Intercultural Learning via Instant Messenger Interaction

Posted: December 21, 2010 in CALL related literature

Li Jin and Tony Erben
University of South Florida

This paper reports on a qualitative study investigating the viability of instant messenger (IM) interaction to facilitate intercultural learning in a foreign language class. Eight students in a Chinese as a foreign language (CFL) class participated in the study. Each student was paired with a native speaker (NS) of Chinese, and each pair collaborated on eight intercultural-learning tasks over a 2-month period through IM. Data were collected through an ethnographic survey, intercultural sensitivity scale, follow-up interviews, the researcher’s reflective journal, and participants’ IM conversation transcripts. The results showed that student participants’ intercultural interaction engagement and attentiveness steadily increased, they developed self-reflection capacities, critical thinking skills, and greater sensitivity and respect for intercultural differences during their IM-based intercultural learning. Participants also had predominantly positive attitudes toward IM use in intercultural learning.


Intercultural Learning, Instant Messenger, Telecollaboration


Expansive globalization and cross-cultural communication have recently raised awareness among researchers regarding “intercultural communication competence” (Belz, 2002; Byram, 1997; Warschauer & Kern, 2000). Since the early 1990s, foreign language educators in the US have realized that the influence of students’ attitudes toward and knowledge about the target culture may be instrumental to the development of the target language. It is widely acknowledged that culture and language are inseparable. Culture is even emphasized as the core of foreign language curriculum, as evidenced by the publication of the Standards for foreign language learning in the 21st century (National Standards in Foreign Language Education Project, 1999). However, Byram and Morgan (1994) observe that although applied linguists and practitioners recognize that the integration of culture and language is critical, foreign language pedagogy still fails to address the influence of culture upon language teaching and learning. There is still a lack of sound and well articulated pedagogical plans for integrating intercultural learning into standard foreign language classes at all levels of instruction.

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Since its inception in the early 1990s, the advancement of technology has impressed language researchers and practitioners with the wide variety of potential uses it presents in foreign language teaching and learning. Among the myriad of technologies, networked technologies such as email, discussion boards, and chat rooms are the most pervasive in current foreign language curricula (Lafford & Lafford, 2005; Thorne & Payne, 2005). In recent years, many research projects have been launched to investigate the application of networking technologies to language acquisition and intercultural learning through building telecollaboration between foreign language learners and native speakers (NSs) of the target culture (e.g., Belz, 2002; Belz & Müller-Hartmann, 2002; Belz & Thorne, 2006; O’Dowd, 2003; Thorne, 2003). Thorne (2006) states that four principal models are extant which use Internet-based technologies in foreign language education: institutional class-to-class telecollaboration, tandem learning, partnership between foreign language students and local expert speakers, and Internet communities. Regardless of which model is adopted, the findings obtained through this large body of research are still controversial and inconclusive. First and foremost, it is still unknown whether and to what extent networked intercultural learning is able to improve students’ intercultural competence. Some studies (e.g., Furstenberg, Levet, English, & Maillet, 2001; Kramsch & Thorne, 2002) affirm the positive results such as the friendship and pragmatics developed at the end of networked intercultural learning, while other studies (e.g., Belz, 2002; Belz & Müller-Hartmann, 2002) caution that there are also some pitfalls such as intercultural communication tension and confusion inherent in the networking technologies used in intercultural learning. O’Dowd (2003) obtained both successful and unsuccessful results in email-based intercultural learning.

The majority of recent language-learning telecollaboration projects focused on the communication between American students and NSs of French and German (e.g., Belz & Müller-Hartmann, 2002; Kramsch & Thorne, 2002). Very few studies have been conducted to explore students’ intercultural learning in less commonly taught languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Russian (Belz, 2003; Belz & Thorne, 2006). Due to greater differences between students’ native cultures and the target culture (e.g., Chinese or Russian), it would be interesting to investigate how networking technologies influence students’ learning of a more distant culture. This paper reports on data that are part of a larger exploratory study investigating how a synchronous communication tool—instant messenger (IM)—impacts university-level Chinese as a foreign language (CFL) students’ intercultural learning. The data analysis reported here seeks to uncover how Instance Messenger Interaction (IMI) influences foreign language students’ development of intercultural sensitivity throughout the process of intercultural learning.


