Rethinking Intercultural Competence

Theoretical Challenges and Practical Issues

by Theo Harden (Volume editor) Arnd Witte (Volume editor)
Edited Collection VIII, 264 Pages


This book examines the concept of «intercultural competence» from the perspective of analysing theoretical challenges and practical issues. Despite its ongoing popularity across various discourses, «intercultural competence» has remained a necessarily vague and oscillating concept that lends itself to continual rethinking and redefinition. The essays in this volume approach the complexity of the concept from a number of different angles. The essays range from theoretical considerations of redefining and expanding the concept in terms of hitherto neglected dimensions and ideas; critically contextualising issues of assessing intercultural competence; analysing the virtual dimension of intercultural competence for the development of critical digital pedagogies; application of the concept for the teaching and learning of foreign/second languages, including for migrant learners; the impact of study abroad on developing intercultural and democratic literacy; analysis of the concept in classroom practice across different cultures; and querying the concept for its lack of teachability. The volume develops a broad range of new perspectives on intercultural competence, providing stimulating new ideas, considerations and reflections around this oscillating, yet relevant concept.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • 1 Intercultural Competence – Introduction
  • 2 The Sentient Body and Intercultural Situational Attentiveness
  • 3 Intercultural Competence as ‘Construalistic’ Expressivity
  • 4 Intercultural Communicative Competence in the Language Education Context – a Floating Signifier
  • 5 Intercultural Competence and Its Assessment: A Critical Contextualisation
  • 6 Intercultural Competence: The Windmills of Foreign Language Teaching
  • 7 Hotwords as a Didactic Vehicle to Intercultural Competence?
  • 8 Ill Weeds Never Die
  • 9 Is IC Missing Some of the Core Elements of Language Education? Towards a Critical, Digital and Agentive Literacy Within Intercultural Communication
  • 10 Rethinking Intercultural Competence in Foreign and Second Language Classrooms for Adult Migrant Learners
  • 11 The Impact of Study Abroad on Cultural and Democratic Literacy
  • 12 Intercultural Language Teaching in Aotearoa New Zealand: Ten Years of Neglect, Neoliberalism and Missed Opportunities
  • 13 How Could We Prepare Our Students to Become Interculturally Competent?
  • List of Contributors
  • Index
  • Intercultural Studies and Foreign Language Learning

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We would like to express our gratitude to the National University of Ireland Maynooth for the generous financial and logistic support we received for hosting the conference on Intercultural Competence: A Concept in Need of Rethinking? in September 2019 and for publishing this volume. We would also like to thank Leesa Wheatley for her thorough proofreading of the manuscript.

Theo Harden and Arnd Witte

Brasília and Maynooth, October 2020

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1 Intercultural Competence – Introduction

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Over the past six decades, the concept of intercultural competence has become an increasingly relevant construct for foreign language teaching/learning, and for cognate disciplines such as pedagogy, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, cultural studies, business management and others. However, the composites of the term ‘intercultural competence’ are extremely difficult to conceptualise in a manner that can facilitate their mediation and learning in the broader context of foreign language learning. In contrast to the foreign language itself which constitutes a rule-governed system, intercultural competence cannot be taught explicitly because it concerns values, skills, attitudes and behaviours that are rooted in cultural patterns, social structures and individual experiences. All of these are highly complex, multi-layered, fluid, porous and sometimes internally fractured concepts which are impossible to define in the abstract to a degree that makes them explicitly teachable or learnable in a rule-governed systematic manner. However, it is only possible to define intercultural competence in a valid manner to some degree if it is related to a specific intercultural context or situation with its inherent atmospheric, social, cultural, linguistic, communicative, affective and environmental dimensions. But even by narrowing it down in this way, situations are highly dynamic and short-lived; moreover, ‘the word intercultural expresses the impact of the unexpected, the surprising, the potential rather than the pre-structure, the foreseen or the expectable’ (Byram/Guilherme 2010: 5). Whereas the structure of language can be taught in the classroom in neat learnable chunks, the dynamic cultural and social context of foreign language use has to be experienced by the learner in a holistic manner, with the teacher acting as the more knowledgeable person who can sometimes emphasise relevant intercultural similarities and differences in the learning experiences made by students.1 This pool of experience, combined with attitudes, knowledge, awareness and skills of interacting between and across languages and cultures, forms the highly dynamic state of subjective intercultural competence of a person at a particular time. In a similar manner, competence is also a concept difficult to define because it is based on internalised pools of knowledge, experience and patterns of thought and emotion, as well as automised patterns of habitual behaviour, and this only becomes partially externalised by intersubjective and interactive performance in certain intercultural situations.

