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The Common European Framework

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    The Common European Framework of References for Languages (CEFR for short) was commissioned by the Council of Europe and published in 2001. Even though it is to a large extent based on Byram’s notion of intercultural communicative competence (see chapter 3), it cannot be completely attributed to him, as the CEFR is a consensus document between the various member states of the EU. In fact, as Risager points out, many of Byram’s recommendations, particularly those on intercultural competence, were not included in the final document (2007: 115). The CEFR provides guidelines for teaching, learning, and assessment and does not suggest particular teaching methodologies. Instead, it consists of a taxonomy of the skills that learners should possess at certain levels of study. The CEFR arose as a consequence of the mobility schemes which were set up by the Council of Europe and which followed the removal of trade restrictions in the European market. These mobility programs encouraged exchanges between staff in areas of governmental and non-governmental organizations in health, social care, education, and other professional domains. To facilitate this movement, the CEFR was set up to encourage language learning, to provide parity in language provision across the EU to prepare people linguistically as well as mentally for the intercultural experiences that mobility would bring. It is an extremely comprehensive document which describes in detail what competencies, skills, and knowledge learners of a foreign language ought to possess at a particular level and in a particular domain.

    The emphasis in the document is on language skills, although attention is also given to sociolinguistic aspects which stems from an instrumental rationale: one cannot be an effective ‘intercultural’ or ‘cross-cultural communicator’ without having at least a basic understanding of the social patterns and values in society as these are reflected in the way that people communicate. It relates to culture as communication. For this reason, sociolinguistic information is provided to develop an awareness of prevailing communication strategies and customs (shaking hands when greeting, degrees of directness in expressing intent, etc.). This is what Canale and Swain (1980: 30, 31) called ‘sociolinguistic’, ‘strategic’ and ‘discourse’ competence.

    In addition to linguistic and sociolinguistic competencies, there is a cultural dimension in the CEFR, which is referred to as ‘intercultural awareness’, although the emphasis is on language skills rather than on cultural aspects. An important aspect of this awareness is ‘objective knowledge of the world’ in respect of the country in which the language is spoken. This includes information about areas such as everyday living (e.g. food, hobbies, celebrations), living conditions (e.g. welfare arrangements), interpersonal relations (e.g. family structures, race relations, relations between genders), values, beliefs and attitudes, body language, social conventions (regarding, for instance, punctuality, gift-giving, dress, and taboos), and finally ritual behaviour regarding, for instance, religious celebrations, birth and death, festivals and so on (CEFR, pp101-130).

    Whilst the CEFR acknowledges that intercultural awareness should be seen in a wider sense than the context of the L1 and L2 cultures, it also emphasizes that learners should be aware of ‘how each community appears from the perspective of the other, often in the form of national stereotypes’ (CEFR, p.103).

    Even though the CEFR document does not make reference to its particular perspective on culture, the view which emerges from the CEFR seems to be partly based on a similar view of culture as underpinning Landeskunde: culture as knowledge. But its inclusion of attitudes and values with regards to a range of areas in daily life, suggests that Geertz’s (1973) symbolic and interpretive view of culture as ‘historically transmitted patterns of meaning […] by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life” (Geertz 1973: 89) may also have informed the CEFR.

    The CEFR has undoubtedly advanced the notion of culture pedagogy as part of language teaching by introducing a considered list of the wider aspects of cultural knowledge that it considered students should possess. But in practice, at least in contemporary Dutch language courses (cf. Contact, 2010), the cultural dimension is limited to a few reading texts about topics such as the geographical situation of Flanders, or information about everyday habits such as customs and conventions regarding food or celebrations. The rest of the course is solidly based on a functional approach to language teaching; arguably a more considered inclusion of the cultural dimension of the CEFR would have been a step forward.

    The focus on everyday life in the CEFR gives the potential to include an ethnographic element into language courses; a self-reflexive awareness of the political, cultural, and social influences to which learners subjected themselves in their everyday experiences and realities. However, this possibility is not emphasized and the CEFR’s treatment of the cultural dimension of everyday life is superficial. It does not encourage reflection beyond a comparing of everyday living practices with the learners’ ‘own’ culture. A national perspective of culture is taken, which links the foreign language to an essentialized idea of ‘the’ target culture and does not allow for a critical understanding of the complexities of cultural realities such as power inequalities, differences in role or status, and the ‘lived experience’ occasioned by the complex and fluid cultural identities and subjectivities of people. It tends to represent culture as homogenous and stable and reduces culture to facts and information. This can provide students with pragmatic and useful information, but it also brings with it the danger of reinforcing, or even creating, unchallenged stereotypical images.

    Despite the influence it has on language teaching in Europe, Risager only mentions the CEFR in passing in her overview of language and culture pedagogy (2007: 143); ‘its conception of the relationship between language and culture, and that between language teaching and culture teaching [in the CEFR], is unclear and without theoretical foundation’, she states. Yet, the CEFR informs many language courses in Britain and seems a force to stay.

    Whilst I think an element of knowledge about the target country needs to be addressed in language pedagogy, it should not present culture in a bounded, stable, and one-dimensional way, as that will not provide the enabling of an intellectual critical development in the students. This brings us again to the issue of criticality.

    This page titled The Common European Framework is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Gerdi Quist (Ubiquity Press) .

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