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What Is the Potential of Modern Language Teaching to Promote Intercultural Understanding?

Paper Type: Free Assignment Study Level: University / Undergraduate
Wordcount: 7155 words Published: 10th Jul 2019

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This essay is set out to explore the promotion of intercultural understanding (IU), more specifically through the lenses of modern language teaching. IU focuses on the integration of social positions, practices and power relations of sociocultural difference understood by individuals or groups within a society – Pope, R. L., Reynolds, (2004). I believe it is an important issue within society and underlines some of the issues facing today within the education system. Over the years, articles found in the news such as the ‘Guardian’ have highlighted the fact that our language classrooms are in crises and have raised the question of how this can be improved. The Guardian, (2013) I have been on both sides of the education system as a student and now a teacher and I have felt isolated from the other subjects within the curriculum to teach IU due to the sheer lack of cross-departmentalisation. Modern language teaching does have its uniqueness within the national curriculum (NC) which allows the exploration of IU out of the mother tongue, but this uniqueness is not sufficed on its own. This essay focuses on the importance of IU through literature, first-hand experiences within both private and state education and then concludes with proposed solutions towards my own pedagogy and how it will make a difference to me as teacher moving forward. Outside the classroom so far this has led me to develop into a social enterprise called Languages that talk.

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As both globally and nationally, classrooms are situated within increasingly complex, entangled, and diverse human conditions, as well as the idea of intercultural and multicultural education becoming ever more popular. The persistence of racial inequality in different nations as well as in schooling is undeniable (Luke 2008) In order to understand the development of intercultural understanding (IU) we need to indeed go backward in order go forward.  From as far back as 3000 BC, communication was not only providing a solution for communication within society but used for trade, power and rulers. As society gradually become more developed and expanded, contact between speakers of different languages became more regular and severed greater purposes as well as for the community. Many were learning the culture and religion of others to barter across the transatlantic and eventually all over the world. Linguanomics, (2017) If we take the example of Marco Polo 1266, due to his multilingualism he was able to travel, trade and build relationships with multiple communities all over the world which as result meant that he had also accumulated advanced knowledge about cultural indifference during his time spent traveling overseas. Soon he was sought after by emperors and tradesmen. Without dwelling into great detail, the history of trade and intercultural learning is stuffed with accounts of the rise and fall of languages (Linguanomics, 2017). Within today’s societal attitudes IU often embraces not only the linguistical part of the journey but also the cultural diversity, clothes worn, as well as values and languages followed.

Growing up within one, if not the most multi-cultural city in the world, London, it would be bizarre to not find the promotion of IU through language teaching within schools at the forefront within the education system. However, over the years, educational policies around intercultural languages have been under reform and whilst there had been an acknowledgement that intercultural understanding is important it has not been seen as essential and therefore has not moved into an area of urgencies such as the science technology engineering and math subjects (STEM) The Guardian, (2013). However, the question posed is what the purpose of is promoting intercultural understanding besides the need and value for language teaching brings about? How can multilingualism be exploited and become an invaluable source to promote social well-being and economic growth as early as within the classroom.

Over years the definition of IU has morphed in various forms within the UK education system. Whilst applied linguists have claimed the inseparable relationship between culture and language for many years, the cultural dimension in languages education has been approached from a variety of perspectives (Risager, 2006). Since the 70’s there has been a shift in focus to cultural learning for more pragmatic purposes in response to the growing need for intercultural communication for business and political purposes. Indeed, economist Barry Chadwick points out that ‘having the ability to function in the language and culture of the host economy can have a significant pay off in terms of promoting social adjustment and civic participation Bleakley, A (2004). Yet despite the statements offer, IU remains a non-essential skillset within schools. Within UK schools, citizenship is taught and much of what the framework sets out to be is very much interlinked with what the overarching aim of what MFL promotes within the classroom. It is important to note however that the link between language and culture appreciation means that we do not only just learn another’s language for the sake of lingua franca, nor the sharing of a com but we learn how our society can work collaboratively for the greater good and responsibility towards others Edwards, J (2012) Culture learning started moving towards a closer focus on society and social structures. (Risager,K 2007). By the late 1980s, the cultural dimension was clearly established in language teaching and was commonly referred to as culture appreciation (CA) as sub-development from the original definition of IU.

