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Background to the Study

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    When I started this study in the late 1990s, the theoretical field of intercultural communication as part of language teaching had only just started to develop. The idea that the notion of the Intercultural Speaker should replace that of the ‘native speaker’ as the aim of language learning was only posed in 1997 by Byram and Zarate. At the university where I worked, language teaching was at many language departments still largely grammar and translation based with an assumption that students should achieve the level of ‘near-native speaker’ competence upon graduation. The underlying educational principles in language departments were rooted in the liberal Arts and Humanities with their emphasis on critical and rigorous thinking, objectivity, and the notion of ‘high’ culture. The texts which were used for reading and translation in language teaching were challenging in their intellectual content, but the actual pedagogy did not emphasize communication in the foreign language in real-life situations.

    As I set out in Chapter 1, outside the institutions adhering to liberal education, the grammar-translation approach was, justifiably in my opinion, recognized as outdated. A contrasting approach, that of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), was favoured at universities with less traditional language departments or at Language Centres attached to universities. The content of these latter courses was originally developed with exchanges in typical tourist situations in mind, but this was soon incorporated into the new educational paradigm of instrumentalism which was gaining significance in HE.

    Contemporary published language teaching materials for Dutch, such as Code Nederlands (1992, 1996) strictly followed the principles of the functional notional syllabus with its bite-size approach to memorizing phrases to perform language functions such as asking for directions or ordering in a restaurant. Unlike the grammar-translation approach, the pedagogy of CLT was informed by general theories of language acquisition and learning. The strength of this approach, clearly, was that students learned to communicate in everyday situations and were familiar with appropriate phrases in a range of contexts. Students would be more likely to use ‘authentic’ language expressions within these set contexts. However, as a language teacher, I felt equally dissatisfied with this approach because of its lack of structure and linguistic underpinning on the one hand, and the reductive content focusing on pragmatic language exchanges only, on the other.

    It would seem an obvious solution to integrate the positive aspects of each of these approaches into one syllabus, i.e. integrating the learning of grammatical structures in relation to communicative language functions, and, in addition, adding more interesting ‘cultural’ content. Indeed before embarking on the study for this book, in the mid to late 1990s, I had developed the second and fourth-year language courses at the department where I taught. My brief had been to ‘improve the language skills’ of students. The principles that influenced my courses at that time were informed by, amongst others, Wilkins’ notion of the semantico-grammatical category [1] (1976), Hawkin’s (1984) notion of language awareness as a meta-linguistic construct, and views of language as ‘discourse’ in the sense of the units of language which contribute to coherent texts, i.e. the ‘traditional’ applied linguistics view of discourse. I wanted students to develop their language competence and skills both at the level of social interpersonal communication as well as at the level of academic and cognitive language use; the areas that Cummins (1979) refers to as BICS (basic interpersonal communicative skills) and CALP (cognitive academic language proficiency).

    In practice, this meant that in my courses I focused on the integration of form, function, text structure, text coherence, and cohesion. But in addition, I also introduced an element of critical thinking in the courses, particularly in the fourth-year language course. At that time I had not conceptualized criticality either as ideology critique, or as ‘discursive mapping’ (see Chapter 3), but instead conceptualized critical thinking to mean scrutinizing argumentation for its logical interplay of ideas in texts and being able to write logical and cogent arguments. In the initial syllabus for the fourth year language course then, I included a range of language activities focusing on ‘heavyweight’ topics such as the political and ethical principles of the various Dutch media or the political ideals and historical influences which were embedded in the current arts policy of the Dutch government.

    The initial results of this course (developed in the mid-1990s) suggested that students’ language and writing skills improved in the sense that they showed a greater competence in writing cohesive and coherent texts than was previously the case. They also showed an awareness of the reader (albeit a universal one) in writing reader-friendly prose [2]. Yet, I was still not satisfied with the course and its learning outcomes; the students’ writing lacked authenticity and engagement. I realized that this was due to the fact that they were not able to understand, and certainly not produce, the subtle and connotative cultural meanings in language use. Students were quite capable of comprehending the surface meaning of texts and recognizing stylistic points such as the degree of formality or informality of a text, but they tended not to respond to more subtle or specific cultural meanings. Nor were they able to produce language themselves incorporating these subtle or cultural meanings. Moreover, the texts that I exposed students to covered - due to the nature of the topics, mainly one register: that of the ‘quality newspaper’ or popular academic article. I realized that in my desire to provide a high standard university course encompassing critical thinking, I had unwittingly interpreted the notion of content and culture as couched in the liberal humanist ideology: culture as the ‘better’ products of intellectual thinking. And in having done so, students received a one-sided and value-based view of language and text as needed to adhere to certain standards.

    This page titled Background to the Study is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Gerdi Quist (Ubiquity Press) .

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