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The mentalistic conception of intercultural learning is the most widely used approach to defining intercultural competence. It focuses on the mindset of the individual which is mediated by cultural patterns, linguistic conceptualisations, social structures and habits; in this sense, the availability of sociocultural media is a precondition for facilitating consciousness. This is particularly true for language which enables structured processes of thinking because ‘the relation between thought and word is a living process; thought is born through words. A word devoid of thought is a dead thing. […] But a thought that fails to realize itself in words also remains a “Stygian shadow” ’ (Vygotsky 1986: 255). However, language is not a neutral medium for stimulating thought; as part of social life in a cultural community, it carries cultural baggage in terms of conceptual, ethical and normative implications. Therefore, language with its immanent system and its typifying conceptualisations influences the subjective categorisations and patterns of thought. It provides the schemata for framing subjective thoughts and experiences for purposes of social and cultural coherence on the one hand, and providing sense for these highly dynamic and multi-layered features on the other hand.

Sociocultural media mainly work on a subconscious level, as they have been subjectively internalised in the processes of lingualisation, socialisation and enculturation; they include pragmatic presuppositions, conversational implicatures, judgements of relevance, interpretative procedures, values, beliefs, emotional schemata and habitus (habitual patterns of action and interaction). By using these culturally generated and socially shared media, the abundance of meaning which things, actions and configurations can have in principle is reduced to socially sedimented and culturally typified meanings that lend sense to social activities in a cultural community. These typifying patterns for thought and behaviour function as fundamental frames of interpretation and orientation for every member of a cultural community (cf. Schütz/Luckmann 2003: 313–328). The relatively stable principles of knowing, feeling and (inter)acting are broadly shared by a group of people, but they are harboured differently by each member, and they are based on the social dynamics of the group, which is open to change across time (cf. Matsumoto 2000: 24). Culture could thus be defined as

a fuzzy set of basic assumptions and values, orientations to life, beliefs, policies, procedures and behavioural conventions that are shared by a group of people, and influence (but do not determine) each member’s behavior and his/her interpretations of the ‘meaning’ of other people’s behavior. (Spencer-Oatey 2008: 3)

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This conception of culture, centred on the behaviour and the mindset of the cultural subject, has the potential to overcome essentialising notions of culture, society and identity of which the discourse on intercultural competence sometimes stands accused. Cultures can be conceptualised as structures that have evolved from the collective activities of a group in a historical dimension. However, these structures, which Clifford Geertz (1973: 5) famously referred to as constituting socio-culturally spun semiotic ‘webs of significance’, are neither static nor monolithic; they are continually evolving, not least by contacts with other ‘webs of significance’ which can offer different interpretations of significance for similar manifestations and configurations. Culture, society and human subjects as agents are essentially interdependent and require each other’s interplay, directly and indirectly. Human (inter)action plays a part in the development of structures to which it relates, and reciprocally social structures and cultural patterns have no existence of their own beyond their occurrence in the activity that they structure. Culture, therefore, is a symbolic order that is inherent in social practice and individual action (cf. Straub 2004: 580). In order to explain a social or cultural phenomenon, one can, with some analytical effort, reduce aspects of the symbolic order to the elementary individual actions and operations of which it is composed in certain situations.

Defining culture from a mentalistic perspective has to be complemented by a praxeological angle because culture depends on ongoing human agency. Subjective and collective activities form the basis for the production of subjective and collective normative frames and schemata; only these collective and intersubjective actions lead to cultural products and cultural change:

Being an action field, culture offers possibilities of, but by the same token stipulates conditions for, action; it circumscribes goals which can be reached by certain means, but establishes limits, too, for correct, possible and also deviant action. […] As an action field, culture not only induces and controls action, but is as much a process as a structure. (Boesch 1991: 29)

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Culture, seen as an action field or process rather than just a structure, has several layers of relevance. For the individual as an actor, the activities and underlying patterns of construal of the immediate community are more relevant than hypothesised norms of ‘the’ overarching culture. In fact, the idea of separate (often national) cultures is seen by the Swedish anthropologist Ulf Hannerz as having been supplanted by the notion of a globally constituted ‘pool of meanings’ from which ‘individuals or different kinds of collectivities come to assemble their particular repertoires’ (Hannerz 1996: 49), not by willy-nilly shopping around for the most suitable options available but by being actively involved in the social life of the immediate community which is interlinked with higher-level manifestations of culture such as attitudes, norms and values. The collective and individual repertoires of patterns of thought and behaviour are derived from practical ‘habitats of meaning’ (Zygmunt Bauman) which can expand, contract and have overlaps with other habitats of meaning. Hannerz defines the habitat in this sense as follows:

