An introduction to the concept of intercultural communicative language teaching and learning: A summary for teachers

Publication Details

This document is an introduction for language teachers to the concept known as intercultural communicative language teaching and learning. It is a summary of a Ministry of Education-commissioned report, Intercultural Communicative Language Teaching: Implications for Effective Teaching and Learning, produced through Victoria University of Wellington by Jonathan Newton, Eric Yates, Sandra Shearn, and Werner Nowitzki (the Newton report).

Author(s): This summary was written by Janet Rivers, based on a report written by Jonathan Newton, Eric Yates, Sandra Shearn and Werner Nowitzki of Victoria University of Wellington

Date Published: 2010

Section 2: Intercultural language teaching and learning - the literature review

The person who learns a language without learning a culture risks becoming a fluent fool.

The Newton report carried out an extensive review of the literature on intercultural language teaching and learning- international trends, the theoretical and conceptual basis for the concept, and what it means to teach and learn languages from an intercultural perspective.

An international emphasis on cultural knowledge in language teaching and learning

As noted earlier, The New Zealand Curriculum introduces a cultural knowledge strand that is of equal status to the language knowledge strand, with both supporting the core strand of communication. This is in line with a growing international awareness of the role that education, and languages education in particular, has to play in developing tolerance and understanding between people from different cultural backgrounds who live together in increasingly multicultural and multilingual societies. The Newton report found a broad consensus internationally for language teaching in schools to develop not only linguistic skills but also a range of intercultural skills and attitudes.

The report cites several examples of government and intergovernment support for interculturally informed language teaching and learning.

In Europe, for example, the Council of Europe's Common European Framework of Reference for Languages draws on the principles of interculturally informed pedagogy. The framework, which provides common guidelines for language instruction across Europe, listed 'intercultural awareness' and 'intercultural skills' as learner competencies, and refers to the importance of intercultural communication and intercultural experiences.

The British Department for Education and Skills emphasises the notion of intercultural understanding in its National Languages Strategy, and British policy makers accept that developing cultural awareness is an essential component of education for all. Its national strategy states:

In the knowledge society of the 21st century, language competence and intercultural understanding are not optional extras, they are an essential part of being a citizen.

Language skills are also vital in improving understanding between people here and in the wider world, and in supporting global citizenship by breaking down barriers of ignorance and suspicion between nations. Learning other language gives us insight into the people, culture and traditions of other countries, and helps us to understand our own language and culture.

Germany and the Netherlands have recently introduced an even broader approach to intercultural teaching and learning. For example, various curricula for languages in Germany state that the development of intercultural communicative competence in the target language is the overarching achievement objective.

In China, especially since 2001 when it entered the World Trade Organisation, there has been a shift in foreign language teaching from a focus on learning the language only to one that also emphasises intercultural awareness. The 2006 New Standards for English Course has cultural awareness (which comprises cultural knowledge, cultural understanding, intercultural communication and cultural competency) as one of the five objectives that English teaching and learning should focus on.

In 1996, the United States National Standards in Foreign Language Education Project published a framework for second language learning, Standards for Foreign Language Learning: Preparing for the 21st Century, that places 'culture learning at the forefront of language instruction'.

The Australian government National Statement of Languages in Education in Australian Schools (2005-2008) makes specific reference to the importance of intercultural language learning which develops learners' capabilities to:

  • communicate, interact and negotiate within and across languages and cultures
  • understand their own and others' languages, thus extending their range of literacy skills, including skills in English literacy
  • understand themselves and others, and to understand diverse ways of knowing, being and doing
  • further develop their cognitive skills through thinking critically and analytically, solving problems, and making connections in their learning.

The Newton report concludes that:

[T]here appears ... to be broad consensus on the role of languages education in fostering cross-cultural understanding. New Zealand is clearly on firm ground in developing an approach to language education which reflect[s] this consensus.

