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Intercultural learning is an area of research, study and application of knowledge about different cultures, their differences and similarities. On the one hand, it includes a theoretical and academic approach (see e.g. Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS) by Milton Bennett, Dimensions of Culture by Geert Hofstede). On the other hand, it comprises practical applications such as learning to negotiate with people from different cultures, living with people from different cultures, living in a different culture and the prospect of peace between different cultures.

Intercultural learning has generated much interest mainly due to the rise of cultural studies and globalization. Culture has become an instrument for social interpretation and communicative action. Intercultural learning is primarily important in the context of the foreign language classroom.


The main goal of intercultural learning is seen as the development of intercultural competence, which is the ability to act and relate appropriately and effectively in various cultural contexts:[1]

Intercultural competence is generally thought to require three components on the learner's side: a certain skillset, culturally sensitive knowledge, and a motivated mindset. In greater detail, the skills, values, and attitudes that constitute intercultural competence include

  1. intercultural attitudes (like openness, curiosity, readiness)
  2. general knowledge (of the theoretical aspects of how social groups/products/practices work and interact)
  3. skills of interpreting and relating (a document of another culture to one's own culture)
  4. skills of discovery and interaction (like the ability to discover information about another culture and the ability to communicate in real-time interaction)
  5. critical cultural awareness (that there are different cultures next to one's own)

The teacher, trainer, or mentor's task is to induce the learning of all in these aspects in the learner. Being successful, intercultural learning results in culturally competent learners.

Theories on approaching culture

In the context of intercultural learning, it is important to be aware of different subcategories of culture, such as "little c" and "big C" culture. While the latter one is also called "objective culture" or "formal culture" referring to institutions, big figures in history, literature, etc., the first one, the "subjective culture", is concerned with the less tangible aspects of a culture, like everyday patterns. In intercultural learning, a mixture of these two is to be employed, but it is especially the apprehension of subjective culture that triggers the development of intercultural competence.
Also, it is important to differentiate between "culture-specific" and "culture-general" approaches when intercultural learning is concerned:

Intercultural learning requires the teacher to employ a mix of "culture-specific" and "culture-general" approaches in order to address the larger issues of ethnocentrism, cultural self-awareness, etc. because intercultural competence cannot be achieved by the single acquisition of knowledge about a specific culture or the pure ability to behave properly in that culture.

Contexts in the classroom

Contexts that are seen as appropriate for intercultural learning in the classroom are those which promote the acquisition of intercultural competence consisting of the components mentioned above. Examples:

Cultural differences in learning

Of particular importance to intercultural learning is understanding cultural differences in learning processes. Intercultural learning programs could benefit greatly from the analysis of cultural trends in these processes. By doing so, educators can see how indigenous people of America are affected by classroom norms. In indigenous American ways of learning, children are included in the community and have lots of experience collaborating with each other and adults in productive ways.

Analysis of cultural differences in learning can provide new and useful insight that can be applied to intercultural learning practice. In other words, learning trends in students' cultural backgrounds can be used by teachers to create more well informed pedagogy. For example, if indigenous American or indigenous-heritage American students were in an intercultural learning program, teachers could communicate knowledge by creating a more collaborative setting, and by adjusting pace of speech to be consistent with the students'.


As with most activities employed in the classroom, activities for intercultural learning are supposed to keep the affective domain of learning in mind, that is, they are to keep the students motivated and enable them to somehow identify with topic that is dealt with. For intercultural learning this is especially true because this field is likely to turn into a delicate matter.

Future prospects

The concept of intercultural learning aiming at the development of intercultural competence also requires a new understanding of the teacher him/herself. S/He is no longer a mere communicator of knowledge, but a mediator and moderator, and has to be educated accordingly. In times of globalization and hope for peace, this issue needs to be researched further and remain of huge interest.

See also


  1. ^ Messner, W., & Schäfer, N. (2012) The ICCA Facilitator's Manual. Intercultural Communication and Collaboration Appraisal. London: GloBus Research, p. 41 (also see:[permanent dead link]); Spitzberg, B. H. (2000). A Model of Intercultural Communication Competence. In L. A. Samovar, & R. E. Porter, Intercultural Communication - A Reader (pp. 375-87). Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing.
  2. ^ a b Yamauchi, L., A. & Tharp, R., G. (1995). Culturally Compatible Conversations in Native American Classrooms. Linguistics and Education 7, 349-367.
  3. ^ Tharp, R., G. (2008). A Perspective on Unifying Culture and Psychology: Some Philosophical and Scientific Issues. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology 27(2), 2007 & 28(1), 2008.
  4. ^ Göran, Folkestad (2006). "Formal and informal learning situations or practices vs formal and informal ways of learning". British Journal of Music Education. 23 (2): 135–145. doi:10.1017/s0265051706006887.
  5. ^ Florio-Ruane, Susan (1989). Knowledge base for the beginning teacher. Oxford: Pergamon. pp. 163–177.