Voices from the Multicultural Language Class: Discovering Language, Culture, Others and Self

Authors

Hilary Rollin


Abstract

The multicultural language-learning classroom, with its wide range of mother tongues, cultural backgrounds, motivations, expectations, prior knowledge, learning styles, attitudes to participation and learner autonomy, potentially offers an ideal forum for promoting internationalisation. This article reviews the scope for interaction, and the nature of interaction, in multilingual language-learning classrooms. It explores the extent to which students are expected to engage effectively in the classroom and presents student views based on data gathered through questionnaires and semi-structured interviews.

It concludes that languages staff and students see language classes as offering a more even playing field for classroom interaction between home and international students than other modules. On the one hand it points out the need to constantly adapt provision to meet changing demand, and on the other that the strategies used in language classes could well be of interest to other disciplines.

Introduction

Statistics reveal that of the increasing numbers of EU and international students participating in Higher Education in the UK, a disproportionately high number are taking language modules. The world is full of preconceptions about language learning, the detritus of our own perhaps alarmingly dismal opportunities for learning a language at school. Relatively few of us are aware of what goes on in today’s multicultural language classroom: the scope for interaction, and the nature of that interaction. This article asks how increasing diversity, particularly given these growing numbers of international students, has affected this interaction.

The changing composition of the student population

With falling demographics, risky reliance on the overseas market (Gill, 2008, p. 15) and increasing overseas competition, UK Higher Education institutions have little option but to think carefully about the needs of international students. In 2006–07, London’s foreign-student population of 89,955 represented 23% of London’s total university student population, an increase of 5% on 2005–06 (International students: London tops destinations list, 2008, p. 17). These figures are mirrored by those of Oxford Brookes University (Table 1), at 6.59% and 13.62% for EU and international students respectively, giving a combined total of 20.21%.

Table 1

Oxford Brookes University: Student Composition (April 2008)
Male Female Total
UK 5,305 32.7% 7,635 47.1% 12,940 79.8%
EU 517 3.2% 552 3.4% 1,069 6.6%
International 1,154 7.1% 1,056 6.5% 2,210 13.6%
Grand total 6,976 43.0% 9,243 57.0% 16,219 100.0%

Based on student numbers provided by the Academic Management Office, Oxford Brookes University, 24 April 2008.

Comparing the percentages of EU and international students at Brookes with the percentages of these students in Foundation-level language modules at Brookes (Table 2), we find a marked difference. The 2007–08 figures for enrolments of EU and international students out of total enrolments on Foundation languages modules stand at 23% and 17.1% respectively, giving a combined total of 40.1%. This statistic points to a proportionately greater interest in language acquisition among these two groups of students, and potentially greater scope for interaction between UK and non-UK students in language modules than is the case in some other modules.

Table 2

Enrolments on Foundation language modules at Oxford Brookes (by student origin)

Module Total enrolled % UK % EU % Int.
French A 58 44.8% 17.2% 37.9%
French B 28 57.1% 21.4% 21.4%
Japanese 54 77.8% 11.1% 11.1%
Spanish A 100 65.0% 26.0% 9.0%
Spanish B 47 48.9% 38.3% 12.8%
Total 287 59.9% 23.0% 17.1%

Based on student numbers provided by the Academic Management Office, Oxford Brookes University, 24 April, 2008.

Enrolments on language modules, participation in language classes, and the importance students attach to language study cannot fail to be influenced by Government policy and recent media coverage of language learning. On the one hand, the development of Primary Languages, enabling all children to learn another language, reaffirms the importance of language skills; the recent introduction of languages in the selection criteria of University College London likewise denotes a marked shift in policy. On the other hand, influenced by the dropping of modern languages at Key Stage 4, as of September 2008 Cambridge University no longer includes a modern foreign language among its entrance criteria (Andalo, 2008). The absence, therefore, of the instrumental orientation associated with learning a language in order to improve one’s employment prospects implies that we are seeing an increase in intrinsic motivation associated with learning a language, a perception that the process is challenging, stimulating or fun (Rollin, 2008a). Equally, we should highlight the role of integrative motivation, associated with an interest in discovering other cultures and their languages.