The New Zealand context

In discussing an intercultural communicative approach to language teaching and learning, it is important to take account of the New Zealand context—a bicultural nation founded on the Treaty of Waitangi and referenced in legislation, and in which the indigenous language, te reo Māori, is an official language.

This has special resonance for languages learning because it means New Zealanders are living in an intercultural context already—the 'lived experience' discussed later.

The following sections from Te Marautanga o Aotearoa, although written for schools in which te reo Māori is the medium of instruction rather an additional language, encapsulates the concept of the inseparability of language from culture that is at the heart of an intercultural communicative approach to language learning.

The language is the life force of Māori
  Through being spoken
  the language lives
  Through the survival of the language
 Māori are enobled

Māori language is the vehicle for Māori cultural practices and thought, enabling the manifestation of all aspects of the Māori world. The Māori language is an inherited treasure, a treasure supported by the Treaty of Waitangi. Language is the essence of culture. Each person, each tribal group, each region has its own language, mana, spirituality, beliefs and customs. Ultimately it is through Māori language that the full range of Māori customs can be expressed, practised, and explained. Through the learner knowing Māori language, they can access the Māori world and understand their role in it. Being immersed in Māori leads the learner to greater proficiency.

Ko te reo te manawapou o te Māori
 Mā te kōrero te reo e ora ai
Mā te ora o te reo ka rangatira te tangata

Ko te reo te waka kawe i te wairua me te whakaaro, e whakatinanatia ai ngā āhuatanga katoa o te ao Māori. He taonga tuku iho te reo Māori, he taonga e tautokohia ana e te Tiriti o Waitangi. Ko te reo te iho o te ahurea. He reo, he mana, he wairua, he whakapono, he tikanga tō tēnā tangata, tō tēnā iwi, tō tēnā rohe. Mā te reo Māori rawa e whakahua, e kawe, e whakamārama te huhua noa o ngā tikanga Māori. Mā te mātau o te ākonga ki te reo Māori, ka mārama tōna huarahi ki te ao Māori, me tana mahi hoki i roto i te ao Māori. Ko te rumaki te tino huarahi e matatau ai te ākonga ki te reo  Māori.

The New Zealand Curriculum also places particular emphasis on the special place that te reo Māori has in languages learning.

[Te reo Māori] is a taonga recognised under the Treaty of Waitangi, te reo Māori, a primary source of our nation's self-knowledge and identity, and an official language. By understanding and using te reo Māori, New Zealanders become more aware of the role played by the indigenous language and culture in defining and asserting our point of difference in the wider world.

Ko te reo Māori te kākahu o te whakaaro,
te huarahi i te ao tūroa.

By learning te reo and becoming increasingly familiar with tikanga, Māori students strengthen their identities, while non-Māori journey towards shared cultural understandings.

Thus, whether used as the medium of instruction, learned as an additional language or used to support the learning of other additional languages, te reo Māori offers a rich resource for intercultural communicative language learning in New Zealand.

Because of New Zealand's close relationships with the peoples of the Pacific, Pasifika languages also have a special place in languages learning, and likewise provide an authentic dimension for intercultural communicative language learning.

The theoretical and conceptual basis for an intercultural communicative approach to language teaching and learning

Having established the importance being placed internationally on the role of culture in language teaching, the Newton report looks more specifically at the theoretical and conceptual basis for an intercultural communicative approach to language teaching and learning.

Intercultural language teaching and learning

Intercultural language teaching and learning, as it is termed in the literature, is different from approaches to teaching language that focus on language without reference to culture, and also different from approaches that teach language and culture separately from each other and which primarily transmit information about a culture:

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.

Intercultural language teaching and learning raises awareness of the pervasive presence of culture in language. It 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.

Intercultural language teaching and learning has much in common with the broader field of educational research on multicultural education and diversity education, even though the underlying ideologies differ. In New Zealand, for example, research projects such Te Kauhua and Te Kotahitanga have considerable relevance for intercultural language learning.

