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Towards Intercultural Literacy in a Polish FL Classroom

by Maria Walat from NKJO Bydgoszcz


In order to present problems that may occur when implementing an intercultural approach in ELT let me quote Dirk Bogarde’s comments upon his coming back to England after he had lived in Provence, France for twenty years

My arrival in London was a bit of a shock, ... . Now, thrown suddenly into urban life, on one’s own, ......, having to cope by oneself with food, and drink, the laundry, the gas meter, the shopping, ..., I confess that I found myself in an extremely disjointed state. I had to remember how to cross a road, not to call people in shops ‘Monsieur’ or ‘Madame’, as had been my habit, never to shake hands with a waiter (I do, anyway), and try to work out that there were now fifty pence to what had been, when I left, ten shillings. It was bewildering, to say the least. (A Short Walk from Harrods, 1994)

The above observations do throw some light on problems one can encounter when coping with another culture. Will the intercultural approach help Polish students of English feel less bewildered when they find themselves in the target language culture? Can it be of assistance to language teachers, whether at NKJOs or Liceums who attempt to teach culture in their language classes? How can learning about a culture become a process of cross-cultural education, which requires aJanus-faced perception of both the learner’s and the foreign language’s cultural context? The approach provides no definite answers, however, it does offer some solutions and points out some directions in the teaching of culture.

Why ‘commute between worlds’?

Both the objectives of a global approach and the fact that Poland is facing European integration call forthe implementation of concepts like ‘intercultural learning’ and ‘intercultural understanding’ if not in all school subjects at least in foreign language teaching. How can this concept of being able to ‘commute between worlds’ (Apatride in Kramsch, 1996: 205) be achieved when the teaching of culture is still decidedly influenced by the idea of the foreign-cultural approach as defined by Risager (1998: 243)? This latter approach focuses on the target country culture (C2) and neither references to the home culture (C1) nor to relations between C2 and C1 are made. As the intercultural approach supposedly replaced the foreign cultural approach in the 1980s (Risager 1998: 243)3 its general assumptions should be discussed first. 

Background to intercultural language learning

The main focus of this approach is on C2 but it also deals with C1 and the relations between the two. These relations include aspects of dominance, and intercultural attitudes leading to the exchange of ideas, information, and interpersonal actions between persons from different groups or nations. Kramsch calls it ‘dialectic’ meaning a dialogue between two conflicting viewpoints. It is the dialogue that allows for reaching a common ground, when differences are recognised and accepted (1996: 14). Teaching of culture becomes, then, an ‘interpersonal process’ (1996: 205) that leads to an understanding of what is foreign.

What has to be stressed is the fact that the approach places emphasis on national identity and as comparisons between C2 and C1 are incorporated this presumably develops a reflective attitude towards C1 in learners. Kramsch additionally notes that it includes a reflection on both cultures, C1 and C2, thus establishing a ‘sphere of inteculturality” (1996: 205). Pulverness further postulates that it should ‘be axiomatic that all cultural learning (...) be reflexive’ (1999: 3).

Neuner draws our attention to a cognitive aspect of L2 and C2 learning which include ‘procedures of comparing, inferring, interpreting, discussing and negotiating the meaning of phenomena in the foreign world’ (1996: 2) putting stress on the development of procedural knowledge. What becomes absent and what many educators advocate as being basic to the two dimensional approach, is the presentation of cultural facts, that is declarative knowledge.

Another point that Neuner stresses is of relevance to the selection of topics when it comes to culture teaching. He says that the criteria for their (respective) choice should not aim at completeness of information and representativeness but also take into account accessibility, comprehensibility, and the (positive) affective appeal of phenomena to the learner (19 96: 237).

The Example of Heritage

Why is knowledge of tradition and cultural heritage beneficial to language learners?

The starting point for the discussion is an assumption that the cultural identity of the language learners encompasses a common heritage of a group and is anchored in the group’s essential values through its language, ancestors, religion or territory. When learning a foreign language and its culture a learner has to come to terms not only with his/her cultural identity but also with the fact that the latter becomes infused with new elements when in a dialogue with the traditions, ideas, experience and values of that target language culture. In order to enable a learner to engage in the cultural dialogue a “common platform of reference” is needed. The culture of the past or rather C1«C2 cultural heritage can be looked upon as this “tertium comparationis”.

