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Towards Developing Tandem Learning in Formal Language Education

Formaliser les dispositifs d’apprentissage en tandem dans l’enseignement des langues
Marie-Thérèse Batardière et Catherine Jeanneau


Le présent article donne un aperçu de l'utilisation d'une approche d'apprentissage en tandem comme dispositif pédagogique actif et flexible pour soutenir l'internationalisation à domicile (Beelen et Jones) dans l'enseignement supérieur. Plus spécifiquement, il rend compte d'une expérience de 25 ans d'apprentissage en tandem entre étudiants internationaux et étudiants locaux dans le cadre d'un programme d'échange linguistique (cursus informel), d'une classe de traduction et d'un forum en ligne (cursus formel). Notre étude identifie un certain nombre d'ajustements effectués par les praticiens dans les trois projets évoqués ci-dessus afin de s’adapter aux contextes changeants des dix dernières années. Nous examinons ensuite le niveau d'engagement des apprenants dans le processus d'apprentissage (Chen et al.), qu'il s'agisse de leur participation aux tâches, de leur construction du savoir ou de leur implication dans le partenariat. Les résultats préliminaires indiquent une relation de cause à effet potentielle entre les stratégies pédagogiques adoptées et le niveau d'engagement des étudiants dans l'apprentissage en tandem.

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1. The institutional context: The internationalisation of the campus

1Recent years have seen a growing emphasis on internationalisation in educational institutions worldwide. Increasingly, universities recognise their role in developing students’ “intercultural competence” and “global citizenship” (Bennett et al.; de Wit) to prepare them to participate in an interconnected global society. As a result, internationalisation has become a strategy for universities to achieve these learning outcomes. The European University Association (EUA) reports that “64% of European universities claim that they undertake activities ‘at home’ to support internationalisation” (Sursock 32).

2The University of Limerick (UL) has viewed internationalisation as part of its institutional mission and goals, making it a central component of its strategic plans (past, present, and future): “We will continue to raise our international profile. This will be achieved by further internationalising the UL student experience.” (University of Limerick 7). The implementation of specific actions attests to its commitment (for example, 2015 saw the appointment of four Assistant Deans, International, in each faculty to enhance UL’s capacity to engage in international research and educational activities).  More to the point, the institution boasts the following three activities: its Erasmus Exchange programme (since 1988), its Study Abroad programme (since 1991), and its Summer School programmes (since June 2002).The most salient feature of these activities is the internationalisation of the UL campus with over a thousand international students coming to UL each year (mostly from Europe, North and South America and Asia). In parallel, approximately one thousand Irish students, 35 percent of them majoring in a foreign language, namely, French, German, Spanish or Japanese, avail of study exchange programmes and internship programmes abroad. In the early 1990s, while internationalisation might have been synonymous with international mobility for some, it became obvious to us that the concept was much broader. The invaluable opportunity offered to (non-mobile and mobile) UL students to study a language in this international environment led us to look into facilitating language exchanges which would bring Erasmus and international students into contact with domestic students and subsequently put into place the Tandem Language Exchange programme (TLE) (see Part 2 for description).

3This local initiative reflected a trend taking place in other European higher education institutions (HEIs): The development of the concept of internationalisation. The introduction of the term ‘Internationalisation at Home’ (IaH) encapsulated a shift of focus (i.e. at ‘home’ versus ‘abroad’) which was occurring (Nilsson). IaH was defined as “any internationally related activity with the exception of outbound student and sta mobility” (Crowther et al. 6).The need for a wider concept of internationalisation had emerged from the realisation that ten years had passed since the introduction of the ERASMUS programme (1988) and yet, the rate of student mobility was very low (10%). Since then, many (European) HEIs have become aware that although their international partners offer a large range of study destinations, it can be challenging to entice their students to avail of these opportunities (i.e. a majority of their students do not take part in mobility activities, do not go ‘abroad’).

4Besides, like their counterparts in Europe and beyond, Irish HEIs are eager to increase the numbers of international students and researchers on their campuses and are engaged in developing a range of strategies and approaches to attract and retain them (Clarke et al.). Hence, the increasing attention given to IaH which provides another dimension to ‘international education’ and make the benefits of internationalisation available to all students.