What language learning is not, and what it is

As pointed out by Grenfell and Erler, language learning has moved beyond the stereotypical image of translation and grammar (2007, p. 5), the rows of desks in teacher-fronted seating structure decried by Ehrman and Dörnyei (1998, p. 294), with students writing out irregular verbs, memorising vocabulary lists, having their homework exercises or compositions returned heavily marked in red to indicate shameful lack of grasp of essential grammar points, and wrong genders and agreements.

It is a truism that language learning has to be done by the learner (van Lier, 1996, p. 12), and that it involves more than learning the language (Cook, 2002, pp. 327–30). In the first chapter of their work on the ethnographic approach to language learning, Roberts, Byram, Barro, Jordan and Street (2001, p. 9) contrast previous thinking that language development was a ‘private and individual achievement’ with the perception of language learning as a social endeavour. Cook (2002, p. 329) enumerates various goals that can be achieved through language learning, it being a vehicle to self-development, a way in to the mother tongue, an opportunity to get closer to the culture of another group, a method of developing new cognitive processes, etc. Pellegrino (2005, p. 7), meanwhile, takes this further, maintaining that language learning involves redefining oneself publicly, socially and personally, which might come as a surprise to non-linguists.

Language learning involves communication in all four skills (Cook, 2002, pp. 327–28): reading, writing, speaking and listening, some of which will be person-to-person, and some of which will most likely involve a digital lab, mp3 player or online work. Nonetheless, whatever the proportion of time given to the latter, students taking language modules in UK universities, whether as their main subject, or in addition to it, will invariably be interacting with one another, and among their co-students they will encounter increasing numbers of European and international students. The ability to decentre from one’s own culture, and gain insight into another (Byram, 2006, p. 117) is clearly an opportunity for the taking. A useful summary of what is involved in being intercultural, that will both help colleagues plan provision and enable them to evaluate the intercultural content of existing provision can be found in Alred, Byram and Fleming (2006, pp. 233–34).

From as far back as the 1970s, group work and pair work (which have different aims and learning potential) have been seen as typifying the communicative approach (Byram, 2004, pp. 252–53). Policy-makers build such interaction into their syllabi, and recruiting employers stress the importance of transferable key skills, valuing these more highly than subject knowledge (Cameron, 2002, p. 73). Task-based learning, namely involving learners in interacting in the language while using grammar knowledge to manipulate form in order to express meaning, underpins much classroom practice. Nunan (2004, pp. 181–86) provides a chart enabling his reader to correlate theories of language, theories of learning, objectives and syllabi. Block (2002) maintains that the interaction, often set in interpersonal and/or workplace contexts ‘in a rationalized and technical manner’, is predictable and controllable, lacking the complexities of real communication. Despite this, there are many challenges. To optimise in-class activity, a snowball or pyramid dynamic allows for changes in the composition of the groups in which students work, preventing them from working too consistently with the same people and getting too comfortable, and much as they might initially endeavour to seek refuge with students of the same mother tongue, they will find this is strongly discouraged, if not forbidden (Rollin, 2008a). For out-of-class preparation of a project or group presentation, role play or round table, students are similarly required to form groups with different people on different occasions.

Such interaction may involve threats to one’s sense of security, arising from the behaviour of others, and from within oneself (Pellegrino 2005, p. 19). Herein the need for teachers to strike the right balance between comfort and discomfort, facilitating activity, yet, as advocated by Block (2002, p.147), allowing students to negotiate the appropriate strategies and styles, enabling them to take control of their learning. Proximity and contact are fundamental for successful group work, which involves empathising with the other members of the group, understanding the needs, interests and abilities of others, and results in students knowing one another on a personal level (Ehrman and Dörnyei, 1998, p. 252). When a group is cohesive, individuals can count on their peers, leading to a high expectation of success and increased intrinsic motivation, due in part to control being put in the hands of the individual. Curiously, although the interpersonal processes on which this kind of learning hinges are rooted in psychology, much of the literature on second-language learning is the work of researchers in linguistics (Ehrman and Dörnyei, 1998, p. 4).

