Developing intercultural communicative competence in efl classroom

Our contemporary world is affected by the reality of globalizationWe cannot deny that some boundaries are being erased people travel more, work and study overseas, thus, communicate with people from different cultural backgrounds. But despite that, people keep their cultural identities and bring it to other countries and cultures.

Taking into consideration the abovementioned points, we come to the conclusion that people must be aware of cultural differences and behave in accordance with such. Not only cultural differences matter when working abroad or travelling, but in the classroom as well. Because teachers have to get cultural differences and cultural features of a target language across to students. Also, teachers must be aware of stereotypes they hold and behave with a level of intercultural competence when teaching in foreign country. This topic is essential not only for those teachers working in different cultural situation to their own but also for teachers working in their home country and teaching English as Foreign Language.

Before defining commonly used notion “intercultural competence”, it is worth mentioning other notions that are relative to “intercultural competence”, those are: cross-cultural competence, multicultural awareness, transcultural communication, intercultural sensitivity, cultural effectiveness and many others (Castle Sinicrope, John Norris, Yukiko Watanabe, 2007; Katri Jokikokko, 2010). All these notions attempt to define the idea of “embracing” linguistic and cultural diversity in positive and respectful way (Jokikokko, 2010; Sinicrope, 2007). This also includes successful work with other cultures ( itc/ intercultural-competence-3. htm). Michael Byram, Bella Gribkova and Hugh Starkey in “Developing the Intercultural Dimension in Language Teaching” define “intercultural competence” as follows: “ability to ensure a shared understanding by people of different social identities, and ability to interact with people as complex human beings with multiple identities and own individuality” (M. Byram, B. Gribkova, H. Starkey “Developing the Intercultural Dimension in Language Teaching”, 2002, p. 10).

Communicative competence” is described as an understanding of what is appropriate in language apart from grammatical and lexical knowledge (M. Byram et al., 2002). Same book provides several notions that are a part of our topic which we did not mention and are interconnected: social identities, lingua franca, national identities, native speaker, stereotypes, intercultural dimension, intercultural speakers, and linguistic competence. Some of them we would like to point out and provide definitions, taken from “Developing the Intercultural Dimension in Language Teaching” by M. Byram, B. Gribkova, H. Starkey. “Social identities” is a concept we all in one way or another had encountered in our lives. We identify the person we talk to with specific social group, for example, “boss”, “teacher”, “child”, and so on. This influences the way we talk to the person; we will not speak with the same words or intonation with our employer or our good friend. When two people talk to each other in a language that is foreign to both of them, this language is called “lingua franca”. This concept urges them to realize their national identities. It was mentioned that the notion “culture” was previously understood in foreign language class as an “art” (including notions like “literature” or “music”), and this understanding has shifted to “the way of life” perception. But in both cases, “native speaker” keeps being the key role and a role model in terms of way of behaving and knowing about the culture (M. Byram, B. Gribkova, H. Starkey, “Developing the Intercultural Dimension in Language Teaching”, 2002).

Intercultural Competence implies understanding, accepting, tolerating and respecting Otherness and Self (Liljana Skopinskaja, Assessing Intercultural Communicative Competence Test, 2003). At this point it is important to mention components of intercultural competence: knowledge, skills, attitudes. Attitudes are believed to be the foundation of intercultural competence, also including values that the one holds (M. Byram, B. Gribkova, H. Starkey “Developing the Intercultural Dimension in Language Teaching”, 2002). To understand each component and its role in intercultural communication, we should provide its description:

Attitudes: aspects of curiosity, openness and willingness to acquire knowledge about other cultures, tolerate ambiguity, to be open to people from other cultures, respecting and accepting cultural diversity.

Knowledge: being self-aware culturally, and having communicative awareness, “especially of the different linguistic and communicative conventions within different cultures” ( content/ resources/ intercultural.competence/), knowledge on social, individual interaction, i.e. culture-specific knowledge (ibid.)

Skills: listening, interacting and adapting to different cultural situations and environments, and people from different cultures. Skills include, managing breakdowns in communication, learning about other cultures, understanding cultures, and “skills in critically evaluating cultural perspectives, practices and products, including those of one’s own culture” (

Yet another component that was not mentioned in M. Byram et al. paper is behaviors. It describes flexibility in different kinds of behavior (cultural, communicative), promoting behavior that reduces prejudices and conflicts.

  1. Byram separately provides five elements of intercultural competence, they are:
  2. Savoirs (knowledge)
  3. Savoir-être (attitudes)
  4. Savoir comprendre (skills of interpreting and relating)
  5. Savoir apprendre/faire (skills of discovery and interaction)
  6. Savoir s’engager (critical cultural awareness/political education). Here is Byram’s description of above-mentioned elements:

“Attitudes: curiosity and openness, readiness to suspend disbelief about other cultures and belief about one's own.” (M. Byram, Assessing Intercultural Competence in Language Teaching, 2000, p. 3). This means that the person is willing to suspend beliefs that one’s culture is only one correct and try to see it from person having other beliefs perspective. (M. Byram, B. Gribkova, H. Starkey

“Developing the Intercultural Dimension in Language Teaching”, 2002).

