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The Intercultural Classroom

In this essay I will present the main content of two books attempting to address the
increasing need to acquire cultural and intercultural skills and competence. I will focus on
aspects of the two books which is relevant for my profession as a teacher in an
international secondary school in Trondheim, and then go on to discuss to what extent the
information given helps me develop the necessary skills needed to be a modern language

The main target, or business, of Edward T. Hall and Mildred Reed Hall's book
Understanding Cultural Differences (1990) is namely to cater to business travelers and
people who engage in cultural exchanges with Germans, French and/or Americans. In
this paper I will focus on the latter as I am an English language teacher, and through my
presentation of the content of this book I will focus on the first chapter, but refer to the
focus chapter on Americans. As the English cultural sphere expands way beyond the
American one it is intercultural, or at least intracultural, in its nature, and I would
therefore deem the importance of what is being presented by Hall and Hall on Americans
to be limiting in a world of 760 million speakers, or users, of English. The authors
discuss many universal issues of cultural differences which are still relevant today,
although the book was published almost 20 years ago, and the key concepts are highly
applicable to not only English-speaking cultures, but other cultures as well.

Hall and Hall writes that "Culture is communication" and divide communication into
"words, material things and behavior", and they compare culture to a giant, extraordinary
complex subtle computer (Hall and Hall: 3). I fall for the temptation to upgrade their
metaphor. To understand culture and how to interpret and assess it is as challenging as to
navigate the world wide web. For argument's sake one could argue that the skills
necessary to surf the internet critically is more or less the same skills necessary to
traverse the world's numerous cultures and communicative systems. How does one teach
these skills? In their introductory chapter "Underlying Structures of Culture" Hall and
Hall attempt to present some key concepts for the reader in order to equip her for the
challenge of deciphering the "complex, unspoken rules of each language" (Hall and Hall:
4). The main concepts are context, space, time, information flow, action chains and
interfacing. I would deem them all relevant for my work as a modern language teacher.

"Context is the information that surrounds an event; it is inextricably bound up with the
meaning of that event" (Hall and Hall: 6). Edward T. Hall presents a scaling device in
which all cultures can be compared in terms of high or low contexts. High context (HC)
communication is marked by the fact that most of the information passing is already
known by the involved communicators, while low context (LC) communication is the
opposite, "i.e., the mass of the information is vested in the explicit code" (Hall and Hall:
6). Low-context cultures tend to "compartmentalize" their personal lives, which in turn
leads to the need for them to seek background information from the people they interact
with. On the other end of the scale high-context cultures do keep up to date on the events
in the lives of people who are important to them. Examples of high-context cultures
include Japanese, Arabs and Mediterranean, while low-context cultures include
American, German, Swiss, Scandinavian and other Northern European countries.
Although this is a rough generalization Hall and Hall are careful to point out that there
exist individual differences in the need for contexting, meaning "the process of filling in
background data" (Hall and Hall: 7). Perhaps the most notable information given in
regards to context is that "any level of context is a communication" (Hall and Hall: 7).
This of course is relevant for a L2 user of English in an English-speaking culture, or for a
L2 user of Japanse in Tokyo. There are tremendous differences in relationships and to
what extent it is a high or low context communication which is taking place. "One of the
great communication challenges in life is to find the appropriate level of contexting
needed in each situation" (Hall and Hall: 9). This is intercultural knowledge.

Space. Hall and Hall defines space in the context of cultural differences as involving
territoriality, the gradations of personal space, the multisensory spatial experience and the
unconscious reactions to spatial differences. Territoriality is basically a deeply rooted
human characteristic related to possession and ownership. One's house, one's office or
one's car are all examples of places one might have a strong sense of territoriality. Again,
there are considerable differences both on a cultural and individual level. Personal space
do also have varying gradations, and people's 'bubbles', meaning the threshold of
intimacy, tends to be large in Northern Europe where people keep their distance to others
while in Southern Europe the communication taking place can be very intimate and
hardly any distance between the interlocutors. Interestingly, Hall and Hall mention the
fact that space is perceived by all our senses, and there are great cultural differences in
the "programming" of the senses (Hall and Hall: 11). This multisensory spatial
experience include auditory (listening), thermal (touching), kinesthetic (muscles) and
olfactory (smelling) space. An obvious example is the perceived 'noise' of Mediterranean
conversations for a Scandinavian ear.

