One of the dilemmas of intercultural communication for the language teacher is that, on the one hand, we want to emphasize the complexity and diversity of cultural environments that we are looking at in the classroom, and at the same time we cannot deny that certain tendencies and cultural patterns exist. Conceptualizing culture within a pluriform society, with different sets of values, lifestyles, genders, political views and so on, can also easily fall prey to a similar essentializing of, what Holliday calls, ‘small cultures’ (2004: 63); describing such subcultures as consisting of people sharing a set of collective characteristics. This could still lead to learners thinking of culture or subculture as a fixed and bounded entity. It would be futile to think there are no differences between the way people live or make sense of their world, whether between different countries or groups within a country. But the most important thing is to recognize these patterns as tendencies which may be hard to pin down; with vague and fluid boundaries. As Blommaert said: the world is indeed full of differences, but these differences are not always there or are not always the same, and they are partly determined by unequal power relations (1998: 11).
As I set out in the previous chapter, foreign language teaching has had a take on culture (and on language) using somewhat stereotypical and stable notions of national culture. This is understandable to a degree, because, despite the fact we have all become part of a ‘larger global tribe’ (Appiah, 2006), national, and indeed sub-national realities, even as ‘imagined communities’ (Anderson, 1983), remain important in how people describe their complex cultural identities and subjectivities, as Holliday (2011) showed. In his study on this topic, he noted that nation is an ‘undeniable powerful source of identity, security, and belonging, but it is an external one which may be in conflict with more personal cultural realities’. We can also see this in books which take a comical look at a national culture and focus on stable notions of culture, e.g ‘The Undutchables’ (White and Boucke, 2006). These books are so popular and seductive precisely because the information they contain is so easily recognizable; we tend to recognize what we already know as it slots so easily into our existing mental schema. Coleman (1996) pointed out that students of German who spent time in Germany as part of their Residence Abroad scheme came back with all their ideas and stereotypes of Germany and the Germans confirmed.
In a recent survey of Dutch language teachers at Institutions for Higher Education worldwide, it was found that many teachers recognized the dilemma of not wanting to stereotype, yet felt that cultural information as part of language teaching is frequently about behaviour as part of a national culture. Teachers opted for giving cultural information accompanied by the warning: this is a generalization, but nevertheless there is a core of truth in it (Rossum and Vismans, 2006).
I would like to suggest that the ‘kernal of truth’ view can be just as limiting as the stereotypical view, as it pretends to recognize complexity, but still focuses on essential meanings. We need knowledge about another culture, but that knowledge must be looked at critically and must be placed in context. The kernal of truth view is dangerous because it perpetuates the idea of fixed cultures.
I will now turn to the implications for the classroom.