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Notes de pédagogie universitaire

The “Bologna–München” Tandem: Experiencing Interculturality Inside and Outside the Foreign Language Classroom

Le tandem « Bologne-Munich » : l'expérience de l'interculturalité en classe de langue et au dehors
Sandro De Martino


Le tandem « Bologne-Munich » est une collaboration qui a débuté en 2011 et dont l'objectif principal est de permettre aux étudiants qui étudient l'italien à l'université Ludwig-Maximilian de Munich et aux étudiants étudiant l’allemand à l’université de Bologne de faire l'expérience de l'interculturalité en interagissant avec des locuteurs natifs de la langue cible. Les interactions entre les étudiants se déroulent de deux manières différentes: d’une part par le biais d’un tandem intégré au cours (sous forme de leçons via Skype), d’autre part grâce à des rencontres en face-à-face organisées lors de voyages d'étude. Le tandem Bologne-Munich associe donc télécollaboration et mobilité des étudiants afin de promouvoir un échange linguistique et culturel, ainsi qu'une prise de conscience de l'interculturalité. Le terme « tandem » fait référence non seulement à la situation des élèves en classe, mais également à la collaboration dans son ensemble.

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1. The “Bologna–München” Tandem

1Tandem practice is characterized by a variety of forms of organisation and implementation. All classroom tandem projects are linked not only to different institutional backgrounds but also to didactical and pedagogical choices, as well as to the personal engagement of both the teachers and the participants. The “Bologna–München” Tandem is an ongoing collaboration, started in 2011 by Nicoletta Grandi, Lektorin für Italienisch (Italian language teacher) at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich, and myself, Collaboratore ed Esperto Linguistico di Lingua Tedesca (German language teacher) at the University of Bologna. This note on language teaching in Higher Education gives both an insight into the tandem project - its activities and development - and a reflection on the collaboration as a whole.

1.1. The “Skype-Tandem Bologna-München”

2The “Skype-Tandem Bologna-München” started in 2011 as a telecollaboration project. As the project evolved, both the collaboration and the classroom activities were designed as a simultaneous learning and teaching tandem.

1.1. Institutional context and organisation

3The “Skype-Tandem Bologna-München” is a classroom-integrated tandem course which takes place in real time once a week through Skype sessions. The Skype sessions last 60 minutes and are bilingual: Italian and German. This teletandem is integrated into both language courses but there are differences concerning the organisation of the courses.

4The course in Bologna is an annual language course usually attended by 12-16 students. It takes place twice a week. As it is a regular language course, the language level of the course varies: the tandem has so far been organised for B1, B2 and C1 courses (Bachelor and Master courses). In contrast, the course in Munich is an optional course called Comunicazione interculturale (Intercultural Communication). It is a semestre-long course and takes place once a week. As it is an optional course, there is no assessment and the Skype conversations and the students’ reflections on the experience are the sole content of the course. The language level of the participants is heterogeneous and varies from B1 to C1; with normally 6-10 students participating in the course. Due to differences in the academic calendar, we decided we would only run the tandem project during the first semester, specifically from October to December.

5As there normally is a mismatch in the number of students, due to the higher number of students in the class in Bologna, two solutions were found: either students are asked to have three-way conversations or some students in Bologna do the exchange face-to-face with German native speakers doing Erasmus in Bologna and who decide to take part in the tandem project voluntarily. The virtual interactions and the face-to-face interactions take place simultaneously in the classroom but they are not combined. The presence of Erasmus students guarantees a higher number of German native speakers, which allows more students in Bologna to have a one-to-one conversation. The main problem is that some Erasmus students only have level A2 in Italian and therefore the materials for the Italian part of the conversation need to be adapted. A mismatch in the language level in general does not cause problems because students speak half of the time in one language and then switch to the other. The students are paired randomly at the beginning of the exchange and they normally speak with the same partner throughout the course. The advantage of this is that the students can feel more secure because initial embarrassment can be overcome more easily and they can deepen their relationship step by step. Furthermore, students can follow their partner's linguistic development and see progress and also can get feedback on their own linguistic performance and progress. There are not really any disadvantages. However, couples may not find each other due to individual factors that have nothing to do with the tandem situation. In this case, a change of partner is suggested. Since attendance in Bologna and Munich is not mandatory, it is normal for students to have to talk to a different interlocutor if their partner is not available.