“Knowledge: of social groups and their products and practices in one's own and in one's interlocutor's country, and of the general processes of societal and individual interaction” (M. Byram, Assessing Intercultural Competence in Language Teaching, 2000, p.3).

Thus, knowledge includes two components: knowledge of social groups and knowledge on how people may perceive you and knowledge about other people. Teacher cannot anticipate the knowledge students might need, therefore teacher should foster and develop skills, knowledge and attitudes; teachers can gain knowledge on other cultures along with the students (M. Byram et al. “Developing the Intercultural Dimension in Language Teaching”, 2002).

“Skills of interpreting and relating: ability to interpret a document or event from another culture, to explain it and relate it to documents from one's own.” (M. Byram, Assessing Intercultural Competence in Language Teaching, 2000, p.3).

To be successful intercultural mediator, one should be able to see how misunderstandings may arise and also to compare documents and events from different cultures and see how people with different social identities might perceive them (M. Byram et al. “Developing the Intercultural Dimension in Language Teaching”, 2002).

“Skills of discovery and interaction: ability to acquire new knowledge of a culture and cultural practices and the ability to operate knowledge, attitudes and skills under the constraints of real-time communication and interaction” (M. Byram, Assessing Intercultural Competence in Language Teaching, 2000, p. 3).

As needed knowledge cannot be anticipated, successful mediators must know how to find out knowledge and integrate it with what they already know. Most important is to know how to ask people about their beliefs and values (M. Byram et al. “Developing the Intercultural Dimension in Language Teaching”, 2002).

“Critical cultural awareness/political education: an ability to evaluate critically and on the basis of explicit criteria perspectives, practices and products in one's own and other cultures and countries” (M. Byram, Assessing Intercultural Competence in Language Teaching, 2000, p. 3).

Embedded beliefs create rejection however tolerant and opened one wishes to be. Because of this reaction, intercultural mediators should be aware and critical of their own values and their influence upon their attitudes toward other people’s values. Teacher’s goal is not to change those values but to make this concept less vague so students are aware of these values and its influence. To summarize, teacher should develop not only knowledge on culture and countries but also attitudes, values and skills (M. Byram, et al. “Developing the Intercultural Dimension in Language Teaching”, 2002).

As we can see, those components and elements are, in some ways, similar (e.g.knowledge and attitudes) and some differ in notions. Basically, those elements and components describe characteristics of successful intercultural mediator. Generally, the person who has some level of intercultural competence can analyse and be critical towards another and one’s own cultural elements and mediate between cultures, and has an understanding that one’s thinking is determined by one’s culture (M. Byram, Assessing Intercultural Competence in Language Teaching, 2000).

However, C. Sinicrope, J. Norris and Y. Watanabe mention in “Understanding and Assessing Intercultural Competence: a Summary of Theory, Research, and Practice (Technical Report for the Foreing Language Program Evaluation Project)” that Risager (2007) proposed “broader” model and conceptualization of intercultural competence. They argue her broaded model (ten extra elements) describe only linguistic development. Those elements are:

  1. Linguistic (linguastructural) competence
  2. Linguacultural competences and resources: semantics and pragmatics
  3. Linguacultural competences and resources: poetics
  4. Linguacultural competences and resources: linguistic identity
  5. Translation and interpretation
  6. Interpreting texts (discourses)
  7. Use of ethnographic methods
  8. Transnational cooperation
  9. Knowledge of language as critical language awareness, also as a world citizen
  10. Knowledge of culture and society and critical awareness, also as a world citizen (C. Sinicrope, J. Norris, Y. Watanabe, 2007, p.6).

Before focusing on teaching and assessing intercultural communicative competence in English as Foreign Language teaching, we should understand what intercultural communicative competence means specifically for a language teacher. Should language teacher be interculturally competent? How language teacher can use their intercultural communicative competence for the benefit of the classroom?

When teaching English as foreign language, teacher explains not only linguistic features of the language but also points out cultural aspects of life in English-speaking countries. Risager (2000) states that there are very common themes in Foreign language classroom including word “typically” (e.g., typically American), therefore teachers should be very cautious and critical in order not to spread stereotypes that actually have very little to do with real life situations. Risager (2000) argues that in present-day world culture is complex as world and societies develop culture-wise. She describes three dimensions of intercultural competence of a language teacher. Those are:

  • Affective dimension
  • Behavioral dimension
  • Cognitive dimension

Affective dimension implies feelings when using foreign language (insecure, fear, excitement or else). This has to be primary dimension as its development starts in early years. This dimension also is connected with self-respect and respect for others as well as being prerequisite for “curiosity, openness and willingness to reject false assumptions” (Risager, 2000).

Behavioral dimension consists of experience of using foreign language in different situations and spheres. This also includes number of forms of behavior when using foreign language. Several questions arise out of it concerning differences between people embracing new and unfamiliar body language and those experiencing anxiety.

