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Topic 4 – Assessment of knowledge of foreign languages as a means of communication between people and peoples. Interest in linguistic diversity through knowledge of a new language and culture.


Illiteracy was common in the Middle Ages. When one king needed to communicate with another, he hired a scribe to write the message. It is well known that the 8th Century emperor Charles the Great, Carlomagno, was illiterate, he could not read or write. The art of writing was a professional skill. By 1700, Europe’s literacy rate ranged from 30 to 40 percent; by 1850, it was 50 to 55 percent; and by the second half of the 19th century writing became a basic qualification in human societies. Today an illiterate person in a developed country is an outcast.

The same thing that happened with the skills of reading and writing has already happened with the use of computers (computer literacy) and will soon happen with the ability to speak a second language. If we compare the importance of speaking a foreign language 50 years ago with the necessity it represents today, we can predict (or foresee) how important it will be by the time today’s children become adults.

In this sense, I would like to mention the recent Languages Programme of the Council for Cultural Co-Operation of the European Council (2001). The political objective of this programme is “to facilitate communication and interaction among Europeans of different mother tongues in the service of European mobility, mutual understanding and cooperation, and in order to overcome prejudice and discrimination”. So, the European Council has the aim of promoting languages since Europe is multilingual and communication between Europeans is important. It is evident that inter-culturalism is quickly becoming an essential dimension in all teaching in our European context.

Language and communication

One of the aims of teaching a foreign language is to give the learner some measure of communicative competence in that language. In fact, the mastering of a second language has become a need for most people today. Schools not only have the responsibility of teaching a second language as a linguistic system, but also as a social system. A language is a social practice, a part of a people’s (people = pueblo) history. Thus, it becomes necessary to educate pupils in the socio-cultural context of the countries in which the foreign language is spoken.

As far as we are concerned, ‘learning to communicate’ does not involve learning something totally new: all language learners are communicators already; what foreign language learning involves is learning to communicate differently and to communicate with a different set of people. And in order to communicate with a different set of people, one must also learn about them.

Language as a barrier within the European context (tomado de Magister)

If knowledge of other languages is a necessary communication tool among people of different cultural backgrounds, lack of knowledge of languages is a barrier to communication. Several ways of getting around this barrier have been used / proposed:

1 One of them is increasing the number and availability of translating and interpreting services. However, exact equivalence between one language and another is not always possible, and there is often some loss of information in the translating process. There are also material problems if the translation in on a large scale. For example, a large proportion of the European Parliament staff are fully engaged in translating documents and interpreting, using up large amounts of money of the European Union’s total administrative budget.

2 Developing an artificial, auxiliary language that everyone will understand is another means of surmounting the language barrier. There have been several such attempts –Esperanto is the most famous—but none of them have been successful.

3 A third possibility is to increase motivation and opportunity to learn foreign languages. This is the option taken by the European Council. As we said before, its objective is to “to facilitate communication and interaction among Europeans of different mother tongues” through promotion of foreign language learning in the different member states of the European Union.

4 And finally, the fourth option is to promote the widespread use of an existing language that every will understand.

But in the European context it would difficult to reach a consensus on what language should be promoted as the “lingua franca” of Europe. And on the other hand it would be difficult to agree on what criteria should be used. For example, English is a good candidate because it is the language of techonology and because many millions of people in the world speak it, but German on the other hand is spoken by more European citizens than English.

(English as a lingua franca) However, if we go beyond the European context and focus on the worldwide context, it is easy to see that English has become the world’s lingua franca in many respects. Today’s need for global communication have promoted English from being the language of the American, the British, the Irish, and a few other nationalities to being the international language, a lingua franca, the Latin of the modern world, spoken in every continent by approximately eight hundred million people.

In addition, it is estimated that 75 percent of all international communication in writing, 80 percent of all information in the world’s computers, and 90 percent of Internet content are in English.

The inexpensiveness of air transportation has increased interpersonal contacts worldwide. Computers, optical fiber, and satellite technologies likewise have made possible a boom in telecommunications, bringing up the concept of information superhighway. These two developments demonstrate how the world has evolved into a global village and how imperatively a standard language is required.

In its role as a global language, English has become one of the most important academic and professional tools. The English language is recognized as the most important language for the increasingly mobile international community. This is a fact that seems to be irreversible.

