The Ultimate Introduction to INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE in Language Learning: 5 Whats and 2 Whys expertly addressed

The Ultimate Introduction to INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE in Language Learning: 5 Whats and 2 Whys expertly addressed

Find the answers to the ‘Whats’ and ‘Whys’ of INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE in language learning. Realise the importance of why we need to communicate and work with people from different cultural backgrounds.


As the world increasingly becomes a global village due to globalisation, the need for INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE is rapidly escalating, particularly in the field of language learning. Language educators across the world – like you and me – are witnessing a profound shift: what was once considered a luxury, the cultivation of INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE, is now an undeniable necessity.

Interestingly, INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE might not always be at the forefront of our minds, even as language educators, when we immerse our classrooms in a rich engagement of a target culture in relation to our target language. We may also be celebrating the tapestry of diverse cultures as part of our content with little awareness of how that contributes to INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE.

That being said, UNESCO (2013) and Council of Europe (2014) have identified the cultivation of INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE as an integral element in recognising diversity at global and local levels while maintaining peaceful co-existence and mutual understanding with aspirations of development. On this route, language educators – you and me again – have an enormous role as language is such an important element of culture.

Riding on this philosophy, I aim to provide a definitive guide on this construct by discussing the crucial ‘5 Whats’ and ‘2 Whys’ that every one of us should be conversant with. By examining the fundamental questions closely, I hope that we can gain a comprehensive understanding of this subject, ensuring that we can situate our engagement with cultures in the most reliable and well-founded approaches.

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What is intercultural competence
Photo from Envato Elements / A group of co-workers from different cultural backgrounds

So, what exactly is INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE? At an international and regional level, UNESCO and Council of Europe (COE), have provided their working definitions:

  • UNESCO (2013): adequate relevant knowledge about particular cultures, as well as general knowledge about the sorts of issues arising when members of different cultures interact, holding receptive attitudes that encourage establishing and maintaining contact with diverse others, as well as having the skills required to draw upon both knowledge and attitudes when interacting with others from different cultures”; and
  • Council of Europe (2014): “a combination of attitudes, knowledge, understanding and skills applied through action which enables one, either singly or together with others, to understand and respect people who are perceived to have different cultural affiliations from oneself; respond appropriately, effectively and respectfully when interacting and communicating with such people; establish positive and constructive relationships with such people; understand oneself and one’s own multiple cultural affiliations through encounters with cultural “difference”.

Chances are, we’ve picked up on a few shared themes in those two definitions. Let us then tap into the wisdom of the most influential scholars in the field (those who are highly cited) who have explicitly defined the construct in one statement:

  • Byram (2021): “an individual’s ability to communicate and interact across cultural boundaries with people of other social groups”;
  • Fantini (2020): “complex abilities that one requires in order to interact effectively and appropriately when dealing with members of another language-culture”; and
  • Deardorff (2006): “the ability to communicate effectively and appropriately in intercultural situations based on one’s intercultural knowledge, skills and attitudes”.

Putting all these things together, we would then see “INTERCULTURAL” as the description for encounters and interactions / communications with people who are diversely different from one’s cultural background; and “COMPETENCE” as a set of attitudes, knowledge (alongside understanding) and skills to engage in such encounters with the desired qualities of ‘effectively’ and ‘appropriately’.

So, to sum it up, INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE is the ability (underpinned by attitudes, knowledge and skills) to navigate and interact with people from different cultural backgrounds and social groups effectively and appropriately.

As additional information, INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE has also taken by some scholars to overlap with some other commonly used terms (Deardorff, 2015; Lantz-Deaton & Golubeva, 2020; Leung, Ang & Tan, 2014; Matveev, 2021) such as “intercultural communicative competence”, “transcultural communication competence”, “cross-cultural adaptive ability”, “cultural sensitivity”, “cross-cultural awareness”, “global competitive intelligence”, “international communicative competence”, and “cultural intelligence”. While we can argue that there might be slight difference in nuances, INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE (alongside INTERCULTURAL COMMUNICATIVE COMPETENCE) has been the most widely engaged term in relation to language learning.

