This extremely slim volume is one of quite a lengthy series produced by CILT (the Centre for Information on Teaching and Research) for language teachers. Not English teachers, note, but language teachers, which is why it contains illustrative examples not only in English but also German, French, Spanish and Italian. Perhaps at this point I should point out that not being able to speak these languages represents no problem at all for the potential reader; my Spanish is non-existent and my Italian would cover a postage stamp if the handwriting was big; the texts in these languages are provided purely as real-life practical illustrations of points being made. Of which more anon.
I do think that the intended readership of this book is significant. ELT, it seems to me, is frequently rather prone to living in a world of its own. Despite the self-professed eclecticism which has led to its espousal of insights and ideas from all sorts of fields, it still seems curiously divorced from much of mainstream education. In some ways this is understandable; it clearly is different from a lot of other subjects taught at schools and universities, but on the other hand I suspect there is a great deal it can learn from them. Ideas such as discovery learning, task-based learning, and hands-on experience, currently fashionable in ELT, would certainly not strike many teachers, in the British system at least, of subjects such as history, biology and physics, as very novel.
Similarly, in the case of other foreign languages, I have long felt that there are rather more opportunities for cross-fertilisation than are usually taken up. A case in point is that of intercultural learning, which in recent years has grown to play an increasingly major role in mainstream ELT, perhaps particularly at secondary level. Modern language teaching, I would argue, has a lot to offer us in this realm. Michael Byram’s work on such areas as notions of intercultural competence, cultural learning, and school visits to ‘L2land’, for instance, is firmly rooted in the teaching of modern European languages, especially French.
Which is where "Exploring Otherness" comes in. In the Introduction we are told that "this book seeks to encourage an attitude of openness towards others", a laudable aim that echoes one of the key goals of ‘intercultural competence’ as defined by Byram and others.
Basic principles - the importance of awareness, the provisional nature of descriptions of otherness, an explicitly comparative-contrastive approach, the crucial role of evidence, the need for the learners themselves to collect this, the need to develop the skill of weighing evidence, and the importance of real communication in the target language, are emphasised both in three short sections at the start of the book and in a Conclusion.
What lies between these takes the form of descriptions of a number of classroom projects which endeavour to put these principles into practice. Twenty of these, on topics such as ‘comparisons between traditional festivals’, ‘here is where we live’, and ‘a foreign language day’, are presented in recipe format, divided into sections outlining aims, materials required, possible tasks and, in some cases, examples taken from real classes’ realisations of the projects. There is also a rather more detailed description of another project, initiated through a Council of Europe workshop, that involved schools throughout Europe sending one another shoeboxes of materials (tourist souvenirs, texts, photographs, recipes, brochures, badges…) that classes had collected and which they felt were somehow representative of their home culture. The keynotes throughout are flexibility, practicality, and real contact with the target language, often at first hand through contact with classes in other countries.
Email is mentioned, somewhat marginally, as a means of gathering material. The Web is not mentioned at all. It is interesting and instructive to reflect on what a difference electronic communications have made in the five years since this book was first published; if it were coming out now I suspect these technologies, and others such as CD-ROM and chat rooms, might occupy a much more central role. However, this is a historical observation rather than a major objection. If you are a teacher of learners aged 11-18, or if you work with such teachers, this is a book I’d recommend you to look at, particularly if you have, or are considering, links with schools abroad. Its suggestions for ways of incorporating cultural learning into classroom practice are pedagogically sound and eminently practicable.
This review first appeared on CETEFL-L on June 13 2000
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