Since 1988, the traditions of the European Union (EU) members have argued that fostering harmonious relationships with people from other cultures should be an explicit purpose of language teaching.  (European Commission, 1988) Cultural and linguistic learning should, therefore, be closely integrated for the learner should become not only communicatively, but also interculturally competent (Byram, 1997).  As a first step, this essay looks towards the work with Garrido and Álvarez (2006) who state that ‘It is necessary to raise awareness of the theoretical rationales for intercultural languages education so that the link between philosophy and practice becomes more explicit’  For example, the Department for Education and Science (DES) in England and Wales claimed that it was the responsibility of MFL teachers to help ‘learners to appreciate that they are citizens not only of the United Kingdom but also of Europe’ (DES, 1999) However it was not until 2007 that the phrase ‘intercultural’ found its way into MFL policy texts for the English National Curriculum in secondary schools. The revised MFL program of study states: ‘Learning languages contributes to mutual understanding, a sense of global citizenship’ and lists ‘IU’ as one of the four key concepts underpinning the study of languages (DSFC, 2007).  In the latest version of the 2013 National curriculum, the purpose of language learning is highlighted as ‘a liberation from insularity and provides an opening to other cultures. DfE, (2013) In goes on to state that ‘A high-quality languages education should foster pupils’ curiosity and deepen their understanding of the world.’ If we compare this to citizenship we can see a similarity within the two aims within the curriculum. Here it states, ‘They should experience and evaluate different ways that citizens can act together to solve problems and contribute to society.’ It follows on by explaining the ‘importance of diverse national, regional, religious and ethnic identities in the United Kingdom and the need for mutual respect and understanding’ DfE, (2013).The use of MFL to promote CA through the language is achieved in both and therefore highlights the importance of cross departmentalisation in order to convey and promote the same message. Integrating IU from various viewpoints allows students to see the crossover of subject aims rather as disconnected.

Placing the changes towards the National Curriculum and examination reviews aside, one of the main reasons languages have slumped in popularity within the education system according to Lid king, chairman of Speak to the Future, a campaign for languages states that ‘the value of languages isn’t conveyed to students or headteachers anymore. Languages have been seen as ‘important but not essential’, unlike the STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] subjects. (Guardian, 2013) Intercultural understanding at this point has attempted to convey its importance within society however has failed at being seen as vital within the future of the world of work.  If we take the Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological theoretical framework around intercultural education, we are able to identify that the barrier of promoting IU through MFL teaching is not just about a ‘equipping students with certain amount knowledge about others’ but in fact unpacking the processes around representations and interpretations around others. Bourdieu, P (1977) His social analysis of cultural reproduction is linked to education, in which, he argues that the field of education is a site where existing social structure is perpetuated and reproduced (Swartz 1997). In regard to IU, pre-existing knowledge or perceptions on cultures standards can and does exist through verifying levels social structures i.e. Cultural capital. Cultural capital refers to forms of knowledge, and educational credentials, and symbolic capital refers to socially recognized legitimization such as prestige or honour.  These can also be formally categorized within family, art, education and class. Bourdieu, (1990). Schools are agents of neutralizing, Bourdieu and Passeron (1990) and within modern language teaching our aim as the teacher is to disassemble and demystify these.

Bourdieu argues that we are not the sole authors of our perceptions, thoughts, and (re)actions because we are all inescapably constituted within a variety of historically constituted social and political discourses. Within his work, Bourdieu speaks of the role and effect of habitus.  He defines this as ‘a system of durable transposable dispositions that is progressively inscribed in people’s minds’ (1984, 471) Thus, habitus is a product of early childhood behaviour which is continually modified by the individual’s later reactions with the world. The elements of social spaces can be collectively defined cultural capital.  If we look at first hand examples within both sectors we can draw upon a few distinctive divergences between the two and perhaps one could argue that IU is better promoted within the MFL classrooms within the private sector. Within the world of education, the hierarchical distinctions are drawn in and what constitutes cultural capital in education are more arbitrarily favourable to those children from upper and middle classes than to those from the lower class. (Swartz,1997) This can be echoed with the statement made by Raveaud, who claimed ‘Middle class parents want middle-class schools and schools want middle-class pupils (M, Raveaud 2007). Furthermore, Bourdieu (1989) stated that ‘schools are not as neutral as they are appearing as they have adopted a Comprehensive education system.’ The same national curriculum yet a vast range of advantages, are created and offered for those who can embrace them and therefore not offered proportionally. However as already identified, not all are as fortunate to be within this position as Diane Reay (2012) highlights the reality of this inequality within the education system today. This can suggest discrepancies within the education system and furthermore how the translation of IU can in fact produce a monocultural perspective if it’s not transmitted consistently across the board. This can be exemplified through a simple comparison between two school ethos’s and the implicit language used, the first from the private and latter state.