Culture and Intercultural Communication Competence

There is a plethora of literature on culture and intercultural


communication competence. The current study adopted Byram’s (1997) model of intercultural communication competence, which is one of the most widely used models in foreign language classrooms. It explicates the attributes of intercultural communication competence as well as defines the objectives of intercultural learning in foreign language education settings, including the knowledge, skills, and perspectives foreign language learners should develop. The competencies identified in Byram’s model are

1. attitudes of curiosity and openness, readiness to suspend disbelief about other cultures and belief about one’s own (p.58);

2. knowledge of social groups and their products and practices in one’s own and in one’s interlocutor’s country, and of the general processes of societal and individual interaction (p.58);

3. skills of interpreting and relating: ability to interpret a document or event from another culture, to explain it and relate it to documents or events from one’s own (p.61);

4. skills of discovery and interaction: ability to acquire new knowledge of a culture and cultural practices and the ability to operate knowledge, attitudes and skills under constraints of real-time communication and interaction (p.61); and

5. critical cultural awareness/political education: an ability to evaluate, critically and on the basis of explicit criteria, perspectives, practices and products in one’s own culture and other cultures and countries (p.63).

Different understandings of intercultural communication competence have developed due to the various definitions of culture in each discipline. To define culture is an intriguing issue; many definitions identify culture as being pertinent to the recurring behaviors of a group of people (Brislin, 1990) or to the meaning systems used by a group of people (Minoura, 1992). The two best known models of culture are the “iceberg” and the “onion” models (Hofstede, 1994), and both models agree that culture contains both superficial and hidden parts. The superficial or visible parts are the laws, rules, customs, and traditions; whereas the hidden or invisible parts are routine behaviors and habits that are often unconscious at the individual level. The line between visible or conscious and invisible or unconscious varies in each culture. Other researchers (e.g., Auernheimer, 1990 as cited in Allan, 2003) also recognize that culture is dynamic and evolving because it is the “means of communication and representation repertoire” (Allan, 2003, p. 92). Seelye (1984), one of the best known culture educators, divides culture into two categories: “big C” and “little c.” “Big C” refers to the products of a culture such as literature, ballet, and the fine arts which result from interpersonal interaction within a given culture. “Little c” refers to an individual’s daily cultural behaviors and beliefs which include typical food and clothing preferences, manners, and values. Seeyle’s understanding of culture presents a fuller picture of the culture of a community because it views culture as a means as well as a result of societal interactions. It is also resonant of Kaikkonen’s (1997) definition,


Culture is a common agreement between members of a community on the values, rules, norms, role expectations and meanings which guide the behavior and communication of the members. Furthermore, it includes the deeds and products which result from the interaction among the members. (p. 49)

Kaikkonen’s definition is adopted as a working definition of culture in this study. This definition also sheds light on the components of intercultural communication competence, for example, how people should behave and what knowledge they should have to carry out successful intercultural communication. Early models of intercultural communication competence expected foreign language learners to develop target-like communication skills, that is, develop positive attitudes toward the target culture, gain awareness of target culture knowledge, imitate its behaviors, as well as accommodate some of the beliefs of NSs. In so doing, it was expected that learners would avoid having communication breakdown with their interlocutors due to a lack of intercultural communication skills.

Other intercultural learning researchers (e.g., Risager, 1998; Bennett, 1993) warn that blindly absorbing the target culture while rejecting the native culture diminishes the development of appropriate mutual understanding. Instead, learners should develop understanding that each behavior should be understood in a particular cultural context and that it is neither necessary nor possible to withdraw from one’s native culture during intercultural communication. In other words, developing intercultural sensitivity and critical views of intercultural differences should be the goal for foreign language/culture learners. As mentioned earlier, O’Dowd (2003) suggests that Byram’s (1997) model of intercultural communication competence is a representative model of the above mentioned goals.

