Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Exchanging Second Language Messages Online: Developing an Intercultural Communicative Competence?

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Exchanging Second Language Messages Online: Developing an Intercultural Communicative Competence?

Article excerpt


This article reports on a study carried out twice on an online second language course that was set up between a Canadian University and a German University. In that course, students of German in Canada and students of English in Germany exchanged 2,412 messages in 2004 and 1,831 messages in 2005. A list of processing criteria for assessment was developed so the assessment process was transparent to instructors and students alike. The main research question was if these processing criteria led to the development of an intercultural communicative competence as defined by Byram (1997). Results showed that students who asked wh-questions, shared personal experiences, gave examples, and found material that was not provided in the course, engaged in the online dialogue with great success.

Key words: cooperative learning, assessment, online learning, intercultural communication, second language learning

Language: German, relevant to all languages


The last several years have seen the development of an increasing number of second language courses that use information technology to modify the learning environment. This has led to the development of WebCT courses that allow learners to access course material, interact with the instructor and other students as well as writing tests via a computer. One of the advantages of such a course is the student-centered approach as Merryfield has pointed out in a survey article (2003) on online learning. For example, in a second language course, students of the target language can communicate with native speakers of the target language. This principle of learner to native speaker interaction between students was integrated into an intermediate German as a foreign language course at the University of British Columbia (UBC, Canada) in cooperation with the University of Kiel (UKiel, Germany). The first online exchange between students of both universities took place for six weeks in the fall of 2003 and was considered the trial phase. In the subsequent years, the course was taught twice at UBC in cooperation with UKiel in the fall of 2004 and 2005. Of particular interest to the instructors were questions of assessment regarding the online exchange. A study was developed and the results of two years of data collection are presented in this article.

Questions of assessment became increasingly interesting to the two instructors (one at UBC; one at UKiel) during the trial phase of the exchange in the fall of 2003. Initially, the two instructors of the course had planned to use Byram's (1997) four categories of Intercultural Communicative Competence (ICC) to assess students' participation in the exchange. These four categories are: knowledge ("knowledge of social groups and their products and practices . . . and of the general processes of societal and individual interaction," p. 94); skills ("ability to mediate between conflicting interpretations of phenomena," p. 98; "to identify significant references within and across cultures," p. 99); attitudes ("willingness . . . to engage with otherness," p. 91; "to question the values and presuppositions in cultural practices," p. 92); critical cultural awareness ("an ability to evaluate perspectives, practices and products," p. 101; "to interact and mediate in intercultural exchanges," p. 101). These categories of ICC are based on the assumption that intercultural communication is a challenging task for the learner, that being intercultural involves experiencing the conventions, beliefs, values, and behaviors of other groups (Aired, Byram, & Fleming, 2003; Byram, 1997; Byram & Buttjes, 1991).

As it turned out, the criteria Byram (1997) supplied to test these categories were not necessarily supported in the online learning environment of the exchange. Byram's criteria were to test factual knowledge; to have students keep a journal; and to have students develop a portfolio. The exchange between UBC and UKiel required having criteria to analyze an exchange between two participants and to do so while the exchange was in progress. …

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