One private school in London states that “to encourage all pupils to develop to their full potential by stimulating their intellectual curiosity, enthusiasm, and imagination. To promote excellence in academic, creative and athletic endeavours. To teach the value of integrity, morality and a concern for others. To enhance pupils’ appreciation of their own and other cultures. To develop pupils’ self-confidence and independence so that they are well equipped to play an active role in society.

If we explore the school policy above, they have incorporated a strong focus and the importance of developing a cultural understanding which enables and encourages the students to embrace their role within society. This also highlights that cultural understanding does not have to be solely promoted within the language classroom but is a responsibly of everyone within the school network to encourage this integration. Furthermore, the use of high register language indicates the type of demographic who will find this way of thinking to fit into their habitus. On the other hand, if we look into a vision adopted by a local state school this proclaims


‘To implement a policy that is extremely inclusive, ambitious and challenging which will move all members of the community forward. There is a belief that through teamwork we can succeed both individually and collectively through the words Aspire, believe succeed. We succeed by achieving to our full potential and making a positive contribution to the wider community” 


From the latter school policy, we can analyse the use of language used and immediate differences between the two schools regarding the lack of promotion towards global citizenship and the appreciation of the other cultures. This may not, of course, imply that within this school they do not promote such temperaments, however, they do not have this implemented implicitly within their quota which can exemplify a lot about the culture of the school and its reflective practices to what it would like their students to adopt.

Another area to consider is recent budget cuts within teaching and the implications it has had on modern language teaching. The most drastic impact this has had is on language assistants and school trips abroad. British council stated that Language assistants can act as ‘myth-busters’ and show pupils that national stereotypes, although they may arguably have an element of truth in them, should not be followed blindly. British Council (2015)Spending time with a language assistant within the MFL lesson from countries where the target language is spoken in invaluable. This allows students to develop a more realistic impression of what it means to come from another country rather than relying on a textbook ‘but more importantly, it helps them develop a better understanding of other cultures ‘However according to a recent study from the British council, ‘only one-third of state schools employ a language assistant, compared with 73% of independent schools. The other alternative has been language assistants that have been proven very popular and overall very positive for the student’s motivation and confidence within the language. Language assistants are known for their high impact on student’s language learning. As well as extending students language vocabulary bank, general understanding of the language and most importantly cultural awareness and confidence’ (British Council report 2017).

The second most invaluable experience that Language assistances advocate within the MFL classroom is allowing pupils to travel the world without leaving the classroom. However, over the recent years reports around budget cuts within the education system have shown that ‘Only 30% of state schools still run exchange trips with a host family; in comparison to 77% of independent schools do so’ Language Trends 2016/17For many students within the state sector, being able to experience cultural difference outside of the classroom boils down to a lack of disposable income to fund trips outside of their home town. This means that social mobility and disposable income can highlight a strong correlation between understanding different perspectives and intercultural learning experiences. Therefore, the link between language and the country of origin is heavily relied on to the presence of a language assistant. In fact, from first-hand experience many students I have met have found IU irrelevant to their current lives as they have ‘never been on a plane before’ and having to talk on a typical MFL topic such as holidays for many, feels unconnected as they ae forced to make up a holiday in order to pass the topic. As a result, language assistants become many student’s first time many students interacting with someone out or their immediate community and the town. Needless to say, thanks to school budget cuts parents still wishing to take advantage of these invaluable resources, will need to predominantly fund them independently, which as we know excludes millions of families. Unlike in the private sector, school trips and family holidays are very much part of the norm and therefore becoming well-travelled and thus having their minds stimulated outside the classroom holds a huge advantage towards IU and their educational etiquette. Shim, J.M (2011)