In Byram’s (1997) model, learners are neither expected to develop appropriate attitudes toward the target culture nor to become native-like in the target culture, thus the learners’ native culture is not replaced by the target culture. Instead, foreign language learners are expected to find a “third place” (Kramsch, 1993) where they can critically view and analyze various social phenomena with a certain distance from both their native culture and the target culture. This view of intercultural learning resonates with the arguments of other foreign language researchers who posit that foreign language learning is a process of developing multiple cultural identities (Kramsch, 1993). Akin to Byram’s view, Thorne (2006) further argues that the goals of foreign language education should shift from communicative competence to intercultural competence. Among various intercultural communication competences students need to develop, O’Dowd (2003) finds that it is not feasible to assess learners’ development of knowledge and skills with regard to intercultural communication in a short period of time. Rather, what can be observed in a short period of time is the change in learners’ sensitivity toward intercultural differences. Since the current study lasted only 8 weeks, the focus of this project was placed on the development of learners’ sensitivity toward intercultural differences as well as their ability to interpret and relate phenomena in other cultures.


Intercultural Learning and Networked Technologies

Culture educators (e.g., Allan, 2003; Kaikkonen, 1997) agree that culture is learned in and through communication with people, with each individual learning his or her own culture as a member of a community. Thus, intercultural learning can occur through intercultural communication, a process which varies depending upon the intercultural communication setting. Allan (2003) proposes that intercultural learning is a dynamic process with a continuum expanding from learners’ awareness and understanding of other cultures to acceptance and respect for cultural differences and ultimately extending to learners’ appreciation and valuing other cultures. He emphasizes that this learning process is not linear, but rather spiral throughout which learners use a variety of learning styles such as concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation to confront cultural dissonance caused by cultural differences, misunderstanding, and misplacement.

By contrast, Kaikkonen (1997) argues that intercultural learning is a process of widening a learner’s cultural scope. In his model, intercultural learning is comprised of two intertwined subprocesses: the consciousness raising of one’s own cultural identity, and the growth of knowledge of foreign behavior and culture as demonstrated in Figure 1. During intercultural learning, learners gain awareness of the foreign cultural environment, learn the foreign language, and acquire knowledge of foreign cultural standards. At the same time, learners introspect and reflect on their own cultural identity by constantly comparing and contrasting their native cultural environment, language, and cultural standards with those of the foreign culture. Considering the goal of intercultural learning delineated earlier, Kaikkonen’s model was adopted to guide the intercultural learning process for this project.

Figure 1

Kaikkonen’s Intercultural-learning-process Model

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The ideal intercultural learning environment as identified in various models, i.e. total immersion in a foreign cultural environment, is not accessible for all foreign language learners due to geographical constraints. However, Internet technologies make it possible for people to communicate with each other, even at previously unreachable geographical distances.


The use of computer-mediated communication (CMC) in education, particularly foreign language education, has thrived with the maturity of networked technologies (Lafford & Lafford, 2005; Thorne & Payne, 2005; Warschauer & Kern, 2000). Recent years have witnessed the launching of an increasing number of intercultural-learning projects in which learners are connected with NSs of the target culture through telecollaboration (e.g., Belz, 2002; Belz & Müller-Hartmann, 2002; Kramsch & Thorne, 2002). Through telecollaboration with NSs of the target culture, it is expected that language learners will have authentic intercultural interaction experiences, which will hopefully yield successful intercultural learning and second language acquisition (Belz & Thorne, 2006). Thorne (2006) calls for special attention to the central role of Internet-based intercultural learning in the process of developing intercultural competence for foreign language learners. Many researchers have investigated students’ linguistic and pragmatic development (e.g., Belz, 2003; Kinginger & Belz, 2005; Sykes, 2005) and the development of intercultural communication competence (e.g., O’Dowd, 2003) during Internet-based intercultural learning. One important research focus in these studies is the characteristics of students’ successful telecollaboration with NSs of the target culture. O’Dowd (2003) found that learners who had “a receptive audience for the expressions of their own cultural identity” (p. 138), who were sensitive to their partners’ needs, and who were able to produce “engaging, in-depth correspondence” could build up successful intercultural partnerships through email exchange. Müller-Hartmann (2000), reviewing three case studies on email exchange, suggested that an effective task-based structure could promote intercultural learning in learning networks and provide an opportunity for students to analyze and reflect on their computer-based investigation with the help and guidance of their teachers.