Educational value of language learning

(tomado de Magister) Going back to the main idea of our essay, that is, the educational value of language learning, we must highlight the fact that language learning promotes understanding, tolerance and respect for the cultural identity, rights and values of others, whether abroad or at home in minority groups. Language learning broadens our minds, because we encounter other ways of thinking. In this sense, foreign language teaching has an essential role in preparing our pupils to cope with an ever-changing environment. It is also adequate to say that learning a foreign language is one way to fully appreciate one’s one language.

Socio-cultural competence: one of the 5 sub-competences of Communicative Competence

It is interesting to note that , in language teaching under the Communicative Approach, culture plays an important role and it is one of the five sub-competences mentioned in the Spanish foreign language curriculum . The five sub-competences to which I am referring are:

ü GRAMMAR C.: the ability to put into practice the linguistic units according to the rules of use established in the linguistic system

ü DISCOURSE C: the ability to use different types of discourse and organize them according to the communicative situation and the speakers involved in it.

ü SOCIOLINGUISTIC C: the ability to adequate the utterances to the specific context, in according with the accepted usage of the determined linguistic community.

ü STRATEGIC C: the ability to define, correct or in general, make adjustments, in the communicative situation.

ü SOCIOCULTURAL C: which has to be understood as a certain awareness of the social and cultural context in which the foreign language is used.

In fact, language and culture cannot be separated as every language reflects the culture of the people who speak that language.

We will now look at the goals of teaching culture. They can be summarized as follows:

  • to help students develop an understanding of the fact that behaviour is culturally-conditioned.
  • To help students develop an understanding that social variables such as age, sex, and place of residence influence the way in which people speak and behave.
  • To help students become more aware of conventional behaviour in common situations in the target culture.
  • To help students increase their awareness of cultural connotations of words and phrases in the target language.
  • To help students develop the ability to evaluate and refine generalizations about the target culture.
  • To help students develop the necessary skills to locate and organize information about the target culture.
  • Finally, to stimulate intellectual curiosity about the target culture, and to encourage empathy towards its people.

In order to develop culture awareness, our pupils need regular opportunities to:

  • Come into contact with native speakers, for example through correspondence with penfriends.
  • Work with authentic materials as far as possible. In this sense it is a good idea to have some form of permanent link with a school in an English speaking country.
  • Consider and discuss the similarities and differences between the Spanish culture and the culture of English speaking countries.
  • Learn social conventions and sociolinguistic habits.

Students should also familiarize themselves with various forms of non-verbal communication. For example, proxemics –the perception and use of personal space, which is different in both cultures. Compared with Spaniards, North American and British people usually remain at a greater distance from one another.

Gestures are another important means of non-verbal communication. However, gestures have a very similar meaning in the western world. For example, nodding one’s head, and shaking on’e head sideways means “yes” and “no” respectively for people of western cultures, but the meaning in reversed in other cultures.

Textbooks, which are basic material used in the foreign language classroom should also be mentioned. Nowadays, textbooks have among their aims and objectives: to create an initial interest and enjoyment in foreign-language learning; to develop a positive attitude towards foreign cultures and people; to develop and awareness of the link between language and culture; to develop an awareness of language as an instrument of communication. So modern textbooks are very useful in this respect because besides improving the language skills they usually include aspects related to intercultural appreciation and communication.

Finally, to develop cultural insights, the classroom should reflect the culture of the English-speaking world. The following aspects can be incorporated into EFL teaching: maps and posters, magazine clippings -including comic strips and pictures; a table or shelf with objects such as stamps, money, artifacts, and a library corner. It is also interesting to carry out projects related to English-speaking culture which will then serve for class reporting and discussion. Such projects might include the following: preparation of maps, travel itineraries, menus, calendars indicating holidays, scrapbooks, etc. Additionally, culture may be experienced through songs, festivals, poems, multimedia resource material. A pen pal project should be initiated very soon after the students learn to write.

To conclude, the main aim of this essay is to put forward two basic ideas. Firstly, that culture is an integral part of language acquisition. In this case, the acquisition of English as a Foreign Language. Cultural understanding and cross -cultural comparisons, on the other hand, are necessary components of language pedagogy. The overall idea is that there is no clear division between language and culture acquisition, so the in essence ‘second language learning’ becomes ‘second culture learning’. And secondly, language learning will broaden the minds of our young learners, because they will encounter other ways of thinking about things, and it is also one good way to help them fully appreciate their own language.

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