If we return back to Bourdieu’s habitus framework, in light of today’s educational disadvantages inside and outside the language classroom, as we know, the access these extra resources are few and far within state education. Diane Raey highlights that “some children in these (state) schools talked wistfully about hardly ever doing art, drama or dance: “These children come from families where their parents can’t afford to pay for them to do those activities out of school. It almost feels criminal. It feels very unfair.” The Guardian (2017) This has a huge impact on social divide and detracts students from different backgrounds to share the same social situation and thus the same educational experience. Bourdieu, (1997) These islands of exclusion that exist can stem from the MFL classroom and in fact can become a barrier to promoting intercultural understanding as it doesn’t allow all students to experience it.  She goes on to state that 

“If you’re a working-class child, you’re starting the race halfway round the track behind the middle-class child’ Reay (2017) echo’s the economic depravity highlighted within the education system underpinning the fact ‘that the difference between amounts spent on educating children privately or in the state sector is stark’.  Reay cites research from University College London that found ‘£12,200 a year is the average spending on a privately educated primary pupil, compared with £4,800 on a state pupil. For secondary, it’s £15,000 compared with £6,200.  As we know, the advantage of attending private schools does allow one to embrace better school facilities and as well as a greater leg up than students within state. This has allowed a small minority of students to explore intercultural understanding or indeed become more aware of culture appreciation within society in greater exposure than others. L.D.Rico (2006)

On the other hand, if we look outside of framework proposed above, we can explore the impact that teachers can have as vehicles of promoting intercultural understanding within the classroom through their own pedagogy and how this is transmitted. The role of the teachers underpinning IU can be highlight as a traditional claim by the Department for Education and Science (DES) in England when they stated that it was the responsibility of MFL teachers to help ‘learners to appreciate that they are citizens not only of the United Kingdom but also of Europe’ (DES, 1990)

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If we look into further detail to these specific factors the work of Varghese, Morgan, Johnston and Johnson (2005), who maintain that in order to understand language teaching and learning we need to understand teachers; and in order to understand teachers, we need to have a clearer sense of who they are: the professional, cultural, political and individual identities which they claim, or which are assigned to them. The direct impact of social demographics, personalities, educational values and interest may also encourage or inhibit pedagogical attention to Intercultural Understanding within the national curriculum. Pointed out by researchers in the field of intercultural and multicultural education, the tendency to focus on differences, diversity, and learning about others, attending solely to individual effort within micro-contexts of classrooms and schools (e.g. empathy, good intention, teacher commitment, and student empowerment) is also prevalent.

Aleksandrowicz-Pędich et al. (2003) found that teachers who were keen to incorporate intercultural learning in their teaching were frequently motivated by positive personal experiences of intercultural relationships. In fact, Starkey (2007) revealed that some MFL teachers were keen to relive the formative intercultural experiences from their own lives through their students. Whilst time spent abroad can be counted as belonging to teachers’ life experiences. The focus on the types opportunities that were created through adopting a genuine interest into others enable one to reflective holistically and understand others in greater clarity and empathy. Bryam argued that fostering harmonious relationships with people from other cultures should be an explicit purpose of language teaching. Cultural and linguistic learning should, therefore, be closely integrated in order that the learner should become not only communicative but also intercultural competent (Byram, 1997).

However, although many teachers have undergone training off the curriculum, simply developing the application of the subject and making connections within practice has highlighted the lack of attention to the intercultural approach within the classroom. Sticking too much to the book not drawing upon their experiences can demotivate students from feeling connected to this subject. Garrido and Álvarez (2006) underline the shortcomings of teacher education. They claim that although current language teacher education programmes are both ‘good at developing the application of the knowledge of the subject and the management of the teaching and learning process’, when it comes to making connections between philosophical and educational theoretical frameworks and pedagogical practice, there are significant weaknesses. One of the main motivators for becoming a teacher of Business studies and French was the opportunities I was able to embrace during my studies. Not only did I embark on a year abroad, I managed to immerse myself in the culture and view my own culture from another angle. This enabled me to form a greater patience towards others and shake any ignorance that the world revolved around the English language. Indeed, there were moments where I wanted to offer my assistance, but students couldn’t comprehend me, linguistically and this became a frustration that I had to find a solution for which resulted with challenging and diffusing my linguistic habitus.

