Intercultural communicative language teaching: Implications for effective teaching and learning

Publication Details

This report on intercultural communicative language teaching was commissioned by the Ministry of Education in the context of the development of the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum, with its new learning area of learning languages.

Author(s): Jonathan Newton, Eric Yates, Sandra Shearn and Werner Nowitzki, School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies and the Jessie Hetherington Centre for Educational Research, Victoria University of Wellington. Report prepared for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: 2010

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The person who learns a language without learning a culture risks becoming a fluent fool. (J. Bennett, M. Bennett, & Allen, 2003, p. 237)

This report on intercultural communicative language teaching was commissioned by the Ministry of Education in the context of the development of the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum, with its new learning area of learning languages.

This new learning area has re-conceptualised the nature and focus of language learning; it draws on the Council of Europe's Common European Framework of Reference for Languages in identifying communicative competence – the ability to communicate effectively in the chosen language or languages – as the key outcome. As stated in the New Zealand Curriculum, learning languages allows learners to move between languages and cultures, and so to 'equip them for living in a world of diverse peoples, languages, and cultures' (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 24). We see in this statement the foregrounding of culture within the communicative paradigm. Culture is no longer an invisible or incidental presence in language learning but instead is presented as a strand with equal status to that of language.

Approaches to culture in language learning are many and varied. A promising approach is what is termed 'intercultural language teaching', which Liddicoat (2004) defines as follows:

Intercultural language teaching places the need to communicate in the first place and seeks to teach culture in a way which develops intercultural communicative skills at the same time as developing language skills. This is an approach to the teaching of culture which sees language and culture as intimately linked and which recognises that culture is always present when we use language.

Therefore a report on intercultural language teaching and its implications for effective practice is timely.

Our report, which complements the Ministry-funded review of second language learning theory and pedagogy (Ellis, 2005), comprises two parts: a review of the literature on intercultural language teaching and learning, and the presentation of an evidence-based framework of principles for teaching languages effectively from an intercultural, communicative perspective.

The first part, the literature review, was to provide the evidence for the framework of principles developed in the second part of the report.

This evidence base warrants comment. Much of the literature on intercultural language teaching and learning theorizes extensively and presents proposals for curricula and classroom innovation without, we believe, an equally strong foundation in evidence-based research, at least in the empirical and scientific sense in which the word 'evidence' is used. This problem is not unusual in the area of educational policy and practice, as Alton-Lee (2004) points out. It is possible, however, to define 'evidence' more broadly, as the United States Department of Education's Institute  of Education Sciences does: evidence-based education is 'the integration of professional wisdom with the best available empirical evidence in making decisions about how to deliver instruction' (cited in Comings, Beder, Reder, Bingman, & C. Smith, 2003). Taking this approach, an evidence base in an educational context is founded on insights from both researchers and practitioners. Comings et al. (p. 3) propose a model of educational improvement that incorporates these two sources and involves the following steps:

  1. basic and applied research provides evidence to build program models
  2. program model evaluation tests the effectiveness of program models
  3. practitioner knowledge improves implementation of program models
  4. a feedback loop links practitioner knowledge back into research.

Step 1 is represented in our review of the literature and the evidence-based framework that follows. Because intercultural language teaching and learning has not been as extensively researched as it has been theorized, in taking this first step we have needed to draw on and attempt to integrate both research and the 'professional wisdom' available in the extensive and expanding literature in the field.

The structure of the report

Part 1, the literature review, begins with the context in Aotearoa New Zealand (chapter 1), followed by a discussion of international trends in the practice of intercultural language learning (chapter 2). The various statements about language teaching and learning from around the world, especially those reflecting government policy or the general attitudes of language teachers, and the emphasis they place on culture, provide an important source of professional wisdom. There appears to be broad consensus on the desirability of harnessing languages education for the purpose of fostering intercultural understanding.

Next we examine the conceptual foundations for intercultural language teaching and learning. Chapter 3 discusses what constitutes the complex construct of culture and examines the relationship between sociocultural meanings and language, while chapter 4 examines the concept of intercultural competence, particularly Byram's influential model, and discusses the developmental models for explaining the acquisition of intercultural competence.

Chapter 5 examines various views of, and approaches to, culture in language teaching, with a particular focus on 'culture as practice' and chapter 6 examines the evidence for attitudinal change and the development of intercultural competence. The final chapter, chapter 7, presents our summary and conclusions.

Part 2, comprising chapter 8, presents our framework of principles for guiding effective intercultural communicative language teaching in New Zealand schools.

In educational contexts, a framework typically describes an interrelated series of content domains. For example, the previous New Zealand Curriculum Framework (1990) presented principles, essential learning areas, essential skills, and attitudes and values. For instance, Liddicoat, Papademetre, Scarino and Kohler (2003, p. 43) (whose substantial report on intercultural language teaching and learning was an important starting point for this report) propose a framework containing concepts, principles, curriculum development processes, and exemplars. By contrast, the Council of Europe's Common European Framework of Reference for Languages is a more substantial document which 'provides a common basis for the elaboration of language syllabuses, curriculum guidelines, examinations, textbooks, etc. across Europe' (2001, p. 1). It describes in detail the knowledge and skills which language learners require in order to communicate and act effectively, taking into account cultural context. It also defines levels of proficiency for assessment purposes.

