On the ‘Intercultural Language Education SIG’ group on Facebook, recently, Shaun Dowling posted a set of maps that show Europe and the Americas from different stereotypical perspectives. You can guess the kind of things that are shown: Argentinians are drama queens, and, at least from the perspective of the French, England is where they slay virgins. The comments on Shaun’s posting were generally positive; members commented that raising and challenging stereotypes are good ways of addressing intercultural topics in the language classroom.

Well, yes – I agree that stereotypes are a rich source of materials for intercultural language learning, but like many such materials, they have to be handled with care. This is evident from the comments to the original website, which range from uncritical amusement to borderline racism.

In my early days of wandering around Eastern Europe and South America, participating in workshops on intercultural language education, I often came across the idea that one of the functions of ILE was to abolish stereotypes. That always seemed to be an unrealistic goal: as has often been pointed out, stereotypes simplify complex social categories, but while they consequently distort reality (not all English people slay virgins), they also make the world more manageable. We navigate by stereotypes. We also share them. I once observed a video-linked session between Glasgow and Curitiba whereby students in each city were invited to share aspects of their culture. It was interesting to see how quickly each group indulged in self-stereotyping: the students in Scotland’s industrial heartland introduced the topics of whisky, mountains, and the Loch Ness monster, while the students in southern Brazil cavorted around to samba music, like true cariocas. In a debriefing amongst the teachers afterwards, we worried about this, perhaps unnecessarily. Maybe stereotypes are where we start our intercultural conversations from … we have to acknowledge (and perhaps even celebrate) the shared perceptions before we begin the slow process of unfolding the less stereotypical reality.

The problems arise when stereotypes are the product (as they often are) of prejudice and social friction. The Scots, for example, were historically a relatively poor people, and after the Treaty of Union of the early 18th century opened up employment opportunities in England and the Empire, the stereotype of the ‘Scotsman on the make’ developed, accompanied by the image of the canny, thrifty or downright mean Scotsman. This stereotype has persisted, particularly in North America, where ‘The Thrifty Scot’ became a popular brand of bargain foodstores and cut-price motels. Even in Europe the image survives in popular culture, popping up, for example, in an early ‘Headway’ English textbook that reprinted a Scandinavian advertisement for two-for-the-price-of-one train fares, that showed a kilted Scotsman hiding in an overhead luggage rack. I was teaching in Scotland when that edition of ‘Headway’ was published, and I remember the inclusion of the advert provoking both resigned amusement and deep indignation amongst my colleagues. And of course, the ‘mean Scotsman’ stereotype is alive and well on the Web, where many jokes are based on this image. My favourite is:

— How many Scotsmen does it take to change a light bulb?
— Och! It’s not that dark!

While stereotypes, then, can certainly be used in the classroom, teachers need to take care that (a) we do not inadvertently give offence and (b) we do not simply use stereotypes to encourage uncritical mockery of others. This is easier said than done – we cannot always predict how our learners will respond to stereotypical images – so we need to have strategies ready to encourage critical cultural awareness of what stereotypes are and how they can be used and abused. Lies Sercu, in a paper suggesting ideas for in-service training for intercultural language educators, suggests ‘humorous irony and pleasant exaggeration’ can be employed to acknowledge, refashion and undermine stereotypes. She advocates, as a starting point, looking line by line at the following poem, ‘Himmel and Hölle’ (‘Heaven and Hell’), revealing it line by line and encouraging learners to predict what comes next:

In Himmel sind:
die Engländer Polizisten
die Franzosen Köche
die Deutschen Mechaniker
die Italianer Liebhaber
und die Schweizer oranisieren das Ganze.

In der Hölle sind:
die Polizisten Deutsche
die Köche Engländer
die Mechaniker Franzosen
die Liebhaber Schweizer
und die Italianer organisieren das Ganze.

‘In heaven:
the English are the policemen
the French cooks
the Germans mechanics
the Italians lovers
and the Swiss organise everything.

In hell:
the policemen are German
the cooks English
the mechanics French
the lovers Swiss
and the Italians organise everything.’

Lies suggests inviting learners to replace the nationalities with others, including their own – and perhaps changing the attributions. The poem clearly works best in Europe, though I have heard South American jokes that are also founded on stereotypes. A provocative one is the Brazilian definition of an Argentinian: ‘Someone who is Italian, speaks Spanish and thinks he’s English.’

The use of stereotypes in intercultural language education works best, I think, in the following situations:

• when a negative perspective (eg ‘Scots are mean’) can be balanced against a more positive one (eg ‘Scots are economical’);

• when complexity can be added to the mix by giving counter-examples (the Scots-born philanthropist Andrew Carnegie is a good example of someone who embodied a mixed set of values; e.g. he encouraged people to devote the first third of their life to getting an education; the second third to accumulating wealth; and the final third to giving their money to charity);

• and when the development of stereotypes can be put into some social or historical context. For example, we can ask why popular images of certain groups have emerged as they have. Who is in control of the popular stereotypes of certain groups – the group itself, or other (perhaps rival) groups? What role does generalised personal experience play in maintaining or challenging stereotypes? What role does the media – including the internet – play?

There are widely differing opinions of stereotypes. As Shaun said in his post – the maps will either make you laugh or get angry. Some of us find them attractive and we are reluctant to let them go: my earliest experience of Brazil was watching old Carmen Miranda films on television, and marvelling at her banana-filled headdress. I’m still fond of that image, despite never having met any Brazilians who have made a hat out of fruit. But some find them intensely irritating, refusing to inhabit any space determined by someone else’s distorted simplification. If we are going to use them, we need to find strategies in the intercultural classroom for negotiating both views.


Sercu, Lies (1998). In-service teacher training and the acquisition of intercultural competence. In Michael Byram and Michael Fleming (eds). ‘Language Learning in Intercultural Perspective: Approaches through drama and ethnography.’ Cambridge: CUP, pp. 255-289


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