Intercultural communicative competence

Intercultural language teaching and learning refocuses the goal of learning by shifting from a narrower focus on linguistic competence towards a more holistic goal of intercultural communicative competence—the ability 'to communicate and interact across cultural boundaries'. This refocusing is reflected in the Council of Europe's framework for intercultural language learning, which identifies the knowledge, skills and attitudes 'which language users build up in the course of their experience of language use and which enable them to meet the challenges of communication across language and cultural boundaries'.

A model of intercultural communicative competence

Byram (1997), one of the foremost theorists in the field of intercultural language teaching and learning, proposes a model of intercultural communicative competencethat has five components: attitudes; knowledge; skills for interpreting and relating; skills for discovering and interacting; and awareness.


The attitudesrequired for effective intercultural communication and learning comprise two aspects: (a) values and beliefs, curiosity, and openness and (b) relativising self and valuing others. Byram describes these as 'readiness to suspend disbelief and judgment with respect to others' meanings, beliefs and behaviours', and 'a willingness to suspend belief in one's own meanings and behaviors, and to analyze them from the viewpoint of the others with whom one is engaging',- requirements that apply to teachers as well as students.


Knowledge includes knowledge of self, of other cultures, and of social and cultural processes. Knowledge ofself is knowledge about society and cultures in one's own country. Knowledge about other cultures includes information about such things as everyday living, interpersonal relations, values and beliefs, body language and social conventions. Knowledge ofsocial and cultural processes is knowledge about culture in general and how it affects behaviour.

Skills for interpreting and relating

Skills for interpreting and relatinginvolves 'the ability to interpret a document or event [or visual materials] from another culture, to explain it and relate it to documents or events from one's own'.  

Skills for discovery and interaction

Skills for discovery and interaction is 'the 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'.


Here, awareness refers to awareness of one's own culture and language, as well as the language(s) and culture(s) of the target group.

Intercultural communicative competence and the native speaker

The Newton report notes that, in the literature, it is generally considered that native speaker-level communicative competence is an unrealistic target for most learners—and, from an intercultural perspective, it is also an undesirable one because it assumes that language learning leads to a form of assimilation. Rather, the aim of intercultural communicative competence is for learners to understand their own identity in relation to others, not to replace identities. 

Viewing traditional approaches to language teaching from an intercultural perspective

The Newton report also examines the literature on traditional views and approaches to languages teaching, and examines these through the lens of an intercultural stance.

Static and dynamic views of culture

The Newton report identifies two views of culture in the literature, static and dynamic.

The static view of culture treats it as self-contained factual knowledge or cultural artefacts to be observed and learned about, rather than participated in. Teaching focuses on topics such as the history, customs, institutions, arts, literature and geography of a country. A static view of culture offers no clear link between language and culture. The self-contained nature of the cultural component means that it could be taught just as effectively outside the language classroom.

The dynamic view ofculture sees culture as constantly renegotiated through language, as language constructs, reinforces and reflects the cultural world in which it is used. The report notes that a challenge for teaching is that we are often unaware of the cultural values which allow us to communicate within our own culture, let alone those that underpin behaviour in another culture, with which we come in contact. Greeting routines, for example, might involve a handshake, raised eyebrows, a kiss, or a nod of the head. However, lying beneath these behaviours are non-observable values, attitudes and expectations to do with status, relationships and social distance, all of which are uniquely structured and perceived within different cultural contexts.

A dynamic view of culture aligns closely with an intercultural communicative approach to language teaching and learning.

Traditional approaches to culture in language teaching and learning

The literature review identifies four traditional approaches to culture: culture as high culture; as area studies; as societal norms; and as practice

The culture as high culture approach equates culture with 'civilization' and is often referred to as the 'Big C' approach to culture. High culture is the traditional focus of culture studies in language teaching, an emphasis seen particularly in foreign language programmes at university level, which focus on the literary canon and other expressions of 'high art' or valued cultural knowledge (as expressed in visual arts, music, and so on).

