Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Teaching Sensitivity to Cultural Difference in the First-Year Foreign Language Classroom

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Teaching Sensitivity to Cultural Difference in the First-Year Foreign Language Classroom

Article excerpt


This article summarizes teacher action research for the teaching of subjective culture in the foreign language classroom. It begins with a literature review, followed by a description of Milton J. Bennett's Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (Bennett, 1993), the theoretical paradigm upon which classroom activities and experiments were based. Bennett's model is compared and contrasted with other approaches to teaching culture, its strengths and weaknesses are discussed, and suggestions for implementing the model are presented. The article then summarizes efforts to mobilize the theory at the elementary French level, describes various culture-teaching strategies, and presents the results of evaluations of the effectiveness of the strategies using the Intercultural Development Inventory. Final remarks concern the goals of the culture component in the foreign language curriculum and suggestions for next steps in research.

Key words: cultural difference, culture in foreign language classes, intercultural development, intercultural sensitivity, theories of culture teaching

Language: Relevant to all languages


In the spring semester of 2004, three second-semester French language classes at Nicholls State University were pretested with the Intercultural Development Inventory, a psychometric instrument for evaluating sensitivity to cultural difference. The reasons for the testing were: (1) to gain some empirical insight into the students' level of intercultural communicative competence, (2) to incorporate into the language instruction a set of intercultural training activities appropriate to the students' level of sensitivity, and (3) to posttest the students at the end of the course to determine whether their level of competence had improved. The project as a whole stemmed from two grants specifically targeting research into the teaching of culture and intercultural competence (a U.S. Department of Education grant from its Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education [FIPSE], and a Nicholls State University Research Council Grant). A literature review was carried out, culminating in the adoption of a theoretical model of culture and culture learning and in the implementation of this model in the elementary French language classes. This article summarizes the literature review, describes the study's implementation, and presents conclusions.

The Problem of Culture in the Foreign Language Classroom

The notion that culture should constitute an essential aspect of foreign language proficiency has been around since Brooks first proposed it in 1968. A number of factors, however, have prevented more widespread acceptance of culture's place in the foreign language curriculum. To begin with, finding a definition of culture and developing coherent pedagogical modalities for integrating it into foreign language instruction have eluded researchers. With respect to the definition, Hinkel (1999) assents: "It may not be an exaggeration to say that there are nearly as many definitions of culture as there are fields of inquiry into human societies, groups, systems, behaviors, and activities" (p. 1). The arrival, in 1999, of the Standards for Foreign Language Learning (National Standards, 1999) brought culture to the forefront of the foreign language education discussion and provided some clarity as to the definition of the term. Describing culture as the "perspectives, practices, and products" of the linguistic community studied successfully integrates traditional treatment of culture-the study of a culture's products-with more recent research in intercultural communication-the study of how a culture's perspectives shape its practices. It bears pointing out, however, that recent scholarship has problematized the concept of culture as it is presented in the content standards. Sercu (2004a) points out that "'culture' no longer rests on the equivalence of nation-one culture-one language. …

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