Furthermore, it may be expected that the native culture (C1) and the target language culture (C2) when combined will lead to an intercultural literacy in the foreign language learners. (This in turn can be conceived as soft power in the integrating Europe). Furthermore, concepts like identity, otherness, exclusion clarify why intercultural literacy might be required in Polish learners of a foreign language. It has to be stressed that ELT literature puts emphasis on the culture of everyday. Therefore, the main aim of this paper is to demonstrate why it is of importance to introduce elements of cultural heritage of C1 and C2into ELT.

A nation’s cultural identity 1

There is evidence to suggest that the concepts of identity and cultural heritage are interrelated: “(c)ulture provides a people with identity” (Arildsen et al. 1991:17). Human beings identify with the culture they live in, and the language of that particular culture supplies them with an identity (de Wout) 1996:15).

  • A country’s cultural identity plays an important role in fixing public memory on the past and makes them understandable and memorable for future generations.

  • Furthermore, cultural identity incorporates not only the consciousness of the past, that is memory, but also collective experiencing of the present and a willingness of founding on it a common future (Żygulski 1986, in Gajda 1999:190).

  • What is more, a human being in order to build his/her identity needs not only self-respect and personal recognition but also acknowledgement of his/her nationality and tradition. However, in order to achieve that he/she needs “significant others”. An individual, then, aspiring for self-identification needs others to form the ‘self’ as “’(i)dentity’ implies a relationship to what is different ... ” (Pieterse 1993: 229). Hence the concept of cultural others. Thus in the teaching of the culture of a foreign language the identity issue has to be taken into account as it is suggested that self-acceptance and the recognition of cultural others are of crucial importance when in contact with a target culture.

The significance of cultural heritage

It is important to acknowledge that the cultural identity of nations is put at risk mainly by the process of cultural globalisation. This concern was expressed by UNESCO as early as 1982, and resulted in an international conference the outcome of which was the so-called Mexican Declaration. The document emphasised those matters which enhance cultural identity in connection with contacts with other cultures. Among those of importance was a nation’s rich cultural heritage. When learning a foreign language and its culture a learner’s cultural identity is given a chance of being infused with elements of C2, and allows him/her to open to otherness. In other words, it implies readiness towards a wider perception of reality and makes one realise that there are different interpretations of that reality. Consequently, dialogue with another culture becomes an enlightening experience.

Poland and the European context

Two obstacles can be identified that can impede the teaching of culture in Poland. These are the peripheral position of Poland in the uniting Europe and the state of contemporary Polish society.

Grad (1999: 99-101) when analysing contemporary Polish society documents the dominance of a new mass lifestyle. He notices that among other things there is a disappearance of cultural needs and there is a noticeable drive towards cultural consumption which results in a reluctance to participate in the high culture. Grad also refers to Darendorf (1990) who comments on these developments in the following way:

When totalitarian pressure gets weaker people rush to grab at the tabloids, hamburgers, dishwashing machines, shiny motorcycles, and holidays at the Costa Brava. If some of the solid values could be saved it would be a good idea, but it is difficult to say how it could be done. (author’s translation)

What is more, Polish consciousness is characterised by being present-orientated, meaning that Poles live in the ‘culture of the present’ (Tarkowska 1993 in Grad 1999). Galas (2000: 34) claims that as a result of postmodernism, tradition has lost its intellectual authority. Distancing from one’s own cultural heritage 2 could also imply a lack of interest in C2 heritage in a language classroom.

What follows from them is that the treatment of culture would require special recognition in Polish education.

Openness (vs. exclusion)

Education can be seen as “fostering openness to others” (Zarate 1997: 20) and the concept of openness to others is often used as a justification for learning foreign languages (standing in opposition to closure to others). The points on which the European ideology governing the formulation of an educational strategy is based are as follows:

Genuine democracy is affirmed in identity-based terms according to the model or equality between the national cultures present in the European political area;

European citizenship, an affirmation of political unity, is expressed in educational terms as the tolerant assertion of national differences 3;

For the European Union countries, the principle of subsidiarity entails “bringing the common cultural heritage to the fore” (Article 128 of the Maastricht Treaty); (Zarate 1997: 20).

