Culture and Language Learning Initiatives

The Culture and Language Learning initiatives sponsored by the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) have been conducted with the support of the U.S. Department of Education in several phases. These initiatives include:


Setting a Research Agenda (1993-1996)

A 1991 symposium on culture and language learning held at the University of Minnesota provided the foundation for the initial phase of the project. In 1993 with Language Resource Center funding from the U.S. Department of Education CARLA faculty and staff began work on a set of new Culture and Language Learning initiatives. The work began with an exhaustive review of the literature pertaining to culture learning in foreign and second language education. The project also commissioned three papers to serve as the foci of the second project-sponsored conference. One paper examined the theoretical possibilities of integrating culture and language learning, while a second suggested ways in which teachers could apply these new concepts in the classroom. The third paper was a summary of the project's extensive literature review, taking into consideration the variety of disciplines affected by and contributing to culture learning. The goal of all these activities was to create a solid theoretical understanding of the language/culture connection in order to begin developing concrete educational models for practitioners. The conference papers were published as part of the CARLA working paper series and were republished by Information Age Publishing in 2003.

Combining practical application with an historical and theoretical understanding was also the theme of the two conferences sponsored by the project. The first conference, held at the University of Minnesota in 1994, provided a forum for practitioners, researchers, and theorists to share ideas and learn from each other. Building on the success of this conference, the second conference, "Culture as the Core: Transforming the Language Curriculum" was held at the University of Minnesota in 1996, and included two days of discussion among experts in the fields of second language learning and intercultural communication, and one day during which practitioners from the community were invited to participate in the dialogue. The issues and ideas that resulted from the active discussions at both conferences have been used to enrich the revised, published versions of the three commissioned papers, and set a new direction for language practitioners and researchers alike.

Conducting Research on Culture Learning in the Language Classroom (1996-1999)

During the second round of LRC funding, the Intercultural Studies Project team conducted a research project that examined ways in which culture learning and intercultural competence can be assessed in the language classroom.

The study of a foreign language has long been hailed by foreign language educators, parents and students as a way to

  • broaden one's perspective and understanding of the world, and
  • increase one's ability to interact with people of different backgrounds and cultures.

Yet, belief in such benefits from foreign language study rests mainly on anecdotal evidence; the nature of the effect that foreign language learning has on the learner, as well as the ways to impact it, have remained largely unexplored. While the linguistic curriculum and outcomes of the foreign language classroom are well defined and a number of methods for assessing their attainment have been devised, no such systematic evaluation of the cultural outcomes of foreign language instruction has ever taken place. Furthermore, the integration of language and culture is far from being realized in the foreign language classroom of the nineties, in spite of the fact that the integration of language and culture has been an ongoing concern of foreign language educators for the past fifty years. Of primary concern is the fact that uncertainty still prevails among foreign language educators, not just with regard to methods for integrating cultural teaching into a language syllabus but also regarding what constitutes legitimate and achievable cultural goals in the foreign language classroom. In particular, prior research conducted had been inconclusive as to how much teachers' beliefs about their subject matter influence their educational practice (Ryan, 1994; Stodolsky & Grossman, 1995).

Accordingly, the goals of this LRC research project were:

  • to explore foreign language teachers' beliefs about culture and culture learning;
  • to probe the relationship between teachers' beliefs and their instructional practices;
  • to investigate the acquisition of intercultural sensitivity in the secondary and post-secondary foreign language classroom.

The specific research questions explored in this study included:

  • What are the perceptions of culture held by high school teachers and university instructors of foreign language?
  • What is the relationship between their beliefs about culture and their instructional behavior?
  • What are the levels of intercultural sensitivity demonstrated by the students in the classes of participating teachers?

The dual focus on the teacher and the student framed the two phases of the study. In the first phase, the researchers focused on the teacher and the classroom interactions, with an emphasis on the teacher's conceptualization of culture and culture teaching. This part of the project involved pre-observation interviews, classroom observations, and post-observation interviews.

The researchers interviewed thirteen high school teachers and four university instructors teaching languages at various levels. The researchers’ intent was to explore three kinds of educational constructs, such as beliefs about culture and culture learning, beliefs about pedagogy, and beliefs about self. In addition, the teachers also filled out a background questionnaire for the purpose of collecting demographic data in a standardized form.

Classroom observations included micro-observations of classroom interactions as well as structural observations. In all observational contexts, the researchers acted as non-participant observers. In the high school classes, each teacher was observed for ten consecutive days. The university instructors were observed once each. Additionally, each high school teacher was observed for one "culture class" (defined as a whole class period devoted to the teaching of culture) during the fall semester of 1998. Post-observation interviews with those teachers who were part of the classroom observations took place in fall 1998 after the observation of the special culture class. These interviews were constructed from the field notes and served the double purpose of clarifying practice and of giving teachers a further opportunity to elaborate on their instructional choices and decisions.

