Cultura is an intercultural project, based in a language class. It connects online two groups of students from two different cultures, to help them develop an in-depth understanding of each other’s culture.
The project was originally created in 1997 as an online exchange between American and French students within a French language class at MIT. It has since been adapted by other schools in other languages, connecting students in the US with students in Germany, Italy, Mexico, Russia, Spain. Cultura is not the only online intercultural project of its kind, but is particularly well-known for its pedagogically sound design, approach and methodology, (see “Culture, culture learning and new technologies: towards a pedagogical framework”).
Our students will increasingly find themselves working for transnational companies and across cultures. Language teachers, who teach both language and culture, are particularly well-positioned to play a key role in helping students learn how to interact and communicate across cultures. However, more often than not, language classes tend to focus on developing students' linguistic skills, and limited time is spent developing their intercultural understanding. Cultura is an attempt to make culture the core of a language class.
The objective of Cultura is to help students understand the values, attitudes, beliefs and concepts inherent in another culture; to understand how people interact, look at the world and frame their thoughts and ideas. Those goals are epitomized by a phrase from Marcel Proust, which serves as a beacon to our project (see the Cultura Demo Site) : "La seule véritable exploration, la seule vraie fontaine de Jouvence, ne serait pas de visiter des terres étrangères mais de posséder d'autres yeux, de regarder l'univers à travers les yeux des autres"(Translation: "The only true exploration, the only true fountain of youth would not be to visit foreign lands, but to possess other eyes, to look at the universe through the eyes of others”). That dimension of culture is very difficult to teach, because it is very elusive, abstract, implicit and essentially invisible. The famous American anthropologist Edward Hall referred to it as “the silent language”, the “hidden dimension”.
As Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian philosopher of language and literary theorist, wrote “It is only in the eyes of another culture that foreign culture reveals itself fully and profoundly [….] A meaning only reveals its depths once it has encountered and come into contact with another, foreign meaning”.
Comparing and contrasting similar documents from two cultures - through the simple process of juxtaposition - makes it possible to see differences and similarities that would not otherwise be visible. It allows users to start "seeing", for instance, the different values given to words, the negative or positive connotations, the various attitudes toward events or situations. This constitutes the first step toward deciphering and understanding what these differences may reveal and signify.
Cultura offers a cross-cultural approach which has students observe, compare and analyze similar materials from their respective cultures, make observations and draw preliminary hypotheses, then exchange viewpoints with each other, via on-line discussion forums. Working with a large array of materials, they test their initial hypotheses and gradually reach a deeper understanding of the nature and origin of the differences they have observed.
Cultura offers learners and teachers alike a concrete methodology for learning about another culture. It is up to you to decide at what level you want to use it.
Following a common calendar, students explore together a variety of materials that progressively broaden their scope of inquiry. The following site (see Demo site) was designed to be used by French and American students, but it can easily be replicated in the languages of your choice, with your own materials.
- Three questionnaires: (Word Associations, Sentence Completions and Reactions to hypothetical situations) that are designed to highlight cultural differences dealing with ways in which words, attitudes and modes of interactions can be viewed in different cultures and in a variety of contexts, such as: private/public; vis-à-vis a stranger, a neighbor, a friend, a member of the family. The students-generated answers, appearing side-by-side, constitute the first material to be explored. The fact that these answers have been generated by the students themselves ensures their personal and direct involvement in this intercultural adventure from the very start. These questionnaires can vary from semester to semester.
- Data: This provides students with access to American and French nationwide data and opinion polls that allows them to weigh and evaluate their initial findings against a much broader socio-cultural context.
- Films: The comparison of French films with their American remakes provides students with another medium with which to observe cultural differences, adding a visual and cinematic dimension to their domains of exploration. The comparative analysis of French and American advertisements is also an excellent visual source of materials.
- Images: Students themselves provide content to this module: working in intercultural pairs or groups, they decide what topic they want to illustrate, upload their photos on a wiki, a blog, or a photo sharing site, then compare and analyze them. For instance they can upload their own photos illustrating a certain aspect of their daily lives; or they can link from the Internet advertisements about one product both groups will compare, such as cars, ice cream, beer, or airlines, and then discuss the differences, trying to make connections with earlier materials and earlier observations.