The habitat offers both resources and constraints; it is defined with reference to particular agents, so that the habitats of different agents may overlap either more or less, within the landscape as a whole; and the habitat is emergent and transitory. It is not by definition linked to a particular territory. […] [T] he habitat of an agent could be said to consist of a network of direct and indirect relationships, stretching out wherever they may, within or across national boundaries. (Hannerz 1996: 48)

The conceptualisation of a global reservoir of cultural patterns for framing behaviour and construal of meaning means that in principle ‘anything cultural can indeed move from anywhere to anywhere, from anybody to anybody’ (Hannerz 1996: 50). This is not a plea for a global diffusion of cultures; rather, the pool of cultural meanings is being contextualised at metacultural levels in the sense that neither the metaculture nor the local cultural habitats can unambiguously be related to a specific geographic territory. This perspective on culture as habitats of meaning leaves room for cultural diversity and spatiotemporal asymmetries within the frame of global networks that may come into effect more or less at local levels. For the subjective dimension of relating to and living in the habitats of meaning, this constellation implies that it moves between the poles of localism and cosmopolitism whereby the tendency to cosmopolitism can lend a certain degree of commonality between the different cultural habitats.

The definition of culture as habitats of meaning has the advantage of moving away from essentialising notions of culture. It is much more flexible, porous, emergent and dynamic and transcends the fixed relation between a certain territory and a certain culture, while at the same time acknowledging the relations between culture and subject as flexible and dialogical. Hannerz highlights the internal fractures, discontinuities and contradictions that are inherent in the concept of a culture, as well as the interconnections of cultures in forms of intercultural blending. His suggestion of considering single cultures as contributing to a transcultural ‘pool of meanings’ emphasises the universal and interlinked human nature of culture in the globalised world.

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This approach presumes that individuals have access to cultural resources of more than just one culture which seems to be characteristic of the postmodern human condition. However, it is important to note that this view of cultures as ‘habitats of meaning’ does not imply a definition of transculturality, whereas the hypothesised global ‘pool of meanings’ has undoubtedly a transcultural element to it. The individual cultures, though externally interlinked and internally fractured, provide sufficient coherence for its members to share (albeit to different degrees) basically the same values, norms, attitudes and beliefs in order to be able to distinguish each culture from another. Boundaries between cultural frameworks are not considered to be completely dissolved, but they are necessary for enabling a subjective and collective sense of cultural rootedness and identity and for providing a point of reference for the subject and for the community. From this basis, individuals are enabled to communicate across boundaries and thereby transcend cultural (social, national, racial, religious and other) boundaries. It is important to remember that cultures do not exist, interact or communicate directly, but humans do by interacting in certain intercultural situations, thus sustaining cultural life. From their communicative and experiential encounters with cultural others, be they direct in certain encounters or indirect, mediated by guided learning activities in the foreign language classroom, the learners tend to construe aspects of the foreign society and culture, using their own internalised cognitive and habitual attitudes, norms and frames of meaning; these encounters and resultant transformations in construal will also affect a change of frames of meaning in an intercultural process of blending.2

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While the mentalistic and praxeological approaches outlined above acknowledge that culture is as much a structure as a process, the deliberations are very much centred on the cognitive domain. This seems understandable, as culture mostly impacts on the consciousness as the main domain for orienting subjects in terms of their attitudes, judgements of relevance, interpretative procedures, values and beliefs. Cognition is also at the centre of all efforts of teaching and learning, aiming at enhancing and broadening students’ knowledge by stimulating the construal of new meaning. The ongoing construal of meaning originates from intentional interaction between people, not from within people. If this interactive process of encounter involves foreign languages and cultures, the internalised attitudes, values, norms and cultural patterns of construal will be challenged and qualified by the increasingly intensive encounter with those of the foreign culture which contributes to the development of highly subjective intercultural spaces on the part of the learner. These spaces are dominated by ‘neither the one nor the other’ (Bhabha 1994: 25) of the inputting cultures but constitute a subjective cognitive blend of aspects of these cultures; these blends are continually developing in the mind of the learner and are translated into interculturally appropriate (or at least acceptable) behaviour. This is the space where cultures, previously separated in the individual minds, become intertwined in a creative manner by establishing ongoing, mutually transformative relations. These intercultural spaces ‘provide a genuinely new territory of construction which is somewhat suspended between the different cultures, languages and discourses contributing to their fragmented existence’ (Witte 2014: 242). So intercultural competence is not defined from poles of fixed and essentialised conceptualisations of cultures, rather it focuses on processes of mediating between cultural differences that occur in different ways in each community.