6Although some students already have experience with privately organised face-to-face tandems, this is their first experience of a course-integrated tandem. It is important to prepare students for tandem learning and the use of Skype as a tool for didactic purposes (even if the majority of students is already familiar with Skype for private use), as well as for problems which may arise during the activity. Before starting the Skype sessions, a plenary videoconference session is held to introduce the participants and the content of the course, as well as to present the tandem project as a whole, including its objectives.

1.1.2. Objectives

7The “Bologna–München” Tandem aims at bringing students studying Italian in Munich and students studying German in Bologna into contact in order to start a bilingual dialogue. Obviously, all students in our classes take part in the project, not only those who are native German or Italian speakers. In a globalized and transcultural world, our language courses are not courses uniquely for native-Italian speakers or native-German speakers, but are also attended by Erasmus students and students who have decided to study abroad. The students learn that the one-sided focus on contact to native speakers of the target language does not correspond to the reality inside and outside the classroom and that they do not learn the language in order to communicate with native speakers alone but in order to be able to communicate in Italy and Germany or in all situations in which the target language offers an opportunity for communication. The initial perplexity of some students when doing a tandem with a non-native speaker is understandable, but in our experience all tandem couples have quickly realised the benefits of this situation: the possibility of obtaining information about another country, another way of thinking and another language as well as the possibility of having a different and broadened view of the target language country.

8By putting our students into contexts of authentic communication with speakers of the target language, we want to give them the opportunity not only to experience interculturality inside and outside the classroom but also to promote intercultural awareness. The focus lies on first-hand intercultural experiences and not on the acquisition of intercultural competence although, through reflection on their experiences, students can achieve intercultural competence. Experiencing interculturality means primarily experience-based foreign language learning through personal contact. Perceived in this way, it can be considered as an intermediate step on the way to achieving intercultural competence.

9An essential part of the Skype sessions is reciprocal error correction, which means that students are not only perceived as learners but also as experts of their main language - with the limitation that they are only partially aware of their expertise. They are able to intuitively note errors made by their partners, and correct them, but they are usually not able to explain the errors, which is not necessary in the communicative situation. Skype provides for chat, so that corrections such as a vocabulary error can also be made in writing.

10During the preparatory phase, before starting the sessions, students are sensitized to the practice of error correction and what they can do in case of communication problems. Students are given a worksheet in order to familiarise themselves with error typologies and correction possibilities. The reflection about error correction is generally new to all students. Reflection takes place with regard to the main aspect: effective communication, i.e. the exchange of information and opinions as undisturbed as possible.

  • 1 For the difficulties with reciprocal error correction see Empl ("Tandem Monaco-Bologna. Uno scambio (...)

11Error correction is a very delicate matter1, because students often do not correct out of courtesy or because communication and content, i.e. the smooth exchange of information and opinions are more important than formal correctness. In addition to the knowledge of the correction possibilities, mutual trust and tact are important prerequisites for successful error correction; the students acquire the competence to correct the errors of their interlocutor in the course of the conversations. Since the students have never actively corrected anyone before, but have normally only been corrected by the teacher, they are learning by doing.

1.1.3. Materials and tasks

  • 2 The materials in Bologna are the basis of the complete course in the first semester and not only fo (...)

12Each year a general topic such as “Identity” (2017/2018) or “Future” (2018/2019) is chosen for the whole course and students get all the materials2 needed to study the topie at home and in class at the beginning of the course. All materials – articles from German and Italian newspapers, literary texts, websites, videos, statistics, graphics, pictures – are linked to the topic and focus on questions, experiences and issues to which young people can easily relate. Students are seen not as representatives of a culture or broadcasters of knowledge, but as individual interlocutors. The given topics are open topics in terms of their potential for generating discussion and offering multiple perspectives. Consequently, tasks have to allow the learners to develop insights into the target culture and to negotiate cultural meaning.

13Students’ conversations during the Skype sessions are guided through established tasks, which are divided into three parts: before, during and after the conversation. The structure of the worksheet is always the same: an example of a worksheet can be found in the appendix. At home, before each session, students have to read texts, do research through given website links, graphics and statistics, and brainstorm questions, which are designed to facilitate the initial part of the conversation. Additional tasks such as web searches are provided in order to help students deepen the topic and give space for a free part of the conversation. During the conversation, students are asked not only to note new words and expressions but also the flow of the conversation. As “interaction needs to be converted into learning through reflection” (Liddicoat and Scarino 118), following the conversation, reflective practice takes place through guided classroom discussion and learner diaries. In the classroom, the students report back on the various experiences, perspectives and opinions that emerged during their conversations as well as the similarities and differences they have discovered. Through the collective reflection on the exchange in the classroom students learn that “responses are individual rather than culturally typical” (Liddicoat and Scarino 116) and that the diversity of the target culture is reflected by the diversity of the participants and the plurality of their experiences. At home, students write a summary of the conversation. Besides the course and the central points of the conversation, students are asked to concentrate on aspects which were new to them, which surprised them and which they would like to know more about.