The challenges and rewards of interaction in language classes

‘We cannot teach a language; we can only create the conditions under which it will be learned’. These words of Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835), an advocate of learning classical languages and science, and the man responsible for the establishment of the school system in Lithuania, are quoted by Dakin (1973, p. 11). This is not the place to engage in lengthy debate about behaviourist and cognitive principles of learning in relation to languages, for a brief summary of which, see Byram (2004, pp. 74–76,119–21), but rather to explore, from opposite ends of the spectrum, the conditions that promote language learning. First, the Department for Education and Skills (2007, p. 29) posits that ‘successful language learning takes place when learners are exposed to rich input of the target language, when they have many opportunities to interact through the language, and when they are motivated to learn’. This is indisputable, but can be couched in other terms, as will be demonstrated later by student observations.

Interaction is a standard part of language classes as illustrated in module descriptions, and module handouts, as follows: ‘Class time is spent reinforcing structures through pair and group work, with the emphasis on participation in role plays, dialogues, simulations etc.’ (Oxford Brookes University, 2008). Language is our prime means of communication within a given culture (Lauridsen, 2008, p. 26), but, when struggling to communicate with an imperfect command of a new language, the learner is hampered in his/her attempts to relay profound thoughts and reveal his/her true identity; herein lies the paradoxical conflict described by Pellegrino (2005, p. 4), in that the learner struggles to create an ideal self in the language, yet the very language threatens the creation of this image. Creating an ethos, therefore, where risk-taking is made safe (Heiser, 2007) and where mistakes are seen as the way to learn, is crucial. Meanwhile, contrary to the widely held view that home students shy away from group work with international students, this is not necessarily a recognisable characteristic of language classes. When there is segregation of this kind, it may well be for the positive reasons posited by Ehrman and Dörnyei (1998, pp. 75–77), that in contrast to lecturers, who favour heterogeneity of group composition, students prefer homogeneity and naturally occurring groups, whereby marginal members are inclined to leave the group. We have to concede, of course, that sometimes international and EU students may want, and need, to converse at intervals with people of their own mother tongue and own cultural background. Doing so enables them to operate within their comfort zone, and may, in fact, be fundamental in enabling them to adjust to life in another cultural environment (Rollin, 2008a).

However, in language classes where the medium of communication is not English, and the objective is the mastery of a language in which students have all reached a comparable level, it can be argued that those whose mother tongue is not English find a more level playing field than in modules taught in English, and may feel less threatened. In language classes, instructions are not given in English, and in most cases the end product is not in English. Whereas in most modules, international and EU students whose mother tongue is not English are operating in a system that is culturally and linguistically challenging, one might argue that in language classes they may even be at an advantage (Rollin, 2008a). Furthermore, I would argue that the fact that they are already operating in a foreign culture and language gives them an advantage over home students as they already have experience deciphering and decoding communication in another language, and greater confidence in their ability to do so. It could also be maintained that they have more motivation for succeeding in language modules, given that other modules may well be assessed by long essays in English, which for most international and EU students, despite their IELTS scores, provide a level of difficulty not faced by home students.

The fact, then, that delivery and interaction are in a ‘neutral’ language, is conducive to the active involvement of EU and international students, who have been known to be left on the sidelines in other classes. Having established students’ willingness to interact in language terms, we need to bear in mind the range not just of prior knowledge, but of cultural backgrounds and the diversity of motivations, expectations and prior learning styles: visual, reflective, impulsive, analytical, extroverted, etc., that will influence the strategies we use (Canagarajah, 2002, p. 143). In terms of culture, the potential pitfalls are many, and touch on factors pertaining to perceptions of equality, gender issues, religion, strongly held views about alcohol and forbidden foods. These are, in short, the topics traditionally banned from polite dinner party conversations, but which, given the right framework and careful handling, may genuinely engage students, generate meaningful interaction and promote the exploration of preconceptions and prejudice, both their own and other people’s.

This study set out to test the above assertions re in-class interaction among language students.

Methodology

Questionnaires (Appendix 1) with a combination of open and closed questions were distributed in April 2008 to students studying language modules in four UK universities, and semi-structured interviews were subsequently held with a cross-section of students and lecturers from Oxford Brookes University, with the collaboration of three other institutions as comparators. The aim behind the questionnaires and the follow-up interviews with students and staff, was to ascertain the extent to which language students attach importance to in-class participation and interaction between UK, EU and international students, and the extent to which language modules promote contact between students of different nationalities. It has to be borne in mind that students are not homogeneous within these three categories, that as many differences and similarities might be found across groups as within groups.