And last dimension -cognitive dimension -is about knowledge with the focus on the countries where the language is spoken as a native one. Our knowledge is linked to our personal experiences, varying from personal interactions. Teachers should be aware of the perspectives they view the world (Risager, 2000).

Alice van Kalsbeek in her paper “Intercultural Competences for Foreign Language Teachers” argues about the existence of scientific theories which would prescribe intercultural communicative competencies for teachers (A. van Kalsbeek, n/a). Katri Jokikokko (2010) insists on teachers’ influence on learners and states, that because of this influence, this is not enough for teachers to be intercultural competent but this is their “duty” to foster intercultural competency in their students. Jokikokko (2010) also points out the role of teacher in students’ growth and development as a person and as a student. She believes, that teacher has all necessary tools to help learners critically view and analyze the world.

Ewa Pajak-Wazna (2013) believes that those, who enter teaching profession, should be provided with tools that would help them to understand their motivation and variety of competences. She believes those competencies and aspects are not the part of subjects that were taught. Also, Pajak-Wazna considers that intercultural awareness helps not only to have a successful conversation but to develop in other ways: “Multicultural and intercultural interactions are opportunities to start the dialogue but also to become emphatic” (Ewa Pajak-Wazna, Teachers’ Intercultural Competence and Teacher Education – a Case of Poland, 2003).

Many authors believe that intercultural competence of teachers is a life-long ongoing process (Ewa Pajak-Wazna, 2013; Risager, 2000; Katri Jokikokko, 2010). Pajak-Wazna and Jokikokko mention that, even though intercultural learning is an informal process, education (also known as “formal learning”) plays a significant role in building intercultural awareness (Katri Jokikokko, 2010; Ewa Pajak-Wazna, 2013). At the same time teachers must be careful not to fall for stereotypes and generalizations, and let individuals present themselves, because some might differ from their cultural boundaries (Katri Jokikokko, 2010). This means that some individuals might have different beliefs or views from those with whom they share common cultural characteristics (Jokikokko, 2010). Those people represent so-called “subculture”, i.e. culture within the culture, that is why teachers need and must learn in intercultural competence not only linguistic and racial differences, but also subculture differences, hence intercultural competence cannot be seen as unchangeable knowledge, it is flexible and one cannot learn one way of behaving in a certain culture, it is a “process that demands constant reflection, openness and willingness for mutual learning” (Katri Jokikokko, Teachers’ Intercultural Learning and Competence, 2010, p. 22). It is important to underline that intercultural competence is a process and no one ever can achieve “total” intercultural competence (Jokikokko, 2010). Byram et al. believe that “acquisition of intercultural competence is never complete and perfect” (M. Byram, B. Gribkova, H. Starkey “Developing the Intercultural Dimension in Language Teaching”, 2002, p. 11). They prove this point by saying that in one country people might speak several languages (we believe, Kazakhstan is a good example of such a statement) and one can never know in which situation speaker might find oneself and anticipate the needed knowledge (M. Byram, B. Gribkova, H. Starkey “Developing the Intercultural Dimension in Language Teaching”, 2002). There is also another one very important reason why acquisition of complete intercultural competence is not needed: everyone changes throughout life, acquire and develop new social identities, and all values and behaviors that connected with social identites, are very deeply embedded in oneself. When meeting new experience and unexpected beliefs and traditions, those embedded values might be strongly disturbed however tolerant and flexible one might want to be; that is why everyone should constantly remember to adjust, be flexible and understand other people (M. Byram et al., 2002).



  1. Sinicrope, C.Norris J., & Watanabe Y. (2007). Understanding and Assessing Intercultural Competence: A Summary of Theory, Research, and Practice (Techncal Report for the Foreign Language Program Evaluation Project), Second Language Studies, 26(1), 1-58
  2. Jokikokko, K. (2010). Teachers’ Intercultural Learning and Competence, Acta Univ. Oul. E 114.
  3. Byram M.Gribkova B., & Starkey H. (2002). Developing the Intercultural Dimension in Language Teaching. A Practical Introduction for Teachers, DGIV
  4. Skopinskaja L. (2009). Assessing Intercultural Communicative Competence: Test Contruction Issues, Syngergies Pays Riverains de la Baltique, no.6, 135-144.
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  6. Byram M. (2000). Assessing Intercultural Competence in Language Teaching, Sprogforum, no.18, vol.6, 8-13.
  7. Risager K. (2000). The Teacher’s Intercultural Competence, Sprogforum, no.18, vol.6, 14-20.
  8. van Kalsbeek A. (n/a). Intercultural Competencies for Foreign Language Teachers. Retrieved from
  9. Pajak-Wazna E. (2013). Teachers’ Intercultural Competence and Teacher Education a Case of Poland, 1st Annual International Interdisciplinary Conference, AIIC, 24-26
Year: 2014
City: Almaty
Category: Philology