Intercultural communicative competence in telecollaborative foreign language learning

Author: Shu-Mei Hung


This paper is an introduction of the rationale and research design of an intercultural exchange project between English as Foreign Language learners in Taiwan and Chinese as Foreign Language learners in the UK by using internet-mediated social software tools including instant messengers, wikis and emails. The rationale is based on an intercultural approach to foreign language learning. The detail of the research design including internet tools used, participants, tasks, procedures and the theoretical framework for data analysis will be discussed.

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Table of contents

Conference 2006

This paper was originally presented at our conference: Crossing frontiers: languages and the international dimension, 6-7 July 2006. Download print version: this paper is also available as a pdf (144Kb)


The rapid globalisation and digitalisation of our societies have gradually made changes to our educational methods and goals. Nowadays, in literacy classroom, we not only teach students how to read and write but also aim for equipping them with the so-called "multi-literacies" (New London Group, 1996) so that they can cope with the challenges in the new constantly changing society.

The concept of multi-literacy education also influences the area of foreign language learning, which can be seen in the abundant discussion and research on culture instruction and ICT application. In terms of culture instruction, the traditional method of transmitting static target-culture knowledge to learners has been questioned and an intercultural approach is emerging, which depicts culture as a dynamic, multiple and ongoing process and emphasizes the need to equip foreign language learners with the critical attitude and proper skills to cope with the limitless possibilities they can encounter in the culturally and linguistically diversified modern society. In terms of ICT application, foreign language educators or researchers have emphasized the importance of learners' development of electronic literacy in the process of language learning while using ICT as an assisting tool for enhancing the learning outcome. The two aspects of language education, culture instruction and ICT application, have an interesting convergence in the research area of "telecollaborative foreign language learning", which, by connecting two groups of foreign language learners with Internet technologies, is used in foreign language education with the expectation to develop not only the learners' linguistic competence but also their intercultural competence. In the past decade, although it is often discussed in the EFL literature, using telecollaboration is still quite an occasional case in the regular school setting mainly due to the limitation of ICT functionality, availability of equipment in schools and teachers' ability in using ICT. With the maturity and much wider availability of Internet technologies as well as the improvement of teachers' ICT competence, we can expect telecollaboration to be a more feasible and ready-to-use method for foreign language and culture learning in the future. It is thus important to conduct more research on this area so that internet technology can be more effectively used in schools for intercultural foreign language learning.

The researcher thus conducted an action research on telecollaboration, which connected English as Foreign Language (EFL) learners in Taiwan with Chinese as Foreign Language (CFL) learners in the UK to conduct synchronous intercultural exchange online. The following of this paper is an introduction of this research design.

Research design

1. Internet Tools Used

1.1 Course Webpage

The course entitled 'Intercultural Exchange Between Taiwan and UK' is set up in the Blackboard Learning System of Bristol University. Inside the course webpage, the researcher is able to create course information and course documents for all the participants to access at any time. The course information includes how to use Instant Messenger and WIKI system in this exchange project as well as the tasks and procedure of the exchange. The course documents contain the WIKI pages constructed by each pair.

1.2 Instant Messenger and Emails

Although the Blackboard Learning System allows synchronous online communication and also many different IM software applications are available for free use, the researcher chose Google Talk as the IM tool for this exchange project. Google Talk is distinctive to other IM software in its more integrative design, which embeds the talk function within the email interface. All the chat history is stored automatically in a format similar to emails, which can be edited with all the functions available for editing regular emails and then be forwarded to other users. Thus, the learners are able to have reflective dialogue with the instructor regarding any problems in their chat history by reviewing their chat data and highlighting any problems within it.

1.3 WIKI

WIKI technology contains at least four features: 1) it allows users to create and edit an article online without the need of HTML knowledge so it can be learnt easily. 2) It can record and show every step of change users make to the page. In the educational context, teachers can make use of this to track the developmental process of learners' knowledge build-up. 3) It allows every registered member to edit every page in the website so learners can have access to and edit their peers' article as long as they log into the website. This function enables the co-construction of knowledge among learners and enables the more able learners or the teacher to help correct other learners' linguistic errors. 4) It combines the 'discuss' function in each page so learners can leave comments to their peers to communicate why they make the changes; further discussion or negotiation of meaning can thus be motivated. As shown in the picture below, each WIKI page contains the four basic functions: article construction, discussion, co-editing, and history. By clicking the buttons, the user can then perform their specific functions.

2. Participants

Participants in this study include five EFL learners from Taiwan and five CFL learners from the UK. Three of the EFL learners are the fourth-year students in the English Department of a university in Taiwan; the other two are in the third-year of the same department. All of them have the experience of staying either in the UK or in the US for language learning, working or travelling; the duration of time varies from two months to eight months. Mandarin Chinese is their native language; however, their competency level in English is close to advanced. Four of the CFL learners are undergraduate students in a university in the UK. The researcher sent the invitation letter to all the students who enrolled in the Mandarin Chinese course in the language centre of the university and got reply from the four students. They major in different subjects. The fifth CFL learner works as an engineer in another university. He was born in Sri Lanka and has lived there until he came to the UK for higher education at the age of 19. He learned Mandarin Chinese in a local college for his personal interest.

