Intercultural Communicative Competence – A Floating Signifier

Assessing Models in the Study Abroad Context

by Linda Huber (Author)
©2021 Monographs XVIII, 326 Pages


In the field of language education, intercultural communicative competence has become a widely used concept. But what is intercultural communicative competence? Although the term is often understood as universally applicable, it comes with manifold nuances. The ambiguity ranges from underlying definitions to corresponding competences, forms of assessment and their operationalisation. Furthermore, an empirical foundation for models of intercultural competence is scarce.
This book presents the findings of a qualitative research study on the views of language students, and critically analyses the speculative components of intercultural communicative competence regarding their feasibility in the study abroad context. It is argued that the notion represents a contingent and hegemonial interpretive scheme (Deutungsmuster), a floating signifier, which needs to be amended for particular circumstances. The critical reflection on intercultural competence in the light of real-life examples may serve as an incentive for an alternative approach to intercultural competence in foreign language teaching and contribute valuable information to the preparation of training sessions before a stay abroad.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • List of Tables
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgements
  • Chapter 1 Introduction
  • Chapter 2 Conceptual Challenges of Culture
  • Chapter 3 The Notions of Competence and Model in the Intercultural Context
  • Chapter 4 Intercultural Communicative Competence in Language Education
  • Chapter 5 Multidimensional Study Design
  • Chapter 6 Analysis of the Multidimensional Study
  • Chapter 7 Discussion and Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index

List of Abbreviations

The following abbreviations are commonly used:

AIC Questionnaire: Assessing Intercultural Competence
AIE Autobiography of Intercultural Encounters
BA Bachelor of Arts
C1 Native Culture
C2 Second Culture
CEFR Common European Framework of Reference for Languages
CV Curriculum Vitae
DESI Deutsch Englisch Schülerleistungen International
DMIS Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity
ELA English Language Assistant
FEIL Federation Experiment in International Living
ICC Intercultural Communicative Competence
IDI Intercultural Development Inventory
IDP Intercultural Development Plan
INCA Intercultural Competence Assessment Project
L1 First Language, Mother Tongue
L2 Second Language
LC1 Native Linguaculture
LC2 Second Linguaculture
LC3 Third Linguaculture
MU Maynooth University
NCCA National Council for Curriculum and Assessment
NUI National University of Ireland
PCT Personal Construct Theory
UNESCO United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation
YOGA Your Objectives, Guidelines and Assessment Form


Intercultural and multilingual encounters have become part of our everyday lives as people from many different sociocultural and linguistic backgrounds interact on a daily basis. Due to this ubiquity, intercultural communicative competence has become a widely used and discussed concept, especially in the field of language teaching. However, the notion has remained highly diverse and a consensus on its definition and role does not exist.

Growing up in a multicultural and multilingual environment, language acquisition and intercultural communication have been of interest to me for a long time. During my studies I delved deeper into these topics in theory as well as in practice. I experienced some – in hindsight amusing – cultural misunderstandings which partly made me aware of the essential sociolinguistic command of a language and raised my awareness of intercultural communication. I also came to the conclusion that while language competence is essential for plunging deeper into the complexity of cultural contexts and discussing and negotiating meaning, it does not necessarily suffice for being interculturally competent. Interpersonal relationships and reflecting on them, however, have often triggered aha moments. These, in turn, have changed my perspective and attitudes while also extending my knowledge and, consequently, have improved my ability to interact appropriately and effectively in various intercultural contexts.

Later, as a language teacher and lecturer I wondered how I could nurture my students’ intercultural communicative competence. When I looked into the notion of intercultural communicative competence from a theoretical point of view, I detected a certain blurriness and vagueness in the concepts. Therefore, I decided to focus on the practical realities of the abstract notion of intercultural communicative competence and wanted to explore what it means in specific contexts, in this case language education and studying abroad. Instead of analysing intercultural communicative competences from an outside perspective, I have put the students’ voices at the centre of the investigation. For all intents and purposes, my experience has shown me that language skills and intercultural experience do not suffice to consciously perceive heterogeneity and to respond appropriately and effectively to intercultural encounters. We cannot expect students to immerse themselves in new cultural communities during their studies and then return interculturally competent and all cultural misunderstandings to be solved. Rather, preparation for these encounters and an engagement in reflective practice regarding personal development are required. In this context, we also need to keep in mind who determines and defines whether one is interculturally competent in a social field and what the consequences of these understandings are.