We have opted for a simpler approach, reflecting the definition of a framework as 'a structure or frame supporting or containing something' (McLeod, 1987, p. 398). Our framework is a set of six principles designed to 'support' or guide the teaching of culture in languages education in New Zealand.

This is of course not the first time that specific principles of intercultural language teaching and learning have been proposed. Liddicoat et al. (2003), Liddicoat (2004), and Kohler (2005) all propose similar sets of core principles and we have drawn on these invaluable sources. Similar principles for languages education have also been presented by the Ministry of Education (2002). These principles, although not explicitly promoting an intercultural approach to language learning, reflect many of the themes emerging from the intercultural literature. The work of Mike Byram (1997, 2006a, 2006b) in the United Kingdom and Europe, Claire Kramsch's pan-European-North American scholarship (Kramsch, 1993, 2004, 2006), and Council of Europe resources (Council of Europe, 2001), together with J. K. Phillips (2003) and Lange and Paige (2003) in the United States, have also been important sources.

A note on terms

In its barest meaning, 'intercultural' refers to contact between people from different cultural backgrounds and the connections between cultures that these contacts represent. In communication theory it carries a further qualitative connotation. As Lahdenperä (2000, p. 202) notes, in these contexts:

[I]t is the quality of cultural encounters that determines whether an interaction is intercultural, i.e. encounters where different actors are conscious that their own cultures place limitations on communication, and thus influence the possibilities for an open and equal relationship.

This qualitative dimension is the essence of intercultural language learning as Liddicoat et al. (2003) explain, after their own extensive review of the relevant literature:

Intercultural language learning involves the fusing of language, culture and learning into a single educative approach. It begins with the idea that language, culture and learning are fundamentally interrelated and places this interrelationship at the centre of the learning process. . . .

Intercultural language learning involves developing with learners an understanding of their own language(s) and culture(s) in relation to an additional language and culture. It is a dialogue that allows for reaching a common ground for negotiation to take place, and where variable points of view are recognised, mediated and accepted. (2003, p. 43)

Intercultural language teaching therefore differs from approaches to teaching language that focus on language without reference to culture, as well as approaches in which teaching about language and culture are separate, and which primarily transmit information about a culture.

We have coined the term 'intercultural communicative language teaching' (referred to in this report by its acronym 'iCLT') to describe the particular concept of language teaching developed in the framework of principles in Part 2; this term both reflects the New Zealand curriculum's emphasis on communication as the core strand for learning languages and encompasses the concept of intercultural language learning as an effective means of approaching the supporting strand of cultural knowledge in the curriculum for learning languages.

Where the term 'intercultural language learning' is used in the literature reviewed in Part 1, it has been retained. However, we also use our term iCLT throughout the report when we are referring to the particular concept of intercultural and communicative language teaching promoted by our framework of principles.

In seeking to raise awareness of the pervasive presence of culture in language, iCLT uses learning processes such as interacting, exploring, comparing, and experiencing languages and cultures to develop in learners the competencies that allow them to communicate effectively across cultural boundaries; that is, to display intercultural communicative competence. It reflects, therefore, a social and dialogic perspective on learning (Vygotsky, 1962, 1978).

What does this mean for classroom practice? Dellit (2005, pp. 26–28) gives five principles for putting interculturally informed pedagogy into practice. Learners are:

  • actively involved in constructing knowledge through exploring cultural practices
  • making connections between cultures, and between existing knowledge of culture and language, and new learning
  • involved in social interactions that involve communicating across cultural boundaries
  • reflecting 'critically and constructively on linguistic and cultural differences and similarities'
  • taking responsibility for their intercultural growth, assisted by teachers who, for example, foster engagement with difference and awareness of stereotypes.

As this list shows, iCLT is much more than an approach; it is more than a new set of techniques or a method which can be applied in classrooms to produce intercultural learning.

It is important to situate iCLT within the broader field of educational research on multicultural and intercultural issues. iCLT shares much common ground with multicultural education (Banks, 1994; Banks et al., 2005) and diversity education (Sheets, 2005). All three are concerned with cultural understanding and the enhancement of intercultural communication and relations. However, the underlying ideologies differ. While the other two set out rather more deliberately to address differences in academic achievement between social groups and to progress equity agendas, iCLT is more connected to democracy education and global citizenship (Byram, 2006a, 2006b), although we believe that the overlap as well as the differences between these agendas offer fertile ground for cultivating growth in all these fields. In the review, our focus is primarily on the intercultural language learning literature, but we attempt to link this literature to multicultural and diversity literatures from New Zealand, to lessen the divisions between different areas of educational research (Alton-Lee, 2004) and enable this common ground to be cultivated.


  1. Note that Comings et al. are discussing the term 'evidence-based' in relation to adult education.

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