Culture as area studies focuses on knowledge about a country or society, often presented as background knowledge to language learning, but only loosely linked to the language itself. Culture is something to be observed, with the learner external and excluded from the cultural focus. Topics include a country's history, institutions, transport, famous figures, and geography. An area studies approach to culture is very much aligned with static views of culture. It focuses on cultural knowledge that is self-contained and usually not related to language; such knowledge could be taught just as effectively outside the language classroom.

The societal norms approach views culture as the practices and values which typify a society. Within this approach, typical topics include the pragmatics of politeness and directness, respect, non-verbal communication, and speakers' religious and societal beliefs. Teaching culture involves, for example, teaching learners to consider the kinds of behaviour expected of users of a language in various contexts.

The culture as practice approach emphasises the lived experience of the target culture, rather than accumulation of facts about the culture. Students are offered a wide range of cultural experiences and interactions in order to develop a mature and realistic view of the target culture. With the 'culture as practice' approach, culture and interculturality can be introduced at the start of language learning, because even ostensibly simple language which might be taught early in a programme, such as forms of greetings, can be rich in sociocultural information. For example, Japanese uses of plain, neutral, or honorific verb forms, or the uses of pronoun forms for 'you' in European languages. In both these examples, the grammar is straightforward but learning to use the terms appropriately requires an understanding of the social and cultural dimensions of language use.

An intercultural stance on traditional approaches

The Newton report  views each approach from an intercultural stance.

High culture from an intercultural stance

An intercultural stance on 'high culture' (i.e. study of arts and traditions) encourages students to reflect on the origins of and values associated with cultural artefacts, and to make explicit comparisons with arts in their own culture. It embraces a broad range of cultural expressions of literature, art, music, and performance, ensuring that the target culture remains accessible and relevant to all language learners. Students are encouraged to view culture as belonging to all people, and to consequently explore a wider range of cultural artefacts.

Area studies from an intercultural stance

An intercultural stance on 'culture as area studies' encourages attention to the particular alongside the general. For example, in learning about the education system in a target language culture, learners can be encouraged to find out about a particular learner's experience of the system, as well as general facts about the school day, national exams, class sizes and so on. This approach shifts the focus from what learners 'should' know about a country to considering the historical, social and geographical knowledge that will support learners' growing respect and understanding of the cultural experience of others. This focus on the lived experience of individuals within a culture reflects a shift to viewing culture as practice.

Societal norms from an intercultural stance

An intercultural stance on 'culture as societal norms' can be used to challenge cultural assumptions. A criticism of the societal norms approach is that it too easily presents learners with stereotypes of the target culture and individuals within that culture. To address this problem, learners can be encouraged to focus first on stereotypes of their own culture, and thus gain insights into the constructed and subjective nature of stereotypes. This also addresses to some extent the criticism of the societal norms approach as positioning both native speakers and language learners as observers of culture who are subject to external rules of behaviour.

Culture as practice from an intercultural stance

'Culture as practice' is the most closely aligned of the four traditional approaches to an intercultural communicative approach to teaching and learning an additional language. There are three aspects to viewing 'culture as practice' from an intercultural stance: exploring self; exploring culture; and comparing cultures.

Exploring self. Intercultural communicative language teaching and learning encourages learners to discover the less visible cultural dimensions of their own lives, and to use this self-awareness as the basis for being able to understand cultural otherness, and for making sense of intercultural interactions.

Learners need to become aware of what is meant by culture, and what aspects of their behaviour and language use are culturally specific. Intercultural communicative language teaching and learning requires self-reflection, through which learners come to understand how their culture influences their use of language, and how their communicative interactions reflect their culture. This is a crucial starting point for developing intercultural communicative competence.

It applies equally to teachers. Research into the experience of Māori students in mainstream education has shown the need for teachers to reflect on their own cultural practices, and be willing to align their pedagogy more closely with the cultural values of students from different cultural backgrounds.