5Notwithstanding that IaH may look different in different contexts, Beelen and Jones have put forward a newer definition to help achieve a shared understanding among stakeholders of what IaH involves: “Internationalisation at Home is the purposeful integration of international and intercultural dimensions into the formal and informal curriculum for all students within domestic learning environments.” (76). IaH should not be considered a didactic concept but rather a set of instruments and activities ‘at home’ that seek to develop international and intercultural competences in all students (Beelen and Leask). Most significantly, Beelen and Jones’s definition of IaH encompasses all aspects of the lived experience of students acknowledging the value of curricular and extra-curricular learning whether inside or outside the classroom for both international and domestic students. 

6In this regard, the Tandem Language Exchange (TLE) programme at UL mentioned earlier is an additional activity for international and domestic students which is not part of their formal curriculum but nonetheless supports language and cultural learning. In contrast, the other two tandem learning activities explored in this paper are undertaken as part of a student degree course and pertain to the particular student’s formal and assessable curriculum (Leask). More structured, these tandem learning activities were set up on the strength of the TLE successful outcomes. One activity (in place since 1994) supplements a translation class and the other (in place since 2005), is incorporated into a module entitled: ‘France and Europe: current affairs’ (see Part 2 for description). Both activities involve Erasmus and domestic students and aim to develop student intercultural awareness and language proficiency. On the one hand, these activities can serve as preparation for, continuation to or an alternative to the sojourn abroad (in the target language country) for domestic students. On the other hand, it can facilitate the Erasmus students’ integration into the host institution (UL) and Irish society.

2. Tandem learning in practice

7We will now focus on three selected tandem activities (i.e. the TLE, the translation class and the online forum). We will first provide a rationale and short description of each of the three and then we will look at their evolution in the last ten years.

2.1. Designing and setting up the TLE programme

8In the early 1990s, as described earlier, UL welcomed a growing number of Erasmus and international students. We believed that a language exchange programme could offer a framework to make the most of the opportunity of studying languages on a multilingual and multicultural campus. The approach deemed most appropriate at the time was a face-to-face conversation (also called ´tandem learning´). It involves two speakers of different native languages (and different cultural backgrounds) meeting in-person to help one another improve their language skills and share one another´s culture (Calvert). It was felt that ‘tandem language learning’ would encompass aspects of both natural settings (i.e. it would closely approximate the language immersion environment by providing exposure to the foreign language as spoken by native speakers and encouraging its authentic use) and formal foreign language instructed learning (i.e. the communicative nature of the activity would require some focus on form and some form of corrective feedback, whether explicit or implicit (Gass). In addition, it was hoped that ´informal conversations´ with peers would give students the opportunity to negotiate meaning across cultural boundaries (Kramsch).

9The TLE was guided by two principles that underpin tandem learning: (i) reciprocity whereby both learners should contribute as equally as possible to the learning process: “learners should be prepared and able to do as much for their partner as they themselves expect from their partner” (Brammerts 11) and (ii) autonomy which holds that students must take control of their own learning experience: “learners alone determine what they want to learn and when” (Brammerts 12). While taking place in institutional settings, this type of tandem is thus very similar to an ‘independent tandem’ (Vassallo and Telles 88) whereby partners are free to decide what, when, where and how to study, and to an extent, how long they wish to do it (i.e. they might end the partnership before the end of the semester.). It is an informal tandem that can be described as “authentic target language interaction for learning purposes” (Karjalainen et al. 169).

10The TLE is an extra-curricular initiative (i.e. there is no academic credit given for participation). The set-up of the TLE is as follows: in week 3 of a 12-week long academic semester, all UL students (international and domestic) are invited, via an institutional email, to an informal meeting where they will have an opportunity to be paired up with a tandem language partner. An average of 200 students attend the meeting and take part in the activity every semester (some would have already experienced the TLE in the previous semester or previous year).