The technologies used in recent telecollaboration projects were mainly asynchronous tools such as email (Belz, 2002, 2003; O’Dowd, 2003) and discussion forums (Hanna & Nooy, 2003). Although increasing attention has been paid to synchronous computer-mediated communication (SCMC) (Blake, 2005; Sotillo, 2005; Sykes, 2005; Thorne & Payne, 2005), a one-to-one synchronous communication tool, that is, IM, has not been widely acknowledged and employed in educational settings, particularly in intercultural learning. IM is a real-time communication technology that has been embraced by the younger generation of the information age (Lafford & Lafford, 2005). Software such as AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), Yahoo! messenger, or MSN messenger allow for the creation of “buddy lists,” the ability to search for message partners through interest groups or by home country, and they provide on-line/off-line status alerts. According to the unofficial information provided in, the estimated number of IM users excluding those of various mobile IM devices around the world exceeded 760 million by October 2006. With such an astonishing number of users, this type of technology is not ignorable. Although whether or not IM should be used in education remains the subject of debate, the real-time interaction enabled in various IM software has attracted many educators and researchers. Students in some countries make frequent use of IM, but probably more commonly for social rather


than educational purposes. Quick and informal discussions with NSs, however, prove to be useful for developing foreign language communication skills whether they take place inside or outside the traditional classroom setting. In the telecollaboration between American and French students, Kramsch and Thorne (2002) found that, compared to email interaction, IM could provide an authentic conversational environment which helps move learners’ relationship to a more intimate level.

Despite the strong interest of researchers in the advantages of IM technology in terms of students’ development of intercultural communication competence, very few studies have been conducted to investigate in what way the use of IM affects intercultural learning; in other words, the process of IM-based intercultural learning in foreign language education. This article was intended to explore the influence of IM use in a foreign language setting with the goal of developing students’ sensitivity and openness to intercultural differences. This study addressed two research questions: (a) how instant messenger interaction (IMI) impacts CFL students’ intercultural learning and (b) what CFL students’ perceptions of IMI are when connected with NSs of Chinese and engaged in intercultural learning.


This study was conducted in an entry level CFL class in a metropolitan state university in the southeastern US. The class goal was to enable students to acquire basic Chinese communication skills while enhancing their knowledge of the Chinese culture. The instructor of the class was a NS of Chinese who had over 10 years of CFL teaching experience. The researcher was a facilitator of the class whose duties included collecting and developing class materials, answering students’ questions, and serving as a substitute teacher when the instructor was unable to conduct class. Students volunteered to participate in the study. The project lasted 8 weeks, from the first week of October to the last week of November. With Byram’s model of intercultural competence serving as a framework, a series of tasks were adapted from the Cultura Project (Furstenberg et al., 2001), the Tandem Network, and the Spanish-English-Email-Exchange project (O’Dowd, 2003). The tasks were designed to serve as a spring board for learners’ interactions. The detailed task types and schedule are displayed in the table in Appendix A. Facilitative information and worksheets in each task were distributed via email to each participant and their partner at the beginning of each week.

The CFL learners were not mandated to use Chinese as their chat language due to their limited proficiency. Students who were willing and able to chat in Chinese were encouraged to use Chinese as the medium of chat communication. They were trained by the facilitator to use a Chinese phonetic spelling system that automatically converts the phonetic spelling to Chinese characters, which is a built-in feature of IM chat.


Participants comprised two groups: seven American university level students who


were enrolled in the entry level CFL class (NNSs) and seven NSs of Chinese, six of whom had been residents in the US for less than 5 years, and one of whom was a doctoral student in a metropolitan city in China. Prior to the study, each CFL learner, except Cathy, was randomly paired with one Chinese NS. Cathy volunteered to pair with Shan who was in China. The background information for each participant is displayed in the following table. Note that all of the names in the table are pseudonyms.

