Intercultural skills today

What point have we reached in the teaching/learning of intercultural skills?

1. In recent decades, and above all in recent years, the European picture has profoundly changed. Many frontiers have disappeared, opening up the way to countless journeys, migratory movements and exchanges which have brought in their wake a huge mixture of cultures and languages. However, a multicultural reality and a plurilingual Europe have proved potential sources of incomprehension and conflict. Societies are fraught with all kinds of tensions; intolerance towards people who are different is on the increase. It sometimes seems that despite our efforts we are moving backwards rather than forwards in this regard, with more factors of division than ties that link and unite. How, then, should we approach “European unity”, how can we identify with Europe, how can we talk of a “European cultural identity”?

1.1 Psychological and social barriers

Paradoxically, at the beginning of this the 21st century, when not many frontiers remain in Europe, people are turning inwards and shutting themselves off from the outside world. The trend is certainly favoured by the rise of terrorism, by the difficulty - and indeed often the impossibility - of integrating newcomers into wealthy European societies, and by unemployment and economic hardship.

But there is more to it than that. Real frontiers are being replaced by psychological and sociological ones. Patriotism often gives way to more or less aggressive nationalism. People wonder what the future holds. Is it possible or desirable to erase all differences, to forget all the national traditions, the history, the customs that bear witness to each country’s and each individual’s identity? How far should unification go? Where there are no frontiers, where the cultural mix is very far advanced, we find that people begin to fear the loss of their own cultural identity. They are increasingly fearful of Others. Sometimes they even try to forget that Others exist, as long as they do not encroach too much on their own private “world”. They are afraid to open up to Others because of their fear of being eclipsed, of losing their place and position, of becoming too united with Others to the point where they lose their own identity. The OTHER becomes the STRANGER, and therefore STRANGE, BIZARRE, and frighteningly UNKNOWN.

At the same time, people have the impression that they know themselves less and less well. Such a multitude of different possibilities are served up to them on a plate that they end up confused. They find it hard to choose, to recognise what is good for them. This desire to open up to Others and get to know them goes missing, while in parallel people have increasing difficulty in knowing themselves, in recognising their own cultural identity.

1.2 The mirror effect

In his play “Huis clos”, Jean-Paul Sartre shows that the individual knows himself only through the existence of Others. We need an Other so that we can look into our own eyes as in a mirror. This is the famous mirror effect: if Others did not exist we could not be aware of our own identity, of our own culture, we would not know who we are. It is precisely this mirror process which gives rise to the intercultural space. For tolerance, or rather acceptance, of other cultures requires first of all the awareness of our own cultural identity.

1.3 Tolerance or acceptance

The difference between “tolerance” and “acceptance” is huge. “I tolerate” means: I consider myself better, but I can just tolerate the existence of other people by taking care that they do not impinge too much on my own life and my own habits, that they do not encroach on my value system. To tolerate means to hardly notice that Others exist and to want to have the least possible to do with them. “I tolerate” does not mean I know, I understand and I accept.

In order to accept, people must place themselves on the same level so as to know each other, to allow each other the same rights, to understand each other despite the differences. To accept does not mean to compare and judge who thinks/acts/reacts the better. We accept when we say: He doesn’t think/act/express himself/react like me; he is different, but he too has the same rights as I do. He has the right to be different.

1.4 Intercultural awareness

It is not possible to accept unless there is a strong desire to get to know one another, to understand one another, without however wishing to erase at all costs the differences that exist between us. It is at this point that we speak of intercultural awareness, the awareness that others exist, that they are different and that we must accept their difference if we are really to communicate with them and be able to live with, or even alongside, them.

One may travel a lot, one may live and work in another country; but without intercultural awareness, without that desire for contact, exchange and communication, our contacts with other cultures will be limited to sightseeing and museum visits, hotel rooms and changing currencies (where no single currency yet exists).

There are many examples of immigrants who have lived for 20 years or more in a foreign country but have not learnt the language or integrated with the local community. They continue to have contacts only with their compatriots, carefully keeping to their own language, traditions and customs. The reason is simple: they did not want to leave their own country but were forced to do so by economic or political circumstances.

There will never be cohesion in Europe without strong motivation and the will to communicate with others, without this intercultural awareness which prompts us to accept (not just tolerate) others and causes us to acquire intercultural awareness.

Intercultural awareness thus enables us to acquire intercultural skills which, when supported by language skills, render communication possible.

1.5 The need for intercultural education

Nowadays, in this multicultural, plurilingual Europe, the acquisition of intercultural skills is becoming more and more essential in order to live, work and communicate with other people. It is a process which makes it possible for the representatives of different cultures and languages to coexist in harmony and fosters social cohesion in Europe.

Thus education for interculturality is proving to be one of the principal objectives of all teaching/learning at school.

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