For further information on this part of the study contact researcher Francine Klein at

The second direction of the research encompassed the evaluation of learning outcomes, specifically the students' acquisition of intercultural sensitivity, defined in the literature as a person's sensitivity to the importance of cultural differences and to the viewpoints of culturally different others. The assumptions put to test in this part of the study included the following:

  • students of foreign languages will demonstrate high levels of intercultural sensitivity, and
  • students’ sensitivity to cultural difference will increase over the duration of foreign language study.

For the purposes of this study, the instrument used to measure intercultural sensitivity was the newly-developed Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) (Hammer & Bennett 1998). The IDI is based on the Bennett model of intercultural sensitivity, which describes the ways in which people construe cultural difference. Bennett postulates that acquiring intercultural sensitivity is a developmental process, in which a person moves from denial of, defense from, and minimization of cultural difference (ethnocentric stages) to acceptance, adaptation, and integration of difference (ethnorelative stages).

The IDI was administered to 353 high school students and university students during the 1997-98 and 98-99 academic years. Fifteen qualitative interviews were also undertaken with students from several different language and culture courses. The purpose of the administration was:

  • to pilot the instrument in the foreign language classroom;
  • to provide the researchers with the baseline data for further research; and
  • to provide diagnostic information to instructors about the students' intercultural development.

The researchers concluded from the analysis of the quantitative data that the IDI is a reasonably reliable and valid instrument for assessing intercultural development. In addition, the qualitative data provided a cross-validation of the instrument and gave the research team further insight into how students convey their understanding of intercultural differences. Data from this study has been presented at many conferences and was published as an article in the International Journal of Intercultural Relations. The reference for this article is as follows:

Paige, R.M., Jacobs-Cassuto, M., Yershova, Y. A. & DeJaeghere, J. (2003). Assessing intercultural sensitivity: An empirical analysis of the Hammer and Bennett Intercultural Development Inventory. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 27, 467-486.

Bridging Research to the Language Classroom
In addition, data from several courses was provided to instructors and debriefed so that they could explore the implications of their students' development for their teaching methods and curriculum design. This data debriefing resulted in an ongoing discussion with these educators about how to design their teaching and curriculum to promote intercultural development. From these discussions, a manual was written to assist university language educators in integrating intercultural learning content and methods into the language curriculum.

The manual was designed for the following purposes: 1) to provide knowledge of the concepts of intercultural competence and learning; 2) to provide techniques and tools that can be utilized in the classroom to help students become intercultural competent; and 3) to provide specific curriculum ideas that can be integrated into the language curriculum for the specific purpose of teaching intercultural competence. The manual consists of five sections:

  1. an introduction which summarizes the project and the purposes of the manual;
  2. defines cultural and intercultural competence and provides the M. J. Bennett model of intercultural development and the J. Bennett model of support and challenge in the curriculum as a framework for curriculum development;
  3. further develops how the above models and other tools can be used to design the intercultural classroom and curriculum;
  4. provides additional tools for facilitating cultural learning throughout the curriculum; and
  5. illustrates several curriculum examples that utilize the above tools for the purposes of culture learning.

In addition, a bibliography on culture learning was created. Contributors included R. Michael Paige, Helen Jorstad, Laura Siaya, Francine Klein and Jeanette Colby.

Maximizing Study Abroad: Strategies for Language and Culture Learning and Use (1999-2003)

In 1999 the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) at the University of Minnesota received funding from the U.S. Department of Education’s Language Resource Center program to create a set of user-friendly materials on language- and culture-learning strategies designed to maximize students’ study abroad experiences. This project was a logical extension of previous work conducted at CARLA on culture and language learning and strategies-based instruction.

During the period 1999-2003 the project leaders created, field-tested, and revised the following set of three guides as part of the Maximizing Study Abroad series:

  • Maximizing Study Abroad: A Students’ Guide to Strategies for Language and Culture Learning and Use
  • Maximizing Study Abroad: A Program Professionals’ Guide to Strategies for Language and Culture Learning and Use
  • Maximizing Study Abroad: A Language Instructors’ Guide to Strategies for Language and Culture Learning and Use

Research on the Effect of Study Abroad Materials on Student Learning (2002-2006)

In September 2002 Professors Cohen and Paige began work on a comprehensive study on the effectiveness of the Maximizing Study Abroad guides on the enhancement of study abroad students’ language competence and intercultural communication skills. The study also examines the use of the materials in study abroad programs and language classrooms.

For further information about the Culture and Language Learning initiatives contact Dr. R. Michael Paige at


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