Patrizia TOMAIN
The article opens up with the main challenges the teacher encountered by adding the intercultural dimension to the traditional
syllabus. The assumption here is that language learning can be enhanced if the intercultural dimension becomes part of the process.
Besides, the author is convinced that by acquiring an intercultural identity students will better understand people from other cultures
and will create more opportunities for a peaceful dialogue and co-existence. The pilot class context is introduced with its monocultural profile and enquiries on what the intercultural competence is arise. The module is presented with its objectives,
methodological approach and assessment tools. Activities are organized so as to develop critical and reflective thinking and
encourage the students' initiative. Three main chunks of lessons are described, with the first aiming to develop curiosity towards the
PERMIT partners’ cultures, the second focussing on universal values and respect of diversity and the third helping students to deal
with conflicts and find strategies to solve them. Some reflections on the students’ feedback and results are given in conclusion.
When I was offered to take part in the Permit project with the intent of widening the teaching action
and encompassing in it the intercultural dimension, I saw several challenges in front of me. First of
all, the pilot class context is mainly mono-cultural with a group of 26 students aged 17/18 from a
public Secondary Technical High School in the north-east of Italy. Only two foreigners are present,
from Bosnia and Iraq, who have been living and studying in Italy for long, therefore, little track
remains of their former cultural habits. Besides, by leaving in small communities in the areas
around the school, all students have few opportunities to engage relations with other ethnic groups.
Apart from the school, the places where they mostly spend their time - sports and recreational areas,
discos and bars, the church and voluntary associations – are visited by Italians and the language
used to communicate is the dialect of the Veneto region. Yet, the group is very open-minded and
lively; in their course they study economics and 3 foreign languages and those who will not
continue at university, will look for a job in administrations, companies with foreign markets or in
the tourist business. They study foreign languages for their future, they have little chance to use
them in the present.
So, when I talked to them about the opportunity to get involved in a project where other peers from
Slovenia and Turkey were going to participate, they got curious, although a little confused of the
proposal, but accepted mainly because this seemed one possibility among others to improve and
practise their language skills, similarly to the CLIL lessons they were experiencing the same school
year with statistics taught in English.
Another big challenge was for me to tackle the intercultural competence. I am a teacher of English,
used to dealing with content knowledge and language skills. True, I have had a lot of intercultural
experience, collaborating in projects and partnerships involving other nations and meeting people
when traveling abroad. But I found myself at a loss when asked to give a definition of intercultural
competence, even when required to evaluate my own.
Intuitively, it was easy for me to embrace the assumption that language learning can be enhanced if
the intercultural dimension becomes part of the process1. But I had to experiment myself and adopt
tools to measure the results. Furthermore, what really fascinated me was the idea that by adding the
intercultural perspective to the curricular lesson the students would be encouraged to build up their
own intercultural identity, so as to look for more opportunities of dialogue with people from other
countries, interact with other cultures without bias and prejudice, be ready to face the problems of
co-existence as trained citizens of the world.
Finally, the third challenge was to choose the parts of the syllabus that best matched with the
intercultural perspective. I work a lot with this class. I see them 5 periods a week. They study
language skills – their level of English is B1/B2 of the CEFR2 - which they mostly acquire through
activities focussing on current issues. However, the syllabus presents disciplinary contents, as well,
such as literature, history, business transactions and tourism. I could have easily chosen some topics
Byram M., Gribkova B., Starkey H. (2002) Developing the Intercultural Dimension in Language Teaching A Practical
Introduction for Teachers, , Strasbourg, DGIV Council of Europe
The Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) describes the levels of achievements of learners of foreign
languages, There are 6 reference levels: A Basic User (A1 Breakthrough A2 Waystage); B Independent User (B1
Threshold B2 Vantage); C Proficient User (C1 Effective Operational Proficiency C2 Mastery)
of the tourist area for the purpose (traveling abroad, food, city tours, etc.) but I wanted to
experiment with the linguistic text itself.
At this level the students are consolidating their skills in writing essays in English (i.e. opinion, for
and against, etc.). Argumentation seemed to me the most appropriate type of text that suited the
encounter of the students with the intercultural dimension. When writing an argumentative essay
students learn that they have to support each viewpoint with reasons and clear examples. They also
learn they have to provide opposing views in order for the reader to have a complete vision on the
topic and, by trusting the writer, there are more chances the reader understands or even assumes the
writer’s standpoint. In an intercultural dialogue, similarly, each interlocutor has to learn to avoid
sudden judgmental attitudes based on lack of information and should be encouraged to search for
reasons of other viewpoints. The result will be the acceptance of different perspectives and the
subsequent development of strategies to deal with such diversities.
Since the intercultural theme well suits with the acknowledgement of values, I decided I would use
the Declaration of American Independence and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as
documents to affirm that rights are unalienable and must be respected.
