Clevedon
ISBN: 1853598445, Pages: 219, Year: 2005
Search for book at Amazon.com

One of the pervasive effects of accelerating globalization is that a nation or a society is becoming more and more multilingual and multicultural. In the domain of education, many countries have invested tremendous resources in foreign language education to meet the need for intercultural understanding. However, the traditional approach to foreign language teaching views culture teaching as an adjunct or secondary priority. In this approach, foreign language teachers devote their efforts and time mainly to honing students linguistic competence at the expense of their intercultural competence development, due to teachers insufficient knowledge of other cultures and different perceptions of or attitudes towards the foreign culture(s). Even when some foreign language teachers are more or less aware of the importance of intercultural competence teaching, research on intercultural competence teaching can facilitate their work by making them cognizant of the objectives, means, content, and other aspects of such work. The edited volume, Foreign Language Teachers and Intercultural Competence: An International Investigation, represents a research effort in this direction.

The collection of papers in the volume jointly reports on a quantitative research project investigating how foreign language teachers perceive intercultural competence teaching and whether current teaching practices match those expected of an effective foreign language and intercultural competence teacher. Teachers responses were collected by means of an English-medium online questionnaire. A total of 424 foreign language teachers from seven European countries responded to the questionnaire. Analysis reveals two distinct foreign language teacher profiles: those favorably disposed towards intercultural competence teaching and those unfavorably disposed towards intercultural competence teaching. A major finding of the project is that even those favorably disposed teachers fall short of the expectations for an effective foreign language and intercultural competence teacher. The data also show that the foreign language teachers practices did not necessarily follow from their beliefs and perceptions.

The opening chapter, Teaching Foreign Languages in an Intercultural World by Lies Sercu, begins with a brief discussion of why foreign language education should be interculturally oriented. The concept of intercultural competence advanced draws on Byrams (1997) conceptual framework which consists of five saviors, five types of cultural knowledge, to facilitate the development of intercultural competence. Communicative competence is suggested by Sercu as a sixth savoir. Building on and expanding Byrams work, Sercu offers a brief description of the expected characteristics of a foreign language/intercultural competence teacher. A brief description of the project is also provided.

Chapter 2, Objectives of Foreign Language Teaching and Culture Teaching Time by Paloma Castro and Lies Sercu, analyzes the teachers perceptions of the objectives of foreign language education, of culture teaching in a foreign language teaching context and of the time they (would like to) devote to culture teaching. The findings reveal that the majority of the teachers surveyed appeared to regard the most important objectives of foreign language teaching as developing the ability in their students to use the foreign language for practical purposes and motivating their students to learn foreign languages. Time devoted to language teaching was reported to outweigh that for culture teaching.

Phyllis Ryan and Lies Sercus chapter, Familiarity and Contacts with Foreign Cultures, is a report of the teachers familiarity with the target foreign language culture and their frequency of travel to the target culture. Although the teachers regarded themselves as being sufficiently familiar with the culture of the target foreign language(s), it is important to be cautious because of the potential gap between the teachers perceptions and their actual practices.

Chapter 4, Pupils Culture-and-Language Learning Profile by María del Carmen Méndez García and Lies Sercu, investigates the teachers perceptions of their pupils general disposition towards learning the foreign language and culture, their ideas about the countries and people who speak the foreign language they were learning, and their contacts with the target culture. Such perceptions can play a very important role in pedagogical decision making. However, as the authors caution the perception data are limited. One might argue whether the teachers perceptions gave the true picture. Further perception data from pupils might have helped answer this question.

Ewa Bandura and Lies Sercus chapter, Culture Teaching Practices, reports on the types and frequency of culture teaching activities as well as the amount of time devoted to different cultural topics in the teachers classrooms. A notable strength of this chapter is that the authors try to interpret and discuss their findings in relation to the other chapters. In this way, the different dimensions of the research project reported in the book are integrated.  For example, the authors try to establish a link between the teachers beliefs and perceptions examined in the previous chapters and their teaching practice analyzed in this chapter. The latter is also compared with the findings in chapter 9 regarding teachers familiarity with particular aspects of the foreign culture.

Chapter 6, Culture in Foreign Language Teaching Materials by Leah Davcheva and Lies Sercu, looks at the teachers use of textbooks, choice of textbooks and criteria for textbook selection, opinions about the cultural content of the textbooks in use, and reasons for using additional materials. The teachers views and actual practices in these areas are investigated and compared. The findings show that although teachers across the seven countries did not regard textbooks as enormously useful, various textbooks were nonetheless used extensively as primary teaching materials and for a variety of reasons. The majority of the teachers were more or less satisfied with the cultural contents of their textbooks. They did use additional materials to address the perceived problems with the cultural information of the textbooks.

Chapter 7, Experiential Culture Learning Activities: School Trips and Exchange Projects by Chryssa Laskaridou and Lies Sercu, addresses out-of-classroom work in the area of intercultural competence teaching and the teachers views about the possible effects of school trips and exchange projects on their pupils perceptions of the foreign cultures, countries, and people speaking the target foreign language.  Their findings suggest that the teachers saw the value of these initiatives mainly in terms of exposure to the target language for their pupils, though they were more or less aware of the potential of the activities for intercultural competence learning.

Chapter 8, Opinions Regarding Different Facets of Intercultural Competence Teaching by Lies Sercu, is a short chapter exploring the teachers opinions about the different facets of instructional work aimed at developing intercultural communicative competence in pupils. Analysis indicates that more commonality than disparity is found among the teachers with respect to each facet investigated.

Chapter 9, The Foreign Language and Intercultural Competence Teacher by Lies Sercu, examines consistency in the teachers perceptions and classroom practices and the relationship between the two. Two distinct teacher profiles are drawn: the favorably disposed teacher and the unfavorably disposed teacher. The conclusion drawn by the author is that the teachers were in the process of moving towards becoming foreign language and intercultural teachers.

The final chapter, written by Lies Sercu, profiles the current practices in foreign language and intercultural competence teaching, compares the findings reported in the book with those documented in the literature on teacher beliefs about and conceptions of intercultural competence teaching, and offers recommendations for professional development, educational policy, and research.

Overall, this volume is well organized. However, a major problem with it is the singular research approach adopted for this research project: a questionnaire-based quantitative research methodology.  The exclusive reliance on the questionnaire does not serve the aims of this book very well. A project of this sort would be better off employing a multiple methods approach. For example, a qualitative approach would have provided more comprehensive insights into and situated the interpretations of the teachers convictions and concerns regarding language teaching in general and intercultural competence teaching in particular. As a matter of fact, the lead author also recognizes the advantages that a qualitative approach would have brought to this study.

Another problem that I have with this volume is the insufficient background information provided. Chapter 1 is a case in point. One would expect this opening chapter to provide a clear orientation on the issues to be investigated, for example, in the form of a comprehensive overview of the field, so as to prepare the readers better for understanding the following chapters. However, this is not the case with the chapter. The same problem can be found in the subsequent chapters as well: relevant research findings and discussions in the field could have been referred to in relation to the findings, interpretations, and discussions in each chapter.

The above comments notwithstanding, this book provides a useful opportunity for individual teachers to reflect upon their own perceptions and teaching practices in comparison with teachers working elsewhere. The research findings provide a starting point for foreign language teachers to exchange ideas and to learn from each other.


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

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 8, 2006, p. 1589-1592
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12266, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 7:40:29 AM

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About the Author
  • Rui Bai
    Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
    E-mail Author
    RUI BAI is a Research Associate at National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His research interest includes learning strategies, second language acquisition, and TESOL/TEFL.
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