The Cultura Model: Developing Students’ Intercultural Competence

Sabine Levet, Senior Lecturer in French, Global Studies and Languages, MIT

By Sabine Levet, Senior Lecturer in French, Global Studies and Languages, MIT




One of the increasingly central tasks of language instructors is to prepare their students to work and interact with people from different cultures. Teaching culture is not an easy task, and many teachers feel that they do not know the culture they need to teach well enough to be an expert in the classroom. The cultural vignettes found in textbooks often focus on topics such as foods, holidays or famous landmarks, and look at the target culture from the outside only. But learning about another culture cannot be reduced to memorizing facts. It means examining the cultural framework within which people operate, and trying to understand how they look at the world. It happens through interacting with people and finding strategies to communicate with them. It is a process that involves reflecting about one’s own culture as much as the other culture.

This article describes the Cultura project [1], designed to develop students’ intercultural competence by connecting online two groups of students from two different cultures. The first Cultura exchange happened between a third semester French language class at MIT and an English class at SUPAERO, an aerospace engineering school, in Toulouse, France. Cultura has since been adapted for other languages and cultures. [2]

Simply connecting students does not guarantee that intercultural understanding will happen. Cultura uses a comparative approach and asks students to analyze and compare similar materials from their respective cultures, juxtaposed online. They discuss the materials both in their classroom with their own group, and with their partners via asynchronous forums.

I will explain the process, built around materials and tasks, that enables students to progressively work towards intercultural understanding. I will present the different steps involved in an exchange, so that instructors who would like to follow this model understand what happens in the classroom and online. I will give examples from exchanges between the US and France. They can be transposed to other contexts.

Simply connecting students does not guarantee that intercultural understanding will happen. Cultura uses a comparative approach and asks students to analyze and compare similar materials from their respective cultures, juxtaposed online.

At its very early stage, a Cultura exchange is first collaboration across cultures between two instructors from two schools in two different countries. Before a conversation can take place between the two groups of students, a lot happens behind the scenes between their instructors. They must agree on a common calendar and discuss expectations, especially regarding students’ participation; select the materials the students will compare and discuss; review and select the best technological tools to facilitate the students’ collaboration.

In a typical Cultura exchange, early in the semester, the two groups of students are asked to answer, anonymously, three online questionnaires: a word association, a sentence completion, and a reaction to situations. The prompts are in English for the American students, who answer in English, and in French for the French students, who answer in French.

For the word association questionnaire, the students must write two or three words they associate with a series of word prompts, such as family, Europe, work, success, individualism, suburbs, etc. (or famille, Europe, travail, réussite, individualisme, banlieue, Etats-Unis on the French side).

For the sentence completion questionnaire, they complete a series of sentences, such as “a good parent is someone who…” or “a true friend is someone who…” “what the US needs most…” “my biggest fears…”, etc.

For the reactions to situations questionnaire, they say how they would react in different hypothetical situations such as “You have been waiting in line for 10 minutes, someone cuts the line in front of you”, “you see a student cheating at an exam”, “you see a mother slap her child in a supermarket”, etc. [3]

The goal of these questionnaires is to collect raw materials for students to compare. These questionnaires also give the students an image of the group to which they belong, by revealing certain similarities within each group. It brings them to recognize that their individual answers might reflect their group or sub-culture, as much as their own individual traits. It is important, since examining one’s own culture is a significant part of the process.

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Image 1: Juxtaposition of answers allows differences to emerge.

As shown in image 1, taken from the spring 2014 exchange, the mere juxtaposition of answers allows differences to emerge. The answers to the prompts ‘suburbs’ and ‘banlieue’ reveal different realities embedded in each culture which a simple word for word translation cannot express, such as “houses, peaceful, homogeneous, boring” on the American side, vs. “poverty, difficulty, inequality”, and a set of words such as “periphery”, “marginalization”, evoking exclusion (pauvreté, difficulté, inégalité, périphérie, marginalisation) on the French side. [4] Of course, neither “suburbs” nor “banlieue” can be summed up in these few words. These answers are only the starting point of a discussion that will make room for complexity, as we will see later.


 The answers to each type of questionnaire are published one at a time over three weeks, so that the students examine first the word associations, then the sentence completions, and then the reactions to situations. To prepare for the classroom and forum discussions, they first work on the answers on their own, before coming to class. Since there are typically ten to fourteen prompts per type of questionnaire, they are not expected to work on all of them, but rather focus on only three. The class activities will enable them to hear from other students about topics they have not examined.

