"What Do You Mean?" Experiencing Culture through Language
Joint Online Intensive Course
Hebrew University of Jerusalem – Freie Universität Berlin
- Chaya Fischer, Director of the Language Center of HUJI and lecturer of Hebrew and English
- Alix Glotz, Lecturer of French, HUJI
- Nadia Fischer, Lecturer of German, FUB
- Dr. Ruth Tobias, Director of the Language Center of FUB and lecturer of French, Portuguese and Regional Studies
Course selected in response to the HUJI-FUB call for joint online courses for 2022-23 within the framework of the German-Israeli Virtual Campus (GIVCA).
Three-week intensive course during an overlapping period of spring break, tailor-made to integrate into the curriculum of both institutions: the HUJI Cornerstone Program (4 credits) and the FUB ABV Program (5 ECTS). Target groups were BA students from both institutions, from all scientific areas.
Synchronous sessions were composed of three key elements, and non-contact hours were devoted to self-study relating to each:
- Inter- and intra-cultural thematized units (facilitated by the joint teaching staff)
- Language training in German/Hebrew designed to develop “insider” perspectives on said themes (FUB students with HUJI teacher and HUJI students with FUB teacher), based on CEFR outcomes.
- Joint sessions in mixed groups to use both languages in tandem (including peer feedback on language performance) and to reflect on cultural concepts, their manifestation in each language and on the challenges of language and concept acquisition.
Orientation meetings were held on both sides focusing on expectation management; FUB students engaged in a self-study module to acquire the Hebrew alphabet in preparation for the intensive course.
- Language sessions: target language, Hebrew/German
- Intercultural sessions: the input and reflection on cultural concepts relied on English as a shared language.
Objectives and topics of the course
The course was designed to offer students of Freie Universität Berlin and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem a novel approach to synthesizing intercultural competence and acquiring language skills. While language training at FUB and at HUJI places great emphasis on intercultural awareness and views learners as social agents, not all students (particularly outside of the Humanities) have the opportunity to invest in acquiring a new language or to engage in intentional intercultural learning. The support of the GIVCA initiative indeed fosters such opportunities for internationalization at home.
While English is no doubt the principal apparatus of global citizenship, the CEFR (2001;2020) and language policies in higher education emphasize plurilingualism, whereby even basic linguistic competence in numerous languages (and transfer between these) can go a long way in building empathy and actively mediating in personal, professional and academic settings.
Therefore, the current course was designed with the following in mind:
- Course themes relating to highly practical aspects of intercultural communication in academia
- Selective language learning outcomes (A1) aligned with communicative acts and contexts pertaining to course themes
- Explicit intercultural competence outcomes (as defined by FREPA, for example)
- Meta-discussions conducted in English to allow for maximum depth and nuance
- Designing a coherent module that would be transferable to additional languages/partnerships
Thematic units, designed in accordance with the above, were defined as:
- Initial contact and first impressions
- Levels of formality and personal space
- Gender, age and family settings
- Communication and norms in academic settings
- What only locals know
Up to twenty students from each institution are invited to work in tandem in this community of intercultural virtual exchange. The first cohort served as a pilot, based on which the joint course model can be replicated (and is indeed being offered again).
Within the three-week period, students begin each day with a joint intercultural lesson, followed by parallel training in the respective target language, and then by a tandem session in which students experiment with, and reflect on, their linguistic and intercultural skills in mixed groups. Assignments derived from each of the course components allow for plenty of language practice and internalization and for thoughtful personal reflection, alongside posting language outputs and cultural insights on shared platforms for the benefit of the entire group.
Course methodology is largely experiential rather than theoretical; for example, rather than learning about intercultural group collaboration, by working autonomously as a group, students are faced with the real need to coordinate meeting times, negotiate differences in modes of communication and levels of formality and co-construct awareness to such norms and how they differ between and within diverse cultural settings.
Feedback and Performance Evaluation
Feedback and evaluation are organized at four levels:
- Individualized feedback by instructors on ongoing assessments; summative assessment via graded tasks (performance assessment)
- Student feedback throughout (informal) via open questions and polls, written reflection, and personal communication
- Final formal evaluation – detailed and anonymous (FU format, adapted); followed by non- anonymous form with permission to share outcomes and photos, interest in follow-up
- Staff reflection: mutual appreciation, lessons learned, sharing w/stakeholders, sustainability
- Zoom/Webex (synchronous meetings)
- HUJI shared Moodle course
- FU BOX
- Students highlighted the importance of having the opportunity to interact directly with their peers during the joint synchronous sessions.
- Lecturers emphasized the compatibility of the partners; clearly defining achievable learning goals and opportunities to develop meaningful tasks; spending a lot of time preparing for the collaboration; making learning curve tangible – before/after outcomes to highlight
- Logistically coordinating course recognition, advertising, registration, times, intensity, learning platforms and grading systems require patience and dedication
- Scalability depends on financial support beyond initial development, including physical visits
Conclusion: Most certainly worth the effort when working with open-minded partners, institutional support and well-defined target audiences and course objectives and outcomes.