Moreover, on a community-based level, I noticed that I couldn’t share these experiences with other students of my background and ethnicity due to the fact that I was the only student from the black Asian minority ethnicities on my course at the time who had studied modern language up to a degree level. (BAME) I wanted to use my experiences of being a British born black female student who didn’t attend a private school but through the interest in MFL and learning and living in another culture other than my own. Through this I managed to broaden my horizons and I felt the need to inspire other students from similar backgrounds to understand how important cultural understanding can be and how this can be promoted through the language classroom. It is therefore proven the Intercultural understanding is subjective and can be heavily influenced by the teacher’s personal conceptualizations of IU, and how it is influenced by their experiential personal and professional histories (Connelly & Clandinin, 1985), i.e. what does/should IU look like in terms of teaching and learning. Drawing from experiences and therefore applying them within the classroom can have an invaluable effect on student motivation and understanding to the matter.

The various aspects of self-understanding are complemented by what Kelchtermans refers to as ‘SET’, that is the ‘personal system of knowledge and beliefs about education that teachers use when performing their job’ Kelchtermans, G. (2009) which develops during teacher education courses mixed with more personal experiences in applied situations. Within this framework the teacher’s identity and connection towards the role and purpose of an MFL teacher can have direct impacts on the success of the intercultural promotion.  Within this framework Kelchtermans designed, the following 4 out of 5 concepts are relevant for this work. Self-esteem within this context can be defined as the component of self-image, i.e. the filtered and interpreted feedback that teachers receive (most commonly from pupils) Despite how passionate a teacher can be and how rich within their experienced and personal stories the engagement from the students’ needs to be met. Research from the DFE has shown that relevancy of the topics taught within the language classroom accompanied by the way there taught will have a direct improvement to student motivation.  Conscious that the language curriculum is failing to inspire young people, schools and the Department for Education are looking at ways to make lessons more stimulating. This might be by delivering more interesting content – moving students away from just talking about their pets, and instead talking about interesting and challenging topics, such as cultural events. (DfE, 2014)

The second concept is Job motivation within this context it encompasses the motives or drives for becoming a teacher.  If teaching moral is poor, despite how stimulating or reformed the topics within the language classroom are, the lack of passion for the subject can directly have a negative effect on the students and therefore stifle and not stimulate their intercultural understanding as the messaged has not been conveyed correctly. This can have a detrimental effect on the students as the can become unmotivated towards a subject due to the teacher’s persona.

The third concept regard to task perception. This relates to how the teacher constitutes their professional programme or the necessary tasks and duties to do a good job, an endeavour that ‘implies value-laden choices, moral considerations’ Reflecting upon this concept enabled me to give back to the education system that has once enabled me with the wider vision and opportunities and therefore the desire to teach inspire and transmit knowledge to the best of my ability became a ‘no-brainer’

The final concept highlights the ‘structural characteristics of the profession: teacher stimulation of the class vs vulnerability.  With the pressure to teach to the test as it is in my schools, teachers within the MFL may feel restricted to developing their own intercultural classroom learning pedagogy and in certain aspects feel controlled and restricted to how they would rather teach this within their classroom. Teachers are not in full charge of the conditions in which they work due to externally imposed regulations, quality control systems and constantly changing policy demands, however, budget cuts to the department can be if not the most contributing factor.

Within the state sector, funding has been drastically reduced which as a result has placed increasing pressure on teachers to meet new national curriculum demands, produce top results all on half the funding for resources made readily available. One could say that curiosity has been stifled and ‘teaching to test’ has been the new fostered way of thinking for many departments within the schools. T.Hall (2017) However, the use of authentic online recourses that are above and beyond the current MFL syllabus within the MFL classroom can have an invaluable experience on transmitting IU in a more feasible way. These authentic learning activities such as songs, videos, Skype and YouTube stories, enables pupils to get access to target language cultures from a more insider perspective. This may help them to empathise and consider things from a less ethnocentric perspective, which in turn, contributes to IU. In fact, the beauty of talking about culture and foreign culture, is that you are not limited to anything, you can talk about any subject, you can just open up a website in the target language. This is the uniqueness that modern language teaching can bring out of the curriculum and is one of the only subjects that allows students to grasp subject knowledge as well as an intercultural experience. It is important to promote multicultural education and student should acquire knowledge about other cultures and not just their own. Banks, J., & Banks, C. (2003).

