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

Please consider the environment before printing the contents of this report.

This report is available as a download (please refer to the 'Downloads' inset box).  To view the individual chapters please refer to the 'Sections' inset box.

Section 3: A framework of principles

[Our] framework identifies and describes a set of core claims concerning intercultural language learning that emerge from and find support in the extensive and rapidly growing research literature in this field.

Based on their review of the literature, Newton and colleagues have developed an evidence-based framework of six principles to guide the teaching and learning of culture in languages education in New Zealand.

The six principles are that intercultural communicative language teaching (iCLT):

  1. integrates language and culture from the beginning
  2. engages learners in genuine social interaction
  3. encourages and develops an exploratory and reflective approach to culture and culture-in-language
  4. fosters explicit comparisons and connections between languages and cultures
  5. acknowledges and responds appropriately to diverse learners and learning contexts
  6. emphasises intercultural communicative competence rather than native-speaker competence.

To emphasise the importance of both the intercultural and the communicative aspects, Newton et al., have coined the term intercultural communicative language teaching, and this term is used in this chapter. Figure 2 shows the relationships among the six principles (the principles are denoted by the numerals in parentheses).

Figure 2: A Framework of Principles for Effective Intercultural Communicative Language Teaching

Principle 1: iCLT integrates language and culture from the beginning

Every message a human being communicates through language is communicated in a cultural context. Cultures shape the ways language is structured and the ways in which language is used. A language learner who has learnt only the grammar and vocabulary of a language is, therefore, not well equipped to communicate in that language.

Intercultural communicative language teaching emphasises the connectedness of culture and language, and prioritises the goal of developing interculturally competent communicators (see principle 2 for discussion of intercultural competence).

The language–culture nexus is seen in the intricate ways that language and culture co-construct each other. A simple example of co-construction can be seen in the terms 'mate' or 'bro' in New Zealand English. On the one hand, these terms reflect cultural values of camaraderie and egalitarianism located in New Zealand's sociocultural history. On the other hand, to the extent that the terms remain in common parlance, they reconstruct and maintain the cultural values with which they are associated: 'Every time we speak we perform a cultural act' Culture, from this viewpoint, is dynamic, and in dynamic interplay with language, as the quotation from Liddicoat at the beginning of this principle sums up.  

Intercultural communicative language teaching seeks to highlight of the way culture permeates our everyday lives and interactions. It does this by integrating learning cultural knowledge and language knowledge from the beginning, rather than treating them as separate strands. Thus, culture is an important part of the teaching of all language macroskills (reading, writing, listening, speaking, viewing and presenting), rather than a separate macroskill. The way teachers can apply this principle to teaching practice is seen in principles 3 to 5: teachers encourage learners to be experientially involved with other languages and cultures through communication and interaction (principle 2); to explore culture-in-language (principle 3); and todiscover connections with other cultural worlds through comparison (principle 4). The integration of culture and language is more easily achieved in classrooms informed by communicative language teaching and task-based language teaching, since these approaches require active participation and experiential learning. In fact, the adoption of intercultural communicative language teaching promotes a fuller realisation of communication by focusing learners' attention on the effects of the implicit messages conveyed in their choice of linguistic forms and communication strategies.

The first principle concludes with the phrase 'from the beginning'. This emphasises the point that teachers should be guiding learners' conceptualisations of culture from the beginning of the language learning process. Separating language and culture can lead to stereotyping and prejudice. Attention to culture and interculturality in the beginning stages of language learning is easily achievable, because of the rich cultural content found in ostensibly simple language, such as forms of greeting and attendant behaviour. Similarly, aspects of culture such as the coding of family relationships, the naming of rooms in a house and expressions of politeness and respect are all appropriate topics for the beginning stages of learning, while also being equally rich topics for intercultural exploration.

Principle 2: iCLT engages learners in genuine social interaction

[Language] is a social practice, a social accomplishment, a social tool.