1.2. From “Skype-Tandem Bologna-München” to “Tandem Bologna-München”

14The cooperation between Bologna and München started in 2011 with weekly lessons via Skype and a blog called “e-tandem Bologna-München”, in order to allow written as well as oral exchanges.

15In April 2012, by six months into the e-tandem project, ten students from Munich organized a private trip to Bologna as they had become interested in meeting their tandem partners. During their stay in Bologna, the students from Munich took part in their tandem partners' German lessons, and the very positive experience of the shared lessons for foreign language learners and native speakers opened up a new dimension for the whole project. The project was redesigned: study trips including shared lessons were integrated into the existing project in order to allow for real-life encounters in the classroom. From the beginning of the academic year 2012/2013 one aim of the lessons via Skype and the exchange on the blog was the preparation of the study trips to Munich and Bologna.

16In December 2012, the students from Bologna went to Munich and in March 2013, the students from Munich came to Bologna. Twelve study trips have been organised since. In 2013 we decided to only focus on the shared lessons via Skype and during the study trips and to abandon the blog. The reasons were twofold: We wanted to focus on oral skills and synchronous activities in the classroom. The blog activities were not integrated in our lessons and so it was more difficult to monitor them.

17Throughout the course of the collaboration, the name “Tandem Bologna-München” was given to the whole project: “Skype-Tandem Bologna-München” is the one-to-one interaction in the classroom, whereas “Tandem Bologna-München” goes beyond the tandem course and includes student mobility in the form of study trips. The term refers more broadly to the whole cooperation, assuming that tandem learning and teaching cannot be separated and that telecollaboration and student mobility complement each other.

1.3. Student mobility

18Student mobility in the “Tandem Bologna-München” project is the result of students’ initiative to meet their partners. It can be easily organised because of the geographical proximity between Bologna and Munich. The one-week study trips are designed for students interested in a full immersion in the language and culture of the target country. They are an additional offer for the students participating in the Skype tandem or for students of other courses who have the possibility to put someone up as students in Bologna put up students from Munich and vice versa. This kind of accommodation not only gives an insight into the daily life of a student of the same age but also forms the basis for authentic communication. Students have the opportunity to experience interculturality through contact with their hosts. Thanks to these real-life encounters, students are not only in contact with other students, but at the same time get to know new people such as family members, flatmates and friends, and new environments. The number of participants depends on the number of students able to put someone up and usually varies from six to ten, but has reached twelve, even fourteen students.

19During the study trips, learning takes place inside and outside the classroom. The shared lessons are organised in all our classes and are held in German in Bologna and in Italian in Munich. They focus on language in authentic ways. One important part involves presentations by the guest students on pre-determined topics, such as Munich and Bologna, studying in Germany and Italy, the Ludwig-Maximilians-University or specific topics of interest. Examples of shared learning experiences outside the classroom are guided tours, organised with the help of the students, cookery classes in Bologna, visits to museums, monuments or places of interest, but also visits to the School Department of the Italian Consulate in Munich or the Italian Cultural Centre in Munich. These visits are interesting for both groups in terms of job prospects for the Italian students and professional interest in becoming Italian language teachers at school for the German students. Both places allow the students to have insights not only into Italian institutions in Germany but also into concrete joint German-Italian projects. The general aim is to go beyond the classroom, gain insights into the working world and build a bridge between university and the working world. These visits do depend on the possibilities on site and are an additional offer; the connection to the working world is not an explicit objective of the tandem activities.

1.4. Institutional limitations

20The university departments involved in the project are the Dipartimento di Lingue, Letterature e Culture Moderne in Bologna and the Institut für Italienische Philologie in Munich.

21In Italian universities, foreign language teachers hold a very complex and contradictory position as they are “not academic staff with full responsibility for credit bearing courses in degree programmes, but rather technical staff theoretically ‘collaborating’, as the name indicates, with professors” (Guth et al. 60) and are therefore “not in a position to influence the development of course curricula” (Guth et al. 60).

22Due to our status as Lektorin (language teacher at university) in Munich and Collaboratore ed Esperto Linguistico in Bologna, funding is non-existent for both of us. Consequently, the project has been running without a budget since it started in 2011. Furthermore, as the charter of the University of Bologna does not allow for study trips organised by non-academic staff, the trip to Munich for the students in Bologna is a private trip. For the students in Munich, the study trip to Bologna is an official study trip, with a contribution from the Ludwig-Maximilians Universität.

