Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

The Effects of a Virtual Exchange on Students' Interest in Learning about Culture

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

The Effects of a Virtual Exchange on Students' Interest in Learning about Culture

Article excerpt

Abstract: A 12-week electronic exchange was conducted between a third-year German college class in the United States and an advanced English high school class in Germany. The exchange consisted of e-mails between tandem partners, blogs, videoconferences between both classes, and class essays. The study examined the effects of participation in the semester-long cross-cultural, cross-lingual exchange on students' interest in learning about the target culture. The results showed that students' interest in learning about culture was high before and after the exchange. Likewise, students believed that learning about culture is an important part of foreign language learning. The virtual exchange outlined here is an example of a standards-based approach to integrating language and culture instruction.

Key words: culture, e-mail, 5 C's, students' interest, virtual exchange

Introduction

The world is becoming more and more globalized and, as a result, in most communities individuals are surrounded by people from diverse cultural or language backgrounds (Block & Cameron, 2002). Strong communication skills are needed to interact effectively with others who may not share one's language, worldviews, or cultural beliefs. In order to communicate successfully and efficiently not only abroad, but also within one's own diverse community, one needs cultural awareness as one of the key competencies for everyday interactions in the 21st century.

Both cultural awareness and communication skills have been emphasized in a number of key documents, including the Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century: "The United States must educate students who are linguistically and culturally equipped to communicate successfully in a pluralistic American society and abroad" (National Standards, 1999, p. 7). According to the Standards, foreign language instruction should enable students to "communicate and to learn to respond appropriately in a variety of cultures" (p. 245). Furthermore, the Standards emphasize that "students cannot truly master the language until they have also mastered the cultural contexts in which the language occurs" (p. 31). In order to do that, students need to have "an understanding of the interdependent and interactive relation- ship of the perspectives, practices, and products" (p. 257) of a culture. Similarly, the American Association of Teachers of German (AATG) Task Force on the Teach- ing of Culture has emphasized that "cross? cultural understanding and intercultural communication are more essential now than ever, particularly because modern means of communication and transport bring us daily into contact with - ["other- ness"] for which we need not only knowl- edge, but also strategies to interpret, to understand, and to put into perspective what we are experiencing" (Schulz, Lalande, Dykstra?Pruim, Zimmer?Loew, & James, 2005, p. 172).

In order to ensure that all learners have the skills they will need to become success- ful members both "in a-and for a- changing world" (Schulz, 2007, p. 88), it is critical that students develop deep cultural awareness as well as language proficiency. Consequently, it has been suggested that culture should be at the very heart of foreign language instruction (Sercu, 2005) and that culture cannot be regarded as an "expend- able fifth skill" (Kramsch, 1993, p. 1). However, although there seems to be consensus concerning the importance of culture in the foreign language classroom, few studies have investigated students' interest in cultural learning in foreign language classes. This study investigated the effects of participation in a 12?week telecollaborative project between a third? year German class at a large Midwestern university in the United States and an advanced English class at a high school in central Germany and reports students' interest in learning about culture in their foreign language class. As noted in the description of the project, offered later in this article, the virtual exchange allowed learners to meet all five goal areas of the Standards in an interconnected and person- alized way and may provide an example from which instructors in K--16 settings may develop similar learning opportunities for their students. …

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