11At this introductory meeting, we (the two organisers) welcome students as they enter the meeting room and hand out a profile questionnaire as well as a coloured sticker which indicates the native language of each participant. The wearing of a colour-coded sticker plays a crucial role in the pairing of students (i.e., it facilitates the recognition of a potential L2 partner towards the end of the meeting). We then present the language exchange programme, emphasizing the following ground rules: (i) allocate at least one hour per week to meetings; (ii) keep appointments; (iii) be prepared for each session; (iv) dedicate the same amount of time to each language (v) take some notes on what was learnt. Next, we explain the stickers’ colour coding, identifying that orange is for English, blue for French, red for German, yellow for Spanish and white for other languages (students are asked to write their ‘specific’ language). Lastly, we invite participants to follow three practical steps to find a language partner that evening: Step 1: Wear your sticker visibly; Step 2: Look for students wearing the colour of the language you study; Step 3: Go and talk to them! We also remind them to fill out and return the enrolment questionnaire before leaving the meeting. Until 2008, we ran the TLE programme on a ‘laissez-faire’ approach (i.e. we did not provide additional guidance on the tandem process and we did not interfere with the dyads' activities during the course of a 12-week semester). Following a review of the initiative, a number of changes were introduced. These will be discussed in Part 4.

2.2. The introduction of formalised tandem learning activities

12The first ‘formalised’ tandem learning activity was introduced to supplement a translation class. In the early 1990s, among the Erasmus students coming to UL to study for a semester or a year, there were some francophone (French and Belgian) students from a number of disciplines: Applied Languages, Arts/European Studies & Economic Sciences  who were looking for a translation class (French into English and vice-versa) at the request of their respective universities. This heterogeneous group (of about 35 students) was also keen to join domestic students on a ‘regular’ language course, as opposed to a course for foreign students such as ‘English as a Foreign Language’. We decided to establish a translation class within the ‘Business with French’ undergraduate programme which would be opened to Irish and francophone students. We felt that this joint grouping could only benefit both cohorts’ language and intercultural learning. As well as equipping Irish students with basic translation skills which will most likely be useful in their future careers, the classroom tandem approach would give all students the opportunity to speak about the language (i.e., to lead to metalinguistic discussions) and consider the cultural dimension and often implicit meaning, of a text (Toury 200). In addition, since these Third Year Irish students were non-mobile students (i.e. they had opted to stay in Ireland/ not to go on Erasmus for financial or personal reasons) the intercultural dimension provided by the tandem task was all the more valuable. As for the francophone/Erasmus students, in a similar way to the informal TLE programme presented earlier, this activity had the potential to create social ties which would help them adapt to the host country (Y. Kim).

13Due to the large number of students (55), two groups were formed and students were put into pairs (1 French/Belgian, 1 Irish) during their first translation class. The teacher then introduced a new feature to regular language classes: a weekly out-of-class tandem session (requiring each pair to agree on a time and place) and a significant corollary: two assignments completed and submitted in pairs, with each partner receiving the same grade (worth 25% of their overall module grade). In week two and for the rest of the term, students were asked to sit beside their tandem partner when attending class to facilitate their dyad’s contribution to the wider group. The texts for translation come from the English or French press and deal with current affairs of socio-economic nature (i.e. Irish or French topical issues covered by the foreign press). This tandem structure is still in place today, albeit with some slight changes which will be highlighted in Part 3.

14The second activity occurring in a formal setting is an e-tandem initiative which has been running for the last 14 years. The e-tandem activity is an online discussion forum integrated in a larger project which promotes a three-phased approach: Irish students (L2 learners of French) (i) select a current French socio-political issue of their choice, (ii) retrieve information on the topic from online newspapers, (iii) analyse it with a view to producing a piece of work demonstrating thorough understanding of the topic, (iv) post the summary on their discussion threads (i.e. the discussion forum is set-up on the Learning Management System (LMS) of the institution as a component of a language module), (v) start the exchange by asking his/her partner a (controversial) question on the chosen topic to spark a discussion. Each L2 learner is paired with a native speaker who has expressed an interest in his/her topic. Students engage in a discussion with their respective partners. They are free to express their views and opinions. They can also read other dyads’ postings but cannot join their conversation. In the closing stages of the project, they are asked to give feedback on the online exchange experience. The eTandem/ Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) task is an out-of-class activity which starts in week 4 of their 12-week course and runs for 6 to 8 weeks depending on the group dynamic. The asynchronous communication task is open and non-prescriptive (i.e. students are given no particular set of instructions to follow and no specific format to comply with), the only clear requirements being that French-the Irish students’ target language- is used by both groups of participants at all times in the exchanges and that a minimum of three messages should be posted by each participant over the course of the exchange with no constraint of frequency or length.