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All data were collected from the American CFL students. Chinese participants were not required to complete the tasks unless they wanted to know more about the chatting topics because their primary role was to serve as Chinese cultural informants.


Several ethnographic techniques (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) were employed to collect the information that was needed to answer the research questions. The research techniques included a presurvey, scripts of each dyad’s chat, a questionnaire (see Appendix B) adapted from the Intercultural Sensitivity Scale developed by Chen and Starosta (2000), two rounds of interviews, and the researcher’s reflective journals. The presurvey and interview questions were developed by the researcher and reviewed by the research advisor. The number and the type of questions in each interview varied slightly, based on the information obtained from each participant’s IM chat recordings and the results of the questionnaire. Interviews were audio recorded and transcribed by both the researcher and a NS of English. Students were required to save all chat messages at the end of each chat session that they then sent via email to the researcher. The constant comparison method (Glasser & Strauss, 1967) was used to categorize emergent themes from the interview transcripts.


The adapted Intercultural Sensitivity Scale contained 21 Likert-scale items, each of which was an attitudinal statement about intercultural differences and intercultural communication. The students reacted to each statement by choosing from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). The statements were divided into three categories: intercultural interaction engagement and attentiveness (questions 1-10), intercultural interaction confidence (questions 11-15), and respect for intercultural differences (questions 16-21). A descriptive statistical analysis was used to analyze participants’ responses to the questionnaire items.


To evaluate the impact of IM on foreign language learners’ development of intercultural sensitivity through intercultural learning, the affective changes that occurred within the learners and their perceptions on the use of IM technology were taken into account. Participants’ scores on the intercultural sensitivity scale and their perceptions about the use of IM in intercultural learning were analyzed. The following section contains two parts, the first one reports on the findings from the questionnaire which demonstrate each participant’s affective changes that took place throughout the intercultural learning process, and the second presents the findings of the learners’ individual perceptions about using IM technology in a CFL class.

Intercultural Sensitivity Scale Results

The participants were scored in three areas of intercultural interaction based on their answers to the items in the questionnaire, which was administered at the beginning, middle, and end of the project. To calculate the participants’ scores in the three areas, their responses to the items in each category were summed and divided by the number of questions in that category. Each participant’s averaged scores in the three areas are presented in the Table 2. Dyads Bill and Zhao as well as Cathy and Shan dropped out in the middle of the study, and their scores are not included in the table.

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Note: In the second header row of the table, 1 = at the beginning of the study, 2 = in the middle, and 3 = at the end of the study.


The participants’ reflections and explanations of their affective changes in the follow-up interviews after the second and third administration of the questionnaire were used along with the scores to illustrate their development of intercultural sensitivity over the course of the study.

Intercultural interaction engagement and attentiveness: steadily increasing

Regarding students’ interaction engagement and attentiveness, the results show that all participants became increasingly engaged with intercultural interaction during the 2-month IM chat interaction process. The majority of the participants (Mark, Sandy, Mike, and Jason) felt they were more attentive to their intercultural interaction compared to the time before they were involved in intercultural learning. One participant’s scores (Nancy) showed some fluctuation during the learning period. She felt that she was less sensitive to her partner’s subtle meanings during intercultural interactions. In the follow-up interview after the third questionnaire, she explained that during the intercultural interaction, she found that her Chinese partner was very acquainted with American culture, which caused her to pay less attention to any culturally subtle meanings her partner’s messages might have conveyed.

Byram (1997) argues that students need to develop curiosity and openness to other cultures before they can achieve profound knowledge of the target culture and competence in intercultural communication skills. In this case, the reason Nancy became less sensitive is that she assumed her partner would not express different opinions than her own since he had been thoroughly acculturated, or “Americanized,” in Nancy’s view. However, even though she did not perceive many cultural differences between herself and her partner, the fact that she was aware that they were supposed to exist demonstrates a growth of her awareness and sensitivity to intercultural differences.