At the time of writing this article, staff views had been received from all four institutions, although student responses had been received from only two, albeit across a range of languages. The early examination period in the non-responding institutions made it inappropriate to send chasers in an attempt to capture the maximum number of responses when students were struggling to meet pressing deadlines. Responses that might not be given freely or might be done hastily would risk not reflecting genuine views and could therefore be counter-productive. Any lack of response should not be interpreted as lack of interest on the part of students and colleagues. The Dean of Faculty in one of the institutions unable to send in any student responses remarked: ‘I have been hearing so many (pompous) discourses paying lip service to internationalisation lately, but not one of them has mentioned the word languages. It is amazing’.

It also has to be acknowledged that, despite piloting, certain weaknesses revealed themselves in the questionnaire, and that with hindsight, some of the ambiguities in responses might have been avoided by phrasing questions differently, as will be discussed later. Some 166 responses were received, of which 68% were from home students, 20.5% from EU students and 13.7% from international students. The combined figure of 32% for all responses from non-UK students is close to the combined responses from non-UK students at Brookes, at 31.4%, derived from 18.2% EU and 13.2% international students respectively, suggesting that respective percentages are not skewed by those of the lead institution.

Preliminary findings of work in progress

The findings were surprisingly uniform, both across institutions, across categories of student (UK, EU or international), and, except in a minority of instances, staff and students were in agreement.

Responses varied in their clarity and amount of detail; sadly, the responses from some international students were impenetrable due to poor expression and/or handwriting, and in a minority of cases there was an element of ambiguity, as in references to ‘group work’, it being unclear whether the respondent was referring to in-class work, out-of-class work, oral, written, or even pair work. A further ambiguity arose from the wording of Question 10 (see Appendix 1) that had escaped notice during the piloting phase; a negative response could indicate both that the respondent had a sufficiently large number of international contacts already, or that he/she had no desire to interact with students of other nationalities.

Interestingly, just as male students are often polarised in academic achievement in language classes (Rollin, 2008b, p. 64), so the responses from males (32% of all responses) were both the least carefully, and the most thoughtfully, filled in. The fact that many of the students responding were on Joint Honours programmes, or studying a language as a Minor or as an additional credit, meant that they represented, and were able to comment on, student interaction across a range of disciplines, as well as different non-academic areas. The disciplines most frequently specified by students as offering the most interaction were Languages, Drama and European Studies.

As will become apparent from the responses quoted later, the most significant findings in the data gathered suggested reasons for non-home students’ interest in language modules. Meanwhile, questionnaires and follow-up interviews alike demonstrate that if we are to harness the diversity, much more remains to be done about what Brown describes as teaching learners how to learn (2000, pp. 112–34). It will be necessary to ensure that staff continue to re-think the strategies they use to facilitate interaction, so that all students, whatever their origin, reap the full benefits of the opportunities for both language learning and the intercultural interaction that can be fostered in language classes. Furthermore, it should be noted that many of the findings could be applied to other disciplines.

Student views on interaction in class with those of other nationalities

Explanations given in responses, accounting for levels of interaction with students of other nationalities, included practical issues such as class size, greater number of contact hours, frequency of contact; and length of time over which students had known one another as a group. Examples given included ‘Modules of more than one semester: If you meet people more often, you get to know them’; and ‘Having spent time abroad together makes for a more cohesive situation’, also, ‘The number and proportion of foreign students taking the course’ (i.e., neither too many, nor too few), and interestingly; ‘Some modules attract more sociable students’. A number of students explained that some modules, among them language modules, encourage more interaction, commenting on ‘The collaborative nature of the work’ and ‘The fact that the lecturer requires us to interact’. Another student admitted ‘Japanese is difficult, so we get together and panic’. An explanation in a category all on its own as to how students got to know one another and interact was ‘My devilish good looks’. A more mainstream reason was, ‘We are learning about another culture and this encourages us to open up to people from other countries’. ‘Having common interests’, cropped up repeatedly, contrasting neatly with ‘Having different cultural backgrounds within the group’ although one could see the logic implicit in both responses.