15In 2005, the year we incorporated the e-Tandem task in the existing current affairs project, there were a total of 16 Irish undergraduate students (i.e., non-native speakers) and 16 native speakers of French (NS) participating in the project. The Irish students were enrolled on a Fourth Year undergraduate Business and French course. The French module represents 1/5 of their programme and four contact hours per week. The native speakers came from varied backgrounds (students or professionals) and were based either in Ireland or in their country of origin (France and Dom-Tom). Their age ranged from 20 to 50. NS’s profile details were not made known to Irish students as we believed that it could hinder partners’ rapport. Besides, this format reflected more accurately real-world anonymity on discussion forums. Their participation in the forum was completely voluntary and they did not receive any compensation for their contribution but they reported that it was a culturally rewarding experience. At the start of the online activity, it was very hard to predict how well the L1/L2 pairings would perform because of discrepancies in profiles, goals, and motivations between the Irish students and their NS partners. Nonetheless, we strongly believed that the inclusion of the e-Tandem task with native speakers would bring a degree of authenticity and add depth to the project. Besides, the Irish students who had spent six months in France, Belgium or Luxembourg in the previous year, either for a study-abroad period or for work experience were keen to embark on tandem work with native speakers.

3. Adapting to change: New tandem grouping configuration

16We will now outline and discuss a major trend in the development of the tandem learning activities in the last 10 years, namely the evolution of the demographic makeup of tandem participants which has led to new grouping configuration.

17Over the past decade, we have seen an upward trend in the foreign participation ratio and, conversely, a decline in the rate of home students´ participation in the TLE programme and Translation class. Institutional factors might have shaped this evolution. First, the reduction in the number of ´non-specialist language students´ studying a language (i.e. taking a language module as part of their UL degree is no longer an option). Second, an increasing number of home students decide to go abroad to study or work; this is mainly due to modifications in programmes such as ‘Business with a language’ which allow for grading flexibility (i.e. the grades students achieve while abroad are converted on a Pass/Fail basis and do not affect students’ home university overall score). This trend would have a direct impact on domestic students’ numbers and would affect the balance ratio between home and foreign students´ numbers and consequently tandem grouping in the TLE and Translation class. A third factor is the growing diversity in the students on campus reflecting (a) the expansion of UL’s global network with international universities and (b) the international migration to Ireland and with this ongoing development, the emergence of new languages (for example, (a) Portuguese with Master students coming from Brazil; (b) Polish and Lithuanian from Eastern European countries at undergraduate level). In order to accommodate all foreign participants in the TLE, most Irish students have willingly paired up with two or more partners and among them, a partner who is not a speaker of their target language. In the Translation class, a similar trend has been observed. Irish students have also been allocated two or more francophone partners. These tandem groupings will be further commented on in Part 4.

18As for the online tandem activity, the increasing popularity of the ‘Business studies with a language’ programme together with the creation of the ‘International Business’ programme has meant that the number of Irish students from the Faculty of Business has more than doubled in the last 15 years. There was an imminent need to secure tandem partners for Irish students instead of relying on an ad-hoc pairing which was not viable in the long term (see Section 2.2 for more details). In 2008, we decided to broaden the translation module to an intercultural module entitled “l'interculturalité dans le cours de français des affaires” (see Figure 2 for details) and have the francophone students involved in the discussion forum. We believed that this move would allow us to maintain a crucial feature of the online exchange: all interactions are carried out through French, without penalising the francophone students (i.e., the same students would still have access to a bilingual exchange for their main component of the module, the Translation task). It would also give us the opportunity to promote a lesser explored dimension of the Erasmus programme amongst students: the concept of European citizenship and identity. This new e-tandem configuration had an impact on the structure and assessment of online task. These will be examined in Part 4.

4. Student level of engagement in the tandem learning process

19In this last section, we look at student engagement which is viewed as an important factor in determining student learning. More specifically, we consider the significance of the tandem approach (i.e., tandem tasks and tandem relationships) in enhancing student engagement.

