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Thoughtful reading increases intercultural understanding

Published: 3 October 2017

Reading fiction is often highlighted as a key to increased intercultural understanding. That it broads readers' views and gives a more tolerant image of a culture other than our own. But fictional reading also has an inherent problem that can complicate such development.

Ongoing research at Luleå University of Technology investigates the link between intercultural understanding and reading of fiction in the context of language teaching.

- The list of opportunities and benefits associated with reading and cultural understanding can be done very long. Most of us have reading experiences that have aroused an interest in a new place, other people or a revised view of the culture you are self-supporting, says Eva Fjällström, PhD student at Luleå University of Technology, and continues.

- But there is also some inherent problem in this. Cultural aspects of literature can make the text very difficult to understand and there is also a risk of relying on inherited cultural references that may not match the literature you are reading. Another risk is that as a reader you build your understanding on stereotypes or to generalize something that, in a particular text, represents only a certain character or event, to a whole culture or society.

Reference frame for how we understand our surroundings

The fact that this generalization takes place is explained by how we relate to new information. In cognitive psychology, we talk about "cognitive schedules", general models for different situations that we have as a reference frame to understand yourself in our environment.

- The schedule for a restaurant visit, for example, generally includes ordering food and drink, some type of service, consuming the order and paying for it. And the more we eat at the restaurant, the more developed becomes the model for this situation because it can both be expanded and adjusted to include new information. Cognitive schedules are individual and based on each individual's unique experiences, but individuals who share cultural background and similar experiences naturally have similar schedules. New insights and experiences can enable reevaluation of existing schemes, says Eva Fjällström, who believes it is important that readers have an awareness of how their prerequisites affect their reading comprehension.

Increase students' understanding

- As we read literature, we activate different cognitive schedules and link new information with what we already know. What has been seen in previous studies is that there is a tendency for new information that does not fit into the schedule is unconsciously sorted out or adapting what you read to the existing schedule. In order to achieve intercultural understanding, it is therefore very important with an awareness of the types of reference frameworks you are the carrier of. In the educational context, this does not happen automatically, but well-thought-out teaching plans can lead a long way and provide good opportunities to increase students' understanding of others and their own cultural reference frameworks.

The research on reading comprehension and cultural awareness was presented at the annual recurring event European Language Day at Luleå University of Technology. There, employees at the university presented their and others' research into the subject language.


Eva Fjällström

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