In as much as our social lives are culturally shaped, so also is language. The Newton report uses the term 'culture-in-language' to capture this relationship. For language teaching to adequately respond to these views of language and culture, it must provide learning opportunities that are themselves dynamic, experiential and interactive. Language learning is a social process that flourishes when learners not only observe cultural representations and behaviour, linguistic or visual, but also experience them first hand.

This approach is different from traditional, linguistically focused language teaching, although its emphasis on interaction both complements and embraces the communicative approach which informs language teaching in New  Zealand schools. It mirrors the New Zealand curriculum's key competencies of 'relating to others' and 'interacting effectively with a diverse range of people in a variety of contexts'.

Intercultural communicative language teaching approaches interaction in two ways. First it treats any interaction involving the target language and culture as an opportunity to explore linguistic and cultural boundaries, and to engender awareness of one's own as well as the other's ways of communicating and maintaining relationships, and of dealing with cross-cultural misunderstandings and communication breakdowns. Secondly, interactions are used to directly explore the cultural worlds, beliefs, values and attitudes of others through topics which provide opportunities for explicit discussion of cultural comparisons. Thus, learners experience culture first through the way communication proceeds, and secondly through the content of what is discussed or written about. From an intercultural perspective, interaction is not simply a tool for developing fluency; it provides opportunities for learners to confront their culturally constructed worlds and cultural assumptions, and so to learn more about themselves. The New Zealand Curriculum makes a similar point, noting that 'through their learning experiences, students will learn about [among other things] their own values and those of others'.

Personal communication with native speakers and interaction and exploratory talk with teachers and others, particularly talk that involves tasks and role plays, provide important opportunities for learners to notice and explore culture-in-language and to develop communicative awareness.

Principle 3: iCLT encourages and develops an exploratory and reflective approach to culture and culture-in-language

Culture encompasses much more than the traditional arts, conventional practices, institutions and the visible manifestations of people's lives. Using Weaver's metaphor of an iceberg, these dimensions of culture make up the small, visible segment of the iceberg above the surface. Beneath the surface lies a much larger, less visible part of culture made up of values, beliefs, and thought patterns. Much of the Te Kotahitanga project involves teachers coming to understand the invisible culture of Māori children in mainstream classrooms—what the researchers refer to as 'Māori sense-making processes (ways of knowing)'—and shaping pedagogy to embrace these culturally specific processes. The iceberg metaphor can be applied equally to culture-in-language. Culture is manifest in language in obvious ways, such as in overt politeness forms (e.g., Japanese forms of address) and in culturally distinct genres such as karakia, an 'ava ceremony, or a wedding speech. But it is also deeply embedded in language in less obvious ways such as the requirements for polite and formal language, the patterns and extent of conversational feedback, the degree of tolerance for overlapping speech and interruptions, the degree of indirectness in speech acts such as requests and refusals, and a vast number of other communicative subtleties displayed in the everyday use of language.

Culture defies easy description and involves much more than 'facts'. Teaching that focuses largely on learning about visible culture thus misses a large portion of cultural experience. Intercultural communicative language teaching responds to this issue by shifting focus from transmission of objective cultural knowledge to exploration by learners of both visible and invisible culture, and, most importantly, to exploration of 'culture-in-language'. Exploring culture involves learners in constructing knowledge from experience and reflection. Factual information has its place, but this information is interrogated by learners so as to reveal insights and understanding about the lived culture experience of others.

Exploratory learning is encapsulated in the vision expressed in the New Zealand Curriculum for a curriculum that will produce young people who are 'critical and creative thinkers', and 'active seekers, users and creators of knowledge'. Exploratory learning involves a process of discovery that allows learners to develop their individual conceptualisations of culture and to decentre from their taken-for-granted cultural world. The starting point is usually learners' exploring their own culture and cultural identity, and through this lens of self-awareness, examining their attitudes towards the target language and culture, looking at what they already know or believe, before gaining new insights.