20According to Chen et al., “there are two components of student engagement: the amount of time and efforts students put into their education and the ways in which an institution organizes learning opportunities and services” (340). From this assertion, we can infer that while most of the responsibility for learning rests with students, institutions are responsible for generating conditions that stimulate students’ learning. Many HEIs have acknowledged the responsibility for promoting student engagement and “are focusing their attention on the role of faculty as designers of educational environments to support [it]” (Cinches et al. 6). To this end, faculty are encouraged to develop and use teaching, learning and assessment strategies which create a more student-centred, active learning environment. Research has shown that tandem learning can lead to “a learner-centered and quite individualised foreign language activity” (Vassallo 92) as each of the partners tries to achieve his/her own learning objectives while experiencing “the social dimensions of learning at the core of the tandem approach” (Vassallo 93). Moreover, tandem learning, by providing focus on form and pertinent corrective feedback to the L2 learner (J. Kim) offers a promising context for second language acquisition as well as has important potential benefits for developing intercultural competence (Byram).

21We now turn to a closer examination of the tasks involved in each of our three tandem projects and observe how specific tasks have been developed and refined through the use of action research. Action research, defined as “a systematic study of attempts to improve educational practice by groups of participants by means of their own practical actions and by means of their own reflection upon the effects of those actions” (Hopkins 57), is a tool to better understand and improve our practices and the contexts in which we teach. We view it as an iterative process of planning, acting, observing, reflecting and revising. We, as practitioners-researchers, conduct action research on a regular basis with our students. Data is collected from a wide range of sources: pre/post feedback questionnaires (TLE; online forum), focus group meetings (translation class), follow-up interviews (TLE; online forum), student posts (online forum) and practitioner observations (TLE; translation class; online forum).

22The research study of the TLE programme undertaken back in spring 2008 sought to explore students' practices and attitudes towards tandem learning. A survey was conducted online (using SurveyMonkey) and put to students about two-thirds of the way through the semester (see Figure 1 for a sample of survey results). The following section reports on one of the main issues that were brought to light in the survey, and how this issue was addressed subsequently.

23Some participants stated that they found the experience (i.e., tandem learning) “quite challenging” (Irish student) and even “daunting” (foreign student) during the first few weeks. While the ‘laissez-faire’ approach suited the majority who perceived the TLE programme as “only the catalyst” (Irish student) and embraced the autonomous experience inherent to a tandem language exchange, others would have liked some initial support like “having a place to meet” (foreign student) and “a few game nights” (foreign student) in order to break the ice with their partners. Among suggestions to improve this type of exchange, some expressed the wish for “more structure” (foreign student) and “more recognition” (Irish student). On the strength of this feedback and in an attempt to take participants’ wishes into account, the organisers introduced the following changes in the TLE programme. First, to address the need for more structure: (i) a follow-up session two weeks after the introductory session to take questions and offer advice; (ii) the provision of a ‘common room’, for two hours every week, to facilitate gatherings; (iii) the creation of a ´Tandem Language Handbook´; the booklet, which was distributed to students at the enrolment session, is divided into two parts: ‘Your practical guide’ (Part One) -to provide general information and ‘Your learning diary’ (Part Two) -to scaffold reflective learning; second, to address the need for more recognition: the issuing of a certificate for taking part in the tandem language programme. These initiatives were piloted for four consecutive semesters; some were very popular and were kept on; those that were poorly received were discontinued. Accordingly, the follow-up session which was scantily attended, was replaced with an optional ´one-to-one meeting´ with the Language Learning Hub (LLH) coordinator to give individual support and monitoring to TLE partnerships. These sessions are mainly used to help students overcome initial hurdles such as the lack of availability or commitment from the tandem partner, and the selection of discussion topics. Once identified, these problems are often solved with simple strategies like partners sharing timetables and drawing up a list of common topics of interest. However if the partner is not cooperative, the LLH coordinator intervenes by email urging him/her to call to the LLH. In contrast, the ‘common room’ was always buzzing on a Wednesday afternoon so the original idea has been retained, albeit in a slightly different way; language partners can take advantage of the relaxed atmosphere in the spacious LLH main room to simply chat or to access the material at their disposal (DVDs, CD-ROMs, TV stations etc.). As for the Tandem Language Handbook, it is now available electronically on the TLE website1 and can be downloaded or printed at very little cost. Over the years, both groups of learners (foreign and domestic students) have commented on the usefulness of the booklet to “keep track of what has been learned”, “write down new words and phrases which came up in the conversation”, “remind you of grammar rules to revise” and “make a list of topics to prepare”. Lastly, the certificate of participation in the programme is nowadays seldom requested at the end of term. It would seem to be of interest only to students who are studying a non-curricular language (for example, Italian, Portuguese, Mandarin Chinese) as credit-bearing modules are offered to language students at UL.

