Avoiding the essentialist trap in intercultural education

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Even though intercultural educators recognize that essentialism is detrimental to their goals, their delivery of course content to students continues to be criticized for being mired in essentialized notions of “nation” and “culture”. Holliday (2011) argues that we construct essentialist discourses and practices to protect nationalist ideals and standards because doing so benefits the researchers, teachers and students who also benefit from the maintenance of global, national, and local inequalities. It is thus very difficult to articulate and practice alternatives to “nationalist standard practices” (Meadows 2009), though we may be well aware that continuing to perpetuate essentialist visions of the world is unethical. Our goal in this chapter is to articulate one step out of this “essentialist trap”. We demonstrate how the tools of linguistics, specifically Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA), can be used to surface three discursive processes (objectification, prescription, and alignment) which are commonly used to reproduce essentialism in language instruction. Awareness of these processes sheds light on how discourse in typical language classrooms constructs monolithic, essentialized views of languages and cultures. Discourse data from an Indonesian language classroom demonstrates how these very same processes can alternatively operate to circumvent the limitations on diversity posed by nationalism. We argue that when students and teachers acquire the ability to make use of CDA to identify linguistic practices in the classroom as products of common, underlying discursive processes, they also acquire the grounds for imagining and enacting alternatives to nationalist essentialising. Such awareness, we contend, can lead to an intercultural education that is more equitable, ethical, and timely.


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