Vol. 6. No. 2 R-7 September 2002
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Acquiring Intercultural Communicative Competence from Textbooks: The Case of Flemish Adolescent Pupils Learning German

Lies Sercu (2000)
Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press
Pp. 425
ISBN 90 5867 026 0
Price: Belgian Franc 1,100; €27.00


This book presents a detailed analysis of how six German textbooks that are designed for use in Dutch-speaking secondary schools in Belgium affect the development of intercultural communicative competence in learners. In the introduction (p. 14), the author raises two main research questions:

  1. What potential do the investigated textbook series have for promoting the acquisition of intercultural communicative competence with the pupil population under examination?
  2. What recommendations can be formulated for revising existing textbook series to enhance their potential for promoting the acquisition of intercultural communicative competence?

To investigate these questions, the author gathers data from six secondary schools in different areas of Flanders: three schools are in Limburg close to the German boarder, and three are in West Flanders furthest away from the German boarder. Schools in different regions were selected because proximity to Germany creates different attitudes toward Germany and the importance of learning German. A total of 592 students, 371 girls and 221 boys participated in the study. The students ranged in age from fifteen (4th-year students) to eighteen (6th-year students); 372 were in general-education schools, and 220 in vocational schools. The data were collected during the 1994-95 school year, five years before the publication of the book. [-1-]

The research methodology used in the study combined quantitative and qualitative methods. Quantitative data were obtained from a questionnaire that contained attitude scales (e.g., semantic differential, social distance, etc.), questions on intercultural contact, and several open-ended written response questions. The questionnaire included questions on other nationalities (Americans, British, and French) and ethnic groups in Belgium (Walloons) to provide a basis for comparison. Based on response to the questionnaire, 210 students were selected for semi-structured interviews lasting 20-60 minutes. The interviews were limited to 210 for logistical reasons and care was taken so that the students selected for the interview were representative of those who had completed the questionnaire. These interviews were designed to elicit data on student perceptions of German culture. Additional qualitative data included an analysis of the contents of the textbooks. The quantitative data were analyzed using SPSS software, and the qualitative data were transcribed by hand and then analyzed using a coding system that was designed to provide a summary of the information in the interview as it related to the research questions in the study.

In developing the methodological framework for the study, the author uses the definition of intercultural communicative competence developed by Byram and Zarate (1994). This definition is based on four savoirs: savoir-apprendre, the ability to learn about other cultures, savoir-faire, the ability to apply skills to unknown situations, savoirs, cultural references and explicit knowledge of cultures, and savoir-Ítre, respect and tolerance for other cultures.

Results of the study showed that attitudes toward Germans changed little from the 4th year to the 6th (final) year of schooling and that attitudes toward Germans were more negative than toward American, British, French, or Walloons. Fourth-year students in West Flanders had the most negative attitudes toward Germans, and all students reported that their grandparents had negative attitudes toward Germans. The interviews showed that there is very little change in attitudes toward Germans over time. Many students still viewed Germans from the "Germany-equals-war schema," but students with more knowledge of German culture and society had more diverse perceptions of Germany.

With respect to textbooks, the author concluded that the prevailing negative image of Germans, particularly the association of Germany with war, showed that textbooks did not have a sufficient impact on improving students' intercultural communicative competence. From this, the author recommended that focus more intensely including contents aimed at developing the four savoirs of intercultural communicative competence.


This book is important for several reasons. First, it addresses the issue of intercultural communicative competence in foreign language learning in the context of languages and cultures that have much in common and that share a common European identity. The enduring strength of negative national stereotypes based on political events fifty years before the research was conducted is perhaps one of the most poignant findings of the study. The author's conclusion that language teaching, and particularly language teaching materials, be directed toward improving intercultural communicative competence serves as an important reminder of the positive role of foreign language education in reducing negative stereotypes toward groups of people that dogmatic politicians exploit to mobilize people to support various causes.

Second, the research methodology offers a valuable and easily replicable format for research on learners and language learning materials in educational settings. The combination of questionnaires, interviews, and textbook analysis, creates a rich corpus of data that transcends the tired quantitative-qualitative dichotomy. The risk of such triangulation, of course, is that the resulting data is too unwieldy to analyze, but the methodology in this study shows that, rather than aiming for a rigid correlation between sets of data, the data can be used to elucidate various phenomena that form a coherent narrative in the end. [-2-]

Third, the book contains a rich range of details that are useful to researchers in a number of fields. The literature review, for example, is extensive and contains detailed presentations of literature in German and, to a lesser extent, French, that is rarely cited in the English-speaking world. The detailed presentation of the interview data in the results section makes for very interesting reading for anyone interested in how foreign language learners construct their perceptions of other cultures. Likewise, the analysis of German textbooks is thorough and offers insight into how to analyze textbooks from the perspective of intercultural communicative competence. Such a framework is especially helpful in nations where the choice of textbooks is limited by government approval or financial and market conditions. Teachers of German as a foreign language, in particular, will find the analysis of textbooks interesting.

To conclude, Acquiring Intercultural Communicative Competence from Textbooks offers a refreshingly new perspective on the old problem of how foreign language education can contribute to improving intercultural understanding, thereby improving the potential for peace. This topic, like so many other topics in foreign language education, comes and goes, but after a decade of relative neglect in the 1990s, it is returning to the center of discussion as people search for solutions to the intercultural hate that plagues much of the world today.


Byram, M. & Zarate, G. (1994). Definitions, objectives, and evaluation of cultural competence. Strasbourg: Council of Europe.

Robert J. Fouser
Kyoto University

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