At the time when we were on the point of starting the project, President Obama had just delivered
his famous victory speech where he addressed the American nation and the world with his slogan of
change to fight against inequalities and foster a future of peace, freedom and democracy. Together
with the class, we agreed that the final outcome for the module would be a 5 minute speech (an
argumentative oral text) on crucial current issues delivered by each student to a potential audience
if international peers. The speeches were going to be filmed so as to give partners from Slovenia
and Turkey the chance to hear those speeches once uploaded on the Permit virtual space. This way
the students would develop some intercultural awareness in constructing and addressing their final
The need to redesign curricular objectives of the language classroom to address more directly the
acquisition of intercultural knowledge and skills has some complex implications. It seems that the
intercultural teaching model cannot simply lie on the traditional communicative approach, although
the process is centered –learner and the social interaction is guaranteed. The objectives, here cannot
merely be reduced to achieving a linguistic competence of a lingua franca, because several
examples demonstrate that mastering a language not necessarily takes to comprehension among
interlocutors. My working experience in European projects, too shows that working together with
other language teachers from various countries is difficult and misunderstanding is frequent,
although all of us master the foreign language and share the same profession. Complications result
from different principles and school backgrounds, priorities and organization, viewpoints and
behaviors. In other words from cultural diversity.
If we agree with what Byram et al. state ‘Intercultural communication is communication on the
basis of respect for individuals and equality of human rights as the democratic basis for social
interaction’3 some attention must be focused on that respect for individuals and the idea of a
democratic interaction. So, not only students become the addressees of the teaching process, but
they should also get an active and protagonist role. In our Permit group, we language teachers
agreed that one main common goal in developing our intercultural module would be:
to develop critical and reflective thinking and to encourage the students' initiative
Therefore, what I did at the beginning of the module was to share all objectives, products and even
evaluation tools with the students, with the possibility for them to make proposals of rearrangement
of the activities or of the schedule. Room for independent study and practice was given, too. The
students had access code to the Permit virtual space and were always invited to join the platform
and give their contribution. Group work was central in our classes. When students were asked to
produce definitions of the word culture or to answer questions posted by the Permit partners, they
Byram M., Gribkova B., Starkey H. (2002) Developing the Intercultural Dimension in Language Teaching A Practical
Introduction for Teachers, , Strasbourg, DGIV Council of Europe, p. 5
had time to interact in small groups of five and then reported their results to the large group. Group
work was a support also in the creation of the individual speeches. Students received feedback from
their partners and rehearsed in front of them.
The module lasted about 2 months and generally 3 hrs per week were used to work on content,
language and intercultural issues. It was characterized by three main chunks, the first group of
lessons entitled Let’s keep in touch presented a serious of activities aimed to promote intercultural
curiosity . Lessons were designed to reflect on the word culture and provide definitions for it.
Interaction with the Slovenian and Turkish partners was guaranteed through the Permit virtual
space. Students exchanged information on cultural themes such as food, school life, entertainment.
They offered their opinions on even more intimate themes such as politics, behavioral codes, ethics
and religion.
The second chunk of lessons, The Making and Remaking of a Nation, was aimed to open up to
universal values, i.e. individual freedom, respect of diversity, cooperation to reach prosperity and
peace. It explored two famous speeches in the history of the United States, Obama’s and Martin
Luther King’s4. The affective factor enhanced by the use of videos here has a central role: the
students are motivated to emulate the great speakers. Besides, the wide vision contained in both
texts should encourage the students to be more open-minded and, therefore, more inclined to face
the intercultural challenge. The third and last chunk, The Declaration of Independence5 and the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights6, was aimed to learn how to deal with conflicts and find
strategies to solve them. By simulating a sort of students’ rebellion to the rules of the school system,
similarly to the revolutionary American colonists, the students analyzed the two documents and the
reasons for writing them. Big issues such as the limitation of freedom and unalienable rights arose
and, together with them, the awareness of the complexity of world relationships.
Barack Obama gave his victory speech in Chicago soon after he was elected president in 2008. The speech referenced,
among others, Martin Luther King’s speech I have a Dream which was delivered during the March on Washington for
Jobs and Freedom in 1963.
The United States Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nation Assembly on 10 December 1848
The assessment process focussed on content, language and intercultural objectives. The Permit
portfolio was used as well as a self-monitoring questionnaire to check the intercultural skills
acquired and the students’ attitude to open to other cultures. Content knowledge and argumentative
skills were tested, too. A specific rubric was created to assess the students’ performance in the
From the feedback received there is evidence of openness and an inclination to a deeper reflection
and use of strategies when confronting with ambiguous issues arising from cultural clashes. The
students seemed to appreciate the contacts with partners and their active role in their study process.
Yet, the belief on behalf a few students that the activity was temporary and limited to one school
subject hindered their enthusiasm and participation. Although some at first had criticized the use of
the video-camera to film the individual speeches, in the end they all liked the idea of having
accomplished a concrete product and most were willing their speech to be posted in the virtual
Their pilot ended with the end of the school year. I hope the students’ initiative and their reflective
thinking will be reinforced during summer holiday thanks to the chances they will have to get in
touch with the perspectives of others. I am looking forward to seeing them clearly visible next
September when they approach study again, this time as school leavers.