Enhancing the intercultural capability of students of additional languages in New Zealand’s intermediate schools

Funding year: 
2 years
University of Auckland - Te Whare Wānanga o Tāmaki Makaurau
School sector
Project start date: 
January 2016
Project end date: 
March 2018
Principal investigator(s): 
Professor. Martin East
Research team members: 
Dr. Constanza Tolosa (University of Auckland), Dr. Christine Biebricher (University of Auckland), Jocelyn Howard (University of Canterbury) and Dr. Adèle Scott (Te Aho oTe Kura Pounamu)
Research partners: 
Lillian Ku, Takapuna Normal Intermediate School; Kelly Sanford, St. Heliers School; Kathryn Hogg, Berkley Normal Middle School; Mike Smith and Tamara Toaolamai, Kirkwood Intermediate School.



This project sought to find out how teachers of additional languages in the primary/intermediate school sector in New Zealand could support their students to develop their intercultural capability in the context of the Learning Languages curriculum area of the New Zealand Curriculum (NZC). We defined ‘intercultural capability’ as learners’ ability to relate successfully and comfortably to people from different cultural backgrounds, appreciating and valuing their own culture and uniqueness alongside the cultures and uniqueness of others. 


We worked with five Year 7/ 8 teachers in four primary/intermediate schools. We supported the teachers in developing inquiry learning cycles that would provide their students with opportunities to enhance their intercultural capability through comparing and contrasting cultural similarities and differences and reflecting on what these meant for relating successfully to others. The students (all beginners) were learning a range of languages (Chinese, Japanese, French, te reo Māori).

Why is this research important?

Helping young learners to develop their intercultural capability has become both a significant learning goal and a major challenge. New Zealand is experiencing increasing cultural diversity among its population. People are increasingly required to inter-relate and work with others from a range of different cultural, religious and/or linguistic backgrounds or world views. Students in the 21st century need to be educated to engage successfully with this diversity. The International Capabilities report (Ministry of Education, 2014)1 argued that learners need capabilities such as “global competence”, “international-mindedness”, and “cross-cultural competence” (p. 4). We built our study on the argument that the Learning Languages curriculum area is uniquely placed to become a key vehicle through which intercultural capability – in and for local, national and international contexts – may be developed.

Key Findings

Prior to the first inquiry learning cycle we observed teachers’ current practices in each school context and interviewed them about their beliefs about language learning. Once inquiries were underway, we observed classes, interviewed the teachers after each observation, and conducted focus groups with students at the end of the inquiry cycles. 

At the beginning, teachers had a good understanding that a central purpose of learning an additional language was to communicate successfully in that language. However, it was evident that teachers had not given much thought to how to increase their learners’ intercultural capability, and the importance of this capability when communicating with others. 

We built the teachers’ knowledge and understanding of principles of intercultural language teaching through two two-day hui that took place at the start of two inquiry cycles (July – November 2016 and February – June 2017). Teachers then implemented learning inquiries to help their students to develop awareness of their own cultures and to notice cross-cultural similarities and differences in and through a range of topics (e.g., eating and drinking, families, sports, schools).

Our observations and subsequent reflective interviews with the teachers revealed that the teachers were able to construct meaningful inquiry learning cycles that, in their view, both enhanced their students’ understanding and appreciation of cultural similarities and differences and motivated the students. One teacher commented towards the end of the project, “basing lessons in an authentic context, having a bigger picture, making lessons relevant to learners, allowing students room to explore, challenging their pre-existing ideas and asking for their point of view are all tenets of good constructivist teaching.” Student focus groups also indicated heightened motivation for language learning and revealed that several students experienced learning gains in terms of coming to appreciate and value their own culture/uniqueness alongside the cultures/uniqueness of others. As one student commented, “it has changed me, how I see things differently.”

The findings also indicated that teachers struggled with the question of how to reconcile exploring the culture with teaching and practising the language, particularly when facing limited time for language learning. This is a tension that requires further investigation.