‘Group work’ seemed to be an activity that fostered interaction. Of the responses that specified a subject area, many compared or contrasted subject areas, reading along these lines; ‘I do Drama with Spanish, so they are both interactive courses’; ‘French and Spanish language classes, because of class discussions, pair work, a supportive teacher’; ‘Languages; there’s more interaction’; ‘Spanish because we get more involved with each other through exercises and by speaking’. Many identified the course structure, for example, ‘In Spanish there was a sense of unity as the class goes from scratch’ or, ‘In my ELT classes the stress of teaching practice brought us closer’. An interesting once-off was: ‘Modules with science lab classes, as we are made to interact for extended periods’ and, ‘In Architecture we have more contact time, and the stress of projects and building models, so we need to have more support and friendship’. ‘I get to know more people in Spanish and some of my Business classes…but not in Psychology because it is lecture-based’ (not a comment from Brookes); ‘Spanish and Publishing; it’s through the group work and activities that involve discussion’ and, ‘Group work that is challenging, but not too hard.’

Student views on the responsibility for promoting extra-curricular contact with those of other nationalities

Recognition of the responsibility for generating contact with those of other nationalities was divided fairly evenly between awareness that the individual could do more to take advantage of the existing infrastructure, and that the University / School / Department / teaching staff / student societies should provide more opportunities such as ‘ inter-class activities’. The kind of extra-curricular activity through which students said they currently met students of other nationalities included the following: language societies, Erasmus events, and ‘the shop where I work, because it’s all foreigners’. Some mentioned their hall of residence, but not one single response mentioned sport, chaplaincy or being a student representative or student ambassador.

Some students, meanwhile, clearly showed themselves to be adept at instigating contact, as in, ‘I know a lot of people of other nationalities outside uni.’; ‘I can get to know people anywhere’; ‘I am always meeting more foreign people through friends’; ‘We get to start conversations with each other’, or the sad statement, ‘I wish I knew’.

The greatest divergence between student and staff views was in relation to the activities that they thought should be provided by the University to foster contact between those of different nationalities. Student views included, ‘More ways to get together, such as days out’; ‘the University should encourage non-international students to join in with international students’ organised events’; ‘Mix with other classes’; ‘Organise social events with the whole class. I know there are a few, but they tend to be random’. Many responses showed a clear lack of awareness of the need to be proactive: ‘I would like to have been in contact with the Erasmus students here at xx University’. Others admitted indirectly that they had not taken advantage of what was on offer, as in, ‘A welcome party and other events…but that is already the case’. One felt the solution would be language conversation classes, and another suggested placing notes on a board to introduce people to others looking for conversation exchanges (this is already done at Brookes). An international student at xx University stated, ‘The circulation of information could be improved because we know there are some student-organised societies, but we’re not sure what kind of activities they are doing’. A UK student ambiguously advocated, ‘Give a lot of foreign students e-mails’. Another home student recommended having a better mix of nationalities in halls, stating wistfully, ‘All in my flat are English’. Meanwhile, the recommendation, ‘We should work together on what is covered in class’ certainly hit a note that will appeal to teaching staff! Nonetheless, the above clearly indicate where there is scope for universities to foster internationalisation through enhancing the information transmitted, both by taking heed of these suggestions and ensuring that clear messages are relayed on the opportunities available, and how they should be taken up, whether at the start of the academic year, or mid-semester.

You can take a horse to water…

From the above it was clear that some students expected some mysterious ‘other’ to take the initiative. This invites questions as to why they had not been proactive and introduced themselves when they came across students of other nationalities, particularly if the other student(s) was/were speaking a foreign language that they themselves knew or were studying. Other responses centred around, ‘I don’t mind’, ‘It’s not something that I care about’, ‘I’m not sure, you can’t force people to talk to each other’. Curiously, a significant number of the ambivalent responses came from students of Japanese. Meanwhile, the majority were pleasantly positive about contact with students of other nationalities, as in the words of one UK student: ‘Yes, but it’s sad when they leave for home.’

