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Byram (1997b) has produced what is to date the most fully worked-out specification of intercultural
competence, which involves five so-called savoirs, that is, five formulations of the kinds of knowledge and skills
needed to mediate between cultures.

These are specified as follows (adapted from Byram, 1997b: 34):


(1) Knowledge of self and other; of how interaction occurs; of the relationship of the individual to society. (SAVOIR

(2) Knowing how to interpret and relate information. (SAVOIR COMPENDRE)

(3) Knowing how to engage with the political consequences of education; being critically aware of cultural behaviours.

(4) Knowing how to discover cultural information. (SAVOIR FAIRE)

(5) Knowing how to be: how to relativise oneself and value the attitudes and beliefs of the other. (SAVOIR ETRE)

This set of savoirs incorporates and transforms the goals of communicative curricula, even those in which
culture found some kind of place. In an intercultural curriculum, the learner is still expected to accumulate facts about
the target culture, and know something of how people from the target culture might be expected to behave. To these
stipulations are added an ethnographic perspective (in so far as students are expected to demonstrate ‘discovery’
skills), a critical stance (knowledge of the behaviours of the target culture should prompt comparison and reflection
rather than automatic imitation), and a liberal morality (learners should demonstrate the skills of decentring and
valuing, or at least tolerating, other cultures).

However, developing intercultural competence does not mean doing away with the information gap or
related activities, but developing them so that

(1) culture becomes a regular focus of the information exchanged, and

(2) learners have the opportunity to reflect upon how the information is exchanged, and the cultural factors impinging
upon the exchange.
Is an Intercultural Approach Necessary?

It might be argued that it is unnecessary to teach culture explicitly in an ELT programme because it is
already implicitly there in the lessons. Indeed, Valdes (1990: 20) argues that any method of language teaching and
learning is inevitably cultural:

From the first day of the beginning class, culture is at the forefront. Whatever approach, method or
technique is used, greetings are usually first on the agenda. How can any teacher fail to see the cultural nature of the
way people greet each other in any place in any language? The differences made in formal greetings, casual
greetings, in greetings of young to old and vice versa, of employee to employer, in who shakes hands, bows, or
touches the forehead, who may be called by first names, etc. are certainly not universal and serve as an excellent
introduction to the culture of the people who speak the language, as well as to the language itself.

Valdes sees the inevitability of cultural content in language teaching as an argument for making it explicitly
part of the ELT lesson. It has already been argued that good teachers have always made cultural ‘asides’ when
required, and it may also be claimed that, since culture is implicitly built into ELT courses, learners will automatically
acquire cultural knowledge.

Learners as Ethnographers

The introduction of ethnography, defined broadly as ‘the scientific study of different races and cultures’, into
secondary school an university foreign language learning is most closely associated in Britain with the work of
Michael Byram and his associates (e.g. Byram, 1993; Byram, 1997b; Byram & Fleming, 1998; Byram & Morgan,
1994; Roberts et al., 2001). Proponents of the ethnographic approach to language learning acknowledge that it
involves accepting a new set of purposes for language learning and teaching. Effectively, it fundamentally
reconfigures the longaccepted goals of communicative language teaching by seeking:

• an integration of linguistic and cultural learning to facilitate communication and interaction;

• a comparison of others and self to stimulate reflection on and (critical) questioning of the mainstream
culture into which learners are socialised;

• a shift in perspective involving psychological processes of socialisation;

• the potential of language teaching to prepare learners to meet and communicate in other cultures and
societies than the specific one usually associated with the language they are learning. (Byram & Fleming, 1998: 7)
This framework for encouraging learning through ethnography itself is culturally situated: it assumes
learners will be part of the mainstream culture and therefore require critical decentring from its normative
assumptions. However, given that ‘decentring’ should be sensitive to where the learners’ ‘centre’ actually is, these
precepts can serve as a general guide to curriculum and task design.

Addressing the Needs of Different Learners

Pulverness (1996) argues that in the 1980s, ELT materials and syllabuses were driven largely by needs
analysis, rather than cultural considerations.

The intercultural approach also recognises the fact that different learners have different needs, and that
these needs should be taken into consideration when devising curricula and courses. Learners may have more or
less immediate contact with the target culture; and they may have, as individuals, more or less interest in the range of
products produced by that culture (some might be motivated by a focus on literature, art, music, television, or films,
while others might not). Some learners might wish to integrate seamlessly into an L2 subculture (for example, an
academic or professional community) whereas others might wish to retain a distinct cultural identity while also
requiring to communicate with a range of L2 speakers. These various needs and wants will impact upon the type of
input that the materials and course designer will wish to use, and also impact upon the goals of the course, whether
the learner is being trained to be mainly a cultural observer or to be an active member of a specific subcultural group,
such as academics.