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However, these cognitive-mentalistic conceptualisations of intercultural competence are deficient in several regards: the concept of the hybrid intercultural third space which is mainly based on developments and values of Western cultures completely ignores the historical ballast, hierarchies and power imbalances between the cultures concerned (cf. Holliday 2012). The interplays of power structures, knowledge and discourse tend to preserve hidden power imbalances within and across societies. This has an impact on the facilitation of particular subject positions (including those influenced by intercultural competence) which are determined by the dominant social, economic and political conditions. Hierarchies and power imbalances must be addressed in the negotiation of subjective intercultural competence if it is to be ethical, comprehensive and effective. The subjective space of intercultural competence is highly dynamic; it does not lend itself to complacency and conformity but is an ongoing site of struggle, blending and mediation.

If intercultural competence is negotiated and constructed, then the same process must apply in the classroom. Rather than presenting learners with preconstructed and essentialised notions of selected elements of the foreign culture, an experientially based classroom should provide them with ample opportunities to creatively and constructively engage with the foreign cultural configurations and underlying structures and arrive at their own intercultural spaces of construal. In the process of mediating intercultural competence, emphasis is normally paid to declarative knowledge of what is considered (in)appropriate in a given context and situation. However, it is important to include the development of procedural knowledge of why certain behaviours are considered (in)appropriate. It should be remembered that the creative place of culturally constructed symbol systems is ultimately the human mind where they have the cognitive function of providing schemata and systems of classification, with which specific representations of the world are generated (cf. Reckwitz 2003: 288). If the declarative mediation of intercultural competence tends to gloss over cultural differences in a cultural-relativist framework of presumed processes of mediation, modes of complacency, conformity and passivity are encouraged, rather than resulting in an active stance of critical inquiry.

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Traditional approaches to intercultural competence tend to construe learners as being overly conscious, rational, and intentional, whereas little, if any, attention is paid to physiological, psychological and emotional dimensions of learning. So on the one hand, these cognitive-mentalistic approaches tend to neglect the normative power of the collective social practices and their pool of knowledge in the sense of practical ‘know how’, while on the other hand they tend to ignore the lived body as the centre of the subject in the sense of an embodied self. Therefore, a performative approach in combination with a neo-phenomenological corporeal approach can provide new insights into the mechanisms of sociocultural and intercultural relationships. Social practices facilitate an understanding of practical behavioural routines which over time become incorporated in the lived bodies of social actors, while at the same time shaping the routinised relationships of the interactants in a cultural community (cf. Reckwitz 2003: 289). They supply the subject with a practical and durable sense of how to act in the community; once acquired by an individual through direct experience and imitation they are ingrained into the body, ‘embodied and turned into a second nature’ (Bourdieu 1990: 63). This sort of habitual practical knowledge has to be experienced and performed in the social context of activities which poses a considerable challenge for the intercultural classroom, as it transcends the cognitive domain and involves the whole body of the learner.

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While it is unlikely that it can always be experienced to the level of incorporation of practical knowledge in the classroom context, an approach to teaching and learning that emphasises embodied action can be a step in that direction. Embodied intercultural learning3 can be practised in performative forms of collaborative activities like role play, cultural simulation games and more complex performative activities that make use of techniques, forms and processes adapted from the performing arts (e.g. theatre). The performative approach to intercultural learning puts more emphasis on corporeally experiencing the intercultural situation and on corporeally ‘knowing how’ to (inter)act, as compared to the traditional cognitive emphasis on ‘knowing what’. Performative inquiry is a ‘mode of learning that invites students to explore the imaginary world within which space-moments of interstanding and intercultural recognitions are possible’ (Fels/McGivern 2002: 23; quoted in Crutchfield/Schewe 2017: xvi). The ‘space-moments of interstanding’, of standing and corporeally acting between languages and cultures, transcend the cognitive domain and integrate cognitive, emotional, social and corporeal dimensions into the intercultural learning process.4

An embodied approach to intercultural learning is not limited to activating the body or its parts to partake in the cognitive learning process. Cognitive processes and brain structures have themselves arisen in infancy in the sphere of reciprocal bodily interaction and understanding, resulting from embodied interaction with relevant others. These processes are initiated by affective intercorporeal resonances in early infancy, then proceeding to iconic gestures in engaged shared practices (mutually shared gaze-following, pointing, mimicry, vocalisation, touch, coordination of movements, etc.) which then lead to symbolic modes of communication (including language), without losing the primal dimension of the pre-verbal intercorporeal resonance system. On this view, speech is primarily not a symbol system but rather transformed gesture, enacted by the body.