2. What are the components or dimensions of INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE?

components of a larger system
Photo from Envato Elements / Components of a computer mainboard

As implied by the common working definitions I have presented earlier, the core of INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE can be understood as a composite of attitudes, knowledge, and skills to engage in intercultural communication – which I presume that most of us are familiar with as an architectural framework for educational application.

Many scholars also recognise that these three broad components/dimensions are fundamental to the construct (Byram, 2021; Deardorff, 2006; Fantini, 2009, 2020; Lantz-Deaton & Golubeva, 2020; López-Jiménez & Sánchez-Torres, 2021) and can be applicable to many contexts and settings, such as corporate world, healthcare, hospitality and education (Matveev, 2021).

To draw parallels with frameworks familiar to us, consider this: “attitudes” reside in the realm of the “affective domain” or, in other words, they engage the “heart”; “knowledge” is firmly established in the “cognitive domain” or the realm of the “head”; and “skills” find their place in the “behavioural domain” representing the realm of the “hands”. This forms a threefold structure known as the affective-cognitive-behavioural model, echoing the heart-head-hands trichotomy.

All these being presented, it’s my firm conviction that reducing INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE to just three elements would be an oversimplification of a concept as intricate as this. With that in mind, let’s also consider the various nuances that scholars have put forth to be critical components/dimensions of the construct (which can arguably be subsumed under the three broad components/dimensions):

Amongst all the additional components/dimensions, I find it imperative to spotlight one particular component – language. Language, as a foundational element of culture, plays a pivotal role in shaping how other cultural aspects are represented, transmitted and encoded. When we explore these additional dimensions, mastering the language of a specific culture emerges as one of the most potent methods for developing heightened sensitivity and flexibility, all the while enhancing one’s ability to navigate the complexities of ambiguity.

3. What are some possible frameworks or models of INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE?

Having understood how INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE may be deconstructed into various components/dimensions, I believe we are equally interested into how these components come together coherently in a framework or model to represent the level of INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE. Such frameworks/models are pertinent as they guide us in a disciplined approach to building INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE in our language classrooms.

That being said, the landscape of INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE has been nothing short of frameworks/models. Seminal reviews that have been conducted within research has surfaced the proliferation of over 30 of such frameworks/models with more than 300 constructs (Leung, Ang & Tan, 2014; Spitzberg & Changnon, 2009; Matveev, 2021).

I find merit in the approach adopted by Spitzberg & Changnon (2009) in presenting the taxonomy of these models. Basically, they categorised the various models into 5 well-defined types as represented in the table below:


TypeDescriptionRepresentative Model
CompositionalList the hypothesised traits/attributes in categories without description of their interconnectionsDeardorff’s Pyramid Model of Intercultural Competence (2006)
Co-orientationalDelineate elements that drive shared understandings rooted in congruence and agreement within interactionByram’s Intercultural Communicative Competence (1997, 2021)
DevelopmentalSpecify developmental phases in which intercultural competence is believed to growBennett’s Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (1986)
AdaptationalIllustrate the mutual adjustment process of multiple interactants in  intercultural exchangesBerry’s Model of Attitude Acculturation (1989)
Causal ProcessMap the process of factors leading to their downstream outcomes that exemplify aspects of intercultural competenceDeardorff Process Model of Intercultural Competence (2006)

Due to copyright issues, I am not able to include the graphical representations of the models in my article. Nevertheless, the hyperlinks provided above will lead you to articles featuring these representative models. If we are keen to explore various models and identify one for adoption to guide our own curriculum planning or teaching practices, we can find out more by reading those articles.

Irrespective of that, I do want to highlight though, that the Byram’s model (1997) has been one of the most influential models in guiding the curricular planning and pedagogical approaches for language teaching. It explicates the relationship between the elements of INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE and communicative competence, and emphasises the role of language in these aspects.

