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"Language Learning in Intercultural Perspective", edited by Michael Byram & Michael Fleming, ISBN 0-521-62559-9, published by Cambridge University Press, 1998, 310 pp

‘Culture’, it seems, is currently a hot issue in ELT. In a number of countries in Central and Eastern Europe (eg Bulgaria and Romania - already in use, the Czech Republic - nearly ready, Latvia, Lithuania - in the pipeline) there are curriculum or textbook projects; it was the subject of the lead article in the most recent issue of "Modern English Teaching"; at the MSSUA conference in Zlin, Czech Republic, in early September 1999, it was the topic of the keynote speech delivered by Simon Greenall, and a posting on ELTECS-L only a very short time ago, giving the results of a survey conducted amongst Polish secondary school teachers, showed near-unanimous support for the introduction of a British Studies element into their work. And so on.

As well as being hot, it is also hotly debated. This volume, whose co-editor Michael Byram is a leading authority in the field, is a recent (and, in my opinion, worthy) addition not only to the "Cambridge Language Teaching Library" series but also to the debate.

The subtitle "approaches through drama and ethnography", makes it clear which particular aspects of language and cultural learning are the chief focus of the book, which consists of a series of some fourteen papers springing from two seminars held in the mid-1990s at Durham University. Sandwiched between a concise and readable introduction, which does a good job of setting the scene, and fifteen pages of references that represent a goldmine for the reader interested in exploring the topic further, they are divided into three sections:

· Approaches through ethnography: learner perspectives
· Approaches through drama
· Approaches through ethnography: teacher and researcher perspectives

The collection kicks off in fine style with a compelling appeal by Claire Kramsch of the University of California at Berkeley for the replacement of a ‘native speaker’ norm by that of the ‘intercultural speaker’; this is a key concept, brought up in the introduction and echoed time and again, as is that of ‘cultural awareness’. Other papers in this first (and longest - six chapters) section reflect not only university but also secondary and workplace contexts and offer both considerable variety and a measure of disagreement; Chapter 4, a description of a university course in ethnography for modern language students intending to study abroad, offers an interesting contrast to Kramsch’s statement (p 31) that "the responsibility of the language teacher is to teach culture as it is mediated through language, not as it is studied by social scientists and anthropologists". One paper I found utterly (and surprisingly, too, given that half of it consists of statistical tables - not really my cup of tea as a rule) fascinating was the one by James Coleman of Portsmouth University, giving the findings of a longitudinal study of the attitudes of foreign language learners to "L2land" before and after residence there - I won’t spoil it for you by revealing the results, but it’s quite an eye-opener.

The five chapters in the drama section are likewise taken from diverse contexts in a number of countries, including both secondary and tertiary education as well as the theatre itself, in England, Germany, France and Ireland. What they do have in common, however, is that they are firmly grounded in practical experience, so that the theoretical points made are anything but abstract. That is not to say that they offer a recipe-style series of drama activities to take into the classroom (see below for a recommendation on this score), but if, on the other hand, it’s food for thought or inspiration that you’re after, then this section richly merits reading.

The final section, at a mere three chapters, is the briefest. Carol Morgan, in a paper on ‘cross-cultural encounters’, maps out factors that may lead to successful (or not) outcomes, while Karen Risager from Denmark considers four main approaches to language/culture teaching (‘foreign-cultural’, ‘intercultural’, ‘multicultural’, and ‘transcultural’), before Lies Sercu brings the book to a close with a detailed account of a weekend workshop to introduce Flemish teachers to the concept of intercultural competence and its relationship to language teaching, complete with rationale and a full description of all the activities involved.

This last chapter was something of a highlight for me in that it comes from a situation close to one I sometimes find myself in as a freelance in-service teacher trainer. But I found that even those chapters that reflect a reality very far from my own, such as  Antonia Cooper’s paper on ethnographic workplace communication research in Hong Kong (!), threw up gems of information and insight.

Four things this book is not:

1. It’s not purely an ELT book - it deals with language learning and draws examples not just from ELT but also the teaching of German, French, and other languages, something I see as a definite plus, as I feel ELT often spends rather too much time in a sealed environment of its own kidding itself it’s somehow separate from the rest of education;
2. It’s probably not something to read from cover to cover at one sitting but rather something to dip into over a period;
3. It’s not a monograph - if you’re looking for a concise introduction to the area then I recommend you try "Teaching-and-learning Language-and-culture", by Michael Byram, (pub 1994 by Clevedon: Multilingual Matters);
4. Nor is it a collection of ready-made classroom activities - possible sources of these include, on the cultural side, "Cultural Awareness" by Barry Tomalin and Susan Stempleski in the OUP Resource Books for Teachers series, and, for drama, either "Drama" by Charlene Wessels in the same series or "Drama Techniques" by Alan Maley and Alan Duff, in the Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers series.

What it is is a collection of highly stimulating and diverse papers.  It is definitely not just a book for teachers of drama and ethnography; I would strongly recommend it to anybody involved in language teacher education, whether pre- or in-service, as well as to any teacher of modern languages interested in the role of culture in the language classroom.

This review was originally published in the MSSUA Newsletter in Autumn 2000

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