‘Outsider’ language students see own society through other eyes

‘Outsider’ language students see own society through other eyes

Learning another language has more benefits than enhanced job prospects

Australians’ lack of appetite for language learning is frequently reported to be worsening. Yet at the same time, ‘intercultural’ has become something of a buzzword.

The Australian National Curriculum makes extensive reference to ‘intercultural understanding’, while employers are increasingly seeking recruits with ‘intercultural competency’. There seems to be a strange disconnect between increasingly intercultural global communities and an aversion to learning another language.

Against this backdrop, research into Australian university language students as learners of Indonesian offers some important insights. I have found that students who study only in Australia are more inclined to view Indonesian culture as being knowledge-based, with an emphasis on traditional culture. They also tend to inherently see Indonesian culture or Indonesian-ness as inferior.

By contrast, language students who study in Indonesia readily recognise that understanding the cultural Other is not merely a matter of knowledge. A deeper understanding of the cultural Other is enabled by knowing how to relate to the Other— a capability often acquired from extended experience in social interaction.

Unsurprisingly, students on longer-term study-abroad stints tend to have more profound experiences than those taking short stints. Language proficiency is a key variable in the ability to relate to the cultural Other, with enhanced language proficiency enabling richer intercultural experiences. Yet time spent living and studying in another country is no guarantee of achieving intercultural capabilities. In reality, exposure to a cultural Other can sometimes have a negative effect of reinforcing pre-existing stereotypes.

Power relations

Relating to a cultural Other across a linguistic divide inevitably involves power relations. Studying in a country of the target language sometimes positions language learners at the lower end of the power relations continuum, where learners are frequently aware of their inferior linguistic skills. This dynamic reinforces the foreignness of the language learner as an outsider. Effects of the associated social dynamics often result in foreign students feeling vulnerable.

Yet such vulnerability can be fertile ground for self-reflection where intercultural experiences can be positively transformative. Students often report a heightened self-awareness, where they critique their old ways of thinking as narrow and naive. Australian students have reported their new self as being open to people of other cultures—not just to Indonesians. Some students reported feeling liberated by not fearing the unknown cultural Other as they had previously done.

Australian students who studied in Indonesia often came to realise how they had previously perceived the Australian Self and Indonesian Other as a cultural dichotomy. This dichotomy was represented by sets of binary assumptions of superior–inferior, modern–traditional, right–wrong, and so on. These students had started to interrogate such binary logic that they had acquired having grown up in Australia. As foreigners in Indonesia, the Australian students found themselves living in a society as members of an ethnic minority, something they had not experienced before.

The experience of being an outsider within another cultural environment can stimulate critical reflection of social encounters. Australian students in Indonesia often experienced the reverse power relations to what they were accustomed to. Being part of a minority sharpened their awareness of how it feels to be regarded as at the negative end of binary assumptions. As foreigners, the Australian students experienced what it was like to be perceived as outsiders— as the inferior Other. As a result, they were challenged to re-examine their pre-existing assumptions that they had grown up with.

To be positioned between cultures may be to experience different religious orientations, customs and ethical frameworks

Australian students who studied in Indonesia consistently regarded their most profound learning experiences to be through social interaction. This was most often with local students who had befriended them and their assigned Indonesian student buddies. It was the depth and breadth of interaction that enabled relational dimensions of intercultural understanding to emerge. Rather than seeing the other culture as objective knowledge to be learned, students came to see the cultural Other at the individual level. This experiential learning challenged pre-existing perceptions that essentialised the Other as a homogenous group or as a collection of stereotypes.

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Australian students develop close friendships with local students, which they often regard as the most valuable learning experience.

As students become intercultural they develop the ability to decentre and see the self through the eyes of the cultural Other, in what Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin calls ‘outsidedness’. Bakhtin outlines how outsidedness is a precursor for engaging in dialogism, which enables one to consider a multiplicity of views. This is similar to how we talk about empathy, in everyday terms, and the ability to appreciate other peoples’ points of view. Intercultural dialogism enables one to look back at the self through the eyes of the cultural Other. This can challenge us to question a range of issues, which can be unsettling. To be positioned between cultures may be to experience different religious orientations, customs and ethical frameworks. It raises awareness of contradictions, where one’s logic is questioned and alternative frameworks of logic emerge.


Even from afar some people see the unsettling nature of intercultural spaces. Perhaps, as a result, some people subsequently avoid learning another language. Some even view intercultural realms as unpatriotic. Such thinking is disturbing yet seemingly common. Learning another language can help demystify the realms of the intercultural, it can enable us to engage cultural Others and better equip us to critically reflect on our own society’s prejudices.

The realms of intercultural ought not to be merely thought of as knowledge, where the cultural Other can be objectified as something to be studied. To be intercultural means that one engages in an uncertain space between cultures where there is a blurring of cultural boundaries. Students who experience this kind of interculturalism demonstrate the ability to look back at their own cultural background and society as if it were through the eyes of the cultural Other. This uncertain space can be unsettling yet also positively transformative.

The traditional argument for language learning is for enhanced employment opportunities. While I argue this remains no less valid, there are other significant attributes available for individuals who learn another language.

My study of Australian university students show that language proficiency is not merely about the ability to communicate in a particular linguistic context. Language learning can also help equip students to develop an openness to dialogue across cultural boundaries and to think critically about one’s own culture and society. These qualities offer great potential for enhanced social cohesion wherever students live, including multicultural Australia, where the ability to think globally but act locally is as important as ever.

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