As learners begin to understand the concept of culture and cultural differences, they should begin to understand that culture learning is not simply a matter of accruing information and facts. Instead, it involves observing and analysing what Byram calls 'social processes and their outcomes'. In other words, they develop 'critical understanding of their own and other societies' (ibid), an awareness of what constitutes culture, and how it affects everybody's behaviour and use of language. In this way, learners can challenge and replace cultural stereotypes with more empathetic and self-aware perceptions and attitudes. The New Zealand Curriculum states, 'As they move between, and respond to, different languages and different cultural practices, they [the students] are challenged to consider their own identities and assumptions.'

An additional aspect of this principle is that it involves the teacher as well as the learners in the process of exploration. Research by Byram and Cain led them to the conclusion that teachers themselves are learning, as they allow students to explore and discover new facts and ideas and make comparisons with what they already know. This is congruent with the concept of 'ako' in kaupapa Māori.

It is important to note that this principle does not preclude traditional approaches to culture, which involve information about a country, its institutions, society and history. Indeed, Byram argues that, ideally, the teacher would combine the two approaches, provided that learners are encouraged to see cultural information as subjective and dynamic. It is also recognised that the age of learners will govern the extent to which critical self-reflection is feasible. Similarly, the level of linguistic skills development will govern the amount of exploration which can occur in the target language. An exploratory approach to culture opens up many opportunities for learners to make connections between their cultures. This is discussed in relation to the next principle.

Principle 4: iCLT fosters explicit comparisons and connections between languages and cultures

Comparing languages and cultures is a fundamental process in intercultural language learning, and is widely discussed in the literature. Both Byram and Kramsch, two leading scholars in intercultural language learning, have written extensively on the insights into self and others that can be achieved through guided comparisons between cultures. In increasingly multicultural classrooms, these comparisons and connections can be multi-faceted, as learners explore and share each other's cultures, while cooperatively exploring a new culture and learning a new language. In a practical guide to integrating culture in language instruction, Tomlinson and Matsuhara suggest that teachers begin and end each activity 'in the minds of the learners', through such activities as encouraging them to think about an experience in their own culture, before providing them with a similar one in another culture, or 'getting [learners] to "translate" a new experience in another culture into an equivalent experience in their own culture'. Maintaining this kind of awareness of culture is a primary goal of intercultural language learning.

For comparison to be effective in intercultural communicative language learning, it needs to be a reflective, interpretive comparison which draws on the learners' current knowledge as well as the new knowledge they are encountering. This is captured in Finkbeiner's 'ABC' model. This learning tool involves three steps, described in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Finkbeiner's ABC Model of Cultural Understanding and Communication
The three steps of the ABCs
A as in Autobiography

Each learner writes or  narrates relevant aspects and/or key events from his or her autobiography.

B as in Biography

Learners cooperate with a  partner from a different cultural background. Each of them conducts an  in-depth, audio or videotaped interview with a partner from a culture  different from his or her own. The interviewer will then construct a  biography describing the key events in that person's life.

C as in Cross-Cultural Analysis and Appreciation  of Differences

Learners study  their autobiographies and compare them to the biographies they have written.  They write down a list of the similarities and differences.

It is important to emphasise that comparison of a target culture with one's own culture is not an end in itself. Instead, it is a process which is designed to facilitate movement by the learner into what is referred to in the intercultural literature as 'a third place'. This third place is an intercultural position between cultures, a position from which the learner can negotiate differences and interact comfortably across cultures.

Comparing cultures is a practical focus for language teaching which aims to allow learners to develop more sophisticated concepts of culture, and helps to undermine notions of the immutability of cultural values and cross-cultural prejudices. Instruction focused on raising cultural awareness and making connections has the ultimate goal of producing what Byram calls intercultural speakers—that is, people who have 'the ability to communicate and interact across cultural boundaries'.

