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Language: The Path to Building Intercultural Relationships

By Ali Moeller, ACTFL President, University of Nebraska-Lincoln | Published: August 21, 2018

What we know from research is that successful learning occurs when it is meaningful, authentic, and relevant to the lives of the learners. Immersion programs, such as the ones offered at Concordia Language Villages, allow the learners to live the language and engage in the act of meaning-making that implies a transformational engagement of the learners as they experience another language and culture and confront a variety of interpretations aimed at decentering the learners.

Taught in an appropriate cultural context, learners acquire grammar, syntax, culture and vocabulary simultaneously. Learning experiences at Concordia Language Villages emphasize the use of language to investigate, explain, and reflect on cultural perspectives and promote discovery learning across content areas (history, mathematics, science, philosophy, art, music).

Participants engage in hands-on approaches where they make connections individually in recognizing their own culture at the same time as making comparisons to the target culture. By having multiple opportunities for authentic interaction, not only do learners progress through the levels of the language proficiency scale and increase their knowledge of culture, but they will also develop appropriate levels of interculturality.

Intercultural Communicative Competence: Adding language turns intercultural encounters into intercultural relationships. Language opens hearts and builds relationships.

The experience of otherness and the ability to understand the perspective of other cultures lies at the center of language learning.  Language mirrors culture; it reflects how we view the world. The study of another language empowers learners to engage successfully in meaningful interaction with members of other cultures.  

Fantini, a leading scholar in the field of intercultural competence, fully captured the power of knowing another language when he noted that language is: “Our ticket to ‘membership’ into a cultural enclave” (Fantini, 2011, p. 264). Language builds bridges to cultures and people and develops awareness, sensitivity, and empathy toward the perspectives of others.

Language teaching with an intercultural perspective develops the ability to withhold judgment of alternate perspectives and assists learners in acquiring dispositions to explore diverse perspectives. Language is at the heart of the human experience.  It not only opens doors, it opens hearts and builds relationships.

I am grateful to have had the privilege of witnessing, first-hand, a place where students lived the language and culture while building relationships and a community where diversity and multiple perspectives are valued and promoted. I visited Concordia Language Village in June, 2018 and experienced the excitement and enthusiasm of diverse learners developing relationships through song, humor, language, history, and culture while learning another language together. 

A father and daughter learn a song together at Waldsee, the German Language Village
At Waldsee, families learn 
together as they actively
engage in the life of the Village.

The most memorable moments were those when I had a front row seat as I observed entire families, ranging from toddlers to senior citizens, learning language together through hands-on activities that involved everyone actively.  The smiles and total engagement of parents with their children as they enthusiastically sang German song lyrics, presented skits and participated in choral practice to internalize language chunks and structures was heartwarming.

Watching the whole family engaged in active learning surrounded by authentic dwellings, paintings, sculptures, food and drink from the target culture made me feel as if I were actually in the target culture. Surrounded by a beautiful lake and dense woods at the Villages, the learners were removed from their everyday lives and were consumed with learning a language and culture that empowered them to engage successfully in meaningful interaction with members of another language and culture.


About the Author

A headshot of author Ali Moeller

Ali Moeller is the Edith S. Greer Professor of Foreign Language Education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. At present she serves as President of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language (ACTFL).  She is past President of the American Association of Teachers of German (AATG).  Her research interests include language teacher education, intercultural communicative competence, language assessment, and research methodology.

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