23Though internationalisation and innovation are important aims of both universities, the Bologna–München Tandem is not recognised by a formal agreement between the two universities, apart from the contribution given to the Munich students. Neither universities officially supports the project. It would be desirable to obtain recognition and funding.

2. Reflection on the tandem project

24The decision to start an exchange between students in Bologna and Munich with the goal of experiencing interculturality and the subsequent implementation of a course-integrated tandem meant a new didactical and pedagogical challenge for Nicoletta Grandi and myself. We wanted to open up the foreign language classroom and integrate contact with native speakers into our lessons. This experience was not only new for the learners; it was also new to us. We had no experience in the realm of tandem courses and we could not rely on the experiences of colleagues in Munich and Bologna since there were no similar projects going on at the same time.

25What we have found is that a cross-border collaboration allowed us – teachers – to have our own intercultural experience. This was surprising to both of us as we come from Germany and Italy respectively. We thought that we would know the two countries, but we do not live in the country of origin anymore and through the cooperation we get to know the countries from a different perspective and discover new aspects, which is very enriching.

26Differences in the educational systems in both countries also influence our teaching practice and therefore have to be borne in mind when planning the tandem courses and the shared lessons during the study trips. In the case of the “Bologna–München” Tandem, differences concern the organisation of the courses (annual course in Bologna, semester course in Munich), the type of course (regular language course in Bologna, optional course in Munich) including the reasonable amount of workload for the students, the awarding of ECTS (in Bologna tied to a written and oral exam, in Munich no ECTS for optional courses), and the participants of the course (in Munich mainly students studying to become Italian teachers).

27Being familiar with the educational background of both groups of students is important in order to plan and implement a course-integrated tandem. A tandem course is not something in between two teaching realities, but a genuinely new teaching situation. Consequently, the planning, the preparation of materials and the reflection on the teaching activity does not take place separately but has to be fully integrated from the start. Tandem teaching is like tandem learning based on autonomy and reciprocity: the common aim is to design lessons suited to both groups and both educational backgrounds. A successful in-class tandem project requires not only constant exchange and feedback between the teachers, but also knowledge of the other university system and all aspects connected to the delivery of language courses such as, for example, attendance or assessment.

28The “Bologna–München” Tandem is not a scientific research project but a practical teaching and learning experience. Our tandem experience initially meant “on-the-job-learning” but over time we have developed together with the project, both personally and professionally. Students’ feedback has been very important in that regard. Feedback comes from the students’ reports about each Skype session as well as end-of-course questionnaires and interviews. All participating students have to write a report of their study trip, and those who come into contact with visiting students in their classrooms are asked to fill in a questionnaire.

29For all students, a course-integrated tandem is a new learning situation that puts them to the test. The reports show that initial anxiety or discomfort is quickly overcome because their interlocutor is a foreign language student of about the same age. Some students do continue conversations on a private level or change channels and communicate privately via Whatsapp, after the Skype sessions. In the tandem situation, students discover what difficulties there are for learners in learning their native language and begin to think about their own language and their cultural background differently. Normally, the intercultural aspect is not the main focus for the students when learning a foreign language, but through the tandem activities they naturally come into contact with intercultural issues. This is new for the students and a great advantage of tandem learning. For this reason, it is important that students reflect on their experience in their reports and receive feedback.

  • 3 This is a very short summary of the results of the end-of-course questionnaire completed by the stu (...)

30Almost all students rate the tandem as a very positive, stimulating and enriching learning experience, as it differs significantly from the foreign language teaching they normally know. When asked what they have learned through the tandem, they mention the following points in their end-of-course questionnaires3: new vocabulary, cultural information about Germany, Bavaria and Munich, confidence in speaking, insights into a different way of thinking and improvement in oral understanding. Students are positive about the materials used because in their opinion they are up-to-date and authentic materials that encourage exchange and discussion. Some negative points are mentioned: some students experience technical problems during conversations, some students would like to see more structured conversations, others more freedom and less guidelines, while others complain about the time they have to invest in preparation. Despite the negative points mentioned, all students in the course would repeat the tandem learning experience.

  • 4 In the Italian system, course credit for language courses is based on a written and an oral exam. T (...)

