Teaching Intercultural Competence in Secondary Schools

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

19 Pages, Grade: 2,0



Introduction: Intercultural Competence – A Complex Teaching Aim

1 Byram’s Model of Intercultural Communicative Competence
1.1 Intercultural Communication and the Intercultural Speaker
1.2 Intercultural Competence
1.2.1 Attitudes
1.2.2 Knowledge
1.2.3 Skills
1.2.4 Critical Cultural Awareness
1.2.5 Interdependence
1.3 Communicative Competence
1.4 Implications for Teaching Intercultural Communicative Competence

2 Teaching Intercultural Competence by Use of Cartoons
2.1 Curricular Issues
2.2 Stereotypes
2.3 Learning Aims
2.4 Potential of Using Cartoons
2.5 Cartoon Analysis – “Brain of Britain”
2.6 Task Suggestions

3 Conclusion: The Relevance of Intercultural Competence



Introduction: Intercultural Competence – A Complex Teaching Aim

Due to its importance in foreign language learning in German schools the subject of English carries the main responsibility to develop the students’ competence for intercultural communication (cf. Göbel/Hesse 2004: 818). Accordingly, the KMK classifies intercultural learning as a key element of English language teaching and includes intercultural competence in the educational standards for grades 9 and 10 (cf. KMK 2003 & KMK 2004). Intercultural competence is described as contextual socio-cultural knowledge, the ability to deal with cultural difference sympathetically and the ability to master situations of intercultural contact (cf. KMK 2003: 8; cf. KMK 2004: 8). Including the cognitive and the affective level as well as the level of action alike, this description reflects the complexity of intercultural competence. The affective as well as the level of action are of particular importance if the teaching of culture is to be more than the teaching of facts as it was practised by the Landeskunde approach (cf. Nünning/Nünning 2000: 6). New approaches for an action- and product-oriented teaching of English are supported by empirical studies about intercultural sensitivity, which stress the relevance of emotions in situations of intercultural contact (cf. Göbel/Hesse 2004: 831). However, an analysis of the curricula of the German states shows that the main focus is on objectives of the cognitive dimension whereas learning aims of the affective level and the level of action are included less often (cf. ibid.: 828). Moreover, many curricula lack information about which contents to use for teaching general aims like empathy, overcoming ethnocentrism and respect for cultural differences (cf. ibid.: 831). Hence, the curricula are not sufficient for arranging a successful teaching of culture.

The aim of this paper is therefore to obtain a more precise image of intercultural competence that illustrates the importance of all three dimensions involved. For this purpose, Byram’s comprehensive model of intercultural communicative competence will be presented in the first part as it reflects the complexity of intercultural competence through the interdependence of the different factors. On the basis of Byram’s model and the demands of the curriculum of North Rhine-Westphalia, the second part will develop suggestions for how to teach intercultural competence at school, considering all three dimensions of intercultural competence.

1 Byram’s Model of Intercultural Communicative Competence

1.1 Intercultural Communication and the Intercultural Speaker

Byram’s model is a systematic approach aiming at a comprehensive description of what intercultural communicative competence involves in order to facilitate its assessment. Intercultural communicative competence is defined as the ability to communicate and interact with people of a different culture using a foreign language (cf. Byram 1997: 70). The need for intercultural communicative competence arises when the participants of an interaction have different cultural backgrounds. In communication, the cultural background can be the basis for a common shared world, a set of beliefs, behaviours and meanings shared by a social group. The need for a common shared world is a motivating factor for communication, but the shared world has to be created by the interlocutors in order to achieve a successful interaction (cf. ibid.: 17). Successful communication is more than the exchange of information and the sending of messages: it is about establishing and maintaining relationships, which depends on the willingness to take up the interlocutor’s perspective. Understanding the interlocutor’s cultural background therefore raises the chances of success in an intercultural interaction (cf. ibid.: 32f.).

Since the shared world of two native speakers is different from that of two speakers with diverse cultural backgrounds, Byram argues against the native speaker as an ideal for foreign language learners. It is not only an impossible goal to reach for the majority of learners, but also puts the native speaker into a position of power if a foreign language learner’s linguistic competence and knowledge of a foreign culture is evaluated against that norm. Instead, Byram proposes the intercultural speaker, who is capable of meeting the demands of intercultural communication, as an ideal. Intercultural communicative competence enables him/her to do so in different kinds of interaction: interaction in a foreign language with a native speaker, in a foreign language which serves as a lingua franca and with a foreigner in his/her own language (cf. ibid.: 21f.).

1.2 Intercultural Competence

Intercultural competence is at the centre of Byram’s model, consisting of several interdependent factors.[1] Attitudes and knowledge are preconditions while the skills of interpreting and relating as well as the skills of interaction and discovery influence the processes of intercultural communication. A learner can acquire these factors through experience and reflection, but their acquisition in an educational setting with the help of a teacher can additionally promote the development of critical cultural awareness, the fifth component of intercultural competence (cf. ibid.: 33).