Other honest appraisals of the situation were given by the Brookes case-study students, who possibly because they had volunteered, were already deeply committed to notions of interculturality and promoting interaction across cultures. They had strong views about the self-knowledge associated with questioning one’s assumptions about one’s own context through contact with other cultures, as advocated by Roberts et al. (2001, p. 30). A final-year student, previously a student rep, explained that any lack of interaction with students whose mother tongue was not English was not due to xenophobia, a term not mentioned by any other student, but simply that it was harder work to include international students, both as regards collaborative work and socially, due to their often having a poor command of English. This, he reported, was inferior to the level of Spanish of his cohort when they undertook their Year Abroad, adding, ‘If they don’t make an effort, home students won’t either’. Another interviewee commented realistically, ‘When it comes to assessed work, people look out for themselves; one of the problems is that in some subjects, group marks are given, not individual marks as in Spanish, and exchange students don’t care about their marks’. He concluded, ‘Very often people keep themselves to themselves. It really is a shame. It’s so much better to exchange cultures and ideas’. Another case study interviewee, an EU student in the final year of her four-year degree at Brookes, and hungry for grades, said revealingly: ‘Erasmus students only want to pass, and if you want to do well in an assessment, you’ll not want to do it with them’. This and the previous observation, representative of the findings of my survey, were markedly at variance with the views of home students as reported by Dunne (2008): ‘They [exchange students] prioritise on getting a really good degree and we prioritise on living and having fun and that kind of thing—at the moment’, and ‘Their motivation is to get on in life. Well, that’s not a bad motivation, but…’. Further research is clearly required here, taking account of all variables, not least the year of study.

Further evidence from beyond the survey

Many of the above findings echo responses to end-of-module questionnaires at Brookes, and in particular the question as to whether students would like to see any aspect of the module in question introduced into other modules. The most frequent response was to the effect that classes requiring interaction are motivating, bring one to learn about oneself and others, and that the enjoyment spurs learners on to acquitting themselves well.

Further triangulation of views expressed by students would seem to be appropriate, and the essay-writing competition organised by the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies on ‘What makes a good lecturer?’ is of particular relevance here. The runner-up, Dados (2008), a second-year Polish student of languages, specifies ‘…a smile, an interesting topic, the combination of a sense of humour and the discipline that fosters concentration, with the requirement that all participate, and finally, an eagerness to lecture in the language taught’. The attractions of interaction are similarly highlighted by award-winner Tebbs Wesley (2008). Having been brought up to believe in the primacy of information technology, she was subsequently won over by the merits of the live lecture, coming to see the computer screen as less captivating than lecturers’ faces lighting up at the prospect of sharing their passion for their subject, and facilitating lecturer–student and student–student interaction. No less thought-provoking is her reference to the lecturer who resembles the mother bird feeding her chicks, without ever teaching them to fly. Here most cogently expressed, we find evidence of what can be perceived to be the key role of the lecturer; as facilitator; fostering interaction, valuing the contribution of the individual, standing back and creating space for expressing and exchanging ideas, in the way described by, among others, Kramsch (2003), through enabling students to take pride in their use of the foreign language.

Diversity: bane or boon?

At this point, we return to the concept of diversity, and a Foundation Spanish class from some years ago. Exceptional for that time, the class had a large number of EU and international students, with home students in the minority. In addition there was one profoundly deaf student with her Mexican note-taker, one marginally less deaf student, one student in a wheelchair, and a couple of mature associate students.

The range of learning styles, expectations regarding assessment and student support, apart from behavioural norms, comfort zones, senses of humour, and understanding of life in general, was baffling. After some months I ventured to ask how students felt about this, and should have recorded their answers. Suffice it to say, I was delighted to be well and truly ‘squashed’ over any suggestion that the range of nationalities, prior learning, ability and disability made learning difficult: ‘We are learning so much from one another’s backgrounds, approaches and previous learning that this is a truly wonderful experience’. Not only did students say this was the richest learning environment they had engaged in, but that they had all benefited from the way co-students were committed to supporting one another. What could have been a painful experience, resulting in impatience and frustration all around, was perceived as eminently enlightening, and it is no coincidence that the group ended the year by achieving a remarkably high module average. The performance of this group is one that one would clearly like to see as standard. Attitudes in that particular cohort were most revealing in the value attached to student-generated buddy systems and informal support mechanisms, much as advocated by Habeshaw, Habeshaw and Gibbs (1989), and suggests the desirability of replicating this in subsequent modules and generally pursuing opportunities for fostering learner autonomy.