This book is divided in three sections. The first section is conceptual and addresses theoretical frameworks and approaches towards intercultural communicative competence. Concepts of culture, competence and models are discussed and current models of intercultural communicative competence are reviewed. The second section presents the study design and methodology of the empirical investigation of foreign language learners in the study abroad context. The last section provides insight into common themes and challenges that emerge in the language education context from a students’ perspective and how they relate to the theoretical models of intercultural communicative competence. At the end, I make suggestions for further research priorities and give incentives on how the results may be used in the language education context.

This book is intended to be a useful resource for students as well as faculty and professionals in the language education sector. It may be used in undergraduate and graduate courses on intercultural communication and language education as well as for preparatory classes for studying abroad or for revisiting current curricula on intercultural communicative competence.

I hope that you will find incentives for reflecting on the notion of intercultural communicative competence and the insights of this book will support you in your own field of work.


I would like to express my deep gratitude to Maynooth University (MU), National University of Ireland (NUI), and the NCoC ÖZBF at the University of Education Salzburg Stefan Zweig in Austria who supported me financially with this study and its publication. My thanks are especially extended to the voluntary participants in this study who shared their experiences with me and provided me with valuable data, which made this work possible.

During the time it took to complete this book, many people gave me their assistance, lent a sympathetic ear, pointed me in new directions, shared their wisdom and inspired me. I am very indebted to Prof. Dr Arnd Witte for his tireless help and above all his sense of humour when I had lost mine. A huge debt of gratitude is also owed to Leesa Wheatley for her help as a native speaker, all her valuable support and insightful suggestions. I would further like to thank Jacek Franeczek for his technical support. My heartfelt appreciation also goes to those who were always there when I needed them most: my family and my partner Sven. A million thanks.


As a result of globalisation and recent migration movements, our societies have seen significant changes; intercultural and multilingual encounters are now part of our everyday lives. New forms of cultural diversity have also encouraged the discussion of intercultural communicative competence in diverse academic areas such as sociology, politics, business, economics, psychology, linguistics and education. In the field of language education, intercultural communicative knowledge and skills have become an integral component of curricula all over Europe from primary education onwards. The international framework for these implementations is set in the UNESCO Guidelines on Intercultural Education (2006), the Intercultural Competences: Conceptual and Operational Framework (UNESCO 2013) and the Council of Europe Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education (Council of Europe 2010) which take into account the ‘promotion of social cohesion and intercultural dialogue and the valuing of diversity and equality, including gender equality’ (Council of Europe 2010: 9). Furthermore,

it is essential to develop knowledge, personal and social skills and understanding that reduce conflict, increase appreciation and understanding of the differences between faith and ethnic groups, build mutual respect for human dignity and shared values, encourage dialogue and promote non-violence in the resolution of problems and disputes. (Council of Europe 2010: 9)

←1 | 2→

In this context, the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (Council of Europe 2001) encourages educators to foster their pupils’ ‘willingness to relativise [their] own cultural viewpoint and value system’ (Council of Europe 2001: 161) and move away from ethnocentrism towards ethnorelativism. In Ireland, for example, the promotion of intercultural competence has been implemented in the primary school curricula (NCCA 2005) with the aim of enabling young people appreciate the richness of cultural diversity. The Junior Cycle Assessment Task for Modern Languages (NCCA 2020a: 6) incorporates the development of sociocultural and intercultural awareness as one aspect of the language portfolio, and the Irish Leaving Certificate German syllabus (NCCA 2020b) includes cultural awareness and raising intercultural consciousness as one of its objectives to enable successful communication (cf. NCCA 2020b: 2–3). Students should be prepared for the challenges of a diverse, multicultural society with differing cultural reference points (i.e. social, linguistic, political and ethical).

Furthermore, it is assumed that the development of intercultural communicative competence is fostered when students visit and live in host countries and become involved in day-to-day life there, instead of remaining in their own cultural bubble (cf. Hammer 2012: 133). Along these lines, a year abroad during undergraduate studies, for example, in the framework of the ERASMUS Programme,1 is aimed at enhancing intercultural communicative competence skills and the development of a European identity (cf. European Commission 2018: 30).

However, in the prevalent discussion on the promotion of intercultural communicative competence in the language learning context, little effort has been made to define the term itself. So, what is intercultural communicative competence? Despite many years of scholarly work, there is no consensus on its meaning (cf. Deardorff 2008: 32–33). In addition, there is only a limited empirical foundation for models of intercultural communicative competence for specific target groups in particular circumstances. In this book, I argue that even though intercultural communicative competence is often understood as universally applicable, it is a contingent, particular and hegemonial interpretive scheme (Deutungsmuster) – a floating signifier.