Cultural appreciation is what we don’t have and not just stepping into someone else’s shoes, understanding the world does not revolve around our lives, we speak up and stand up in English too easy but what about the lives you want to connect with but they you don’t understand them, linguistically’ Francis (2018) However, IU goes above and beyond the classroom and as stated at the beginning of this essay the potential of IU enables not only social well-being and cultural appreciation but also economic growth.  As recently as last November, Schools Minister Nick Gibb said that the Government was committed to “remaining open to the world after we leave the EU and to becoming even more global and internationalist in our outlook. Improving the take-up and teaching of modern foreign languages in our schools is an important part of achieving that goal”. He added that there were, “business, cultural and educational benefits to learning a language” (Grand Committee, 2018).

Earlier we gave the example of influences being among the same ‘habitus within the educational system and the advantage that can have in some cases. However, within the state school system, the range of students and mixture of diverse backgrounds can have a direct and powerful standpoint which goes outside of the language classroom. Diane Reay (2012) highlights the reality of this inequality within the education system today. According to a report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development

“Four-fifths of children from working-class minority ethnic families are taught in schools with high concentrations of other immigrant or disadvantaged students, the highest proportion in the developed world’. In regard to ‘language background’ students more so within state schools integrated with their peers who are members of the EAL community (English as an additional language)” OECD, (2010) If we look at this through the lenses of an opportunist this gives states schools and those within these social demographics exceptional first-hand experience of the importance of integration and learning first hand from their peers the cultural differences and tapping into unknown histories to explore different social and cultural structures. This in fact does not need to happen only within modern language teaching as most schools where there are more cultural, and languages spoken then languages offered at the school. This means that if we solely wait until we are in the language classroom to embark upon IU we are missing the opportunities of practical usage of IU.

In regard to above and beyond the classroom we are faced with a daunting macroeconomic factor, Brexit. If we lose the EU work foe due to visa rejections and the lack of sponsorship we will lose a huge chunk of our workforce that in fact contribute massively the running and operations of the UK. Her majesty’s government (2014) According to the British council, small and medium sized enterprise’s (SME’s) have highlighted the importance of bilingualism in the workplace in order to boost business and grow their market presence.  British Council 2013. This report draws the conclusion that we do not have enough native English graduates who are capable of speaking a second language nor understanding the culture of dynamics of another’s other than their own. The old saying goes if I’m selling to you, I speak your language. If I’m buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen! Dunlap, (1999) However sadly we have begun to create a society where we can only buy and sell in our own language. This brings to light an international problem for the future of the UK within the market and the robustness of relationships with other EU countries regardless of the hard or soft Brexit. However, this growing epidemic highlights the very importance of addressing this problem within schools through IU in order to develop the mindsets of the future and has led me to reflect on ways It will impact me as the teacher going forward.

This on-going issue in fact led me to set up a social enterprise called languages that talk. It aims to inspire students to continue language learning as well as equipping them with practical examples of the benefits intercultural integration can have across all types of business. Within this program, students at the end receive work experience. Languagesthattalk, (2018). The reason why this business was set up was in response to primary market research which showed students having little idea of what skillsets languages could bring outside of the class. The main crux of the business is sharing experiences with each other to bring the theory of IU to life. As a teacher, this is one element that I believe holds significant impact of transforming student’s mindset, personal experience and relevance. I find in the classroom when I share my story of how I became a language and economics teacher, I find the respect from the student’s is greater. They enjoy the originality of the lessons as well as the relevance of the topics. This allows them to understand in greater context what IU looks like and its importance. I am a firm believer in brining yourself to the classroom as that enables me to wear my subjects rather than just teach them. I therefore become an ambassador to my subjects and hopefully a role model for others. Additionally, due to the social divides within the education system I strive to be able to give all students a chance to capitalize on my knowledge in order for them to make the most of themselves. For the sake of a continuous diversified workforce, integrated values and democratic society, collaboration inside and outside the classroom, right through to the workplace is highly important. The idea of a ‘lingua Franca’ monolinguist approach is buried behind and becoming an intercultural society is what is in front. This essay has aimed to highlight this with proposed solutions within education and outside to sustain this.


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