Conclusion

In his plenary address at the biennial conference of the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies, Sir Harold Walker (2008) outlined the need for us all to lift our eyes from our own work and view the wider world; learning a language helps us do this, and those not learning a language miss out on this insight into other ways of being. Students endorse the crucial importance of discovery and interaction in language classes with their fellow students and with their lecturers. They learn the language, but also the culture, and in so doing are required to work with other students, particularly those from other cultural backgrounds. They comment on the added value, over and beyond learning the language, inherent in discovering other cultures, which in turn makes them question their own preconceptions. This interaction is what students find attractive and rewarding, yet the overwhelming thrust in HE is to develop the process of learning through technology, rather than through people.

As noted by Jones (2008), and as indicated by my survey, the presence of international students on campus does not by itself develop the intercultural capabilities of home students. This discussion has argued that students and staff see the language classroom as a more even playing field than most modules, and that the different cultural backgrounds present in our classes bring different world views, needs, expectations and values. Far from impacting negatively on the learning process, this can stimulate debate and enrich the learning process. However, the questionnaire responses and semi-structured interviews also suggest that whatever strategies we introduce to increase the scope for interaction in certain disciplines, whatever the enjoyment to be derived from this interaction, and whatever the buzz derived from intercultural encounters, for many students the prime concern is the grades, which they as clients feel they are owed. What remains is to endeavour in the first weeks of a module to harness this diversity, generate more of the intrinsic motivation that will enable students to see beyond grades and aspire to something more inwardly rewarding. Parallel to this, bearing in mind the diverse needs of UK students and the increasing numbers of EU and international students, we need to continue to explore how we can best modify our teaching strategy and style in order for it to be equally effective for all, and as noted by Grenfell and Erler (2007, p. 6), focus less on the product and more on the process.

In addition, if we believe the student feedback on the benefits of the interaction required between students of different nationalities and cultural backgrounds in language classes is generalisable, we should also encourage our colleagues in other disciplines to devise ways of incorporating such activities in their modules. Whereas they alone have the specialist knowledge to underpin the internationalisation of their curricula, we are well placed to make suggestions based on our experience of the internationalisation of the curriculum in action, and share with them techniques that could further enhance their delivery.

Appendix 1

Questionnaire about Internationalisation, Spring 2008

  1. Are you
    a) a UK student? YES. NO
    b) an EU student? YES NO
    c) an international student? YES NO
  2. Are you
  3. a) FEMALE?
    b) MALE?
  4. Do you live in
  5. a) a hall of residence? YES NO
  6. b) university house? YES NO
    c) private accommodation? YES NO
  7. 4. Do you have contact with students of other nationalities? YES NO
  8. If so, where do you generally meet students of other nationalities
  9. a) through where you live YES NO
  10. b) through student societies YES NO
    c) through your classes YES NO
  11. Do you get to know other students better in some modules than in others? YES NO
  12. If YES, in which module(s)? ………………………………………………………….
  13. What reasons can you give to account for this?……………………………………………
  14. Did you expect this to be the case? YES NO
  15. Would you like to have more contact with students of other nationalities? YES NO
    If so, how could this be achieved?

Thank you for completing this questionnaire. Please return it to the lecturer who gave it to you.

If you have any further comments to make, please write on the other side of this sheet, or email me.

Hilary Rollin, Oxford Brookes University

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Hilary Rollin

Hilary Rollin is Field Chair of Spanish Studies and the Minors in Spanish. As a Brookes Fellow in Teaching and Learning, she did her fellowship project on interculturality, a topic in which she has given papers in Australia, New Zealand and the USA. Other areas on which she has published include gender equality in the workplace, aspects of contemporary Spain, entrepreneurship and language acquisition. The article featured here relates to the paper she gave in June 2008 at the Brookes conference on Internationalisation of the Curriculum.

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