Time. Time is interesting as it is often a cause for great distress, annoyance and grudge
for tourists and business travelers as they visit other cultures than their own where the
perception of time differs. Hall and Hall present the division between monochronic and
polychronic time. This is just a simple classification as there are many time systems
around the world, but they can be roughly grouped in the two perceptions of time.
Monochronic cultures experience time as something linear, and is divided into segments
which requires it to be scheduled and planned. This allows for focus and concentration on
one task at the time. Schedules are important in monochronic cultures, and might often
take priority before anything else. Hall and Hall make the interesting comparison
between monochronic time and money - as something tangible and measurable. Time can
be 'wasted', 'spent' or 'lost'. Polychronic systems on the other hand are the complete
opposite. "There is more emphasis on completing human transactions, than on holding to
schedules" (Hall and Hall: 14). The focus on flexibility and the ability to focus on
"simultaneous occurrence of many things and by a great involvement with people"
characterizes polychronic cultures. Geographically, Latin and Mediterranean cultures
belong to the latter, while Americans and Northern Europeans would characterize
themselves as belonging to a monochronic system. As mentioned, this is cause for a great
deal of challenges for Scandinavian or American tourists traveling to Mediterranean
destinations such as Spain where a three hour-long lunch appear confusing, or even
further to Subsaharan countries where a polychronic time predominates. Patience, then, is
truly a virtue for the person with a monochronic time system.
Time is a fascinating topic within cultural and intercultral discourse as it is deeply
embedded in a culture. Many misunderstandings arise from the differences in perceptions
of time. Polychronic cultures might be accused of laziness, inclined to interruptions,
noisy and disruptive while monochronic cultures are easily accused of being unfriendly,
impersonal, too private and reclusive. On a personal note I would again use the earlier
introduced upgraded metaphor of the internet when Hall and Hall write that
"(p)olychronic people live in a sea of information" (Hall and Hall: 16) and that they
prefer to surround themselves with people and information. It is hard to live by a
monochronic time in a global reality, although differences are still well embedded in
national cultures.

Furthermore, time affects the information flow and the exchanges of information and
whether it is 'in sync'. Rhythm, tempo and synchrony are important components in
communication, and obvious pitfalls for interlocutors from different cultures with
respectively monochronic and polychronic systems. "When we take our own time system
for granted and project it onto other cultures, we fail to read the hidden messages in the
foreign time system and thereby deny ourselves vital feedback" (Hall and Hall: 18).
Knowledge of time systems are vital for seamless communication and would embody
undeniable prerequisites for the intercultural aware person.

Interfacing. All of the discussed key concepts amount to five basic principles presented
by Hall and Hall which they choose to call cultural interfacing. The degree of difficulty
will increase if the context is higher, more complex, distance greater and levels more
abundant. However, very simple, low context, highly evolved, mechanical systems tend
to produce fewer problems than the systems which require human talent for their success
(Hall and Hall: 27).

In "Part 4: The Americans" Hall and Hall set out to describe the cultural characteristics of
Americans, which, considering the size of the country and the population, is rather
daunting and close to impossible. Nevertheless, despite "its ethnic diversity, the U.S. has
managed to absorb bits and pieces of many cultures and weave them into a unique culture
that is strikingly consistent and distinct" (Hall and Hall: 140). For historic reasons are
many of the chief characteristics of the Northern American culture strongly influenced by
its roots in northern Europe or Anglo-Saxon culture. The chapter discusses Americans'
perspective on time, space, education, mobility and work ethic, and creates a knowledge
base important for English language learners and users who will spend time in the US, or
deal with American nationals. I will return to particulars in my discussion later on. Hall
and Hall sum up their book at the end by reminding the reader "that culture is many
things, but it is primarily a system for creating, sending, storing, and processing
information" (Hall and Hall: 179). Understanding Cultural Differences does present,
prepare and equip the reader with the necessary knowledge, but leaves the experience and
the reflection to be explored.

Veien til interkulturell kompetanse

The world has gotten smaller, and coined expressions such as the 'global village', the
'networked community' and other images giving the impression of a smaller world have
perhaps prompted the Norwegian book Veien til interkulturell kompetanse by Henrik
Bøhn and Magne Dypedahl, which has a more updated and universal take on intercultural
competence. In the preface of the book the authors write "Hvis kunnskap om
interkulturell kommunikasjon kombineres med erfaring og refleksjon, er sjansene store
for at man får bedre interkulturell kompetanse" (Bøhn and Dypedahl, 6), which roughly
translates: If knowledge about intercultural communication is combined with experience
and reflection, the possibilities for a better intercultural competence are greater (my
trans.). If one could sum up the main message of the book it is the mantra of how
intercultural competence is developed through knowledge, experience, and reflection or
attitudes. The 11 chapters all begin with various scenarios from everyday life including
exchanges from hospitals, business meetings, diplomatic encounters and exam situations
- the recurring theme being confusion and 'loss of face' due to lack of intercultural
competence. Intercultural competence is needed in most situations in today's society, but
it is perhaps the school's mandate and challenge to teach intercultural competence to
equip students for a global 'networked society'? Key components to intercultural
competence according to Bøhn and Dypedahl are mutual understanding and respect. Is it
possible to teach respect and attitudes in a language classroom?
Again, the book opens and concludes with the trinity of knowledge,
experience and reflection, but spends considerable time and space on presenting and
discussing concepts such as etnocentrism, multiperspectives, cultural relativism,
stereotypes, prejudices, tolerance, verbal and non-verbal communication, perceptions,
value systems, honor, conscience and adaptability. All of these discussed concepts are
more or less components of knowledge, but can only be reflected upon during and
following experience of culture.