“Tertium comparationis”

It might be argued at this point that if Polish learners of a foreign language want to interact on equal terms with other people from Europe then they should be aware of not only their own heritage but also of the heritage of a target language community as well. With respect to the above, the concept of “tertium comparationis” i.e. “a common platform of reference” (Krzeszowski 1989, in Jakubowska 1999:37) may be introduced without the establishment of which it is not possible to conduct any comparisons. A common platform of reference can be tradition and cultural heritage 4 as they are at the core of a country’s national identity (cf. Zarate 1997:21) and a source of strength for an individual. Therefore, if Polish learners of English are to be able to mediate, reflect on and interpret attitudes, value systems and viewpoints of their own culture and those of the foreign culture then the cultural heritage of both C1 and C2 should be dealt with in a FL classroom. This entails however, adopting wider educational aims within the area of foreign language teaching.

There are several concepts that might be of importance when we want to tackle the above issues. These are the concepts of ‘imagined community 5, collective identity, the cult of the past vs. the cult of the present, and the notion of exclusion.

The conceptualisation of imagined communities makes it easier to understand that discourse communities are characterised not only by facts and figures, and artefacts but also by cultural imagination that is mediated through the language and reflects its cultural reality of history, tradition, heritage, and memory (cf. Kramsch 1998: 8). Therefore, it seems that there should be little doubt whether heritage and tradition of C2 and respectively C1 are to be explored in a language classroom.

Why the past?

It might be useful to explore some of the issues concerning the manner in which the past can be approached.

Brodski (Gazeta Wyborcza No 22, 26 Jan. 2001) states that it is one of the vices of the contemporary world is that it focuses too much on the present and the future as if they were of great significance; whereas what really matters is the past with references to eternity. The true picture of the world is not prejudged by the visible present but by the invisible eternity and the past.

Maier (Gazeta Wyborcza No 128 2-3 June 2001) presents another perspective saying that it is important to acknowledge that for more or less thirty years there has been a growing interest in the past that he calls a ‘memory boom’. Rather than being concerned with the future, as Western civilisation has been since the Enlightenment, societies spend their energy on understanding their history and their neglected memory. There has been a growing tendency for the “cult of the past”, and heritage has become a part of modern consciousness. McCrone maintains that “(h)eritage is a thoroughly modern concept. ... . (It) is a condition of the late twentieth century ...” (1995:1-2).

What follows from this, concretely, is that emphasis needs to be placed on our own interpretation of the past and this implication should be aimed at in a language classroom. Students are supposed to see the developments presented above with regards to the past, i.e. either the cultivation of the present or the past, as they are essential to understanding post-modern societies.

Why might this knowledge be of importance?

It should not be overlooked that in the context of a changing Europe Poles can be perceived as ‘cultural others’ (Konopacki 1999:121). Moreover, Geremek argues that there is a danger of a new European consensus of exclusion regarding future European states 8. He stresses the fact that it is a role of education to fight with the exclusion of those who have been marginalised, either economically or culturally. In addition, education as such then stands in opposition to the most painful of exclusions, which is that of ignorance (1998:227-232). Hence, the concept of intercultural literacy will be introduced where C1«C2 cultural knowledge can be perceived as ‘soft power’. Bredow (2001) defines this concept in the following way: “... power resources as culture, ideology, and institutions (...) can be called soft power”.

Towards a pedagogy of intercultural literacy

The literature indicates that literacy means much more than just an ability to read and write. 9 Meek’s explanation, referring to literacy, is very illuminating. She states that: Being literate includes the degree to which we are, or want to be, ‘in the know’ about what is regarded as important. In the common sphere of our cultural and social life, certain kinds of knowing make a great deal of difference to people’s lives. So, literacy becomes a means of access, a way of getting to know what counts (1991:52). (emphasis added)

One of the problems that language educators have to face with reference to the above is to decide what in the complex technological world counts as important and consequently leads to literacy. Hirsch (1987: xvii) is very enlightening in this respect. Drawing on anthropology, he explains that effective communication requires a shared culture, 10 and that shared cultureis a result of transmission of specific information to learners.

The most significant aspect of literacy to consider is the one offered by Laib (1988:286) who suggests that literacy is the ability to shape and reshape language, and what is more it is a ‘heightened form of a dialogue’ and the means of transcending barriers. It embodies and transmits culture and is perceived as the end result of education. So it is a goal rather than a skill. His elucidation in particular lends further weight to the concept of cultural literacy.

Why intercultural literacy

In foreign language and culture acquisition the notion of intercultural literacy would mean that only by accumulating shared symbols in L2 and C2 and in L1 and C1 learners will be able to communicate effectively with members of a foreign language community. A basic premise of this paper is to state that “to be culturally literate is to possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world” (Hirsch 1987: xiii) as ‘being in the know’ leads to empowerment. Consequently cultural knowledge becomes ‘soft power’.

