Bilingual people have a more rounded perspective
‘Our teacher often talks about maple syrup and Canada,’ a Phorms student from Berlin once told me. Another felt that ‘you just speak differently to the American teachers’. It soon becomes clear that learning a new language is about much more than learning the right pronunciation, acquiring vocabulary and mastering grammar. Whenever people talk about learning a foreign language, they often overlook the fact that the language and culture are inextricably entwined.
Day-to-day communication, whether exchanging greetings or giving compliments, tends to be shaped by culture rather than being universal. Even when you compare German and English, there are plenty of differences in terms of how situations are expressed in language. A typical student’s question such as ‘Can I go to the toilet?’ may well be grammatically correct. In English-speaking countries, however, this particular phrasing is often seen as too explicit and direct. Therefore, language perpetually serves as a vehicle for transporting cultural content, norms and ideas.
Building on the realisation that language and culture always go hand in hand, intercultural learning has played an ever greater role in language teaching over the past three decades. ‘Intercultural communicative competence’ (ICC) is now regarded as a central learning objective in many curricula, including the Com-mon European Framework of Reference for Languages. The concept of intercultural competence is a multifaceted one.
Amongst other things, being interculturally competent means possessing knowledge of other cultures and identifying the po¬tential differences between your own culture and ‘foreign’ cultures. Respect for other cultures and the ability to be an intercultural speaker also take centre stage, with the latter indispensable in a globalised world. An intercultural speaker possesses the communication skills that enable them to converse in an appropriate manner with people from other cultures who speak different languages. This is growing ever more important in a globalised world, as English is used pre-eminently as a common language. Therefore, learners will encounter many situations in which they don’t just talk to native speakers, but also other people whose mother tongue isn’t English. In these instances, English is chosen as a shared means of communication.
It is believed that immersion schools teach these skills in a very natural way. Thanks to the scientific study of Phorms schools by the Freiburg University of Education, research is also carried out into students’ acquisition of intercultural competence. Intercul-tural learning goes hand in hand with language acquisition from the outset.
The international make-up of schools has a key role to play, too. At Phorms Campus München, for instance, 40 different national-ities are represented. Right from the start, students encounter a high degree of linguistic and cultural diversity, which they soon regard as perfectly natural.
Teaching staff from around the world can also be found at all seven sites. At the majority of institutions, around half of the teachers hail from various English-speaking countries such as Canada, the US, the United Kingdom, Australia and Ireland. Many of the teachers – including the German-speaking staff – have extensive international experience and some have even grown up bilingual.
Therefore, the international culture of teaching and learning plays a key role in terms of acquiring intercultural competencies. As the Phorms culture of learning facilitates the flexible and tailored deployment of teaching styles, the students encounter a plethora of different learning and teaching methods on a daily basis – and benefit from this diversity.
The ‘early morning routine’, in which the children recount their experiences, the reading week challenge and the weekly assembly are examples of how the culture of teaching and learning is influenced by the English-speaking world. Right from the start, the students experience a range of rituals and routines that give them valuable intercultural insights.
The fact that festivals and customs are integrated into lessons and a cultural day is offered make it possible to raise awareness of cultural topics and to promote an appreciation of other cultures. This intercultural content can be applied in all subjects.
Immersion schools are beneficial in that language skills are not only acquired ‘on the side’, but also open the door to numerous intercultural experiences thanks to the day-to-day teaching and the resulting direct contact with native speakers from many dif¬ferent countries. In the long term, this can result in a high level of intercultural competence. Alongside extensive cultural understanding, this also encompasses aspects such as empathy, tolerance and flexibility when dealing with people from a range of different cultures.
Matthias Hutzis a Professor of Educational Theory in English Language and Literature at the Freiburg University of Education. Previously, he was Professor of English Studies:
Intercultural Communication and Language Teaching Research at the University of Wuppertal. Since 2012, he and Professor Olivier Mentz have been running a research project on immersion in which the bilingual Phorms primary schools are studied scientifically and their approach analysed.