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Investigating dualistic degree structures in modern languages : implications for criticality and intercultural competence : a mixed-methods comparative study in two UK and US higher educational institutions

Parks, Elinor Laura


Elinor Laura Parks


Marina Mozzon-McPherson

Duncan, Dr. Hunter


This thesis explores the complexity behind the separation of language and content within Modern Language degree programmes with particular focus on implications for students’ development of criticality and intercultural competence. The study consists of a comparative investigation comprising German studies programmes across four institutions, two located in the U.K. and two in the U.S. It is situated in a context of uncertainty for Modern Languages as a discipline as a result of a decline in uptake for language degrees, which over the years has led to department closures and language degrees being disproportionately concentrated in elite Russell Group universities (Coleman, 2011). The importance of developing a curriculum that more holistically encompasses both the language and content area of the discipline has been raised in official reports both in the U.S. and in the U.K. and, in both countries, a great emphasis has also been placed on developing language graduates with deep intercultural competence (Worton, 2009; MLA, 2007; QAA, 2015). The rationale for a comparative approach originated from the literature review, which highlighted similar concerns being raised in both higher education contexts with regards to the lack of coordination and integration across the language and content strands of Modern Language degrees, in spite of the significant difference in the way undergraduate study is structured in the two contexts.

The thesis draws upon Byram’s (1997) model of Intercultural Communicative Competence (ICC) as well as his notion of tourist and sojourner in exploring students’ development of intercultural competence and, more specifically, Critical Cultural Awareness (savoir s’engager). It is further informed by Barnett’s (1997) model of criticality and conceptualisation of Critical Being. The two theoretical frameworks firstly informed the research questions guiding the investigation and subsequently provided a starting point for the data analysis and discussion of findings.

The empirical study consisted of a mixed-methods design comprising an initial questionnaire administered to students of German, follow-up interviews and finally a separate interview study of selected staff members, who played a significant role within German Studies. The analysis of empirical data drawn from both the questionnaire and interview study highlighted observable differences among the four universities, particularly regarding the extent to which the target language (TL) was employed in content modules and ways in which some universities appeared to have more successfully integrated the language and content areas of the curriculum across the degree programme. Across all four institutions, students expressed a preference for being taught content in the target language and in programmes where content modules were often or exclusively taught in English, students also felt that there should be greater integration between the two strands.

With regards to students’ development of intercultural competence and criticality, the findings suggested that the explicit coaching and guidance towards critical reflection and evaluation of culture, most often attributed to the content element of the curriculum, played a significant role in helping students develop into effective critical cultural mediators (Byram, 2008). As Holmes (2015) argues, students’ intercultural awareness and development ‘is unlikely to occur of its own accord’ (p.17). Where reference to language modules was made, this was also most often linked to the lecturer’s own outstanding effort and commitment to guide students towards developing more critical perspectives on both texts and contexts. The importance of developing a critical perspective towards culture has also been raised in the Worton (2009) report and in the QAA (2015) Benchmark Statement, which emphasises the value of graduates developing a ‘critical understanding of other cultures and practices other than one’s own’ (p.15-16). The MLA (2007) report, referring to the US context, suggests that ‘ a curriculum should consist of a series of complementary or linked courses that holistically incorporate content and cross-cultural reflection at every level’ (p.5).

The analysis of empirical data also highlighted the existence of criticality, as described in Barnett (1997) thus supporting the model of domains and levels, at least in part, yet students’ development of criticality appeared more fluid with utterances providing evidence of criticality development across more than one level of domain simultaneously. There was also little evidence that the degree programmes observed played a significant role in facilitating students’ development of transformatory critique and critical action, yet some exceptional examples did emerge from the analysis. The study also highlighted facets of students’ development of intercultural competence, which extended beyond Byram’s (1997) ICC model and thus contributed to a re-examination of the existing literature on intercultural competence, third spaces (Kramsch, 1993), symbolic competence (Kramsch, 2009) and other theoretical conceptualisations on otherness (Zarate, 2003; Byram, 2009).

From the study a new conceptualisation of criticality (Communicative Criticality) emerged as well as an extension to Byram’s (1997) ICC model through a new savoir defined as Savoir se reconnaître. The former describes a higher form of criticality in which the reconstruction of self occurs through the process of understanding one’s own thinking and an experience of discovery of one’s own and the foreign language’s limitations. The latter draws upon theories of otherness but more specifically describes the students’ ability to recognise themselves as the ‘foreign’ among the TL community.

It is concluded from this study that the importance of students’ development of intercultural competence and criticality needs first of all to be acknowledged by staff who are in leadership positions within the department / subject of Modern Languages. This would then allow adjunct and newer lecturing staff to understand ways in which their teaching can best support students’ development across these graduate attributes. The findings also highlight the importance of linking all three strands of Modern Language Degrees (language, content and the year abroad) through the objective of fostering students’ criticality and intercultural competence.

The following recommendations are made for Modern Languages in Higher Education: firstly to recognize the invaluable contribution of content modules for the development of the critical dimension, secondly to consider how the language modules may similarly contribute to this development and thirdly to reflect upon the role of the target language in bridging the language and content curricula in order to achieve a more holistic curriculum.


Parks, E. L. (2017). Investigating dualistic degree structures in modern languages : implications for criticality and intercultural competence : a mixed-methods comparative study in two UK and US higher educational institutions. (Thesis). University of Hull. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Deposit Date Mar 2, 2020
Publicly Available Date Feb 23, 2023
Keywords Modern languages
Public URL
Additional Information Department of Modern Languages, The University of Hull
Award Date Apr 1, 2017


Thesis (7.4 Mb)

Copyright Statement
© 2017 Parks, Elinor Laura. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

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