Exploring culture. One pathway for helping learners explore culture in language is that proposed by Liddicoat et al., as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: A Pathway for Developing Intercultural Competence

The starting point is exposure to a wide range of authentic texts and sources (including oral, performative, visual and written texts and sources) or opportunities for interaction with speakers of the target language (input). Learners are encouraged to notice features about the communication that are unfamiliar (noticing). This requires learners to draw on their knowledge of their own culture, and make comparisons between the observed communication and their own. They then discuss the reasons for these features as well as their personal response to them (reflection). Learners next practise the communication, trying out new forms, expressions or strategies derived from the earlier input (output). Learners then attend to how 'comfortable' these feel and how successful the communication was interpersonally (noticing again). Finally, they reflect again on what they have learned.

Four key learning and teaching processes underlie the pathway in Figure 1: awareness raising; experimentation; production; and feedback. In awareness raising, learners are introduced to new input about language and culture, using authentic texts wherever possible. They are encouraged to notice differences between the input and their own practices, and to talk about what they notice. In the process of experimentation, learners begin working with their new knowledge. This involves short, supported communicative tasks, often with a specific focus on students' language and cultural needs. With production, learners integrate the information they have acquired in actual language use through role play and communication with native speakers of the language. Finally, through the process of feedback, learners discuss how they felt about speaking and acting in a particular way.

Feedback from the teacher should allow learners to work towards discovering what Kramsch refers to a 'third place'—an intercultural position between cultures, from which the learner can negotiate differences and interact comfortably across cultures. The goal of intercultural communicative language teaching is to bring about this shift in position, so that learners are not rooted only in the experiences and identity derived from their existing cultures and languages. Neither, however, do they reposition themselves within the target culture.

Comparing cultures. Intercultural communicative language teaching emphasises understanding not only one's own cultural world but also how it relates to the cultural worlds of others. It encourages learners to look for similarities and differences between their own and another culture, using their own culture as the starting point. Comparing cultures is a practical focus for language teaching which allows learners to develop more sophisticated concepts of culture.


There is growing emphasis internationally on the role of culture in language teaching, particularly what Newton et al. refer to as intercultural communicative language teaching and learning, and a growing body of research on this new approach that explains why it is important and how it might be practised. Intercultural communicative language learning and teaching differs from approaches to language teaching that focus on language with little reference to culture, and from approaches in which teaching about culture is secondary to teaching language or is treated as a standalone strand alongside language. Intercultural communicative language teaching starts from the point of view that language and culture are integrated. Such an approach does not transmit information about culture. Rather, it focuses on raising awareness of culture in the lived experience of the learners and people from the target language culture as well as other cultures present in a classroom or community.


  1. Bennett, Bennett, & Allen, 2003, p. 237.
  2. This section summarises the main findings from the literature review. It does not refer to all the literature on which the Newton report bases its conclusion—for that information, refer to the full report.
  3. Council of Europe, 2001.
  4. The proficiency descriptors for learning languages in The New Zealand Curriculum have been adapted from the Common European Framework for Languages.
  5. Department for Education and Skills, 2002, p. 5.
  6. ibid., p. 13.
  8. J. K. Phillips, 2003, p. 162.
  9. Newton et al., 2009, p. 12.
  10. Te Marautanga o Aotearoa outlines the knowledge, skills, values and attitudes for kura teaching through the medium of te reo Māori.
  11. Ministry of Education, 2008, p. 12.
  12. Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 14.
  13. Liddicoat, Papademetre, Scarino, & Kohler, 2003, p. 43.
  14. Tuuta, Bradnam, Hynds, Higgins, & Broughton, 2004.
  15. Bishop & Berryman, 2006.
  16. Byram, 1997, p. 7.
  17. Council of Europe, 2001, p. xii.
  18. Byram, 1997, p. 34.
  19. ibid., p. 61.
  20. ibid., p. 61.
  21. Liddicoat, 2001.
  22. Liddicoat et al., 2003.
  23. Bishop, Berryman, & Richardson, 2002.
  24. Liddicoat, 2002b.
  25. Kramsch, 1993.

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