8 Strategies for Teaching Intercultural Communication through Film

Film is a highly useful instructional multimedia tool for learning about and teaching cultural differences. As cultural documents, films give substance and meaning to intercultural communication discussions in the classroom. A film can be a veritable stimulus for other communicative language activities and strategies that can be practised in pre-viewing and post-viewing activities, such as improvisation, production, interaction, negotiation, and mediation.

How do you teach intercultural communication? Some strategies and tools that can be used for teaching intercultural communication include film, cooperative learning, improvisation, inquiry-based instruction, task-based instruction, production, interaction, negotiation, mediation and role play.

In today’s mobile world, intercultural and interpersonal communication skills are of utmost importance, not only in the educational setting, but above all outside of this institutional setting and in particular, in interpersonal and professional life settings. Students who are encouraged to develop their intercultural awareness benefit from deeper learning. They are equipped with the knowledge, skills and methods they will need in their professional and civic life.

The Importance of Intercultural Communication Competencies

Since many students do not have the opportunity to travel across the globe, firsthand cross-cultural experiences may be difficult to share. Foreign films can fill this void, since they offer a unique window into the attitudes and behaviours of people from various cultural or linguistic backgrounds. By incorporating film and several simple teaching strategies into your lessons, you will create a more dynamic classroom.

The use of film can assist learners in enhancing their reflection techniques while observing, analyzing, and eventually reformulating information they have seen, heard and understood. This reflection process is a part of a virtuous cycle that can motivate students to participate. There is more than one way to use film in the classroom. In this post you will find:

  • a list of 8 teaching strategies, for using film in the classroom, and
  • for each one, an example and resource for using them effectively.

Classroom Teaching Strategies

The strategies below deal with the content of your lesson or course and will help you to answer the following question:

  • Which strategies can I adopt to facilitate the transfer of knowledge to my students? 

They also deal with the expected learning outcomes of your lesson or course, will help you to answer the following questions:

  • ‘What do I want my students to be able to do after completion of this lesson or course?’ 
  • And ‘Which strategies should I adopt to achieve this?’

1. Promote Cooperative Learning

Break with the traditional classroom setting and rearrange your classroom environment. Encourage students of mixed abilities to work together by promoting small group or whole class activities while watching and discussing the film or series clip. The cooperative learning environment encourages students to actively assimilate and process the new information, while cross modeling it with fellow classmates (source: Barkley, Elizabeth F., Claire H. Major, K., and Patricia Cross. 2014. Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty, 2nd Edition. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco).

Through verbally expressing their ideas and responding to others, your students will develop their self-confidence, as well as enhance their communication and critical thinking skills which are vital throughout their entire personal and professional life.

For instance, you may ask your students to consider how they would react in an intercultural situation, such as welcoming a foreign student into their classroom. They could discuss and list the types of questions they would ask or how they would go about resolving an often intimidating and difficult situation for newcomers.

2. Utilize Role-Play Before and After Viewing

Have your students improvise and act out short drama sketches based on intercultural communication before viewing scenes from the film. After viewing, discuss and troubleshoot areas for improvement through constructive peer evaluation. A mock scenario is the safest place to make and learn from cultural mistakes, or as the French say « faux pas ».

This is just one example of how role-play can be incorporated into classroom lessons. By solving problems, being creative and negotiating outcomes students can develop and enhance the soft skills revered by employers (source: Dana Di Pardo Léon-Henri, 2019, Going beyond words and actions: teaching metacognitive and soft skills to ESP communication students at the dawn of the fourth industrial revolution, See Appendix 1)

In terms of cultural differences, these sketches or improvisations may be related to a variety of cultural differences such as language, clothing, food, traditions, music, or social norms and behaviour codes. You may even choose to integrate culture clash, stereotypes or clichés about culture (that beret –topped, cigarette-smoking, baguette-holding Frenchman riding a beat up old Peugeot basket-equipped bicycle comes to mind – although that still exists! Just kidding!).

3. Support Inquiry-based Instruction

Ask thought-provoking questions which inspire your students to think for themselves and become more independent learners. Encourage them to ask questions and investigate or research their own ideas. This will help them to improve and further develop their problem-solving skills, as well as gain a deeper understanding of intercultural issues and interpersonal concepts.