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4. What are some examples of INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE skills (or lack thereof)?

examples of intercultural competence
Photo from Envato Elements / Intercultural communication in a healthcare setting

Having run through the theoretical discussions about INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE, let’s shift gears and illuminate this concept through tangible examples. Interestingly though, at least for me, I did not manage to find many positive examples that demonstrate INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE espoused in action, but instead located many negative examples which showcased the undesirable effects due to lack of INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE. Anyway, they are as follows:

4.1 Positive Examples
  • International Committee of Red Cross is possibly a name that many of us are familiar with. In their international humanitarian work in serving communities affected by victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence, they have demonstrated strong competence in navigating the diverse uniqueness of various cultures and contextualise their services with a keen sensitivity to the unique needs of various communities.
  • Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the greatest contemporary buddhist monks that has passed away in 2022, was from Vietnam but was exiled to the West since the 1960s. However, he was able to engage with the Western audience extensively and became a key figure is successfully bringing the teachings of Buddhism to the West, especially on meditation and mindfulness practices. He was very much able to contextualise an extensive system of philosophy and practices that was grounded in Eastern traditions to the values and beliefs of the Westerners.
  • Yo-Yo Ma is unquestionably one of the most influential musicians of our time. His strong attitudes towards building intercultural bridges have led him to assume roles such as the United Nations Messenger of Peace and the World Economic Forum’s board of trustees. He founded the global music collective, the Silkroad, to assemble exceptional musicians from diverse backgrounds which drive experimental cross-cultural music ensembles while also creating meaningful impacts that extend beyond borders through its artistic endeavours.
4.2 Negative Examples
  • One study that studied institutional discrimination in the UK found a school with about 80% Muslim pupils without any halal provision. This is layered with the additional information that these were UK-born citizens whose rights were overlooked. Such an example gave a glimpse on how the lack of intercultural competence of institutions can lead to adverse effects on a whole community (Hoskins & Sallah, 2011).
  • H&M made quite a number of blunders over the years in advertising by featuring inappropriate models for its products that can suggest racist messages against people of African descent. These blunders led to strong outbursts of indignation in the public and in the media which the company had to address in the aftermath of such advertisements.
  • eBay entered the Chinese market aggressively in 2004, with $100 million spent on advertising (Lantz-Deaton & Golubeva, 2020). However, alongside this expansion, none of the senior managers employed were Chinese. Many of them spoke little to no Mandarin and understood little about the local market and customs. As such, eBay withdrew from China by 2006 as they could not engage the Chinese and adapt to their preferences. 

5. What is the difference between cultural competence and INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE?

If we do a wide scan of literature that engages both terms specifically as they are (i.e. not considering their close variants such as global competence or cultural skills), the results are generally as depicted in Wikipedia: both terms are generally taken to be synonymous with one another.

One notable observation though, is that the use of the term “cultural competence” has been found to be more pervasive within research on medical training (e.g. healthcare, nursing, pharmacy) or social work (Balcazar, Suarez-Balcazar & Taylor-Ritzler, 2009; Flaskerud, 2007; Garran & Rozas, 2013; Medina, Maerten-Rivera, Zhao & Henson, 2022; Tritschler, 2008).

In language education, we often favour the term INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE, highlighting the “inter-” aspect in contrast to “intra-”. While we naturally use our native language(s) to communicate within our cultural group, the complexity arises when we extend our language use to connect with non-native speakers. This becomes even more pronounced when learning a second language (L2) or foreign language (FL), requiring a more intentional development of competence. Hence, the preference for the term INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE in these contexts.

6. Why is developing INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE important?

the future of business

The 20th and 21st centuries have witnessed the transformative impact of globalisation on our global interactions. The recent pandemic, which transpired not long ago, serves as a poignant reminder of the ongoing relevance of working as one humanity. This underscores the imperative for unity within a world that is characterised by heterogeneity and diversity.

The global marketplace and business world are becoming increasingly diverse, and this phenomenon will prevail. People from different cultures must cultivate the ability to collaborate harmoniously. Interactions in this international milieu now entail a wider range of cultural norms, business practices, and consumer behaviours. In fact, many businesses have move to become borderless either by becoming multinational in scale (e.g. Big tech companies, major corporations) or through the delivery of products and services by technology-enabled affordances (e.g. SaaS, digital marketplace). 

For such organisations to thrive, they need to adopt a global outlook and embrace diversity by catering to business partners, colleagues and clients with various needs and preferences. What’s more, a diverse workforce comprising people from different backgrounds breeds creativity, innovation, and improved problem-solving capabilities. This is a strong enabler to achieve key business objectives through full inclusion of all people involved. 