24This observation of the TLE programme seems to suggest that when offered at an institutional level, a face-to-face TLE programme calls for a ‘flexible’ approach (Lewis) to meet an array of user profiles and expectations. This is all the more needed with the new tandem configuration (as described in Part 3). A growing number of home students nowadays embark on what appears to be foremost a ‘cultural exchange’ with some partners using English as a lingua franca in inter-cultural communication. In addition, the Spring semester survey data analysis has revealed that when students have more than one partner, they tend to meet their second (and third) partner separately unless they are of the same nationality “My 2 Spanish partners are friends so the three of us meet together” an Irish student wrote. Therefore, some students indicated having TLE meetings twice or three times a week (albeit with a different partner). This would explain how in the 2018 questionnaire, respondents (among them, 45 percent were Irish/ home students) stated that they spoke in their L1/English for 20% of the time (see Figure 1). On the other hand, students alternated the use of L1 and L2 when exchanging with a partner whose L2 is known (see Figure 1). Moreover, the language barrier was not perceived as an obstacle in the exchanges. Comments such as these attest to that fact “I think if there is a mutual desire to communicate, the language barrier can be overcome, for example, through the use of translation platforms” and “while language helps communication other factors such as a desire to learn about other cultures is important for the success of the exchange." The ‘flexibility’ concept implies nonetheless the provision of guidance and support from the programme organisers. The LLH coordinator’s unobtrusive presence (i.e. she is available on an as-needed basis) seems to be the preferred role in a programme that relies on learner autonomy and peer-collaboration.

25For the tandem translation task, students work in dyads or triads and for the past two years sometimes in small groups (as pointed out in Part 3); the usual pairing/grouping is one Irish student with one, two or three francophone students. During the second year that we ran this tandem task (in 1995), students were invited via email, mid-way through the twelve-week term, to participate on a voluntary basis in a focus group discussion to provide feedback on their tandem task/partnership. Twelve students volunteered (9 francophone and 3 Irish).

26On the basis of students’ comments on their tandem practice and teacher observations in class, we (the focus group and the teacher/facilitator) identified a number of steps involved in the translation exercise performed outside of class. These steps or stages not only described the different requirements of the translation process (i.e. the various skills needed) but also attitudes towards the task and partner(s). The following draft (of the sequence of steps) was drawn up during the feedback session and proposed later to all task participants. During the first stage of the translation process, i.e. reading and understanding of a text, partners help each other to ‘decode’ a text. They reformulate it, paraphrase it; they look into its linguistic difficulties; teacher’s addition: In the first weeks of their tandem work, students tend to skip or rush this step, but they quickly realise that it is an essential one. In the second stage, which introduces the cultural dimension, learners penetrate the semantic dimension of a text. Students become aware of another way to engage with a text; they are given an opportunity to approach a text from different perspectives; teacher’s addition: Students negotiate and co-construct an interpretation of the text. During the third stage, the translation stage per se, learners quite often feel ‘challenged’ and see their own shortcomings in their L1/ mother tongue; teacher’s addition: As a result, students become more tolerant of each other's contribution.

27Students pointed to the fact that they freely interchange roles (mentor/ learner depending on the source text to be translated) and language (French/ English) to suit their needs during out-of-class sessions.

  • 2 Our translation from: La quête du mot juste pour les nous, les francophones, et la bonne volonté d (...)