Make a basket or box of questions and have the students pull out a question and work in discussion groups. Depending on the level of the students, inquiries can be of an interpersonal nature such as ‘how does body language and culture differ from one continent to the next?’ or ‘do all French people speak the same French language?’

Based on the film, the questions may also be subjective and more open in nature to encourage students to express their unique views and personal or cultural experience, e.g. ‘which kind of foods are your favorite?’ or ‘would you try eating sushi?’

For students in higher education, you may choose to address issues that deal with the professional setting. For example, ‘you call a foreign client and you cannot understand her/his dialect or accent. How do you manage this situation’? (source: Dana Di Pardo Léon-Henri et Bhawana Jain. 2017. Role Play: A Practical Way to Teach Intercultural Communication, Recherche et pratiques pédagogiques en langues de spécialité, Vol.36 N°2.)

4. Integrate Task-Based Instruction with Differentiation

Task-based instruction and experiential learning methods are very beneficial to the development of your student’s abilities. However, in giving the same tasks to all of the students, you can sometimes overlook some student needs. Differentiate your teaching methods by allocating tasks based on students’ abilities, to ensure that no one gets left behind (source: Differentiated Instruction Educator’s Guide (2016).

By assigning classroom activities according to students’ unique learning needs, individuals with higher academic capabilities are broadened and those who are struggling or in need will get the appropriate support.

In fact, differentiation can involve simply handing out worksheets based on the film or series clip that vary in complexity to different groups of students. You may also choose to set up a range of workstations or activities around the classroom and give students an assortment of tasks from which they can choose.

5. Didactization of a Film

You may choose to base a lesson, a group of lessons or a thematic course on the didactization (the process of rendering content into syllabi) of a film. This has many advantages in that the film becomes the primary source for content. However, it does not limit you to expanding the course to various other themes.

Early on in my ESP (English for Specific Purposes) career, as a university instructor in France, I did this with the film The Rainmaker (1997) in the context of teaching legal English for my third year students (source: Di Pardo Léon-Henri, D. 2012. Teaching foreign Languages through the Analysis of Film and Television Series: English for Legal Purposes. Recherche et pratiques pédagogiques en langues de spécialité/Cahiers de l’APLIUT, Vol. XXXI, N° 2, p. 126-139). Many different areas of the film were exploited to show many intercultural differences between the French and American legal systems, from: 

  • the initial stages of establishing a contract between lawyer and client;
  • jury selection and courtroom drama;
  • opening arguments, exchanges between lawyers and judges;
  • closing arguments, and
  • the outcome of the case.

Since the main story line of this film deals with a sick patient and the evolution of his insurance bad faith court trial against the fictitious American insurance giant, Great Benefit. Involving a newly established young lawyer and an established specialist in tort law, the following scenes were chosen for analysis:

  • being assigned a lawyer and signing the initial contract;
  • preparing a case;
  • choosing and dealing with jury members;
  • appearing before the court, questioning witnesses, and
  • negotiating with defense lawyers, as well as presenting closing arguments.

The above study demonstrated that the students greatly appreciated the manner in which the course was taught. The overall objectives of this course – to improve written and oral language skills, while focusing on legal terminology in a motivational setting through the use of film were achieved.

6. Focus on Linguistic, Sociolinguistic and Pragmatic Skills

When planning your film-inspired intercultural syllabus, incorporate exercises that are based on linguistic, sociolinguistic and pragmatic skills development. When placing emphasis on these areas, students become more aware of the non-verbal features of spoken language and the importance or influence of body language. 

By adopting this strategy, they are also encouraged to explore the different elements of another culture and the correlation between language, identity and culture, while negotiating meaning in dealing with difficult situations (social conventions or living conditions, for instance) and differing points of view or perspectives.

For instance, repeated scene viewings are possible while focusing on specific pragmatic particulars in terms of speech acts or politeness. (source: Alcon Soler, Eva., Maria Pilar and Safont Jorda (eds.). 2008. Intercultural Language Use and Language Learning. Springer: Castello, Spain, pages 123-245). And remember, a syllabus has many purposes: it can be a planning and reference document, a communication tool, and, in some cases, a contract between teachers and students.