Perhaps the most interesting point made by Bøhn and Dypedahl is presented in the final
chapter. It is not revolutionary, and has been part of intercultural discourse for decades,
but nonetheless it is an important one. Finding a 'mellomposisjon', or a 'third place'
(Kramsch 1993: 233) requires the knowledge of the mentioned concepts as well as the
personal experiences which one can apply the knowledge to, and then in turn reflect upon
one's practices and perspectives.

This 'third place', or 'mellomposisjon', is yet another position, or perspective, and early on
in Bøhn and Dypedahl's book they discuss the interesting topic of multiperspectives. In
order to attain such a position it requires training and experience to see the world from
different perspectives (Bøhn and Dypedahl 16). One of the most substantial problems in
intercultural communication is the assumption that others are like us (16). People do have
different views of the world and differences in values, norms, traditions, habits and a
range of preferences for how communication should take place (16). Bøhn and Dypedahl
call for a constructive dialogue which leads to 'perspektivflytting', or shifts in perspective,
ideally, if I have understood it correctly, a multiperspective. This is a lifelong process and
can only be acquired through experience and reflection according to the authors of Veien
til interkulturell kompetanse. The most relevant and interesting points of the authors'
discourse in the book are perspectives, context and communication. If I have to focus on
skills to teach in the language classroom in an intercultural framework I would choose

Perspectives. We all perceive the world differently, on a personal level based upon our
values, norms, background, and experiences, but also on a cultural level based upon
where we have been raised and lived our lives. All of these components embodies a
persons' views of the world, and it will always be biased. "It gives us a flooring to view
and assess what is good, right, desirable, positive and necessary" (Bøhn and Dypedahl:
52) (my trans.) This in turn leads to a perception of the world, and a perception is
described as the process in our brains which takes place as a result of our observations
and how we interpret them in such a way that they give meaning to us (Bøhn and
Dypedahl: 52). Our perceptions are seen through a kulturelt filter, or cultural filter, which
means that our interpretation of our observations are colored by our cultural background
of internalized values, assumptions and comprehension (Bøhn and Dypedahl: 55).
Interestingly, the authors use the Norwegian school as an example of kulturbærere, or
cultural transferrals (my trans.) which transfers values such as gender equality,
democracy and the individual's rights in this particular case. This of course, is of great
importance for a Norwegian student who travel abroad to keep in mind. Naturally, it is
important to add that there are a distinction between partly individual personal traits,
cultural characteristics and universal human traits. It might not be easy to distinguish the
three levels of influences in one's perspective of the world, but it should perhaps be
obligatory to teach this knowledge and create an awareness of the learner's perspective in
order to understand the relationship between different perspectives which can be vital for
reflection and developing an awareness of "the other".

Relevance to the intercultural classroom

Bøhn and Dypedahl understand 'intercultural competence' as an ability to communicate
with people of different cultural backgrounds than their own. This requires a combination
of knowledge, skills and attitudes (Bøhn: 152). I strongly believe this combination to be
my mandate as a modern language teacher. Students need to be taught about stereotypes,
cultures, communication styles, verbal and non-verbal communication as well as values
(Bøhn and Dypedahl: 153). This embodies the basic knowledge of the target culture, in
my case English, and involves both national cultures as well as subcultures as pointed out
in figure 1 earlier. I believe as a modern language teacher one can teach skills and to
some extent attitudes, or perhaps more precisely facilitate and accommodate for a
learning environment based upon basic human virtues such as respect for one another.
This is particularly true being an international school with a range of students coming
from a different background than a Norwegian. What the students might lack in
knowledge and reflection they do make up for in personal experience and herein
subconscious and dormant knowledge.