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The lived body is the existential centre of the self; it is who I am.5 It cannot be reduced to cognition; rather cognition is a part of the lived body. The concept of the living, sensing, dynamic and perceptive body refers to the extra-organic dimension of feeling one’s own body and its resonances, which is only accessible in the first person. In contrast to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s (1962) influential philosophy of the body which conceptualises the body as a foundation for conscious perception and experience, the neo-phenomenological approach in philosophy (see Chapter 1) affords the feeling body itself the dimensions of sensing and experiencing which are characterised by a pre-reflective quality. Hence the sentient body (and the physical body) also have to be recognised as the constitutive conditions of the social and cultural realms of life-worlds.6

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The sentient body cannot be wilfully controlled because its many sentiments and stirrings normally remain below the level of explicit consciousness as a ‘basic form of primitive body intentionality, the sort of limited, obscure awareness we exhibit in our sleep, when, for example, we intentionally (though unconsciously) move a pillow that is disturbing our breathing’ (Shusterman 2012: 197). This pre-conscious life of the sentient body has nevertheless a significant influence on spontaneous behaviour, as the corporeal senses directly resonate with certain atmospheres, subjects, objects and situations, before cognition has the chance to spring into action; this short moment of sensing pre-reflective corporeal resonances is sufficient to create a first, and often lasting, impression of a person, configuration, situation or object (cf. Griffero 2016: 30). In this space of absence of explicit cognitive reflection and control, spontaneous behaviour relies on the resonances of the sentient body to the social atmospheres and sensed demands of new intercultural situations, for example, in terms of visceral feelings or hunches. Through the unmitigated corporeal resonances with socio-culturally unfamiliar situations and their inherent constellations and atmospheres, learners can intuitively grasp an extract of a segmented situation, based on the shared humanity of existence. This is done in a way of not so much consciously realising the implicit code of conduct relevant for the situation but sensing and incorporating it in the spontaneous corporeal-affective resonances and embodied cognitive processes. In day-to-day interactions, people tend to understand one another to a large extent by sensing the subjectively implied meaning by the interlocutor and their ways of interaction, rather than grasping it rationally (cf. Gugutzer 2012: 64) because of the nature of the sentient body being fundamentally oriented towards other bodies. The resonances entail spontaneous pre-reflective responses of the sentient body, before the brain has a chance of trying to integrate them into cognitive structures (cf. Waldenfels 2019: 255). In this way, mental life relies on corporeal experience which cannot be separated from bodily processes, although it also cannot be reduced to them (cf. Shusterman 2012: 27).

These corporeal dimensions of sensing and resonating with atmospheres of intercultural (and other) encounters with other people have so far been ignored by the discourse on intercultural competence. Whereas the sentient body eludes cognitive control, a level of attentiveness paid to spontaneous corporeal resonances, visceral feelings and stirrings can be trained so that their influence on intercultural situations can be acknowledged. A genuine intercultural-situational competence requires attentiveness to corporeally resonant intuitions in atmospheres that are inherent in situations; these largely evade principles of quantifiable dimensions of knowledge, abilities and skills.

Some of these considerations on critiquing and rethinking aspects of intercultural competence led the editors of this book to organise a conference at the National University of Ireland in Maynooth in September 2019 entitled Intercultural Competence: A Concept in Need of Rethinking? The guiding questions of the conference were posited as follows:

Is the concept of intercultural competence too elusive to have a real and measurable impact on the individual?


VIII, 264
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (April)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. VIII, 264 pp., 22 b/w ill., 7 tables.

Biographical notes

Theo Harden (Volume editor) Arnd Witte (Volume editor)

Arnd Witte is Professor of Modern Languages at the School of Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures at Maynooth University, the National University of Ireland Maynooth. He has published widely in the area of foreign language learning and intercultural communication, with a particular focus on the development of intercultural competence. Theo Harden is Professor Emeritus at University College Dublin and Professor of German at the Departamento de Línguas Estrangeiras e Tradução at the Universidade de Brasília. He has published widely in the area of foreign language teaching and learning and translation studies.


Title: Rethinking Intercultural Competence