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Language Acquisition Through Intercultural Learning

As a group leader in an intercultural youth project, Neslihan Gundogdu helped young people from various countries develop a common language by discussing social and cultural issues. See Sarah J. Shin's Out of the Box article, "For Immigrant Students, the ESOL Glass Is Half-Full," Essential Teacher, December 2007.

As an experienced English teacher, I took an interest in intercultural learning (ICL) when I started working as a group leader in a European Union youth project called Action 1.1, which promotes ICL. Action 1.1 projects are youth exchanges in which young people from different parts of Europe meet to discuss topics such as art and culture, sport, or gender equality through nonconventional learning techniques. In these one- or two-week exchanges, participants deal with the theme of the project in workshops, field trips, and intercultural excursions, allowing them to experience the process of ICL. Since participants stay in the same location throughout the project, they have the opportunity to interact with and observe each other.

Developing English in an Intercultural Exchange

While English is the common language in these exchanges, the focus is not necessarily on language development. However, the exchanges provide a highly effective opportunity for participants to practice English in a cross-cultural environment.

I interviewed eighteen Turkish university students who participated in various Action 1.1 projects. For all of them, it was their first exchange and their first time abroad. One participant’s level of English proficiency was elementary, but the rest had preintermediate to intermediate levels of proficiency.

All participants emphasized that their engagement in the youth projects helped increase their English skills. They learned many new words and phrases, both everyday language and language related to the theme of the project. They said that at the beginning of the project, they were afraid of making grammatical mistakes, but when they saw people from different cultures speaking English without concern for accuracy, they overcame this fear and started to focus more on conveying their message. With practice, their fluency and confidence increased. One participant pointed out that once you have created a dialogue and received positive energy from others, you do your best to communicate with each other. Students made comments such as the following:

  • Before this project, I was too shy to speak English even in front of a mirror.
  • The more I spoke, the more confidence I gained.
  • It is easier to talk to someone in English who is not a native speaker of English.
  • You really feel that you are talking when you speak fluently.
  • I have learned a lot of phrases and words which people use in daily language.

People experience the ICL process from the moment they step into a new country and culture. This project sheds light on what it is like to live in a different culture, interact with people of that culture, and try to look at the world from a different perspective. The Action 1.1 projects made me question what language teachers can do to promote ICL in their classes.

First, language teachers should be aware of the importance of language acquisition through intercultural learning. Because language and culture are interrelated, we cannot learn language without also learning about and experiencing another culture. Second, language teachers should be knowledgeable about intercultural learning, intercultural awareness, and intercultural competency so that they can help students navigate the intercultural process to become an interculturally competent person. Third, teachers with background knowledge of ICL should design classroom materials that have cultural and intercultural themes.

While participating in Action 1.1 projects, I realized that the way they function is similar to both task-based and content-based instruction in EFL. In task-based instruction, learners are engaged in communicative tasks while using the target language. In content-based instruction, students are exposed to target language use by dealing with topics that interest them. In both approaches, the focus is on fluency rather than accuracy.

To promote ICL in a monolingual language class, teachers can utilize literature and films with cultural value. They can ask students to do presentations about different cultures. Teachers can contact a school in another country, have both groups of students communicate with each other via the Internet, and assign tasks to promote ICL.

Task-Based Activity

I use the following activity in my class to promote ICL. In goups of four, students give a fifteen-minute presentation about a country that interests them. Lifestyles, customs and traditions, eating habits, music, folk dances, and expressions in that country’s language should be included in the presentation. Students are required to interview people who have lived in that country to get their impressions. To involve the audience (the other class members), I hand out a chart with headings for the various topics that the presentation should cover; they use the chart to take notes, which invloves them more actively in the presentation. After the presentation, the audience may ask questions. In the last part of the task, the students write a report about what facts they knew before the presentation and what they learned as a result of the presentation.

Content-Based Activity

The following activity dealing with social exclusion is suitable for intermediate students. First, ask students to brainstorm the causes of social exclusion. Then have them read a selected text about social exclusion and reflect on the text in groups. Students then watch the film Chocolat, which is about people who face exclusion. After the film, students discuss why the woman and her daughter are excluded by the people around them. Include open-ended questions about the film to encourage students to talk. During the last part of the activity, each group finds a solution about how to include excluded groups in society and writes a report.

How Students Benefit

Students' reflections on these activities are positive in terms of both language development and ICL. With regard to language development, they use reading skills such as skimming and scanning when necessary. It may be difficult for students to paraphrase what they read, but doing so is beneficial for language development and for delivering a smoother presentation. Students are able to speak more fluently during the presentation because they can remember what they wrote and the sentences are their own, not somebody else’s. They become aware that they have produced authentic language rather than transforming knowledge from someone else's words. In presenting to the class, students learn new words and phrases, try to use them while paraphrasing, and use various grammar structures without realizing it. They have a chance to engage in peer teaching by teaching new words and phrases to each other, and they improve their presentation, group work, and note-taking skills.

As for ICL, students get an overall picture of the countries that are the subject of presentations and realize that they knew little about these countries. During the presentations they become curious about other cultures and compare their culture with other cultures. Some students decide to make friends with people from other countries so that they can chat on the Internet to get to know another culture better. Some even decide to visit these countries. Thus, students start going through an intercultural transformation themselves.

While the activies suggested here are useful for English language learners, we as teachers can also promote ICL in a monolingual class by designing tasks that include ICL and language acquisiton objectives.

Neslihan Gundogdu ( has taught general English to graduate and undergradute students at Cukurova University in Adana, Turkey, for eleven years.