Intercultural interaction confidence: wavering

As for participants’ level of intercultural interaction confidence, the data show that three of the five NNS participants (Mark, Sandy, and Nancy) experienced a decrease in intercultural interaction confidence when comparing their levels of confidence at the beginning and at the end of the project. They were less sure of what to say when interacting with people from other cultures. Two participants (Mike and Jason) felt more sure of themselves at the end of the project than at the beginning. When the data obtained in the middle of the project were taken into account, they revealed an interesting phenomenon. Among the three participants who felt less confident about intercultural interaction, one male participant (Mark) felt uncertain in the middle of the project, whereas he felt strongly confident about himself at the beginning, and moderately confident at the end of his intercultural learning. Both of the participants (Mike and Jason) who felt more confident at the end compared to at the beginning experienced uncertainty about intercultural interaction at the beginning and became more confident throughout the intercultural learning process. However, at the end Jason felt strongly confident, while Mike


leveled off in confidence in the middle of the study. In other words, Jason steadily increased in confidence during the project while Mike gained some confidence initially—during the first half of the intercultural interaction process—but then remained at that level until the end.

Although three out of five participants did not develop more confidence over the course of the intercultural-learning process, the follow-up interviews showed that these participants still developed some degree of intercultural communication confidence during the project. Mark, Sandy, and Nancy revealed that they had obtained more awareness about intercultural communication and more critical self-reflection during their intercultural interaction experience. Nancy said, “cause I felt intercultural communication was not so easy as I thought before. I never talked to a person from other cultures before … . But I am now more aware of the cultural differences.” Mark explained, “My wife is an American and I am a Trinida. I thought I already understood intercultural communication. But when I chatted with my Chinese partner, I felt I was still not sure how to communicate … .” The ethnographic information shows that none of the participants had exposure to the Chinese culture prior to this study. However, since most of them grew up in the “multicultural environment” of the US, they felt quite confident in their behaviors in intercultural interaction at the beginning of the project. In other words, students easily overestimated their intercultural interaction ability. During the real-time encounter with their Chinese partners, the participants realized that intercultural communication was not what they had imagined. Feeling out of control, Sandy and Nancy experienced uncertainty about their role and their reactions in intercultural interactions.

In addition, whereas Sandy and Nancy’s confidence levels remained unchanged, Mark gained some confidence at the end compared to in the middle of the project. These changes further illustrate that learners went through different developmental paths during intercultural learning. There were mainly two types of learners; the first type overestimated their intercultural communication competence (e.g., Mark, Sandy, and Nancy), while the second type overestimated the complexity of intercultural communication (e.g., Mike and Jason). The former did not understand the complexity of intercultural communication until they interacted with people from other cultures, which caused uncertainty about how to cope with culturally diverse situations. With accumulated experience, these learners developed competence and felt more certain of appropriate responses during intercultural interactions. The latter tended to assume that intercultural communication would be too complicated to handle prior to their involvement. However, once they participated in direct interaction with people from other cultures, they discovered that people from different cultures shared similar feelings, which increased their confidence in intercultural interaction. For example, in the second interview with Mike, he revealed that “I didn’t know Chinese culture and Chinese people very well before we chatted. I thought they would be quite different. When I got to know Yang, I found he also loved basketball and swimming and had some girls issues … (laughing). Then I realize we do share something although we are from different cultures.”


Respect for intercultural differences: moderately increasing

Regarding learners’ respect for intercultural differences, the results show that all five participants had a moderate increase (usually changing from level 4 at the beginning to level 5 at the end) in respect for cultural differences. One participant, Mark, experienced some uncertainty in the middle but remained at level 5 at both the beginning and the end of the project. In the follow-up interview, Mark explained that “in the middle, I felt that I didn’t know so much about Chinese culture. I felt I might not have enough respect for cultural differences. But the more I talked to my partner, the more I felt I had respect for the differences between Chinese culture and my own culture.” According to Kaikkonen’s (1997) intercultural-learning-process model, Mark’s statements clearly indicate that he was experiencing a period of widening his view of culture. He began to gain conscious knowledge about the target culture, which is demonstrated by his belief that respect for cultural differences is connected with knowledge about the differences between two cultures. Although this is not necessarily true, it illustrates that Mark became more open and curious about the target culture.