How then does a modern language teacher teach the necessary skills to interpret and
make sense of the students' experiences? The core skills can be defined to be respect and
responsibility for one's own culture and develop a skill of self-reflection. The Common
European Framework renders a certain savoir-être to belong to the backbone of
intercultural competence, which extends to existential attitudes "such as user/learner's
degree of openness towards, and interest in, new experiences, other persons, ideas,
peoples, societies and cultures; willingness to relativise one's own cultural viewpoint and
cultural value-system; willingness and ability to distance oneself form conventional
attitudies to cultural difference" (CEF: 105). Michael Byram points out the importance to
relativise "learners' understanding of their own culutral values, beliefs and behaviours,
and encouraging them to investigate for themselves the otherness around tehm, either in
their immendiate physical environment or in their engagement with otherness which
internationalisation and globalisation have brought into their world" (Byram: 3)

As both the Norwegian (L1) and English (L2) language teacher in a small school I do
have the benefit of making these skills omnipresent in my lessons and in my
communication with the students. Existensial skills breeds a self-reflection, which Claire
Kramsch calls 'the third place'. In addition to these skills I would add abilities to train
skills such as listening, assessment and reflection in relation to personal perspective, the
others' perspective, context and communication awareness. One might argue that these
are universal skills in the formation of a young person, or as the Norwegian noun
'dannelse', or the German 'Bildung', would more accurately define. Skills which are
necessary to become an independent thinking, critical and reflective citizen of the world,
and language learners need "to define for themselves what this 'third place'" is to them
(Kramsch: 257). Although this theory rings true in a networked world I still think the
language classroom presents unique opportunities to teach such skills and facilitate an
environment for dialogues in which the students ca develop critical attitudes to their own
culture, their peers' and perhaps more importantly, beyond the classroom. "In and through
these dialogues, they may find for themselves this third place that they can name their
own» (Kramsch: 257). The modern language teacher is able to teach knowledge and help
students to train their skills for reflection and hence equip them with necessary skills. As
mentioned earlier, the ability to assess situations and decipher contexts to communicate
appropriately and at the appropriate level is intercultural knowledge. To find a 'third
place', or a 'mellomposisjon', and treat other cultures, in my case, the English-speaking
world, with the appropriate respect tuned to the context is a refined skills, which starts in
the language classroom.

The language classroom itself has been criticized for not being an authentic arena for
developing cultural and communicative knowledge with textbook examples and artificial
dialogues. In my case, this is not true, as the target language is part of all instructions in
all subjects (except Norwegian) as well as part of colloquial speech in between classes.
Experience, therefore, does also start in the classroom. Treating each other with respect
and acquiring the valuable experience by putting the students in authentic learning
situations in order to focus on developing their metaknowledge about communication and
culture which in turn will contribute to the establishment of an intercultural competence.
This development will continue throughout life, through the students' travels and
adventures in business and leisure abroad and at home as they socialize with other people
with other backgrounds and other values and norms. Bøhn and Dypedahl stress the fact
that intercultural competence always can be refined and developed further as it is
impossible to acquire all the knowledge needed to comprehend other people's situations
fully (Bøhn and Dypedahl: 158).

Experience requires reflection and again this is part of the modern language teacher's
responsibility. To equip the students with the necessary skills for reflecting on their
experiences it is helpful to provide them with what Bøhn and Dypedahl presents as
'refleksjonsknagger', or markers for reflection. Understanding other peoples' set of
thinking can either be explained by the conditions which are universal, cultural or
individual (Bøhn and Dypedahl: 31). Teaching 'markers for reflection' can create tools
and skills for the students to develop reflective ability, which is crucial for intercultural
competence. It is important, as the Norwegian authors point out, that our own integrity is
not threatened by multiperspectivity or intercultural sensitivity (Bøhn and Dypedahl: 33).
Understanding one's own perception of culture in the context of ethnocentrism and taking
the important 'third positition' is an important component of the intercultural


The art of teaching is not only passing on information and knowledge, but quite possibly
more importantly, to equip students with the appropriate tools and necessary skills to use
the knowledge they acquire and will continue to accrue throughout life. Skills to interpret
and assess contexts, seeking out different perspectives and ideally taking the role of the
respectful, responsible and reflective person who engages in constructive and empathic
dialogues with other people and aim not to necessarily to agree, but to be amazed and
interested and acquire more experience to add to the lifelong learning which is
increasingly important in a global reality. One of the perceptions of communication is 'to
do something together', which does means that it is more important to create a
constructive dialogue for mutual understanding rather than pass one-way information
(Bøhn and Dypedahl). In my opinion the constructive cultural aware dialogue starts with
the modern language teacher and her students, and is the goal for every lesson in the
intercultural classroom.

Reference list

Byram, M., Nichols, A. & Stevens, D. (2001). Developing Intercultural Competence in
Practice. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters Ltd. (Et nærmere utvalg kapitler – kopi)
Hall, Edward T. & Mitchell Reed Hall. Understanding Cultural Differences. Intercultural
Press, Inc. (1990)

Kramsch, Claire. Context and Culture in Language Teaching. Oxford University Press

Bøhn, Henrik et. al. Veien til interkulturell kompetanse. Fagbokforlaget (2009)

The Common European Framework