Intercultural Learning in Modern Language Education: Expanding Meaning-Making Potentials

Intercultural Learning in Modern Language Education: Expanding Meaning-Making Potentials

by Erin Kearney


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Many educators aim to engage students in deeply meaningful learning in the language classroom, often facing challenges to connect the students with the culture of the language they are learning. This book aims to demonstrate that substantial intercultural learning can and does occur in the modern language classroom, and explores the features of the classroom that support meaningful culture-in-language-learning. The author argues that transformative modern language education is intimately tied to a view of language learning as an engagement in meaning-making activity, or semiotic practice. The empirical evidence presented is analyzed and then linked to both the theorizing of culture-in-language-teaching and to practical concerns of teaching.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783094677
Publisher: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Publication date: 12/03/2015
Series: Languages for Intercultural Communication and Education Series , #28
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 5.95(w) x 8.71(h) x 0.69(d)

About the Author

Erin Kearney is Assistant Professor of Foreign and Second Language Education at the State University of New York at Buffalo. She is interested in cultural dimensions of foreign and second language teaching and learning, as well as language teacher development and education, early foreign language learning and language awareness, and classroom discourse and interaction in L2 settings.

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Intercultural Learning in Modern Language Education

Expanding Meaning-Making Potentials

By Erin Kearney

Multilingual Matters

Copyright © 2016 Erin Kearney
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78309-469-1


The Challenges of Addressing Culture in Modern Language Education

In the early weeks of a first semester French class I was teaching, I asked students about where they lived, following a short lesson on the question form 'D'où viens-tu?' (Where are you from?) and the basic vocabulary necessary for responding. The problem arose that a student wanted to say that she was from a town in the suburbs of Austin, Texas. I hesitated, yet went to the chalkboard, wrote the word 'banlieue' (suburb), then modeled how the student could make a full sentence using the term, and waited for her to repeat. I then took care to note to the class, in English, that the word carried different connotations in French, that the 'banlieue' was not as coveted a place to live as in the US (as some people sometimes refer to 'suburban bliss' for example). In France, I explained, moderate-income housing in the form of tall apartment buildings was located on the outskirts of the main cities and for decades has been a place where immigrant families and families in financial difficulty have lived in higher concentrations than in other places, like inside cities (although ethnic neighborhoods obviously exist in Paris and elsewhere in France). But as I spoke I realized the essentialization of culture that was occurring as I tried to succinctly deal with a very complex word and meaning. I knew, first of all, that discussions of social housing in French society differ from those in the US, with important conceptions of assimilation and integration being talked about in very different ways in the two societies. I also knew that living in a 'cité' (a grouping of tenement buildings in the French suburbs and another lexical item that is enormously complex) and being from the 'banlieue' evoke images of a very particular nature for speakers of French and that even within the category of 'French speakers,' understandings of this word are rooted in various social realities; yet, relating the complexity of the interrelated linguistic and social situation in this introductory-level course seemed at odds with the purpose of the class – to get the basics of the French language.

My student's question made me think of the gross generalities that are sometimes made in presenting the vocabulary for talking about where one lives, ostensibly for the sake of getting students to master linguistic elements themselves, outside of their social and cultural context, before delving into the complex meanings around such words as 'banlieue'. This moment signaled to me more generally as well the complicated task of communicating meaning to my students. It led me to consider what other instructors might have done in the same situation, and it seems that in at least some cases, this discussion would have been completely glossed over or the complexity of the term entirely ignored, with a translation being supplied and no further discussion ensuing. On the other hand, perhaps instructors had effective strategies for addressing the social and cultural weight of language even in the introductory-level classroom. What was also striking to me shortly after this classroom experience was that in another class that I was teaching, a fifth semester, intermediate French level, life in the 'banlieue' was taken up in much more detail, with three and a half hours of class time over several days devoted to examining the historical, artistic, social and linguistic aspects of life for 'banlieusards' (people who live in the 'banlieue'). In this content-based course, the learners' language skills were assumed to be stable enough to allow for much more substantive discussion of social and cultural reality and were conducted entirely in French. Ultimately, this classroom moment and many others that occurred in the course of my own teaching practice, led me to wonder about the place of culture in language learning and how, in a modern language (ML) classroom especially, culture is taught and learned. (Kearney, 2008: 1–3).

These episodes from my own teaching inspired the classroom ethnography reported in this book. Upon learning of another university-level French classroom, from which students apparently emerged not only with improved linguistic abilities but also deep cultural knowledge and competence, I became interested in studying Emilie – a reportedly outstanding ML teacher – her students, and the impact her pedagogical approach had on their learning. The challenge I faced in the classroom and the one Emilie faced in teaching culture is indeed the challenge faced by many ML educators these days – how to engage students in more deeply meaningful learning in the language classroom, how to connect them with culture and hopefully, in the process, how to spur change in their worldviews.

