Teaching Intercultural Competence in the Classroom

Teaching Intercultural Competence in the Classroom

If there is something the pandemic has opened our eyes to is how strongly interconnected we have become. It is more evident than ever that our economies are interlinked. With that, there is a need for an intense collaboration across linguistic, cultural, national, and international cooperative efforts to address the challenges we face that affect us all. Teaching intercultural competence is crucial for students to become impactful citizens.

To participate effectively in today’s globalized, knowledge-based economy, the United States needs innovative, creative, and entrepreneurial citizens. The workforce must manage complexity, adapt to change, solve multifaceted problems, and work effectively with people from other nations and cultures.[1]

What is Intercultural Competence?

Intercultural competence is the ability to function effectively across cultures, to think and act appropriately, and to communicate and work with people from different cultural backgrounds – at home or abroad. [2] It requires a set of skills, attitudes, cultural cues, and communication elements.

Firstly, interculturally competent citizens possess a specific set of skills. They are critical thinkers, they view and interpret the world from other culture’s perspectives and can recognize their own. They are able to identify and minimize ethnocentrism. They evaluate cultural clues and meanings, which makes them great observers and listeners. Furthermore, they are capable of analyzing and interpreting those social clues, seeking out linkages and causalities that result in efficient communication.

Secondly, an intercultural competent person should display four attitudes[3]:

– Respect: seeking out other cultures’ attributes, valuing cultural diversity, and thinking comparatively without prejudice about cultural differences.

– Openness: eliminating criticism of other cultures, investing in collecting clues of cultural differences, and being willing to be proven wrong.

– Curiosity: engaging in diverse cultural environments, understanding that differences are learning opportunities, and being aware of one’s ignorance.

– Discovery: having the disposition to move out of one’s comfort zone and tolerating ambiguity, and taking it as a positive experience.

Thirdly and evidently, intercultural competence requires a deep understanding of cultural elements such as identity, beliefs, and values. It is as important to identify other cultures, as it is to identify one’s own and how it has shaped one’s identity and worldview. Acquiring basic local language skills and articulating the differences in both verbal and non-verbal communication, as well as adjusting one’s speech, are key elements to become interculturally competent.

Lastly, there are certain communication elements that one needs to be aware of when pursuing intercultural competitiveness. It is essential to understand that communication is much more than language and literacy, that it also encompasses non-verbal behavior and dialogue. Understanding how verbal and non-verbal communication affect cultures and attitudes is essential to function effectively in a globalized world.

Intercultural Competence in Foreign Language Acquisition

Intercultural competence in foreign language acquisition is the belief that, to teach a language, the instructor must also teach the culture of the target language in a way that causes the students to comprehend the second culture. In this way, intercultural competence connects the student to the culture studied by way of the intercultural interactions.[4]

According to the intercultural model, languages are directly related to the cultures, communities, and societies that use them for communication. For this reason, teachers should encourage language learners to become competent intercultural speakers[5]. To achieve this competence, language teachers are expected to guide students in the acquisition of various skills, contributing to the development of their knowledge and understanding of a target language and culture, and helping them analyze and reflect on their own culture as well.

Therefore, language teachers have to be familiar with what lies behind the expectations set on students to acquire intercultural understanding.[6]

Resources and Strategies for Schools and Teachers

There are many ways that schools and teachers can equip themselves to incorporate intercultural competence into their curriculum and teaching. Resources can range from audio-visual material to international teachers.

Foreign Films

Films are a highly useful instructional multimedia too to teach cultural differences. Incorporating foreign films and several simple teaching strategies into the lessons results in a more dynamic classroom. The use of films can assist learners in enhancing their reflection techniques while observing, analyzing, and eventually reformulating information they have seen, heard, and understood. This reflection process is a part of a virtuous cycle that can motivate students to participate.[7]

Connect with Classrooms across the Globe

A great way to expose students and teachers to an intercultural experience is to connect with classrooms from different countries. Networking through online platforms like Linked-In or even social media is a great way to approach this strategy. Setting up activities that encourage problem-solving and discussion is key towards achieving intercultural competitiveness. Presenting students with the opportunity to work with people that think and act differently, allows them to identify cultural differences and perspectives first-hand.

Hire Native Teachers of the Target Language

Teachers who have been exposed to intercultural environments and experiences are better equipped to provide students with a greater comprehension of the target language and culture. Being exposed to such environments, allow teachers to have a deeper understanding of cultural differences. Because of this intercultural competency is inherently present in their teaching. Nonetheless, teachers who have not experienced such environments can incorporate intercultural teaching through different resources.


Programs like the Meddeas Interns bring the Spanish culture and, with it, the European culture into the classroom. Sharing different teaching styles, techniques, and initiatives that globalize the students’ learning experience and the teachers’ curriculum. These Spanish teachers will help other teachers, both in the classroom or in extra-curricular activities.

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