However, possessing INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE informs and constrains how such benefits can be reaped. The repercussions of lacking INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE can be costly, as seen in earlier negative examples. This underscores the message that INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE is a valuable asset for the work environment, and we should prepare our learners to their future professional lives.

Of course, addressing challenges and seizing opportunities for peace and progress extends beyond the corporate sphere. Success in handling these issues hinges on regional and global partnerships and governance. In today’s context, entities like the European Union and the United Nations, alongside other international organisations, are pivotal in addressing global concerns such as natural disasters, terrorism, and climate change, significantly impacting citizens worldwide.

In addressing challenges in international partnerships and global governance, the necessity for INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE among key personnel and ground staff cannot be overstated. Examples like H&M and the UK school, discussed earlier, underscore the potential harm such blunders can cause to the communities they purport to support.

7. Why does INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE matter in language learning?

a confident teacher of english
Photo from Envato Elements / An English class for adult learners

Envisioning our learners as effective communicators in the target language we teach necessitates a deep acknowledgment of the inextricable link between language and culture. Culture is “encoded in the linguistic sign” (Kramsch, 2014) and language directs us to the cultural realities of the people who use it (Lantz-Deaton & Golubeva, 2020).

Based on this perspective, engaging in the process of learning a L2 or FL signifies the commitment to building INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE. This commitment becomes particularly significant when our goal is to establish meaningful connections with the various speech communities of the target language. Central to the cultivation of integrative relationships is the sharing of a common language, one that goes beyond surface-level expressions to encapsulate the profound cultural meanings embedded within those linguistic expressions.

“Trying to learn the language of someone you are working with is evidence of intercultural competence as it can help to facilitate positive relationships.”

Lantz-Deaton & Golubeva, 2020

That being said, achieving fluency in a target language does not guarantee the development of INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE or the capability to communicate effectively in that language. Drawing upon several examples, including his own encounters, the esteemed sociolinguist Gerard Van Herk (2012) underscores instances where individuals deemed “native speakers” of English failed to understand one another despite speaking a common L1.

Although the issues are intertwined with the debates on language and dialect, the core message is that having fluency in the “same language” is at most necessary, yet not entirely adequate for achieving intercultural understanding. Intriguingly, fluency may occasionally lead us to overrate our capacity to communicate effectively across cultures, fostering an illusion of understanding. Just to add on, it is not simply an issue of communication style. 

Also, a prevalent bias in L2/FL instruction is the assumption that the target communities for integration are exclusively the communities of “native speakers”. Yet, the more internationalised the target language we are learning (e.g. English, Mandarin, Spanish, French, German), the higher the likelihood we may be communicating with speakers from different backgrounds. Within these scenarios, we must adeptly navigate the complexities of negotiating meanings and identities amid heightened uncertainty (e.g. assumed knowledge of our interactants). The ability to do so effectively hinges upon our level of INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE.

Putting everything together, we can then see clearly the strong need for deliberate and strategic nurturing of INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE in our language classrooms. Most of us would have experiences with the ‘untranslatables’ and we need to empower our learners with the capacity to manage such ambiguities. Moreover, the swift pace of language and sociocultural transformations, accelerated by technological progress, underscores the importance of instilling in our learners the attitudes, knowledge, and skills essential for coping with these developments.

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Conclusion: Commitment to nurturing INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE in the professional workplace and personal life

To wrap things up, I hope that we come to realising that being a language educator means more than just teaching language skills. It’s about steering our learners towards a deep commitment to fostering INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE, a crucial skill in both professional and personal domains in our increasingly interconnected world.

Notwithstanding such, we should acknowledge that it’s not a one-and-done deal. This is a continuous journey of learning, understanding, and adapting that shifts with every new interaction and experience. For us educators, it’s vital to live and breathe this commitment personally, so that we have strong conviction in influencing our students to embrace it in their own professional and personal adventures.

“An individual’s intercultural competence is never complete but can always be enriched still further from continuing experience of different kinds of intercultural encounter.”

Council of Europe (2014)

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