Intercultural competence

What’s language without culture? It might be pretty, but it’s as useless as this map, that’s for sure.

We talk about competence all the time.  It makes sense; as teachers, our goal is to help our students become competent.  It is therefore very easy to think, therefore, that as language teachers our job is to help our students become competent at language.  Unfortunately, that approach is how we ended up with textbooks with the occasional culture reading, language classes that only endorse the “standard” version of the language, and “culture Fridays” that segregate language from culture and boil the identities of peoples all over the world down to a bland, pasty mess of foods, flags, holidays and stereotypes.

Our students need intercultural competence in addition to linguistic competence. (They might even need it more than linguistic competence, but that’s a debate for another day.)  They need to progress in their ability to interact productively with the target culture or cultures.  Deardorff defines intercultural competence as “the ability to develop targeted knowledge, skills and attitudes that lead to visible behaviour and communication that are both effective and appropriate in intercultural interactions” (emphasis mine).  Intercultural competence doesn’t mean the mastery of all cultural norms; it means students have the tools to interact with cultural elements and process them in a healthy, nonjudgmental, ethnorelative way.

Put simply: “Just because it’s not the way I do it doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”

There are some aspects of extralinguistic communication that are incredibly difficult to teach in a classroom setting–and I’d bet money that this difficulty in some areas results in a lot of people simply not bothering.  There are so many nuances, so many different rules, and so many knowledge gaps in teachers’ experiences that a truly accurate picture of the entire francophone world is virtually out of reach.  But to refuse to begin is to fail, and we can do better than that.  We can start by identifying common cultural misunderstandings that our students often carry around and creating opportunities to confront them in a productive way.

Problem: Students are ignorant of cultural differences.

Antidote: Draw students’ attention to differences!

The Unspoken Golden Rule for Humans in General is as follows: “Everything in the world is exactly the way I know it to be, unless I am explicitly told otherwise.”  Did you like that?  I might have made it up, but I seem to remember someone super smart filling me in on it.  Either way, it has borne itself out time and time again both in my classroom and in my personal experience.  When I got to France for my study abroad, I couldn’t work the washing machine.  I didn’t recognize the words or the symbols.  Of course it’s different–you’re in Europe, I told myself, but I was startled.  I wasn’t aware of the difference until I was confronted with it and forced to process it.

Problem: Students are judgmental of differences and process them as negative by default.

Antidote: Give students opportunities to practice nonjudgmental processing!

Dealing with new and surprising information in a calm and mature way is not an inherent skill–particularly not for someone with an underdeveloped frontal lobe.  We need to model for our students what this activity looks like.  We need to give them tools to express themselves without falling into the traps of defensiveness or de facto aversion to the unfamiliar.  Just like we often need to work to remember what it feels like to be a linguistic beginner, we have to consider how a cultural beginner will act and react when exposed to new information and stimuli.

*Note: some of our more enthusiastic students can actually come down in judgment of their own culture as a means of trying to wholeheartedly embrace the target culture.  They complain that Americans are slobs and uncultured and cast their lot with the French (or at least that’s what often happens in my classroom from time to time).  Be sure not to let this kind of judgment slide, either; it might seem endearing to us (even familiar), but it is still a misconception that needs to be corrected through thoughtful modeling and support.

Problem: Students downplay cultural differences and their importance.

Antidote: Present students with representations of their own culture through the lens of the target culture!

“Well, it’s not really that different.” “Whatever, people eat everywhere.”  Once students have stopped judging differences, they often minimize cultural differences.  This is a step in the right direction–they are starting to identify with the target culture more fully–but we’re still not totally in the land of healthy understanding and engagement.  Minimizing differences cheats us out of the opportunities to explore and appreciate them.  One of the best ways that I have found to prompt growth for students in this stage is to expose them to resources about their culture from the point of view of the target culture.  They are confronted with the differences and forced to process them as part of an authentic text.  Buzzfeed and personal blogs are really great resources for this approach: consider articles such as La Nourriture aux USA from the blog of a French woman living in LA or this YouTube video of “La comida americana”.

Wrapping it up in a bow

The beauty of these three misconceptions–and their antidotes–is that teachers can meet the needs of all of their students wherever they are on their intercultural competence journey.  Just like students pick out of a text words that they are ready to process, students pick out of a cultural element the message that they are ready to internalize.  Presenting students with a picture of a mud hut, modeling nonjudgmental thinking about what they see and what the differences are between that and what they know, and asking them to consider what someone who lives in a mud hut might say about their house–all three of these activities can be in the same class period, and students will get whatever they are ready to get.

How do you (or would you like to foster) intercultural competence in your classroom?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!


  1. […] I can ask my students to actively engage with these points of view. Luckily, this is a fairly natural step for language teachers, because we spend so much time in the land of intercultural competence anyway. Protip: IC isn’t just for other cultures that are also other countries. It’s also vital for examining experiences and viewpoints different than our own that might exist across the world or down the street. (If you need an IC refresher, check out my four-post series on the steps on the IC continuum that begins here.) […]


  2. […] Well, never fear, because these standards are not as scary or out-of-reach for the World Languages Classroom as one might think. In fact, keeping them in mind and staying alert for opportunities to discuss them actually increases the amount of intercultural competence practice our students get. (For more information on IC, check out this blog post.) […]


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