Overall, despite some seemingly negative data, the questionnaire responses and the follow-up interviews indicate NNSs developed intercultural sensitivity throughout their IMIs with their Chinese partners. Student participants became more certain about their roles and appropriate responses during intercultural interactions. They developed more awareness of the differences between the target culture and their native culture, and they undertook more critical reflection of their native culture. Further, student participants became more self-reflective, developed more positive attitudes toward intercultural differences, and demonstrated critical thinking about intercultural interactions.

Learners’ Perceptions of IM use in Intercultural Learning

The participants’ perceptions of IM were also taken into account to examine its viability as an intercultural learning tool from students’ perspectives. The interview data with all 7 participants throughout the study were included in this analysis. By using the constant comparison method (Glasser & Strauss, 1967), the researcher first conducted an overall review of all interview transcripts. Emergent themes about participants’ perceptions regarding IM in intercultural learning were categorized. Themes in and across each category were constantly compared and contrasted to eliminate redundancy. The final categories are listed in Table 3.

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All 7 participants revealed that IM was a very convenient communication tool for them, for example, Mike said, “I am online 24/7. Messenger is the most convenient tool for me to keep in touch with my friends.” The participants used it to


communicate with their friends, family, and even strangers they met online. All expressed that the use of IM did not cause an extra burden to their regular language learning. As Jason said, “I am online anyway. I leave my messenger on even when I am not using my computer.” Three out of seven participants mentioned the relaxing atmosphere inherent in IM chat, even during the first IM chat session with their Chinese partner. In IM chat, the students were not as concerned with the completeness and accuracy of their sentences as they were with the information conveyed through the language. For example, Nancy said, “I don’t have to type the complete sentences. My partner understood me anyway. I even misspelled a lot. He didn’t mind (laughing).” One participant, Sandy, compared the IM chat with public chat rooms. She said, “I got lost easily when chatting with people in a public chat room. But in IM chat, I have a more private space to share with my partner. This helped me follow through and concentrate on what my partner said.” All participants agreed that the instant responses from their partner enabled in IM chat made their conversations more enjoyable and evoked more and further interaction. Three out of seven participants expressed their excitement about the quickly established friendship with their Chinese partner, although they had never met face to face. Despite her ultimate failure in connecting with her Chinese partner, Cathy praised her first intercultural chat, “We became instant friends. He said he would help me with everything.” This finding is consistent with the IM interaction feature Kramsch and Thorne (2002) discovered in their intercultural telecollaboration project. They defined the intimate relationship quickly established in IM as a “hyper-interpersonal relationship,” a term which is borrowed in this study.

The participants also encountered inconveniences inherent in IM chat. Bill complained it was very difficult for him to chat with his Chinese partner because she was hardly ever online. In addition, Sandy explained her use of email instead of IM to contact her partner by saying that “I had to work the first two weeks of the semester. I really didn’t have time to use IM. Email made things easier.” However, most student participants very well accepted the fact that they needed to and were able to overcome these inconveniences to enjoy the advantages brought about by IM chat.


Although there are a plethora of studies on identifying advantages and disadvantages of IM use in workplaces and general education settings (e.g., Farmer, 2003), empirical studies (e.g., Lafford & Lafford, 2005; Sotillo, 2005) with a focus on the benefits and drawbacks inherent in IM for second language acquisition and intercultural learning are far from exhaustive. The findings of the current research regarding the instructional and institutional standards for technology integration in various foreign language education settings that promote intercultural learning are not conclusive (Belz & Thorne, 2006). In addition, among the myriad issues involved in Internet-based intercultural learning, students’ attitudes toward the use of a certain type of technology in their learning, which may interfere with


the establishment of relationships during Internet-mediated intercultural communication, has not received the attention it deserves.