They are instructed to print the pages of juxtaposed answers for the three topics they have chosen, and annotate them very systematically: they check in a dictionary the words they do not know and write their translation in the margin; they circle and count words that appear most frequently on each side, and regroup them in different categories; they see what words and concepts appear on both sides or on one side only, and say if they have a positive, negative or neutral connotation. This is often difficult to decide. For instance, the concept of “power” occasionally shows up on the French side in reaction to the prompt “United States”. Is it positive or negative? Students have to look for cues, before they can interpret it one way or the other. Then they summarize their observations in a few sentences in L2, writing down the differences and characteristics that seem to emerge on each side; they make a hypothesis to try and explain the differences; they formulate questions they could ask their partners to verify their hypothesis.

Finally they post their observations, hypothesis and questions in the corresponding forums.

Asking students to go through these different steps is a powerful tool. It frees them from worrying about not knowing the ‘correct’ answer from the start. Here they engage in a real dialogue, questions are legitimate, and their partners’ answers matter. Since this process of enquiry is reciprocal, they also answer their partners’ questions and ponder their own culture.


There is a forum attached to every prompt. The discussions are asynchronous, allowing for a more reflective and deliberate stance. Since they are not threaded, everybody can follow at a glance an entire conversation, which unfolds like an open dialogue between multiple students.

The instructors do not participate in the online discussions, but the postings often feed what happens in class. Their end goal is not to create a consensus among all students but rather to enable a discussion where issues are raised and debated. Over a week, students have to return to the same topics periodically to continue the conversation, see if their own questions have been answered, and if people have reacted to their comments.

In the same way as answers to the questionnaires are in L1, each group posts in L1 in the forums. It means that the students read in L2 postings written by their partners. It exposes them to a very authentic and current language, which is much richer than what is typically found in language textbooks. The differences in discourse become in turn a new cultural object.

Writing in L1 also guarantees that there is not linguistic dominance by one group over the other. The students are not limited by their linguistic abilities, they can express their thoughts fully and are able to tackle complex subjects.


In the classroom, only L2 is used. When students come to class, they are instructed to associate with people who have worked on the same prompts, discuss and combine their findings, and post them on the board for the rest of the class to see.

Image 2: Students work in groups to discuss the prompts they worked on.

Image 2: Students summarize their findings on the board.

Multiple groups of 2 or 3 students work at the same time on different boards on different topics. Then, depending on the size of the class and the number of groups, either each group in turn will present their findings and answer questions, or the students will move from board to board, to react to what has been highlighted by others. They check if some observations they made about different prompts support or contradict one another. This enables a conversation encompassing a large variety of topics.

Image 3: Students take turns writing reactions to prompts on the board.

Image 3: Students work in groups to discuss the prompts they worked on.

One class hour is often not enough to go in-depth into all topics. Taking a picture of the boards at the end of class makes it possible to pick up the conversation the following day, based on what was on the board. Students are encouraged to take notes, and many classes start with an oral recall of what was discussed during the previous session. This is a good oral exercise, which brings the class back to the main discussion topics. Occasionally, a “class secretary” is in charge of taking notes, and then posts in a class forum, separate from the Cultural forums, the list of topics that were discussed, points that were made, and essential new vocabulary.


After they post their first comments in their chosen topics, at the beginning of the week, the students are assigned to return on the forums multiple times and continue the conversation over many days. Since the focus moves promptly to a new type of questionnaire after a week, participation is very time sensitive. It is thus critical that instructors communicate well to coordinate both groups’ participation in the forums. Instructors on each side of an intercultural exchange usually work within very different sets of constraints. For instance, language classes at MIT meet four times a week for 50 minutes, but our French partners meet usually only once a week, for two hours. The French students tend to have many class hours overall, but are not expected to do much homework outside of class. These differences show how tricky it can be to coordinate an exchange and work across cultures.

 On the forums, students ask and answer questions, allude to the context, make hypotheses about their own culture, and react to their own classmates’ comments. They agree, disagree, try to see both sides and reconcile different viewpoints. They bring into the conversation links to websites and images to support their point. I will briefly illustrate the types of interactions that take place on the forums, by following a short exchange around the answers about Suburbs/Banlieue mentioned earlier.[5]

The first posting by S., an American student, starts with an observation about the differences between the American and French answers. Then she makes a hypothesis about her own culture and about French culture, ending with a question addressed to the French group.