Rationale and Objectives

Most of the academic discourse on intercultural communicative competence in the language education context defines three dimensions: a cognitive dimension ←2 | 3→(knowledge about cultural norms and values and cultural self-awareness), an affective dimension (motivation and attitudes such as open-mindedness) and a behavioural dimension (analytical skills such as interpreting and relating). These cognitive, affective and conative components ideally lead to flexibility and adaptability as well as an ethnorelative perspective which then become visible in interculturally competent behaviour.

However, the term ‘intercultural communicative competence’ comes with manifold nuances and possible meanings, and it is not always clear upon what theoretical approaches the notion’s usage are based. The ambiguity ranges from associated underlying concepts of culture and competences, to its assessment, measurement and operationalisation. In addition, the existing broad and holistic concepts of intercultural communicative competence with all their attendant components and complex human traits are still rather theoretical. It could therefore be argued that current theoretical conceptualisations of intercultural communicative competence (Bennett 2013, Byram 2009a, 2009b, Deardorff 2011, Fantini 1995, Witte 2014) may be too scientistic and broad to be transferred to the second language (L2) education context as a whole.

Based on this rationale, the following chapters discuss underlying terminological challenges and a selection of models of intercultural communicative competence with regard to their feasibility in the study abroad context. The preliminary objective of the present study is to explore current constructs of intercultural communicative competence by reviewing relevant literature and thereafter analysing data provided by a specific social group, twenty-seven Bachelor (BA) students of German at Maynooth University (MU), National University of Ireland (NUI). In the framework of their studies, these students embarked on the ERASMUS or English Language Assistant (ELA)2 Programme in Germany or Austria for one academic year, all with different expectations, hopes and aims. The theoretical findings are reflected upon regarding the experiences and subjective points of view of these language learners. In the course of the analysis, this study investigates which components of intercultural communicative competence students have acquired during their stay abroad and how they contribute to their effectiveness in intercultural encounters.3 The experiences will not permit generalisation but may provide information on how to facilitate intercultural learning in the future. The findings could furthermore serve as incentives for an alternative approach to intercultural communicative competence, which could be implemented within curricula at secondary and tertiary institutions to help develop teaching and learning objectives. In this sense, this book is aimed at students of languages and cultures, at their educators, language professionals and language programme designers alike. The critical reflection on intercultural ←3 | 4→communicative competence in the light of real-life examples and their analyses in a stay abroad context may help to identify components for effective and appropriate interactions in intercultural contexts and contribute valuable information regarding practical suggestions for a study stay abroad and language education in general.

Research Questions

Overall, the study investigates which key factors of the various concepts related to intercultural communicative competence (Bennett 2013, Byram 2009a, 2009b, Deardorff 2011, Fantini 2009, Kramsch 1998, Witte 2014) students consider to be essential and how they have contributed to their efficiency in the language learning process. The main research question therefore is:

  • In what way are the theory and practice of intercultural communicative competence compatible in the study abroad context in particular and in the language education context in general?

The study first focuses on the analysis of underlying concepts of culture and competence. Based on a literature review, the first subordinate research question attends to the students’ individual underlying concept of culture:

  • How do the study participants conceptualise culture in the study abroad context and what conclusion can be drawn on their perception of intercultural communicative competence?

Along with questions on the understanding of culture, the exploration of the students’ reflections and experiences is aimed at providing information on subjective aspirations which shed light on the individual definitions of success and the concomitant skills to fulfil their aims:

  • What aspirations do the participants have for their stay abroad?
  • How do the students define success in the study abroad context and what strategies do they use to achieve their aims?

Furthermore, it is estimated that language awareness is essential for successful (intercultural) interaction (Byram 1997, Fantini 2009, Kramsch 2013, Risager 2017, Witte 2014) but does not guarantee it (cf. Zarate 2003: 13). These assumptions lead to the next subordinate research question:


XVIII, 326
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (April)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. XVIII, 326 pp., 12 fig. b/w, 5 tables.

Biographical notes

Linda Huber (Author)

Linda Huber is a research associate at the University of Education in Salzburg, Austria, where she works in the fields of intercultural communicative competence, foreign language pedagogy, and the promotion of gifted and talented students. She is also a lecturer of English at the Paris-Lodron University of Salzburg and at the University of Applied Sciences Salzburg.


Title: Intercultural Communicative Competence – A Floating Signifier
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
346 pages