The Journey from Interculturality to Intercultural Competences - an interview with Hervé Breton

Interview with Hervé Breton, Senior Lecturer, accredited to direct research (HDR), Education Sciences

[Translation : EPALE France]


Travel: from Interculturality to Intercultural Competences (Interview 3)

Hello Mr. Hervé Breton, I know that you are a great traveller and that you are studying the issue of learning in intercultural situations. Today we want to speak with you about the issue of travel, interculturality and intercultural competences.

- To begin, can you tell us a little more about yourself, and how you became interested in travelling? How have you encountered interculturality in your personal and/or professional life?

Thank you for your invitation and for this first question which allows me to reconnect with the experience of travel, which has become almost rare due to the pandemic.

The taste for travel can be understood as the particular flavour emanating from the experiences of disorientation and the perceptions associated with the phenomena of a broadening horizon of possibilities. Leaving and going far away involves taking action to break away from the environments to which one belongs, whether these be family, professional or cultural. It also requires making oneself available to interact according to new processes, open temporalities, in places and environments that give themselves over to the strange. However, the reasons why the traveller chooses to have these experiences remain a mystery. This is where theories on interculturality come in: thinking about the practice of travel involves questioning the relationship of the subject to the “elsewhere” and therefore, the relationship he or she has with home.

If we place this within a theory of travel, interculturality is not characterised in terms of a supposed difference with the other, but in relation to that which deviates from home, to the way in which the subject inhabits his or her everyday world. This point is significant in defining what is meant by the notion of interculturality. It leads us to consider intercultural training processes from a biographical perspective, by questioning the ways in which the home, the family, the social and the cultural environment are constituted, based on the history and the dynamics of the subject.

Defining the origins of the longing for elsewhere in my history would therefore require a detailed biographical diversion. However, what I realise is that this taste for immersion in environments that deviate from the habits and frameworks of everyday life has gradually transformed. For me, travel has become a form of training, a way of maintaining my capacities of astonishment, welcome and availability that are perhaps necessary conditions for training. This is what I worked on in my thesis, which is dedicated to the formative effects of travel. And this is what I continue to study, through research on the engineering practices of certifying mobility in relation to the ECVET recommendation of 2009.

- What is your approach to travel? How did you make it an object of work and research?

In my thesis, I studied the initiation through travel. The aim was to look at the experience of elsewhere from the point of view of a trial, characterising it according to three aspects: the levels of immersion, the intensity of disorientation, the transformation of modes of existence. The formative dimensions of travel were therefore examined from a hermeneutical and biographical perspective.

The question of knowledge and skills acquired during travel came later, through my involvement in research on certifying mobility, when I was commissioned as an ECVET expert by the 2E2F agency and by the Centre-Val de Loire Region to study the forms of engineering implemented by those responsible for mobility in the Apprentice Training Centres. I then examined the learning processes generated in travel situations, which are structurally governed by high levels of uncertainty. I sought to characterise the knowledge, acts and gestures acquired as a result of short or long term immersion in environments that deviate from the usual, that make it necessary to remain attentive, to exercise patience, to remain open to the many different ways of acting and living in the world in order to be apprehended and understood.

- How does the issue of travel relate to or question interculturality and intercultural competences?

Interculturality is both a relevant and problematic notionRelevant because it indicates an idea that seems obvious, but is eminently complex: that of the plural nature of the worlds we live in. I find the theories of interculturality are reductive and problematic when they are oriented towards a thought, not of the diverse, as Martine Abdallah Preteceille proposes, but of an approach that proceeds from an inventory of differences. In this respect, François Jullien's book in which he distinguishes between difference and gap is important. The distinction made by Jullien concerns the static or dynamic character of what is experienced in the mode of contrast and the resulting space of in-between, particularly in the context of encounters and exchanges marked by interculturality.

I have mentioned this in several articles: during my first moments in India, for example, I had an experience of very intense disorientation, of losing my bearings. The contrast between the experiences of my first few weeks of travel in northern India and what was familiar to me from my primary world of belonging was so powerful that, looking back, everything I experienced seemed strange, confusing, sometimes disturbing. I think that the strength of the perception of strangeness and the massive nature of this wholesale donation results from a tense habit of thinking in terms of a single frame of reference: that of the world of our primary belonging, which is perhaps the original environment, in which we were born. Over time, during my travels, this reflexive, sometimes compulsive, habit of thinking in a mono-referential way seems to have been attenuated, moderated, making possible different forms of welcoming the diverse and the emergence of more complex understandings.

This emancipation, during travel, from acquired frames of reference is not without interest in considering intercultural competences. I have spoken of mono-referential thinking as closed, even resistant to diversity. This is almost an allusion to competency frameworks which, when thought of from an international perspective, seem overly rigid.

- How do you see the place of interculturality and intercultural competences in adult education today? And in Europe?

The problem posed potentially concerns the categorical logics from which the frameworks are built that make it possible to found different models and to constitute the objects we call competences. From this point of view, the issue of intercultural competences and, more broadly, cross-cutting competence, is of primary importance for training in Europe. The way of thinking, naming and characterising knowledge in qualifications originates in environments that have a history, relationships to knowledge, traditions rooted in ways of life, relationships with the environment, existential and professional anchors.

This observation leads us to question intercultural competences from three angles:

the content of what are referred to as intercultural competences;

the ways in which frameworks are constructed and the categories that enable them to be constituted;

relationships to knowledge that prefigure categorical constructions.

Looking at these three dimensions seems to me to be a good way of understanding the ways in which knowledge is constructed and its legitimacy in the social space. The same approach could perhaps be applied to research aiming at the convergence of the systems of certification relevant to vocational training initiated since the ECVET recommendation.

- The representation of intercultural competences can be difficult to understand. How do you identify or define it? What characteristics or elements are important in your view? How or under what conditions or situations does travel help to develop intercultural competences? Can you give us one or two examples of intercultural competences?

One way of defining intercultural competences could be as followsthe ability to deliberate and act in uncertain environments, which deviate from the usual, taking into account the way the situation arises. This definition is more of a capacity than a list of skills. It implies knowing how to change one's frames of reference, modulate one's habits, tolerate more or less lasting forms of uncertainty, and knowing how to suffer; to endure the uncertainty and waiting, while remaining active in the situation. This type of experience is common during travel: arriving in a place, having to act without understanding the reference points and frameworks to anticipate and evaluate the relevance of the ways of doing things. I have produced some work on the training processes generated by these experiences.

It has resulted in different capacities that can be named: the capacity to think in a multi-referential way; knowing how to transform one's habits during the activity; knowing how to suffer, i.e. to wait while preserving one's active status; knowing how to dialogue and meta-communicate about one's frames of thought. According to these perspectives, intercultural competences seem to fall within the paradigm of cross-cutting competence. More than an ability to adapt or to communicate, it is a power: the power to emancipate oneself from the known and the certain. For this, the practice of travel is perhaps a necessity in order to remain alert and to know how to abandon oneself elsewhere.

- Can you give us an author, a book or a reference that guided you or influenced you?

There are many references. If I had to choose only one, this is what comes to mind:

Thank you for this exchange, for sharing your experience and your input.

Thierry Ardouin

quali form.
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