1.2.1 Attitudes

Attitudes towards people from a different culture often include prejudices or stereotypes, which can lead to unsuccessful interaction. For a successful intercultural interaction attitudes of curiosity and openness are needed instead. The intercultural speaker has to be willing to suspend judgement of the interlocutor’s meanings, beliefs and behaviours as well as belief in his/her own meanings and behaviours and to analyse them from the interlocutor’s viewpoint. These attitudes can be summed up as the willingness to relativise one’s own culture and to value the other’s meanings, beliefs and behaviours (cf. ibid.: 34). They show themselves in an interest in discovering unfamiliar phenomena, other perspectives and interpretations and the willingness to evaluate one’s own culture critically by comparing different viewpoints (cf. ibid.: 57f.).

1.2.2 Knowledge

The knowledge needed for intercultural communication can be divided into two categories. The first one comprises knowledge about “social groups and their products and practices in one’s own and in one’s interlocutor’s country” (ibid.: 51). As it is acquired through primary and secondary socialisation, this knowledge is always present in a more or less refined degree, some of it being conscious, some unconscious. It includes knowledge of the shared beliefs, behaviours and meanings of the social group one belongs to and of diverse identities (national, regional, social etc.). Knowledge about other countries is usually relational, i.e. it is acquired through one’s own socialisation and known through the perspective of one’s own culture (cf. ibid.: 35). It is therefore important to know about relationships between one’s own and one’s interlocutor’s country and how to maintain them, about possible causes of misunderstandings and about the perspectives on each other’s countries’ national memories (cf. ibid.: 59f.)

The second category refers to knowledge that is a precondition for successful interaction, but is not acquired automatically. This is declarative knowledge of “the general processes of societal and individual interaction” (ibid.: 51), which leads to the awareness that one is a product of one’s own socialisation and includes knowledge of the processes and institutions of socialisation, of social distinctions and of institutions which affect the living conditions in one’s own and in one’s interlocutor’s country. It should be complemented by procedural knowledge of how to act in specific circumstances (cf. ibid.: 60f.).

1.2.3 Skills

Two kinds of skills are part of intercultural competence, the first of which being the skills of interpreting and relating. They form the ability “to interpret a document[2] or event from another culture, to explain it and relate it to documents from one’s own” (ibid.: 52). The intercultural speaker should be able to identify ethnocentric perspectives and pre-suppositions of documents and thus be able to mediate between conflicting interpretations (cf. ibid.).

The second category of skills consists of the skills of discovery and interaction, which constitute the ability “to acquire new knowledge of the culture and cultural practices and the ability to operate knowledge, attitudes and skills under the constraints of real-time communication and interaction” (ibid.). These abilities are needed when the intercultural speaker has none or only partial knowledge of the foreign culture and has to establish and negotiate an understanding of a new cultural environment under the constraints of prevalent circumstances (cf. ibid.: 37f.). They include identifying similarities and differences in documents and processes of interaction. A high degree of proximity and familiarity between one’s own and the foreign culture can facilitate the application of these skills (cf. ibid.: 62f.).

1.2.4 Critical Cultural Awareness

Critical cultural awareness is the ability “to evaluate critically and on the basis of explicit criteria perspectives, practices and products in one’s own and other cultures and countries” (ibid.: 53). This should be done from a rational and explicit standpoint. It includes the ability to analyse documents in reference to the ideology involved as well as the awareness of one’s own ideology and values, which enable one to negotiate an agreement between one’s own values and the foreign ones (cf. ibid.).

1.2.5 Interdependence

The components of intercultural competence are interdependent in various ways. The willingness to relativise one’s own and to value others’ experience is a precondition for a conscious control of biased interpretation. An attitude of openness also facilitates the discovery of new knowledge and interaction with foreign cultures. Inversely, the readiness to relativise one’s own culture depends on an analysis of one’s own socialisation based on critical cultural awareness. A similar relation exists between the attitudes factor and knowledge about other cultures since the latter enables one to distance oneself from one’s own socialisation through comparison (cf. ibid.: 34f.). The components of knowledge are in turn preconditions for the skills of interpreting and relating as these draw upon existing knowledge. So do the skills of discovery and interaction, by which knowledge of other cultures can be augmented and refined (cf. ibid.: 36f.).

1.3 Communicative Competence

Communicative competence is closely connected to the factors of intercultural competence and consists of linguistic, sociolinguistic and discourse competence (cf. ibid.: 47f.).


[1] Byram extends his descriptions of the factors of intercultural competence by listing numerous objectives for each partial competence (cf. Byram 1997: 57-64). Due to the restricted length of this paper, these cannot be discussed in detail.

[2] This refers to documents in the widest sense, e.g. television reports, tourist brochures, language learning textbooks (cf. Byram 1997: 52).

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Teaching Intercultural Competence in Secondary Schools
University of Wuppertal  (Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
Cultural Studies on a Shoestring
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Teaching, Intercultural, Competence, Secondary, Schools, Cultural, Studies, Shoestring
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Eleni Stefanidou (Author), 2008, Teaching Intercultural Competence in Secondary Schools, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/115152


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