28The outlining of this three-step process was welcomed by all and helped shape the weekly tandem work for the rest of the term. In the following years these steps have been given to students as guidelines in week one, when dyads are established. We also refer back to these during class when dyads share their translated text with the rest of the group and other dyads put forward a very different translation of the same text. Stimulating discussions often ensue. The following Erasmus student’s comment will serve to illustrate students’ attitudes towards a cultural phenomenon taking place during ‘plenary’ classes: The quest for the right word for us, the francophone students and the goodwill of our Irish partners in this search!”2 In addition to linguistic benefits, students have highlighted the cultural and social gains of the tandem task. We will use the image evoked by one of the francophone students, that of a bridge between two worlds “University work - The tandem translation task - Social life” to express the perceived influence of this course on the integration of foreign/ francophone students. Over the years, dyads/triads formed inside the translation class have expanded their tandem work and set up a number of small projects and events of their own accord; for example, a Franco-Irish group staged ‘La cantatrice chauve’ by Eugene Ionesco; another group put in place weekly debates conducted in both languages and open to all UL language students; another wrote monthly satirical articles in the section ‘The laughing cow’ in the UL students' newspaper An focal. These creations reflect students’ enthusiasm and show students’ personal initiative and commitment to strengthen linguistic and (inter)cultural ties well beyond the translation class. Another point to note is that among the francophone students joining the translation class, some would have a good knowledge of translation studies while others would have little knowledge, depending on their programme of study in their home institution. This led us to opt for heterogeneous grouping i.e. tandem groups comprising of students with different levels of experience and knowledge in translation. Over the years, the asymmetry between the less and the more able ‘translator(s)/partners’ has never posed a problem. Beside the fact that each partner brings his own area of expertise to the group, this could be explained by the fact that tandem learning and the translation task in particular, requires shifting of roles during sessions which allows the more proficient speaker to take on a more powerful role (regardless of his/her level of competence in translation), thus “neutralises asymmetric situations” (Vassallo and Telles 96).

29The implementation of an online tandem exchange aimed to promote intercultural dialogue. To shed light on the factors that facilitate and hinder this exchange, students are required to fill out a feedback questionnaire during the last week of their project3; in addition, a number of students agree every year to take part in an interview as a follow-up from the questionnaire. The examination of the qualitative data collected during the first two years of the project (2006-2007) highlighted a number of challenges as well as actions taken to deal with them: (i) Technical challenges; a few technical glitches occurred on the onset of the project. They were mainly due to the complicated way of accessing the institution VLE for the native speakers and the time delay for a few postings to appear on the forum.  They consequently made the beginning of the exchange difficult for a few students. However, once the tutor (who acted as technical support for the project) was made aware of these problems (through student emails), she intervened to solve them; (ii) Communication and cultural challenges; these were linked to the particular challenges posed by the lack of interaction. From the Irish students’ perspective, the reason for their problems was twofold: a lack of queries from the French partners (making it difficult to sustain a lively discussion) and a lack of responses to their questions (limiting the opportunity to get a “French viewpoint”). In both cases, students coped by adopting a new strategy: when faced with a lack of queries, they introduced a new claim to revive the discussion, and when confronted with a deficit of information, they researched the requested topic themselves; (iii) Personal challenges; the task was a challenge in itself for some students. They had experienced some degree of anxiety to write to a French-native speaker whom they did not know for a ‘real’ purpose. A few of them stressed that they were self-conscious about their level of French and were afraid that their language ability would impede the depth of the discussion. Interestingly, they affirmed that their fear lessened with usage, familiarity with their partner(s) and new learning strategies: they observed the native speakers’ argumentative style, picked up some useful vocabulary and expressions, read other students’ threads of discussion to assess their own contribution etc. From the aforementioned comments, we can conclude that, when faced with a new type of task (i.e. an online task with a NS), students learned to develop a new set of learning and communication strategies.

30Furthermore, in 2008, due to the new tandem configuration (i.e. the pairing of Irish students with on-campus francophone Erasmus students) the teacher made the following changes in terms of task design: (i) the timing of the online exchange; the exchange used to take place at the latter end of the project (the last four weeks), but is now introduced earlier in order to extend the period of interactions with the foreign partner (6 to 8 weeks) and to give students more time for reflective feedback; (ii) the clarity of the task description, instructions and marking criteria; the collaborative online task is integrated into their respective course curriculum and is graded; (iii) the temporary access to previous year online discussion forum when introducing the tandem task to students; (iv) the opportunity to be involved in a cognitively challenging ‘real-world’ activity, which represents a new learning experience for most students as underlined by an Irish student “it was the first time that I could debate on socio-political issues with a native speaker, a ‘real’ challenge”; (v) the freedom to choose and research their own topics of interest rather than working from a teacher-determined list of topics which allows for students’ personal involvement as observed by this French student “I chose that topic because it affects me directly” (see Figure 3 for selected topics for Autumn 2015). It was felt that this step-by-step process of engaging students would help them develop a common understanding of the task learning goals. This particular CMC context allows NNS and NS students to participate in an authentic dialogue outside the classroom (Splitter). Dyads work at their own pace, with NNS’ L2 proficiency ranging from low-intermediate to advanced levels. Technological affordances, such as ‘persistence of transcript’, ‘availability of quoting previous message’ and ‘possibility to include hyperlinks to video’ on the university forum would seem to foster meaningful conversations “I looked forward to hearing from my partner and having an interesting conversation with her” (Irish student, questionnaire 2015), promote critical thinking “it allows the broadening of the mind, the confrontation of two ways of thinking” (Erasmus Student, interview 2014) and help students take responsibility for their own and their peer's learning “I was motivated to post messages because my work had a direct effect on her work and grade ” (Erasmus student, questionnaire 2012).