Finally, a brief comment on the word 'explicit' as it occurs in this principle. Evidence from the literature makes it clear that intercultural issues need to be addressed explicitly and openly rather than being left to take care of themselves, on the assumption that they will be imbibed indirectly through exposure and experience alone. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that, without guidance, language teaching can have an inconclusive, or worse, a negative effect on cross-cultural attitudes.

Principle 5: iCLT acknowledges and responds appropriately to diverse learners and learning contexts

Teaching a language interculturally entails recognising and embracing diversity in the classroom, especially as it relates to learners' cultural and linguistic backgrounds, a crucial consideration for New Zealand teachers facing ever more culturally diverse classes. The growing body of New Zealand research on teaching for diverse learners and culturally responsive teaching highlights the effectiveness of instructional practices that match the culturally shaped ways of knowing that learners bring to the classroom. One of the characteristics of quality teaching for diverse students identified in a recent best evidence synthesis on education for diverse learners in schooling states that 'effective links are created between school and other cultural contexts in which students are socialized, to facilitate learning'. The synthesis identifies a set of research-based features related to this characteristic, two of which closely align with intercultural language teaching: 'Student diversity is utilized effectively as a pedagogical resource' and 'Quality teaching respects and affirms cultural identity (including gender identity) and optimises educational opportunities'.  

The Te Kotahitanga project, in which all teachers in the participating schools, including language teachers, are trained in kaupapa Māori based pedagogy, puts these characteristics into practice. As a result of the implementation of this culturally responsive teaching, the attitudes and values of students towards school have shifted and there has been greater engagement in learning activities and improved levels of achievement.

The importance of acknowledging diversity is also implied in one of the 10 principles for successful instructed learning proposed by Ellis, namely that: 'Instruction needs to take account of individual differences in learners'.

Motivation is another consideration. The extent to which each individual is willing and able to learn a new language in the classroom is influenced by motivational dispositions developed through their family, community upbringing and schooling. Motivation has been extensively researched in educational psychology and second language acquisition research and the evidence shows it is important to have specific teaching strategies for creating motivating learning conditions and for maintaining and protecting motivation.

Just as each learner has a unique set of attributes and learning experiences, so also each of the 14 languages taught in New Zealand schools is uniquely positioned, by virtue of the relationship between the communities for whom the language is a native tongue or lingua franca, and communities within the wider New Zealand environment, as well as in schools and classrooms. Intercultural language teaching uses these relationships in two ways: connecting learners to the target language culture to facilitate learning opportunities through interaction and cultural experience; and treating the relationships between cultures and languages as topics to be explored and learnt about as part of language learning.

In connecting learners to the target language, for New Zealand's two legislated official languages, te reo Māori and New Zealand sign language, the connections and opportunities are shaped not only by proximity to speech communities for these languages, but also by the political momentum that their status as official languages of New Zealand provides and, in the case of te reo, by Treaty of Waitangi and the status of the Māori people as tangata whenua. The Pasifika languages in the curriculum (gagana Sāmoa, Tongan, vagahau Niue, Cook Islands Māori and gagana Tokelau) also have the benefit of substantial speech communities located within New Zealand. An added dimension is that Tokelau is a non-self governing territory administered by New Zealand and Niue and the Cook Islands have a special relationship with New Zealand. They are all New Zealand citizens. A substantial number of Pasifika learners are learning these languages as heritage languages.

One of the features for Chinese and to a lesser extent, Japanese and Korean, for connecting learners is the number of native speakers of these languages studying as international students or recently arrived residents. For certain languages, especially languages associated with more typically distant speech communities such as French, German and Spanish, telecollaboration opens up a wealth of opportunities for intercultural communication.

In exploring the relationships between cultures and languages, one of the cognitive capacities that underlies intercultural competence is '[k]nowledge of social groups and their products and practices in one's own and in one's interlocutor's country, and of the general processes of societal and individual interaction'. Similarly, The New Zealand Curriculum states that the interactions and learning experiences that take place in a school should encourage students to learn about, 'the values on which New Zealand's cultural and institutional traditions are based', and 'the values of other groups and cultures. An intercultural stance on learning in the language classroom provides many opportunities for these values to find expression.