3. Task design and procedure

The tasks in this project are designed based on the key elements which are considered essential for effective intercultural learning, which involve a) cultural comparison for awareness raising, b) intensive dialogues and negotiation of meaning, c) learners' critical reflection on their conversation, and d) using proper tools.

The full description of the course information is put on the course webpage, which includes the introduction of using wiki, instant messenger, techniques of ethnographic interview, language used and topics for the learners to talk about. Below are the procedure diagram and the description of each step in the procedure.

Procedure diagram
Procedure diagram

Step One and Two

Before the exchange starts, the researcher sent each participant a questionnaire which aims to realise their cultural background and the dates they are available for the synchronous online chat. Based on the information collected from the questionnaire survey, the participants are then paired. Each pair then conducts the five online chat sessions on their own specific dates.

Step Three

The researcher has set up a course webpage on the Blackboard Learning System of Bristol University. The information about how to use the Internet tools and how to proceed the online exchange is put on the course webpage for the participants to access at any time.

Step Four

Before the first talk session, the participants are asked to construct two pages on their WIKI website. On the first page, they describe their home culture with special emphasis on describing their school and leisure life as well as their ambitions. On the second page, they describe their current experience, impression or understandings toward the target culture and mention the questions or areas they'd like to explore regarding the target culture. The main language for the exchange is English. However, the CFL learners are encouraged to code-switch between English and Mandarin Chinese if they think they are able to express some phrases or ideas in Mandarin Chinese. Romanisation 'pinyin' system is used for the Mandarin Chinese input.

Step Five

The participants form their ideas for the online chat by reading their exchange partner's two WIKI pages. From their exchange partner's input, they will have some input regarding what the target culture is like from their exchange partner's point of view and also what questions or understandings their exchange partners hold for their home culture. While the participants read the two pages, they also help correct some of their exchange partner's linguistic errors by using the co-authoring function of WIKI pages. Their exchange partners can know what changes have been made to their pages by browsing the 'History' function embedded in each page.

Step Six

After reading the WIKI pages, the participants conduct their first talk session with their exchange partners. From the talk, they can discuss and negotiate ideas toward their home culture and the target culture. From the discussion, they may get different perspectives toward their own culture and new understandings toward the target culture. The participants are encouraged to 'listen' carefully to their partner's response and ask further questions according to the response. Ethnographic interviewing skills are introduced to the participants so that they can practice these skills while they conduct the real-time conversation online. The CFL learners can co-switch between two languages if they are able to express certain phrases or ideas in Mandarin Chinese.

Step Seven

After each talk session, the participants will forward the chat history to the researcher. In the same email, the participants are required to describe any problems they encounter in the talk. The problems can be cultural, linguistic, technological, or personal ones; the purpose is to avoid any possible misunderstandings in the process of interaction and also for the researcher to evaluate the participants' attitude toward the exchange. The researcher will then reply the emails by answering the problems the participants raise and also by highlighting some parts in the chat history with some questions or comments. The participants are encouraged to discuss more with the researcher on these questions or comments.

Repeat Step Four to Step Seven

After the talk, the participants will revisit their WIKI website and revise the content of their two WIKI pages according to the new understandings they've got from the online talk. They may modify the content on their home culture page by adding in the aspects they've been asked by their exchange partner, talk about their new understandings on the target culture page and increase the width and depth of the questions they want to explore further toward the target culture. The participants are encouraged to make at least three changes to each page. These changes will then serve as the new input for the next talk session, for which they can either continue the previous talk by discussing the old information or starting new topics from the new input they've added to the WIKI pages. Step four to step seven is repeated for five times so in total there are five talk sessions conducted by each pair.

Step Eight

At the end of the exchange project, the participants are asked to fulfil a post-task questionnaire which aims at understanding how learners perceive the exchange project in terms of helping them enhance their cultural, linguistic, and technological competences.

4. Analytical Framework

The anaytical framework in this study is constructed based on the main concepts the researcher extracted from the research areas of telecollaboration, negotiation of cultural identities and intercultural approach in foreign language learning. The central research focus is the activity of telecollaborative foreign language learning, which involves learners' synchronous communication on instant messengers, knowledge co-construction on wiki websites, and reflective dialogues with the instructor through emails. The researcher looks at these activities as ongoing construction and negotiation of cultural identities between two groups of foreign language learners. The post-modernist ideas on cultural identities are embedded within it. Adapted from Holliday's (2002, 2004) framework of 'culture of dealing', the researcher sees the online intercultural exchange as a new culture or a new 'community of practice' formed by the two groups of foreign language learners. Their situated identities (Gee, 1999) in this community of practice are constructed according to the specific context (the task design) they are involved in by retrieving relevant cultural resources from the bigger cultures the learners are from such as eastern culture or western culture. The situated identities involve what learners project themselves to be and perceive their learning partners to be in this specific context. In the newly-formed culture or community of practice, they are learning to approach appropriate competence in order to communicate successfully with other members within it. In order to achieve this, they need to negotiate their positions in this community. The learning makes them become someone with a newly-developed situated identity in the learning community. During the process, according to Byram (1997), they should have increased their cultural knowledge, improve the interaction skills and develop a non-essentialist attitude and more critical cultural awareness toward their own culture and the learning partners' culture.


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Related links

University of Bristol, Blackboard System