This is the first of two articles that deal with the topic of intercultural awareness and learning. This article sets out the methodological background to this topic, and the second article - Intercultural learning 2 - offers practical suggestions for the classroom.

Intercultural learning 1 - methodology article


  • Introduction
  • What is intercultural learning?
  • What do we understand by the word 'culture'?
  • Intercultural awareness
  • Intercultural communicative competence
  • Intercultural awareness skills
  • How does this affect the role of the teacher?
  • When should we introduce this?

There will have been points in most teachers' careers when we have stopped to wonder "What am I actually doing?". Sometimes, filling our students up with all the requisite grammar and vocabulary, and polishing their pronunciation and honing their communicative skills doesn't actually seem to be helping them to achieve the wider goal of being able to genuinely communicate with and understand the real world outside the classroom at all.

For too long, we have been concentrating on structures and forms and producing materials that may help our students to have perfect diphthongs or a flawless command of the third conditional while leaving out anything approaching real, valid, meaningful content. Major ELT publishers have produced materials so carefully calculated not to offend anyone that they far too often end up being vacuous if not completely meaningless. If our students are to have any hope of using their language skills to genuinely comprehend and communicate in the global village, intercultural awareness is crucial.

What is intercultural learning?
The process of becoming more aware of and better understanding one's own culture and other cultures around the world. The aim of intercultural learning is to increase international and cross-cultural tolerance and understanding. This can take lots of forms - intercultural learning is by no means only a part of EFL, but has exponents in all fields of education.

What do we understand by the word 'culture'?
A way of life. A set of social practices. A system of beliefs. A shared history or set of experiences. A culture may be synonymous with a country, or a region, or a nationality or it may cross several countries or regions. A culture may be synonymous with a religion, though followers of Christianity or Judaism or Islam may also come from different cultures. It is highly possible to belong to or identify oneself with more than one culture.

Intercultural awareness
Intercultural awareness in language learning is often talked about as though it were a 'fifth skill' - the ability to be aware of cultural relativity following reading, writing, listening and speaking. There is something to be said for this as an initial attempt to understand or define something that may seem a difficult concept but, as Claire Kramsch points out ...

"If...language is seen as social practice, culture becomes the very core of language teaching. Cultural awareness must then be viewed as enabling language proficiency ... Culture in language teaching is not an expendable fifth skill, tacked on, so to speak, to the teaching of speaking, listening, reading and writing" (in Context and Culture in Language Teaching OUP,1993).

Language itself is defined by a culture. We cannot be competent in the language if we do not also understand the culture that has shaped and informed it. We cannot learn a second language if we do not have an awareness of that culture, and how that culture relates to our own first language/first culture. It is not only therefore essential to have cultural awareness, but also intercultural awareness.

Intercultural communicative competence
Following on from what Kramsch says above, intercultural awareness is not really therefore a skill, but a collection of skills and attitudes better thought of as a competence.

Intercultural communicative competence is an attempt to raise students' awareness of their own culture, and in so doing, help them to interpret and understand other cultures. It is not just a body of knowledge, but a set of practices requiring knowledge, skills and attitudes.

Intercultural awareness skills
What are these attitudes and skills that make up the competence? Among them are:

- observing, identifying and recognising
- comparing and contrasting
- negotiating meaning
- dealing with or tolerating ambiguity
- effectively interpreting messages
- limiting the possibility of misinterpretation
- defending one's own point of view while acknowledging the legitimacy of others
- accepting difference

These are very similar to many of the skills we teach normally. So what makes intercultural learning different? Raised awareness of what we do and of the vital importance of these skills already makes intercultural communicative competence a more attainable goal. Moreover - and despite the fact that the competence is more than just a body of knowledge - intercultural awareness skills can be developed by designing materials which have cultural and intercultural themes as their content, a kind of loop input, if you like.

How does this affect the role of the teacher?
What are teachers? Activities managers? Language facilitation units? Babysitters? Intercultural learning gives the teacher a role not only as one or more of these, but also as an educator. This makes many teachers feel uncomfortable, above all with the idea that we may be influencing our students in some way. Are we responsible for transmitting some kind of ideology to our students?

No, we are helping them to become more aware of the world around them, and to better interact with that world. These are the crucial roles of the teacher.

Moreover, EFL teachers tend to have a wide variety of different backgrounds in different disciplines. They have different experiences, and in many cases may have travelled extensively and got to know several different cultures. They may have undergone the experience of living in, adjusting to and understanding a different culture. There is a lot that they can bring to the job. They are unique mediators of cultural relativity.

When should we introduce this?
Previously, "cultural awareness" has often only been seen as something for advanced learners, an extension exercise that can be "tacked on" to an ordinary lesson. This is partly due to the all-too-frequent error of assuming that students with a low level of English also have a low intellect generally, or that it is impossible to explain intellectual concepts in level one English. Intercultural awareness, as a fundamental feature of language and an integral part of language learning, is important at all levels.

Chris Rose, British Council, Italy


Submitted by Leviana Vinanda on Tue, 05/04/2021 - 02:03

Hi Chris,

I found your article really engaging and enlightening, thank you! I currently attempt to integrate Intercultural Awareness and Intercultural Communicative Competence (ICC) in my exisiting teaching syllabus. I'm experimenting in several collaborative classroom projects. I wonder if you could suggest further reference to design activities promoting Intercultural Awareness and ICC. Thanks in advance Chris!  

Submitted by Paul Braddock on Mon, 05/01/2023 - 06:58

In reply to by lucy1207

Hi Lucy,

Have you read part 2 of the article here: - there are ideas on how to incorporate ICC in the classroom.


Paul (TeachingEnglish team)

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