Addressing intercultural competence in language courses

In the last three decades, the foreign language classroom has significantly changed, with the transition from teacher-centered to learner-centered education and the focus on meaningful language use and communicative competence. In their 21st Century Skills Map, the American Council on the Teaching of Target languages (ACTFL) explains that learning multiple languages and understanding other cultures are necessary skills to succeed in today’s global world. Language education prepares students to interact in increasingly interconnected environments where people may hold similar or different beliefs and perspectives. While foreign language textbooks serve as a good source of information for language learners, foreign cultures are often represented as fixed concepts, thus restricting students from exploring differences in perspectives and developing critical thinking skills.

As reported in ACTFL’s “Standards for Target language Learning in the 21st Century,” “Because language is the primary vehicle for expressing cultural perspectives and participating in social practices, the study of a language provides opportunities for students to develop insights in a culture that are available in no other way. In reality, then, the true content of the target language course is not the grammar and vocabulary of the language, but the cultures expressed through that language” (Cutshall, 2012, p. 32). By developing intercultural competence, learners come to recognize and respect cultural values and behaviors different from their own. Today’s technology advances can facilitate this process, and language educators who integrate technology tools in the curriculum can take advantage of the virtually unlimited resources available on the internet, including SNSs.

Describing intercultural competence

Intercultural competence has been defined in many different ways. According to ACTFL’s (2014) “Global Competence Position Statement” (p. 1-2), these skills include:

  • Understanding cultural differences within the same country
  • Developing knowledge about other cultures while withholding judgment
  • Interacting with awareness of perspectives and values of others
  • Examining one’s own perspectives and values as similar to or different from others.

Second language proficiency does not guarantee intercultural competence: it is crucial to place culture at the core of the language curriculum to promote students’ awareness of other cultures.

Why social networking sites?

SNSs, also called social networks or social media platforms, provide a context for people to create and share information, discover user-generated content, and engage in communicative exchanges.

The terms SNSs and social media have often been used interchangeably, however they more precisely stand for two different things. SNSs are platforms created with the purpose of connecting people and sharing content. On SNSs, users create personal profiles and interact with others despite the geographical distance. Examples of SNSs include Facebook, Instagram, MySpace, Twitter, and YouTube. On the other hand, social media is a “form” of media generated by users and shared on SNSs. Before the advent of the Internet, media included newspapers, videotapes, and comic books. Today social media encompasses various modalities, for example videos, texts, and photos.

SNSs have great potential for language courses because they offer digital resources about the life and culture of target language speakers. Differently from the language textbook which might become outdated a few years after being published, social media shared on SNSs are contemporary resources, created and promptly shared by users. SNSs enhance language courses by exposing students to diverse perspectives and giving access to authentic cultural content, which when used purposefully may support the development of intercultural competence.

A sociocultural perspective

Sociocultural Theory (Lantolf, 2000; Lantolf & Thorne, 2006) offers a framework for explaining how foreign-language processes develop. According to this theory, learning a new language involves acquiring new conceptual knowledge and/or modifying existing knowledge “as a way of mediating one’s interaction with the world and with one’s psychological functioning” (Lantolf & Thorne, 2006, p. 5). Learning is mediated through students’ participation in cultural activities (e.g., reading) in which cultural artifacts (e.g., images) and cultural concepts (e.g., norms) interact with each other and with the learner’s psychological activity (Nava & Pedrazzini, 2018).

In line with sociocultural views of language learning, SNSs offer students a rich environment for cultural understanding, language exchange, and virtual connections. SNSs provide a context for learning through processes of observation and interpretation, where, through scaffolding and dialogue, intercultural competence can be enriched. Interactions in these online spaces can expose students to current cultural events and meaningful language use (Lomicka & Lord, 2016). Thus with SNSs the development of intercultural competence occurs through participation in culturally organized practices and active involvement, enabling a deeper understanding of the studied culture.

Statistics on social networking sites

The popularity of SNSs and social media has led teachers and researchers to examine their use in educational contexts.  Facebook is not the first SNS, however it is among the first ones to become extremely popular across the world. Data from a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center (2019) show that the number of adults in the United States using SNSs has increased in recent years. Percentage of U.S. adults who say they use the following SNSs:

  • 69% use Facebook – 51% several times a day
  • 37% use Instagram – 42% several times a day
  • 22% use Twitter – 25% several times a day.

The wide use of SNSs among adults in the United States should be encouraging for teachers eager to use these platforms in their own language courses. Most students are already familiar with these technologies and integrating them into the language curriculum should not be too cumbersome.

  • Facebook facts: launched in 2004, +2 billion monthly users worldwide
  • Instagram facts: launched 2010, +1 billion monthly users worldwide
  • Twitter facts: launched 2006, +321 million monthly users worldwide

By looking at the monthly users of the three SNSs it becomes clear that there is an enormous amount of media being shared daily by people all over the world. This extensive amount of data can be used at no cost by language teachers and learners to investigate, explain, and reflect on cultures different from their own.

Facebook vs. Instagram vs. Twitter

Common to the three SNSs is the hashtag function, a word or phrase preceded by a hash or pound sign (#) and used to identify messages on a specific topic. Hashtags help organize and categorize content, as well as the process of content discovery.

The content shared on SNSs, whether it is an image, a text, or a video, is called post. A post is also a status update, in other words a social media update shared by any user on any social network. Users can comment under other people’s posts on each one of the three SNSs.


  • Text, image, and video-based platform
  • More private than other SNSs, mostly used to connect with family and friends
  • Learning affordance: group function


  • Image and video-based platform
  • Increasingly popular among young adults who share photos related to their lives
  • Limited functionality on computers, works best on mobile devices
  • Learning affordances: e-portfolio, or collection, function


  • Text-based platform
  • Fast-speed and concise platform, each post can contain up to 280 characters
  • Learning affordance: microblogging function