The persistence of stereotypes

Talking about interculturality in language class, stereotypes are always one of the main topics. Are they true? I think that a stereotype always has a true essence on which is based, but surely it has been generalized and exaggerated and, in most cases, antiquated. In Holland we no longer wear wooden shoes, you know. But that’s just a physical aspect and those are much easier to prove wrong than stereotypes of mental aspects. Close-minded or extrovert, straight forward or overly polite, punctual or always the ones being late… I guess that by reading this, you pictured some countries in your head, didn’t you?

Stereotypes are, from my point of view, based on limited knowledge about another’s culture. Mainly that knowledge is based on tourists one has met in his or her own country, or the things one saw when being a tourist him/herself. The person I am as a tourist is quite different from the person I am in real life, and those might not be the best conditions to form an image about a certain people. In the same way, people tend to base cultures on just a few or even only one person they know, taking for granted that all the people from that country must be the same. In addition to this all, media can play an intensifying role and make the stereotypes persist.

We, teachers of foreign languages, are maybe the key figures in make stereotypes disappear or at least make them more correct by explaining on which factors the stereotype in question is based on. No Spaniard will deny that they are not punctual, but why is that? As a teacher, it should be our job to explain that in Spain there is another perception of time. That, for example, it is seen as politeness to arrive five minutes late to a job interview and that the fact that girls let their date twenty minutes wait to prove his true love, is much more a tradition than ignorance.

Maybe, for teachers that teach a foreign language that is not their mother language, it is easier to diminish those stereotypes. In the first place, because you won’t feel emotionally affected, and in the second place, because you have observed the culture in question as an outsider. In our Intercultural Factors class, we agreed that any teacher should first reflect upon his or her own culture, before being able to explain it.  This seems a very plausible reasoning, but nonetheless it can turn out to be quite hard to ask yourselves what your culture is all about. And what’s more, your culture doesn’t necessarily have to be the culture of all the people in your country. As I wanted to point out in the last blog post, within China there a lots of differences and one cannot say that they all share the same cultural values.

Having said all that, I have got to admit that stereotypes are sometimes my guilty pleasure and Dutch people are known for loving to talk about their country and their peculiar culture, not in the last places to point out how different we are from the rest of the world (just as I do know, actually). When talking about cultural aspects of Dutch society, I tend to talk about the typical stereotypes. Didn’t I paint a windmill on my interculturally identifying painting? And isn’t that same mill the background of this very website? Yes, it is. But I’m telling you: I have to cycle 15 minutes before I get to the nearest mill in town.

If I were to teach Dutch as a foreign language, I think it would be my job to explain my students the facts on which such stereotypes are based on. In a later blog post, I will present my top 10 of Dutch stereotypes, along with why they have been brought into the world and why they are less or more persistent.

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