Examining language learners' roles and perceptions in the development of Intercultural Communicative Competence: An analysis of Intercultura Spanish language learning materials from an Activity Theory perspective
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With the increasing globalization, approaches to foreign language teaching have recognized the need to prepare learners for interactions with native speakers of the target language. Research studies in the areas of cross-cultural and intercultural communication have identified intercultural communicative competence (ICC) as a skill needed for such interactions. However, the majority of studies in these areas have focused on contradictions that arise from communication between two different cultural groups of learners without consideration to the roles they take in the discussions or their attitudes towards the materials. In addition, the majority of ICC studies have investigated ICC development in language courses using materials that have not been fully integrated into the courses. Attempts have been made to guide language educators in preparing learners for intercultural interactions, such as the goals outlined in the National Standards document (ACTFL, 2011). However, today’s foreign language classrooms are still confined to the use of textbooks as guiding principles for teaching. Unfortunately, textbooks have not fully incorporated research findings from the area of ICC.
To address the lack of materials that integrate ICC findings and that are fully integrated in language courses, I developed the Intercultura materials. These materials contain cultural information from four Hispanic countries (Argentina, Chile, Colombia, and Spain). In this study I proposed and investigated an innovative approach for the teaching of culture and development of ICC in the context of a foreign language classroom. The investigation focused on five research questions that aimed at the study of (a) participants’ roles in the discussion of cultural information, (b) development of ICC and connection to the components of the Intercultura materials, (c) differences in the pursuance of goals (i.e., understanding cultural information), (d) participants’ perceptions of and attitudes towards the Intercultura materials, and (f) participants’ preferences for the viewing of materials in or out–of–class. Two research methodologies were employed. Data consisting of participants' (n=42) entries to eight discussion forums and sociograms obtained from the forums were analyzed qualitatively to answer research questions 1, 2, and 3. A mixed methods approach was used to investigate research questions 4 and 5. Quantitative (participants’ (n=115) ratings to Likert–scale items in an exit survey) and qualitative (responses to open-ended questions in the survey) data were used.
Main findings showed that participants who had a stronger connection to the target culture or to a culture that differed from the mainstream US culture (e.g., first and second generation of immigrants, students who had experiences abroad) were able to take on the role of leaders and assist others in the development of a greater understanding of the cultural information presented to them. In regard to the development of ICC, instances of the dimension of interpreting and relating increased when participants viewed the materials outside of class. The use of what/how questions and integration of information from four countries in the Intercultura materials were contributing factors to the increase in the dimension of interpreting and relating. Overall, participants found different features of the Intercultura materials to be beneficial. Finally, participants preferred viewing materials out–of–class and offered valid reasons for choosing their own materials. The study has pedagogical implications in regard to task types for the development of ICC (i.e., use of what/how questions), the viewing of materials (in or out–of–class), and consideration of participants' cultural backgrounds in discussions about culture.