Principle 5 has addressed two types of diversity in relation to language learning: cultural and linguistic diversity among learners and diversity in the ways that different languages are present in the New Zealand learning context. Both are a source of intercultural learning opportunities through which learners come to value 'diversity, as found in our different cultures, languages and heritages', as stated in The New Zealand Curriculum.

Principle 6: iCLT emphasises intercultural competence rather than native speaker competence

The final principle addresses the goal of language teaching and learning. It challenges the often implicit benchmarking of learner proficiency or progress against notional native speaker competence, and proposes instead that intercultural competence provides a more realistic goal of instruction.

One of the more obvious problems with the model of native speaker competence is that it is an impossible target for most language learners. Furthermore, the goal of native speaker competence may assume an undesirable assimilationist goal, encouraging the learner to separate from his or her own culture and to adopt a new sociocultural identity.

One of the reasons for the pervasive influence of the native speaker model is that it is an invisible but nevertheless strongly present influence in the influential concept of 'communicative competence'. However, from an intercultural perspective, communicative competence is itself still incomplete, since it is concerned only with speakers within a speech community. It fails to identify the competencies required to communicate interculturally, or across cultural boundaries. The assumption that native speakers are models for cultural competence is also misguided, because no native speaker is an authority on their culture, in the same way that no individual is a perfect linguistic model (because of variations in class, region, register, and so on). The implication of these points is that language learners should be encouraged to critically analyse whatever they observe in native speaker interactions, as proposed in Principle 3, and to make informed choices about what behaviour is an appropriate model for imitation.

Another reason for not taking native speaker norms (linguistic or cultural) as preferred models is that there is always more to learn, because cultures and languages are always changing. This reinforces the notion that schools need to prepare learners for change and life-long learning, a central part of the vision for education in New Zealand, as expressed in The New Zealand Curriculum.

A shift in emphasis from native speaker competence to intercultural competence broadens the goals of instruction to include the knowledge, skills, awareness and attitudes which enable learners to 'meet the challenges of communication across language and cultural boundaries'. Thus, intercultural learning focuses not only on knowledge about a second language culture, but also on other less tangible, more subjective competencies.


  1. Newton et al., 2009, p. 78.
  2. For information on the research evidence on which these principles are based, refer to the full report.
  3. Liddicoat, 2004, p. 17
  4. Kramsch, 1993.
  5. Ellis, 2003, 2005.
  6. Atkinson, 2002, p. 526.
  7. Carr, 2007.
  8. Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 10.
  9. Weaver, 1993.
  10. Bishop & Glynn, 1999, p. 131
  11. Bishop & Berryman, 2006.
  12. Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 8.
  13. Byram, 1997, p. 19.
  14. Kramsch, 2006, p. 107
  15. New Zealand Curriculum, p. 24.
  16. Byram & Cain, 1998
  17. Bishop, Berryman, & Richardson, 2002.
  18. Byram, 1997.
  19. Byram, 2003, 2006a; Kramsch, 1993, 2006.
  20. Tomlinson & Matsuhara, 2004, p. 4.
  21. Finkbeiner, 2006.
  22. Kramsch, 1993.
  23. Byram, 1997, p. 7.
  24. For example, Alton-Lee, 2003, 2005, Bishop & Berryman, 2006; Bishop & Glynn, 1999; Samu 2004, 2006; Tuuta, et al., 2004.
  25. Alton-Lee, 2003, p. 3.
  26. Alton-Lee, 2003, p. 32.
  27. Bishop et al., 2003.
  28. Ellis, 2005, p. 41.
  29. Byram, 2006b, p. 24.
  30. Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 10.
  31. Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 10.
  32. Byram, 1997, 2003.
  33. Byram, 2003.
  34. Council of Europe, 2001, p. xii.

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