Do you speak several languages, and are you familiar with several cultures? Did you even grew up with two or more different languages and cultures? If you did, then you might have asked yourself the following question: To which language and culture do I belong? This is indeed a difficult question, and it might also cause severe identity problems. If you don’t know which language and culture you belong to, it affects automatically the way you define your social identity. This kind of identity refers to social categorizations of self and others, which means that people are categorized into different social groups depending on different factors (e.g. culture or language skills). Have you ever thought about your identity as being “split” between two or more of those groups, between different languages and cultures? If yes, then Michael Byram has developed a concept that can help those who are struggling with their “multiple” identities. The concept is called “the intercultural speaker” and it was originally established in the context of second language learning. It shows just how important people knowing several languages and cultures are for our society. Those people who might personally be struggling with their identity enrich the increasingly plurilingual and pluricultural society in a particularly special way. Globalization, increasing mobility, language and culture contact are the causes for intercultural communication, whilst intercultural competence is becoming ever vital across the world. Intercultural speakers have the opportunity to act interculturally, which means “to bring into a relationship two cultures” (Byram, 2008). They can act as mediators between different languages and cultures provided that they acquire certain attitudes, knowledge and skills. To become an intercultural speaker, Byram offers the following guidelines, that can help you to develop these skills and to raise your awareness concerning your own identity:
1. Attitudes: curiosity and openness, readiness to suspend disbelief about other cultures and belief about one’s own
2. Knowledge: of social groups and their products and practices in one’s own and in one’s interlocutor’s country, and of the general processes of societal and individual interaction
3. Skills of interpreting and relating: ability to interpret a document or event from another culture, to explain it and relate it to documents from one’s own
4. Skills of discovery and interaction: ability to acquire new knowledge of a culture and cultural practices and the ability to operate knowledge, attitudes and skills under the constraints of real-time communication and interaction
5. Critical cultural awareness/political education: an ability to evaluate critically and on the basis of explicit criteria perspectives, practices and products in one’s own and other cultures and countries
If you as a bilingual, bicultural or second language learner want to find out something about your identity, why not use this concept to become aware of your position and your vast opportunities? By becoming an intercultural speaker and mediator, you can turn your language and cultural skills into meaningful action! These skills allow you to construct your identity regardless of simple categorisations into different languages and cultures. The concept of the “intercultural speaker” might show you how to use your potential and how to find your position in-between.
Byram, M. (2008). The intercultural speaker – acting interculturally or being bicultural. In M. Byram (Ed.), From foreign language education to education for intercultural citizenship (chapter 4). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Turner, J. C., Oakes, P. J., Haslam S. A., and McGarty, C. (1992). Personal and social identity: Self and social context. Paper presented at the Conference on “The Self and the Collective,” Princeton University. Princeton, NJ.
Written by Déborah Platzbecker, study visitor in the area of terminology, master’s degree in “Master in Learning and Communication in Multilingual and Multicultural Contexts” at the University of Luxembourg.