“It seems like the suburbs have a more positive connotation in America. They may be boring, but they are safe homes for the wealthier classes. However, in France, the suburbs are full of poorer people, living difficult lives. I wonder if it has something to do with the individualism in America: every family wants their own land, with large yards, and a giant car that will be used to get from their suburban house to the city in rush hour every day. Wealthier Americans want the space they can get by living on the outside of the cities. However, in France, do all the wealthier people live in the center of the cities, pushing the poorer classes out to the suburbs?”

In his response J., a French student, explains the French answers by connecting the expansion of poor suburbs to the French social system[6]: “we had to build cheap housing for people who could not afford their own houses.” But he does not stop there. Interestingly, he then looks critically at his own culture. Reacting to the overall negative associations to word ‘suburbs/banlieue’ made by his own group, he notes that in fact there are, in France, suburbs with families which are not poor. He then concludes that the French answers went along with the way suburbs are commonly depicted in the medias, and reflected only a limited view of “banlieue”.

In her next posting, S. draws from J.’s way of looking at his own culture. It leads her to re-examine her own culture and realize that the American answers might also reflect only a partial view of ‘surburbs’. “So there are wealthier suburbs in France also, but that isn’t what you immediately think of when you think of the suburbs? That’s actually very interesting, because I think we do the opposite in America.” A little further, she explains that there are in fact poor suburbs in the US, speculating: “It’s interesting if both countries have both wealthy and poor suburbs, yet the French only associate the poor people with suburbs, and Americans only associate the rich people with suburbs.”[7]

The different materials that students compare and discuss enable them to reveal their cultures and reflect about them. The questionnaires are just the starting point. Depending on the calendar, the groups can compare and discuss a variety of materials beyond the questionnaires, working for instance with statistics that support or contradict observations they have made so far about the two cultures. They can compare newspapers headlines and articles, films and their remakes, or the American and French websites of companies such as Starbucks or McDonald’s[8]. They can also look at how commercials play on the representation of different cultural traits.

Over the years, the Cultura methodology has remained the same. It is based on a constructivist approach where students collaboratively develop their understanding of another culture. Technology has evolved and many new modes of communication are now available, but we still find the asynchronous forums to be best suited to our purpose. Skype sessions can complement the online discussions, enabling students to meet face-to-face two or three times during the semester, but they do not replace the in-depth work that happens on the forums. They are also more difficult to organize across time zones.

Over the years, the Cultura methodology has remained the same. It is based on a constructivist approach where students collaboratively develop their understanding of another culture.

Finally, a note on the technology involved in setting up a Cultura exchange: to run a Cultura exchange, you need to be able to create and post questionnaires, collect and post the answers, and open the corresponding forums for the students. We encourage you to identify IT support within your school to see what options are best for your context.

One option consists in using some of the freely available online tools, such as Google forms, to create your questionnaires. This is what was used for the spring 2014 exchange, mentioned earlier. Once collected, the answers were published on a WordPress blog, where students could post their comments.

We have developed at MIT a Drupal based open source Exchange Tool to enable instructors to administer exchanges: create questionnaires, post answers and open corresponding forums automatically in one place. It can be found at and needs to be installed on your school server with the help of IT support.

We are currently exploring the option of making the Exchange Tool available through an independent hosting service. It would have the advantage of being already installed, and would just require registration on the part of prospective users.

Check the Cultura website to find articles, access the archives, check the Educator’s guide, read about the different Cultura modules and Student assignments. Please do not hesitate to send us your questions and comments.


[1] Cultura was developed at MIT in 1997 by a team of three French language instructors, G.Furstenberg, S. Levet and S. Waryn. It was initially funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

[2] There have been exchanges in Spanish, Russian, Japanese, Italian, German, Chinese, Japanese and other languages.
Some have been archived at

[3] For a example of questionnaires used in spring 2014, see (for American students) or (for French students)

[4] For answers to ‘Suburbs/banlieue’, Spring 2014, see

[5] See

[6] Full quote: “The difference between our two countries comes, in my opinion, from the ideal that the suburbs represent. In the French mind, it is big housing complexes, ‘rabbit hutches’ (note: J. uses here a colloquial expression commonly used to designate poorly build and cheap apartment buildings) which had to be built to accommodate families that could not afford single houses. (La différence entre nos deux pays vient à mes yeux de l’idéal que représente la banlieue. Dans l’esprit français, c’est d’immenses logements, des cases à lapins, qu’il a fallut construire pour loger les familles n’ayant pas les moyens de se payer des pavillons.)

[7] Reading closely the forums in the Cultura archives reveals many such examples. See

[8] See (US) (France)

See (US) and (France)


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