To conclude, it has to be stressed that ‘being in the know’ with respect to C2 and C1 is not enough. It is worth noting here that a model for intercultural literacy is not that of domination but dialectic, i.e. of debate and argumentation, when students discover and test truths by discussion (Hirsch 1987:11). It is a process of participation and contribution, of transformation and of being transformed. It leads to the discovery of ‘self’ (Meek 1991:234) and all the different mixtures and modes of meaning that surround people. As a result, intercultural literacy and dialogue help one to cope with the world.

Little is currently available in the way of teaching material in this area. References can be made to a set of materials entitled “British Studies Materials for English Teachers in Poland. A Cross-Cultural Approach”. They are the result of a British Studies materials writing project co-ordinated by the British Council and were produced by a team of Polish teachers. There are four units that are devoted to cultural heritage there.


1 A nation’s cultural identity has several components, three of them of great significance, i.e. a historical, linguistic, and psychological. They are specified below:

History as such holds a nation together, and by doing so, assures its unity, making the nation resistant to attacks from the outside.

Language performs the same state-building function. It is also instrumental in perpetuation of culture.

Psychological constituent, the most debatable one, refers to the mental faculties of a nation and is connected with its worldview (Gajda 1999:190).

2 References can be made to Northern Ireland where the Department of Education required that all subjects of the New Common Curriculum should incorporate elements of a theme entitled ‘cultural heritage’ (Farren: 1991).

3 A didactic model to be produced for introducing the cultural component in language learning should avoid promotion of a given country’s prominent national values and dissociate the cultural component from approaches which may result in nationalist excess.

4 Heritage seems to be a wider term than tradition as its definition incorporates the latter: “Something other than property passed down from preceding generations; legacy; tradition” whereas tradition has been defined as “The passing down of elements of a culture from generation to generation, especially by oral communication; or a mode of thought or behaviour followed by a people continuously from generation to generation; a cultural custom or usage; or a set of such customs and usages viewed as a coherent body of precedents influencing the present”. (Heritage Illustrated Dictionary of the English Language 1973:  617, 1360).

5 The conceptualisation of imagined communities makes it easier to understand that discourse communities are characterised not only by facts and figures, and artefacts but also by cultural imagination that is mediated through the language and reflects its cultural reality of history, tradition, heritage, and memory (cf. Kramsch 1998: 8). Therefore, it seems that there should be little doubt whether heritage and tradition of C2 and respectively C1 are to be explored in a language classroom.

6 This notion also signals that the nation has to be imagined, and that refers both to its history and to its present. Various social and literary narratives, symbols and visual representations function “in the name of the people” and serve as sources of cultural identity (Knauer 2000: 21).

7 Heritage is understood as something valuable and important which belongs to members of a community and becomes for them “a vital source of legitimacy” (McCrone 1995:  7). Moreover, a conscious participation in cultural heritage gives a sense of belonging not only to national culture but European and Mediterranean ones (Kopaliński 1985: 5). 

8 Within this perspective Konopacki argues that from the very beginning European integration has been carried out in the spirit of ‘great closure’. It has been directed against non-Europeans who as the ‘Others’ found themselves on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Today, the concept of exclusion has its continuity in European citizenship that aims indirectly not towards exclusion but inclusion of the ‘Other’. Therefore, European enlargement, apart from overcoming economic and legal problems, should aspire towards a new vision of citizenship, the one that would work not against the Other but towards the Other in a form of a dialogue and responsibility towards the Other (1999: 121-2).

9 The most significant aspect of literacy to consider is the one offered by Laib (1988:286) who suggests that literacy is the ability to shape and reshape language, and what is more it is a ‘heightened form of a dialogue’ and the means of transcending barriers. It embodies and transmits culture and is perceived as the end result of education. So it is a goal rather than a skill. His elucidation in particular lends further weight to the concept of cultural literacy.

10 It has already been suggested that one of the concepts of cultures defines it as the ‘activities and ideas of people with shared traditions’ (Collins Dictionary of the English Language). This notion of ‘shared tradition’ implies that there are common links within a group of people. Psychologists explain these associations by means of schema theory. “A schema is a mental model which our brain uses to codify actions, beliefs, memories and experiences in Long Term Memory” (Catterick 1999:21). Consequently, an absence of culturally relevant schemata may lead to feelings of social or cultural dissonance.


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