Intercultural communication


Intercultural communication is defined as situated communication between individuals or groups of different linguistic and cultural origins. This is derived from the following fundamental definitions: communication is the active relationship established between people through language, and intercultural means that this communicative relationship is between people of different cultures, where culture is the structured manifestation of human behaviour in social life within specific national and local contexts, e.g. political, linguistic, economic, institutional, and professional. Intercultural communication is identified as both a concept and a competence. Intercultural competence is the active possession by individuals of qualities which contribute to effective intercultural communication and can be defined in terms of three primary attributes: knowledge, skills and attitudes. In the context of this document, the acquisition of skills and human attributes likely to enhance intercultural communication is viewed exclusively as a component of language programmes, i.e. as an accompaniment to the practical acquisition of language itself.

Intercultural communication in the European Higher Education Area

Intercultural communication is an implicit element of most language courses or features as an autonomous subject in other disciplinary fields. Where intercultural communication features as an autonomous subject the content is theoretically grounded in a specific discipline, e.g. anthropology, linguistics, philosophy and sociology. Alternatively, it is frequently linked to subjects like business studies, economics and tourism with the aim of providing students with the competence to operate in the professional sector concerned. In some cases it is taught not only as knowledge and a skill but also with the aim of promoting an appropriate attitude / awareness as an integrated part of language learning. Intercultural communication is sometimes associated with translation or with intercultural knowledge dissemination. In some business schools it is taught as part of business language degrees. In general, foreign language degree programmes do not offer courses in intercultural communication as such. Business schools and the business / economics faculties of universities offer a variety of courses on cultural theory and behaviour but many of these have no direct connection to languages at all. In the context of language learning the emphasis will be on the integration of intercultural communication and language learning.

Knowledge, understanding and skills (competences)

Having completed a first cycle higher education programme of language study, incorporating explicit study of intercultural communication, in higher education, students should have acquired:

  • knowledge of the cultures, institutions, histories and ways of life of different communities and the ability to recognise their impact on behavioural norms in given fields of communication
  • understanding of the relationship between culture, contexts of communication and language use
  • insight into the roles and conventions governing behaviour within specific intercultural environments
  • critical awareness of their own and others’ beliefs and values
  • sensitivity towards cultural stereotypes and related obstacles to successful intercultural communication

Students who have acquired such knowledge and understanding will be expected to demonstrate the capacity for:

  • effective communication in the language of their interlocutor
  • application of the knowledge of culture and cultural values to the management of intercultural contexts
  • adaptation of their behaviour according to the demands of different intercultural situations
  • identification and critical analysis of the cultural components of authentic media of communication
  • reflection on the cultural factors influencing their own behaviour and that of others

Teaching, learning and assessment

Intercultural communication (IC) is a dynamic field incorporating social, economic and political contexts which are constantly evolving. IC is generally an integrated sub‐component of language learning which is often not articulated as a separate activity in HE degree programmes. It comprises a complex combination of knowledge, skills and attributes which are reflected in learners behaviour and are infrequently taught and evaluated holistically. In focus are courses involving intercultural communication in language degree programmes and integrated elements or modules in language teaching programmes primarily for university students at BA level. The courses provide students with knowledge and understanding about language, culture, institutions and different ways of life in differing communities, facilitate the application of this knowledge in intercultural situations by training in linguistic and intercultural skills and encourage reflection about their own cultural and linguistic behaviours, practices and attitudes as well as those of others.

Teaching and learning

Some of the following teaching tools and methods may be used to promote intercultural communication skills:

  • simulation activities, followed by reflective discussion and/or written analysis
  • informal face‐to face interaction in hypothetical contact situations
  • guided group activities
  • learner diaries
  • questionnaires
  • peer teaching
  • tandem exchanges
  • study visits abroad or local contact with speakers of other languages
  • cross‐cultural study projects
  • reports
  • oral presentations
  • ethnographic projects


Courses on the theory and content of intercultural communication tend to evaluate knowledge by means of written examination and essay. Alternatively projects may involve students applying their theoretical knowledge to particular communicative situations or conducting small‐scale ethnographic or case study research. Evaluation of intercultural communication as practice may occur in the assessment of general language courses (e.g. translation), but since intercultural communication is not systematically taught as part of general language courses, formalised assessment is not widespread. In some institutions, however, the practice of writing logbooks is established, and intercultural awareness is assessed through reflective essays. Any such assessment is likely to be integrated with other factors associated with advanced language learning. There is little sign of role‐play or self‐assessment being widely practised, though, in exceptional cases, it can be effectively integrated into oral assessment, e.g. through situation‐based interpreting. Given that intercultural competence can be separated into knowledge, skills and attitudes, only the knowledge component can, strictly speaking, be assessed in traditional ways. Skills and attitudes need to be assessed in other ways such as role‐play, observation, self‐assessment or reflection on critical incidents. Yet such assessment practices are not widespread within European higher education language programmes. One example of the way in which awareness of intercultural communication can be raised and learners made capable of self‐assessing their language and intercultural skills is by using the LOLIPOP portfolio www.lolipop‐, an online, interactive version of the European Language Portfolio with an enhanced intercultural dimension.