The ML classroom, for me, for Emilie and for many others increasingly, is a site where students not only learn to speak, read, listen or write a new language but where they also can learn to understand, to feel and to be in new ways and to potentially transform themselves and the world around them through language study. Transformative ML education is, I will argue, intimately tied to a view of language learning as an engagement in meaning-making activity or what we might refer to as semiotic practice. Reconceptualization along these lines is already occurring in some ML classrooms but also in theorizing of what language education is as an individual and group activity. Research, too, increasingly attempts to document and analyze classroom interactions, learners' subjective and personal experiences with language learning, and the broader policy and political environment in which language education occurs, all in an effort to foreground the meaning and meaningfulness of language learning as an activity. All of this work underscores the argument that rethinking the meaning of ML education and meaning-making in ML education is the major issue language teachers, theorists and researchers grapple with today.

What we need above all in order to continue moving these efforts forward is to more clearly connect meaning-based theories language with actual classroom environments and practices so that a range of contexts and experiences with meaning-making in ML classrooms becomes visible. Research that produces nuanced descriptions of the overarching conditions and the specific teaching and learning interactions that foster deep cultural learning will form the basis for generating a more robust set of curricular and pedagogical options when it comes to teaching culture in ML education.

In this book, cultural learning – or better intercultural learning – and meaning-making practices in language education are taken to be closely linked. The complicated enterprise of making meaning in ML classrooms is assumed to involve linguistic and other semiotic resources and meaning-making processes at both individual and collective levels (what we recognize as cultures). While it has been common to take up referential meanings in ML education and to think of cultural meaning as a code of sorts that can be acquired by learners, linguistic and cultural forms have yet to be taken up in the curriculum and pedagogy for the broad range of significances we personally and collectively assign to them. Nor have the individual and shared processes through which meanings are generated, negotiated and transformed been a major focus of ML education.

Particularly important in meaning-making processes is the shifting of meaning potentials. Meaning potentials figure prominently in this book (as the title suggests), as they are relevant to language learners in two ways. First, learners must access and develop an understanding of the more or less conventionalized meaning potentials that the forms of a new language offer them. Second, they must expand their own personal meaning potential and shape a voice that may sometimes use language in ways that express expected meanings but that may at times also stretch the meaning potentials of linguistic resources to forge novel meanings. These ideas will be taken up in much more detail further on in the book, but at the outset, it is essential to know that, based on theories of meaning potential and on empirical research that analyzed a group of learners' engagements with meaning, I ultimately advocate for a pedagogy of potentials in ML education; this refers on one hand to the need to focus learners' attention on developing understandings of new symbolic resources, but on the other, and quite crucially, to the need to foster learners' engagements with the languages they are learning in ways that engender deep and personal connections to those languages, that create varied opportunities for expressing symbolic meanings of their own and that ultimately make possible new options for speakerhood.

The challenges of addressing culture in the ML education classroom stretch far beyond those made salient in the vignette at the start of this chapter, though my own teaching experiences do highlight the crux of the issue facing university-level instructors and primary and secondary school teachers alike. These challenges in intercultural pedagogy in ML education, at the core, have to do with meaning – not only understanding others' ways of referring to the world and of construing and attributing significance to it but also understanding meaning-making as a process of selecting symbolic forms from a range of options and doing so purposefully in order to establish, negotiate or advance a perspective. In this book, and with Emilie's and other teachers' dilemmas in mind, my goals are (1) to demonstrate, by drawing on the in-depth study of one classroom, that intercultural learning of substance can and does occur in ML classroom settings; (2) to illuminate the features of the classroom environment and processes of interactional engagement that support meaningful culture-in-language-learning; (3) to illustrate the impact of in-class teaching and learning interactions on students' meaning-making repertoires; and (4) to connect the empirical evidence I present and analyze to both the theorizing of culture-in-language-teaching and to the practical concerns of teaching. In the remainder of this chapter, I describe the ideological landscape in which ML education occurs in the United States, since challenges in culture teaching and learning in language classrooms are significantly shaped by this environment. Given the way ML education is situated in the United States and also taking into account some other general trends in conceptualizations of language teaching and learning, I explain how culture pedagogy has come to be characterized in particular ways. Finally, I argue at the end of the chapter that, based on the way culture pedagogy has come to be practiced in ML education in the United States, a reconsideration of the meaning of ML education and meaning-making in ML education is urgently needed.