Implications for practice

This study has confirmed to us that the development of students’ intercultural capability in the context of learning an additional language is a worthwhile and achievable goal, albeit one that is incremental and requires professional learning and development support. We recommend that teachers of languages should include explorations of intercultural incidents through learning inquiries that engage their students in meaningful reflections on comparisons and contrasts across cultures.

Contact details

Professor Martin East, School of Cultures, Languages and Linguistics, Faculty of Arts, University of Auckland. Email: m.east@auckland.ac.nz.



East, M., Howard, J., Tolosa, C., Biebricher, C., Scott, A. (2018). Isolated or integrated? Should the development of students’ intercultural understanding be separated from, or embedded into, communicative language use?  Babel 52 (2/3)). 20-25.

Howard, J., Tolosa, C., Biebricher, C., Scott, A., & East, M. (2016). Principles and beliefs behind teachers’ current intercultural language teaching practices. The New Zealand Language Teacher. 42, 31-43. 

Tolosa, C., Biebricher, C., East, M., & Howard, J. (2018).  Intercultural language teaching as a catalyst for teacher inquiry. Teaching and Teacher Education. 70, 227-235. 

Conference presentations:

East, M., Morgan, A-M, Tolosa, C., Biebricher, C., Howard, J., & Scott, A. (2018). Enhancing language learners’ intercultural capability: Possibilities, challenges, and ways forward. New Zealand Association of Language Teachers Biennial International Conference (NZALT): Exploring Other Worlds through Languages. Auckland, 8th – 11th July.

East, M., Howard, J., & Tolosa, C. (2017). Developing language learners’ intercultural communicative competence: Addressing the challenges of an innovative construct. 18th World Congress of Applied Linguistics: Innovation and Epistemological Challenges in Applied Linguistics. Rio de Janeiro, 23rd - 28th July.

East, M., Howard, J., Scott, A., & Tolosa, C., & Biebricher, C. (2017). Striving anew for the Third Place: Revisiting the development of intercultural competence through language learning. 21st Biennial Conference of the Australian Federation of Modern Language Teachers Associations: Languages - Keys to Global Connections. Gold Coast, 6th – 8th July.  

East, M., Tolosa, C., & Scott, A.  (2016). Responding to political aspirations: Preparing young learners to relate effectively to diversity. The New Zealand Association for Research in Education conference and annual meeting: The Politics of Learning. Wellington, 20th – 23rd November.

East, M., Tolosa, C., Howard, J., Scott, A., & Biebricher, C. (2015). Enhancing engagement with New Zealand’s cultural and linguistic diversity: One school’s story.  4th International Conference on Language, Education and Diversity. Auckland, 23rd – 26th November.

Howard, J., East, M., & Scott, A. (2015). Windows into other worlds: Using technology to increase intercultural awareness in primary school language programmes. University of Canterbury Learning and Teaching Languages Symposium: Using Technology. Christchurch, 21st October.

Howard, J., Tolosa, C., & Biebricher, C. (2017). Preparing young language learners to relate effectively to diversity.  10th International Conference on Language Teacher Education: Language Teacher Education for a World on the Move: Meeting the Needs of Diverse Student Populations. University College of Los Angeles, 2nd – 4th February.

Howard, J., Tolosa, C., Biebricher, C., Scott, A., & East, M. (2016). Documenting teachers’ current practices with regard to intercultural learning in the languages classroom. New Zealand Association of Language Teachers Biennial International Conference (NZALT): Waves of Change. Nelson 10th – 13th July. 

Tolosa, C., Howard, J., & East, M. (2018). Navigating interculturality in New Zealand primary classrooms. 6th International Conference on the Development and Assessment of Intercultural Competence: Intercultural Competence and Mobility: Virtual and Physical. Tucson, Arizona, 25th - 28th January.


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