Teaching Foreign Languages in a Multicultural Environment -a communicative approach-
Ana Mihaela Istrate & Elena Museanu
Romanian-American University, Romania
The challenges of teaching foreign languages in the current higher education system worldwide is characterized by continuous changes in the social and economic development of certain areas of the world, but also by the migration process which started a couple of years ago. At the same time, the direct result of globalization and internationalization of the education system prompted foreign language teachers towards the implementation of new, modern and customized teaching methods, viable in a multicultural learning environment.
The present study highlights the importance of cultural differences and similarities in foreign language learning.
Starting from a profile analysis of international students enrolled with the Foundation Year of Language at the Romanian-American University in Bucharest we will discuss the challenges we cope with, as professors, the difficulties they encounter in the new language acquisition as well as the importance of ethnic and racial assimilation, in class.
Key words: foreign language teaching, globalization, migration, cultural differences
As a result of the recent increase in multilingualism, which is directly connected to the migration waves in recent times, the focus of the European Union on a multilingual Europe, incorporating and embracing multiculturalism, became an important field of research.
The purpose of the present study is to understand how language teachers and trainers should adapt their teaching methods, according to the demands of non-homogenous groups of learners. At the same time, an important issue is related to the cultural background of the learners, who belong to different geographical areas of the world and whose customs and traditions (learning patterns included) should be incorporated, in order to create a friendly learning environment, where students feel comfortable and have the will and pleasure to improve their language skills.
This article presents the findings of a three-year research into the groups of international students enrolled with the Foundation Year of Romanian as a Foreign Language, who choose to learn the new language for the purpose of improving their education, abroad.
If we are looking into the demographics, the group of international students, enrolled with learning Romanian as a foreign language, is made up in the wide majority by men, coming from specific geographical areas. Thus, we have students from: Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Lebanon, Morocco, Algeria, most of them of Muslim religion, who are all interested in applying for a bachelor program in medical studies, either in Romanian or English. However, they need Romanian from the first day of their enrollment with the medical studies program, because they start practice in hospitals, beginning with the first semester, and they need the language for the interaction with the patients.
Cultural Background in Language Acquisition
If we look into the definition of culture which, according to Geert Hofstede represents the collective programming of the human mind, that makes us behave differently, according to the social context in which we interact, we realize that one of the most important elements is language, so we have to admit that the two: culture and language, are inseparable.
According to Ned Seelye, we cannot isolate cultural background, because it would mean preventing individuals from becoming socialized in a contextual use. (Seelye, 1976)
“The advances made in terms of defining the content of language teaching, the emphasis on speech acts, functions of language and analysis of needs, for example, have led to a greater awareness of learners as social actors in specific relationships with the language they are learning, relationships which are determined by the sociopolitical and geopolitical circumstances in which they live”. (Byram & Grundy, 2003, p.1)
The 2015 migration crisis brought to Europe more that 1.300.000 people, that were forced to relocate to Europe due to political and social issues. In this context, a new need for the development of language programs for foreign learners increased dramatically.
Although Romania was not immediately impacted by the strong migration wave, during the last couple of years we could observe more applicants from countries such as Syria, Iran, Iraq or from African countries such as Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Congo, countries where people no longer feel safe from a political and social perspective and try to find solutions for a better lifestyle, affordable and improved living standards as well as better learning environments.
An important aspect in the process refers to the use of English as a language support, which sometimes is almost impossible, due to the fact that students come either with a basic background in English, or their second language is French, while the native language is Arabic.
In this situation, the international office, together with the teachers, developed a system of separation of students according to their level of English, but also according to their professional orientation: medical school, business school, legal studies, etc.
We, as trainers, need to understand the importance of the pedagogical approach, as we have to keep the pace with learners, and adjust teaching methods to their needs and wants. However, the most efficient method seems to be the training directly into the new language, making use of the communicative approach, which helps them enlarge and widen their linguistic systems. At the same time, we have more options for using modern means of communication, computers, the Internet, as well as field research (classes in the park or at the museum) to put the international students in a very natural environment, where the cultural aspects become more important that grammatical rules or memorization processes.
In second and third language acquisition, there are important components, that play an important part in the students’ performance: grammatical competence, sociolinguistic competence, strategic and discourse competence. (Canale and Swan, 1980)
At present, the Department of Foreign Languages at our university, focuses on improving skills related to sociolinguistic and strategic competences, that could help international students create a system of meaning based on situational and contextual interaction. Last but not least, strategic competences can equip the learners with a set of tools for the reinforcement of their will to learn and communicate.
At any level, particularly at the academic one, learning a second or third language for educational purposes demands an extremely high level of involvement, not only from student’s perspective, but also from the tutor/ teacher perspective. Depending on the level of involvement of the teacher, on the approach used in his/ her interaction with the learner, the process can be facilitated. On the other hand, we should not forget the importance of student’s inner interest to learn the new language, and the motivation behind this difficult attempt. Because we all have to admit that Romanian is not an easy language.
Considering the different factors that determine learners to start learning a new language, at adult level we, as trainers, need to quickly adapt methods and techniques, to incorporate all modern tools, and move towards an era of modern teaching/ learning, where communication is key.
Byram, M., Grundy, P., 2003. Context and Culture in Language Teaching and Learning, in Language, Culture and Curriculum,, Vol.15, No.3, p.1
Canale, M., Swan, M., 1980. Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing, in Applied Linguistics, Volume I, Issue 1, 1 March 1980, pages 1-47
Seelye, N., 1976. Teaching culture: Strategies for foreign language educators. Lincolnwood National Textbook Company
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