The Ideological Landscape of Modern Language Education in the United States: Broad Orientations and Impact on Practices

To fully appreciate the challenges of addressing culture in ML classrooms of any educational level in the United States, one must take into account the broader ideological terrain in which particular classrooms find themselves. In this section, I discuss powerful societal and professional discourses that impact the structure and practice of ML education in the United States, from teachers' and students' classroom experiences, teacher education and professional development to the public imagination about the purpose and value of learning languages. My purpose in doing so is not only to contextualize the challenges ideology poses to culture pedagogy in particular but also to suggest that, even though ideologies are strong and endemic to the organization of ML education and practices within it, there are countercurrents and practices in play, including the approach described in this book. Ultimately, the quality of the experience students have in ML classrooms is greatly impacted by strong ideological flows, which influence the degree to which the curricular area most expected to support development of individual and societal multilingualism and to promote intercultural knowledge and understanding actually delivers on those assumptions.

Monolingual ideologies

By and large, monolingual ideologies dominate in the United States and permeate the organization and practice of all education but of ML education in particular (Reagan & Osborn, 1998; Stanton, 2005). From the relatively late start to ML education common in the United States to a lack of articulation of the curriculum and goals for ML learning across educational levels to a host of classroom practices (such as the heavy use of English and a tendency toward rote and decontextualized language exercises as opposed to abundant opportunities for creative language use), structural constraints and interactional routines in ML education have come to limit and undermine the ostensible mission of the field and ultimately sustain monolingualism as a value and as a reality for many in the United States. It is important to keep in mind that language ideologies are common sense notions of what language is, what it does and who language users are (Woolard & Schieffelin, 1994) but that these notions operate in a subtle fashion to produce very real consequences, most often in favor of powerful groups in society.

Monolingual ideologies do not just promote the notion that one language is preferable to many; they also circulate messages about who speakers are – either native or nonnative – and what languages are – contained and separate linguistic systems (L1, L2, L3, etc.). It has been uncommon in our field to conceive of ML learning as the expansion of one meaning-making repertoire in an individual, for example, as is now advocated in theories of dynamic bilingualism and translanguaging that have arisen in the field of English as a second language in the United States and elsewhere around the world (e.g. Canagarajah, 2011; García & Sylvan, 2011). These scholars view language users as drawing on a range of linguistic features and discursive practices that are all part of one meaning-making system; rather than having separate, relatively fixed languages in the mind, language users are seen to flexibly and situationally deploy features of one broad, integrated semiotic system. Learning new languages, then, amounts to growing the linguistic and discursive features available in an individual's system and ideally involves a vast expansion of that flexible repertoire of meaning-making potential. It is equally uncommon to view the goal of ML education as the development of students as multilingual speakers; instead, we speak mostly about learners becoming native-like in their use of an L2, imagining an idealized native speaker as the measure against which we might discern whether or not a learner has reached some level of proficiency or competence (Kramsch, 1997). When such rigid understandings of languages and speakers prevail, we see practices in language classrooms like the strict separation of languages and the insistence on exclusive use of the L2 being studied, for example, as opposed to more flexible, multilingual approaches (Levine, 2011). What a native/nonnative speaker binary, fueled by monolingual bias, means for the intercultural learning we envision for ML learners is also problematic. In all cases, this dichotomy seems to facilitate prescriptivism when it comes to both linguistic and cultural knowledge, skills and meanings and to present a considerable roadblock to truly engaging with the dynamism and complexity of language use and both individual and intercultural meaning-making.

The native speaker/nonnative speaker distinction

The rigid native speaker/nonnative speaker and L1/L2 dichotomies that are treated as normal in and that are further naturalized through ML education in the United States create conditions for the construction of foreignness in ML classrooms (Levine, 2014; Osborn, 2005; Reagan, 2002). Indeed, 'foreign' language is the more common term used to refer to the field, although I opt for 'modern' language in a conscious effort to reject the distancing and othering that accompanies this construction of foreignness in language education. Given that ML education is often treated as an elite, enrichment type of activity that rounds out the educations of a privileged class of citizens, it is not all that surprising that foreignness is ideologically built into ML education and that it is rarely challenged as an organizing principle for what occurs in language classrooms.


Excerpted from Intercultural Learning in Modern Language Education by Erin Kearney. Copyright © 2016 Erin Kearney. Excerpted by permission of Multilingual Matters.
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Table of Contents

1. The Challenges of Addressing Culture in Modern Language Education2. The Culture Learning Target: Engagement with Meaning Potentials3. Creating and Investigating Intercultural Worlds in a Modern Language Classroom4. Understanding Signification and Interpretive Acts through Engagement with Cultural Representations5. Realizing Meaning Potentials through Narrative Writing6. Sense-Making in a Web of Meanings: Implications for Theory, Research and PracticeReferences

What People are Saying About This

Beatrice Dupuy

Erin Kearney's book is theoretically engaging and deeply insightful in the argument it foregrounds for a social semiotic approach in modern languages teaching and learning. Truly a 'must read' for graduate students and scholars interested in contemporary debates on ML education, this book could not have been more timely.

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