A generic curriculum of intercultural communication

by Terence MacNamee

How do you teach intercultural communication ? Typically you will be dealing with pairs of cultures – for example, trying to teach Swiss to communicate with Japanese. This may involve learning the language, or it may not. But surely the inventory of points to be covered in a serious course will be the same for every pair of cultures, though the emphases will vary. No matter who is learning about what culture, they will have to learn “how to introduce themselves”, “how to shop”, “how to behave if invited to a meal in someone’s home”, and that kind of thing. So there can be a generic curriculum for teaching intercultural communication.

When I worked for the British Columbia ministry of education in the 1980s, we worked on a generic curriculum for teaching languages in schools. This had become possible with the adoption of the “communicative” approach to language teaching fostered by the Council of Europe. In this approach, which has since become widespread, you don’t focus on learning grammar but on communicating in the language: greeting, introducing yourself, asking for information, accepting invitations, and so on. These are called “functions”. There are also “notions” or topics to learn about, such as school, shopping, travel, family life, and so on.

At the time, we realized that there could be a cultural component to this generic language curriculum. For every function or notion in whatever language, there was a cultural aspect to be learned. How do you introduce yourself in Japan – depending on who it is you are talking to ? How are schools organised in France ?

Lately I have come to realize that the cultural component of a generic curriculum for language teaching could stand alone. It would, in fact, be a generic curriculum for intercultural communication. You could use this with students who needed to learn intercultural communication but were not learning a language. For example, American managers going to Australia, where they would be speaking English but dealing with a different culture. Or French engineers going to Francophone Africa, where they were not going to learn the local language but needed to learn the local culture. Or Swiss businesspeople going to Japan, where they would not have time to learn the language – they would try to talk to their hosts in English – but would still need some cultural coaching to stay out of trouble.

Obviously, such a generic curriculum for intercultural communication as I am proposing can’t be claimed to be universal. For one thing, it is written in a language. For another thing, it will reflect the cultural perceptions of whoever writes it, and it will be slanted towards the cultural needs of the intended learners. If I write a generic curriculum in English for the use of English Canadians, cultural slant or selectivity is inevitable. So there can be no universal curriculum, and the various versions of it that are made, and the specific versions for particular pairs of cultures that are derived from it, will all feed back usefully to the original. A generic curriculum will not, cannot be cast in stone.