5. Conclusive remarks

31This paper has given an account of and the reasons for the introduction of tandem language learning in informal and formal settings in our university. While distinction can be made between the two settings (in terms of activity structure and assessment), we have seen evidence that the same basic tandem principles apply. Furthermore, on the basis of students’ feedback and practitioners’ observations, we can argue that language tandem interactions have provided a ‘unique’ collaborative learning environment -in and beyond the classroom- for a broad range of international and domestic students over the years. In addition, our research has shown that we (teachers and practitioners) have a pivotal role to play in the internationalisation process, particularly in the initial phase (i.e., the design and implementation) of tandem activities/tasks and that this role becomes deliberately less active during the actual performance of activities/tasks. From this perspective, we have developed a two-stage approach to help students take charge of their learning: Stage 1 -Familiarisation with the activity/task (under the teacher’s explicit instructional guidance); Stage 2 -Experimentation of a new mode of learning and co-construction of knowledge (through peer feedback and scaffolding). Moreover, most students participating in the TLE, the translation class and the online forum reported to have reached a further stage: Stage 3 -Appropriation of the task, self-regulation of learning and responsibility vis-à-vis their partner. The latter stage, which sees the development of an increased sense of agency (Klemenčič), is not an automatic product of tandem exchanges but is a demonstration of the learner's conscious efforts to create and maximise opportunities for learning. Indeed, it is important to emphasize that not only course design factors -which support collaboration- but also genuine and active student engagement can be considered critical for meaningful learning to take place.

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Figure 1. Tandem language exchange - Feedback survey on students' practices (Autumn 2008 and 2018)

Figure 1. Tandem language exchange - Feedback survey on students' practices (Autumn 2008 and 2018)

Figure 2. L’interculturalité dans le cours de français des affaires - Tasks and assessment

Figure 2. L’interculturalité dans le cours de français des affaires - Tasks and assessment

Figure 3. Online discussion forum -selected topics Autumn 2015 (snapshot of the virtual platform)

Figure 3. Online discussion forum -selected topics Autumn 2015 (snapshot of the virtual platform)
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1 Link to TLE website:

2 Our translation from: La quête du mot juste pour les nous, les francophones, et la bonne volonté de nos partenaires Irlandais dans cette recherche! ”

3 Link to online feedback questionnaire for e-tandem partners:

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Tandem language exchange - Feedback survey on students' practices (Autumn 2008 and 2018)
Fichier image/png, 126k
Titre Figure 2. L’interculturalité dans le cours de français des affaires - Tasks and assessment
Fichier image/png, 30k
Titre Figure 3. Online discussion forum -selected topics Autumn 2015 (snapshot of the virtual platform)
Fichier image/png, 371k
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Marie-Thérèse Batardière et Catherine Jeanneau, « Towards Developing Tandem Learning in Formal Language Education »Recherche et pratiques pédagogiques en langues [En ligne], Vol. 39 N°1 | 2020, mis en ligne le 15 janvier 2020, consulté le 10 décembre 2023. URL :

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Marie-Thérèse Batardière

Marie-Thérèse Batardière is a lecturer in French at the University of Limerick, Ireland. She is also involved in teacher training and university-school partnerships. Her research interests include the impact of study abroad on second language acquisition and the use of computer-mediated communication tools to enhance language learning and promote intercultural dialogue.

Catherine Jeanneau

Catherine Jeanneau is the Coordinator of the Language Learning Hub at the University of Limerick, Ireland. The unit aims at implementing a learner support strategy and providing language learning services outside of formal classroom time. Her research interests include second language acquisition, technology and language learning, particularly digital literacy and online communication as well as learner autonomy.

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