7. Adopt a New or Different Role

In traditional settings, teachers are generally considered as the expert instructor and formal authority that unilaterally controls the transfer of knowledge and delegates roles or missions. Why not put this traditional role aside and adopt the role of facilitator or moderator? You may also choose to adopt the role of participant or resource. Similar to the aforementioned strategies, this strategy can be adapted to any teaching environment (source).

Placing the students in working groups will promote teamwork and encourage them to reflect on issues independently, while working together and developing their resourcefulness. This will also shift the balance of power and provide students with a flipped-classroom setting, offering very enriching insights into instruction, while furthering the development of their soft skills. 

With regard to the use of film and intercultural communication, this particular strategy can be implemented in many different ways. For instance, you may provide a variety of verbal or non-verbal-related communication tasks and have each small group report back to the class either before or after the viewing of a particular scene. The role-play (see above) is also an illustration of this strategy,

8. Consider Joining FILTA 

Since my early teaching days, I have used film in my classroom. In the 90’s, I used the film Moonstruck (1987) and French Kiss (1995) to inspire my adult Introductory Italian and French students. They loved to talk about their travel dreams and what to expect in terms of stereotypes and clichés.

Later, as a university instructor, I used film to teach English for Specific Purposes (ESP) and more precisely legal English to illustrate significant differences between the French and American systems. It was during this period that I discovered a plurilingual focus group called the Film in Language Teaching Association: FILTA

An association of language teachers, film educators and researchers, FILTA was formed for the purpose of providing a forum for the exchange of information related to the use of film in language teaching. FILTA is also concerned with issues dealing with education, instruction and training in multimodal literacy and its application to language learning. Their aim is to encourage online community memberships, the use of collaboration to solve problems, and the use of technology to shape the flow of media.

For a list of intercultural films, click here.

Related Questions

What is the meaning of intercultural communication? Intercultural communication is a discipline that studies cultural codes and behaviours, as well as verbal and non-verbal communication codes across different cultures and social groups. It also encompasses the total sum of communication processes, obstacles and challenges that materialize when individuals from different religious, social, ethnic, and educational backgrounds converge. 

For this reason, people who study intercultural communication strive to understand and respect how individuals from differing countries or cultures behave, communicate and perceive the world around them. They also examine intercultural communication to better prepare for, respect and facilitate interaction and verbal or non-verbal communicative acts. 

For instance, are you familiar with the proper protocol when offering and receiving a business or calling card from a Japanese colleague? You must offer, receive and hold the card with just your fingertips on the edges closest to you. And never simply tuck it away and ignore the card. Consider it as a gift, which must be treated with respect and appreciated for its uniqueness, just like the Japanese person in front of you. 

What are some intercultural skills? Intercultural competence refers to the ability of a person to naturally employ a wide range of cognitive, affective, and behavioural skills that will assist in facilitating communication with people from different cultural origins. Appropriate intercultural communication includes appropriate behaviours that correspond with the expectations of a specific culture, the particularities of a given situation, and the rapport between the parties involved.

Individuals who possess excellent intercultural skills are people with high levels of cultural self-awareness and a deep understanding of and respect for the influence of culture on behavior, values, and beliefs. These individuals also consider their own cultural norms and choose the best appropriate and most comfortable compromise between the different cultural norms to accommodate their interlocutor and minimize feelings of uneasiness and awkwardness.

Both in the educational and professional setting, intercultural skills and competency are of great significance and value, since cultural awareness leads individuals to better grasp how his/her own culture functions and behaves, while respecting the differences associated with foreign cultures.

For instance, an individual who is in possession of these skills and thus cognizant of intercultural differences will self-monitor (cognitive) to censor (behaviour) anything (verbal or non-verbal) not acceptable (affective) to another culture during an intercultural interaction. In general, social, open-minded, and non-judgemental individuals generate respect for the differences associated with foreign cultures, since they are considerate of others.

Dana Di Pardo Leon-Henri

Dana Di Pardo Léon-Henri is a senior researching lecturer with ELLIADD (EA 4661), currently teaching English for Special or Specific Purposes (ESP) at the University of Bourgogne Franche Comté at the UFR SLHS in Besançon, France. Her research is focused on ESP and LSP Language Teaching, foreign language learning and teaching, pedagogy, didactics, evaluation, artificial intelligence and language teaching, language policy and professional skills development at the higher education level.

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