31It is important to point out that in the case of the “Bologna–München” Tandem, all tandem activities are without assessment: in Munich the course is optional; in Bologna it is not assessed as such because a language course is not an independent course but an integral part of a linguistics course4. Participation in the tandem activity is voluntary and linked to intrinsic motivation. There are not many cases of drop-out. Irregular attendance and the lack of preparation for the conversation are problems that students suddenly see from a different perspective. While they usually have the freedom to come to class or not, prepared or not, they discover that the tandem situation requires regular participation and preparation. Almost all students appreciate the advantages of tandem learning and act cooperatively. In case of absence of students it is necessary to improvise: A student without partner takes part in another conversation, which is then conducted by three people. Some students also ask in exceptional cases to be allowed to conduct the conversation from home or another location if they cannot come to class. This proves that the tandem is important to them. Other students who are prevented from attending have made up for the conversation at a privately agreed time.

32What remains of the intercultural experience is one of the most important questions for us. Learning activities and tasks are designed in order to allow students in Bologna and Munich to establish a relationship with one another. We have seen such relationships develop over time and the affective dimension is – as Földes puts it with regard to “interculturality” – the real “black box” (503) of tandem learning, in particular in the case of course-integrated tandems. Another concrete result of the “Bologna–München” Tandem is the existence of a network between students in Bologna and Munich. The students’ network deals, for example, with the organisation of private trips, the decision to go on Erasmus to Bologna or to do an internship in Munich. Some students become friends and keep in touch after the Skype course or the study trip. The fact that some students have participated in the tandem more than once shows that they appreciate the project and that they are actively engaged in it. Over time, this engagement is a crucial factor for the success of the whole project.

33Positive feedback from the students, personal and professional satisfaction, the feeling of providing new and stimulating learning experiences and of creating a new learning environment as well as the satisfaction of close collaboration with a colleague are all things which have motivated and stimulated us to go on with the project. One central aspect of the collaboration, which we greatly appreciate, is the fact that the project does not have any time limit. The constant exchange and teamwork is enormously enriching and the collaboration has had a very positive impact on our work as it offers a different approach compared to traditional foreign language teaching without live intercultural experience.

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Empl, Tobias. Tandem Monaco-Bologna. Uno scambio linguistico e culturale.” Risonanze, no. 3, 2016, pp. 28-31. Accessed 4 August 2019.

---.Ein Jahr in Bologna. Erasmus-Erfahrungen an der ältesten Universität Europas.“ Risonanze, no. 3, 2016, pp. 32-35. Accessed 4 August 2019.

Földes, Csaba. Black Box Interkulturalitä. Die unbekannte Bekannte (nicht nur) für Deutsch als Fremd-/Zweitsprache. Rückblick, Kontexte und Ausblick. Wirkendes Wort, no. 59, 2009, pp. 503-525.

Guth et al. 2012. University Language Classes Collaborating Online. A Report on the Integration of Telecollaborative Networks in European Universities, 2012. Accessed 4 August 2019.

Liddicoat, Anthony J., and Angela Scarino. Intercultural Language Teaching and Learning, Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.

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1 For the difficulties with reciprocal error correction see Empl ("Tandem Monaco-Bologna. Uno scambio linguistico e culturale"), a student in Munich who took part in the Skype Tandem. After having hosted a student from Bologna, he decided to go on Erasmus there. On his own initiative, he published two reports about the Skype tandem and his year in Bologna in the magazine “Risonanze”, a journal of the Institute of Italian Studies of the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich.

2 The materials in Bologna are the basis of the complete course in the first semester and not only for the Skype sessions. They are also part of the preparation for the written and oral exam that students have to take at the end of the academic year.

3 This is a very short summary of the results of the end-of-course questionnaire completed by the students in Bologna in the academic year 2018/2019.

4 In the Italian system, course credit for language courses is based on a written and an oral exam. These exams are the same for all courses in the same study year. For this reason, the tandem is not the sole content of the course and students also have to be prepared for the final exams. The course credit consists in the linguistics and the language course.

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Sandro De Martino, « The “Bologna–München” Tandem: Experiencing Interculturality Inside and Outside the Foreign Language Classroom  »Recherche et pratiques pédagogiques en langues [En ligne], Vol. 39 N°1 | 2020, mis en ligne le 30 janvier 2020, consulté le 27 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Sandro De Martino

Sandro De Martino works as a Collaboratore ed Esperto Linguistico di Lingua Tedesca (German language teacher) at the Dipartimento di Lingue, Letterature e Culture Moderne at the University of Bologna in Italy. His interests lie in course-integrated tandem learning (computer-mediated and face-to-face) and intercultural communication.

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