- Newsstand: Access to a variety of French and American newspapers and magazines allows students to compare, for instance, what news in Le Monde and The New York Times make front page or how one same international event, is portrayed in both newspapers.
- Library: This module provides students with excerpts of seminal and founding texts from both countries as well as literary, historical, sociological and philosophical excerpts from works by American authors about France and French authors about the U.S., thus offering them useful cross-cultural perspectives.
Giving students access to these different sets of materials one after the other will allow them to gradually expand their perspectives and constantly revisit their conclusions in the light of these new materials. Some of these texts will support insights students may already have developed, some others will lead them to reflect anew on a issue or a situation.
The exchange of viewpoints and perspectives
Students communicate with each other via two main modes: via online discussion forum, and via video calls.
The online discussion forums
The forums are perhaps the most important component of Cultura. They are the central element that provides a continuous thread through all the modules. Online discussion forums are where students enter into a real dialogue with their cultural partners, exchanging viewpoints, asking questions and answering each other’s questions, trying to make sense together of the materials they analyze, thus collaboratively constructing an understanding of each other’s culture.
The key aspect of the Cultura online forums, and one that differentiates this project from all other web-related intercultural exchanges, is that they are written in the students’ native language (or at least in the language of the country they are studying in). For more information about this and the online discussion forums in general, see: Educator's Forum
The video calls
Video calls complement the asynchronous forums very well. These sessions demand great flexibility on the part of the partners, since they need to be arranged around schedules and time zones, and happen two to three times per semester.
During the video call sessions, students typically work in small groups of 2 to 4 students. They use both L1 and L2, moving fluidly between languages and voice or chat, depending on their communicative needs of the moment. Because of the time pressure particular to synchronous communication, they rely on a variety of communication strategies, shifting between languages, juxtaposing chat and voice in a complementary way, for instance typing a word or an expression their partner did not understand, while talking.
For many students, these video calls are the first opportunity ever to actually have a conversation in the language they study with a native speaker. Giving them a specific assignment helps them feel more confident, since they can prepare questions around a theme, review vocabulary and think ahead.
The study of language
Cultura focuses on developing students’ cultural understanding. However, the study of language remains an intrinsic part of the course. Since the intercultural partners answer the questionnaires and communicate on the forums in their native language, students and teachers alike can access a rich source of authentic vocabulary, grammar and discourse. That work on language may take different forms, depending on the level (intermediate or advanced) at which Cultura is used.
For more information, see FAQ
Cultura supports a new methodology for learning about another culture, which does not reduce culture to a series of facts that could be "taught". Rather, as has been well documented (Bennett, 1998; Byram, 1997; Kramsch, 1998; Zarate, 1996), developing understanding of another culture is a process which involves a series of stages that take the intercultural learner along a journey of discovery and reflection.
Working within a blended environment, that combines class and online work, students go through a series of steps:
- they work on specific documents on their own outside of class (ex: answer the questionnaires analyze the responses, research national surveys, watch the films, read articles).
- they come back to class where they share their findings and try to make connections from one document to the other, see what cultural patterns may emerge thus generating whole class discussions.
- they go onto the discussion forums, posting comments, making hypotheses, asking questions to their peers abroad, that are based on their individual observations and the class discussions.
- they come back to class with a selection of comments from their peers abroad which they share and discuss.
- they go back to the website to explore other materials
The back and forth flow of information between the classroom and the forums is an essential part of the methodology and provides students with the ability to continually enrich and expand their knowledge and understanding of the other culture. The classroom itself is the place where discoveries and ideas are brought together, confronted and discussed.
Cultura, as a whole, is built upon an interactive process that involves interactions with multiple materials – raw or mediated – and multiple partners – classmates as well as the cultural partners. This multiplicity of voices is meant to lead students, under the skillful guidance of a teacher, to gradually construct and refine their own understanding of the other culture as well as their own, in a continuous and never-ending process.
 Proust, M. La Prisonnière, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu.
 Bakhtin, M. 1986. "Response to a Question from the Novy Mir Editorial Staff," in Speech Genres & Other Late Essays, (Austin, Tex.: University Of Texas Press,1986): 6-7.