More Than a Native Speaker?

The spoken or unspoken goal of L2 instruction and learning has been ‘native-speaker proificiency’, a
nebulous and rarely attained goal. As Kramsch (1998) observes, the concept of native-speaker competence has
been subject to re-evaluation over the past two decades (e.g. Davies, 1991; Kachru, 1986; Widdowson, 1994), and
Byram’s promotion of ‘intercultural’ communicative competence’ further prompts a re-examination of ‘native-speaker’
competence as the ultimate goal of language learning. Intercultural L2 learners are both less and more skilled than a
monolingual native speaker. They are less skilled in so far as they do not have complete mastery of the L2 language
system. Errors have always been judged harshly by L2 teachers, but probably less harshly by those outside the
educational system (cf. Loveday, 1981: 147–8). Loveday (1981: 125–75) observes that the criterion for ‘correct’
spoken English for the L2 learner is standard English, which is itself based on a codification of a written variety of the
language used by the educated and powerful. Few native English-speakers entirely conform to ‘standard English’ in
their own output, but even today, when recordings have introduced a great variety of accents into the L2 classroom,
there is still relatively little systematic attention paid to non-standard dialects (cf. Corbett, 2000). It is ironic that L2
learners are often required institutionally to conform to standards that are more rigorous than those applied to native
speakers. Of course, dialect-speakers’ ‘errors’ do not arise because of incomplete mastery of the L1 system – the
stigmatised ‘errors’ of dialectspeakers are only regarded as such in relation to the standard variety. Dialect features
are usually completely systematic and intelligible within their own context, and they are used at least in part to signify
alignment with a particular social or regional group of speakers, in the same way that use of the standard variety
shows affiliation to elite, educated or powerful groups

Designing Tasks for the Intercultural Classroom

Nunan’s framework sees the task as consisting of six components which have to be specified for any
communicative activity: These components can be modified if the aim of the task is to raise cultural awareness as
well as to develop communicative skills. Let us consider the components in turn.

Goal Learner’s role

Input TASK Teacher’s role

Activities Settings

(Nunan, 1989: 10–11)


Goals refer to the pedagogical purpose of the task. The goals of cultural tasks will normally involve a
combination of intercultural exploration and linguistic development.


‘Input’ refers to the stimulus provided by the teacher for the learning to occur. The input may be a written or
spoken text for discussion, or a visual image for interpretation and evaluation, or a media text for analysis.

A full range of communicative activities can also be used to serve the goals of an intercultural task. Students
may collect and share information through class presentation or group work (which will necessarily involve
information gap activities), and they may evaluate and discuss their different observations and findings. Having
observed cultural behaviours in action, they may be asked to reconstruct that behaviour in role plays or simulations,
or by writing parallel texts.

Learner’s role

The learner’s role will vary from activity to activity, and from stage to stage within each activity. As courses
progress there will probably be a gradation in the learner’s role according to how much responsibility he or she must
take for the collection, organisation, evaluation, reporting, and/ or reconstructing of materials exemplifying cultural
behaviour. In the early stages of a course the learners will need support or ‘scaffolding’ for the activities – the teacher
will probably need to provide guidelines, models if needed, and lead the learners through the tasks. Later, as the
learners become more confident, they may wish to negotiate an agenda, initiate a series of tasks, or contribute more
actively to the construction and implementation of intercultural tasks.

Teacher’s role

The teacher’s role is the mirror-image of the learner’s. Again, in the early stages of a course, it will be
primarily the teacher’s responsibility to provide materials for the tasks, to suggest and show how they may be used to
increase intercultural competence, to provide models of evaluation, and to suggest language that might be used to
explore or reconstruct cultural behaviour.


Intercultural tasks, like communicative tasks, allow for a range of settings: from individual work, pair work
and group work to whole-class activities. Settings should ideally vary throughout a course, so that learners can
benefit from peer-group interaction as well as reflect upon their learning in some solitude. However, no one setting is
inherently better than another – each has advantages and disadvantages – and it should be remembered that even
group-work, that most privileged of settings in communicative language teaching, carries cultural connotations and
may be viewed less favourably by some students.