This study investigated the way in which IM-mediated intercultural communication affected CFL learners’ development of intercultural sensitivity and contributes to the research on the process rather than the products of Internet-mediated intercultural foreign language education (Belz & Thorne, 2006). The analysis of both quantitative and qualitative data solicited from the intercultural sensitivity scale administered throughout the project showed that CFL learners went through a variable process of intercultural competence development but that they eventually improved their intercultural communication sensitivity. The data from the interviews revealed that learners held dominantly positive attitudes toward the use of IM in their intercultural learning despite their recognition of some of the inconvenience inherent in IM. In other words, the pleasure and convenience students felt while using this technology in learning seemed to override its inconvenience. In addition, learners’ motivation may have bolstered their consequent cognitive development of linguistic and pragmatic knowledge. Hence, at the level of affective acceptance, it can be proposed that IM is a promising tool in intercultural learning, which concurs with Belz and Thorne’s (2006) claim of the effect of technology use in intercultural learning.

O’Dowd (2003) argues that simply throwing students into networked intercultural interaction does not necessarily lead to intercultural learning. Many computer-assisted language learning (CALL) researchers (e.g., Belz & Thorne, 2006; Salaberry, 2001) warn that a sound pedagogical plan should be integrated with technology use. To evaluate whether foreign language learners benefit from the use of IM in intercultural learning, it is necessary to take into account the goal of the class and students’ affective attitudes toward the use of technology. Since this project focused on an entry level CFL class and students’ proficiency in the Chinese language and culture was very limited, the goal of the intercultural learning was to provide alternative opportunities for students to have authentic encounters with individuals in the target culture as well as to enhance their sensitivity toward intercultural differences. Chapelle (2001), one of the pioneers in setting evaluation standards for CALL tasks, proposes that technologies used in a CALL task should be practical in order to facilitate its success. The study illustrated that learners involved in IM-mediated intercultural learning became more sensitive to intercultural differences and undertook more critical thinking and self-reflection over the course of the project. Learners also expressed positive commentary about the use of IM in intercultural learning. Therefore, IM can be employed as a viable tool if the goals of the language class are to increase students’ intercultural sensitivity toward intercultural differences and to increase awareness of students’ own cultural identity.

Despite the surging interest in using synchronous CMC technologies including written and oral chat (e.g., Sykes, 2005; Thorne & Payne, 2005), research on IM use in foreign language practices is still in its infancy. Scholars and researchers (e.g., Belz & Thorne, 2006; Thorne, 2006; Thorne & Payne, 2005) caution that technology is not neutral and that the discourse created in Internet-mediated


intercultural communication may diverge from both the target culture and students’ native culture. The application of IM to intercultural learning in a foreign language setting, even to a broader second language learning context, merits closer investigation. More longitudinal studies, both quantitative and qualitative, are needed to further explore whether the use of IM is viable and effective in foreign language classes with students learning different languages at various proficiency levels. More attention needs to be focused on the process of IM-mediated intercultural learning as to what factors influence students’ learning in this environment. Given the striking increase in the number of users, IM applications in education, particularly in foreign language education, are theoretically and pedagogically very promising.


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Appendix A

Overview of Tasks and Schedule

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Appendix B

Intercultural Sensitivity Scale

(Adapted from the Intercultural Sensitivity Scale developed by Chen and Starosta, 2000)

Below is a series of statements concerning intercultural communication. There is no right or wrong answer. Please work quickly and record your first impression by indicating the degree to which you agree or disagree with the statement. Thank you for your cooperation.

5 = strongly agree, 4 = agree, 3 = uncertain, 2= disagree, 1= strongly disagree (Please put the number corresponding to your answer in the blank before the statement)

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Li Jin is a doctoral candidate in the Second Language Acquisition/Instructional Technology program, College of Arts and Sciences & College of Education, University of South Florida. Her interests include CMC, Chinese as a foreign language, second language acquisition, and sociocultural theory.

Tony Erben is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Secondary Education in the College of Education at the University of South Florida. His interests include bilingual, immersion, and foreign language education as well as applied linguistics. He has published in the area of immersion education and is heavily involved in foreign language teacher training in Florida.


Li Jin

Tony Erben

Department of Secondary Education, EDU 162

College of Education

University of South Florida

4202 E. Fowler Ave.

Tampa, FL 33620

Phone: Li Jin, 813 974 1203; Tony Erben, 813 974 1652

Fax: Li Jin, 813 974 5132; Tony Erben, 813 974 3837

Email: Li Jin,; Tony Erben,

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