Developing EFL learners’ intercultural communicative competence: A gap to be filled?

| July 5, 2007
Developing EFL learners intercultural communicative competence: A gap to be filled?

Keywords: linguistic competence, intercultural competence

Nguyen Thi Mai Hoa

Bio Data
Nguyen Thi Mai Hoa is a PhD Candidate in the School of Education at the University of Queensland. Her research activities focus on English language teaching and EFL teacher education. She has experience teaching English, TESOL Methodology and training EFL teachers at the College of Foreign Languages, Vietnam National University and has engaged in research at the University of Queensland where she was funded for her PhD in Education. Aside from her MA in TESOL at the University of Queensland, she also successfully completed her Master in Educational Leadership and Management at International RMIT.

As English has become an international language, teaching for linguistic competence cannot be separated from teaching for intercultural competence. However, intercultural communication has not been paid due attention to in English language teaching (ELT) in Vietnam. This partially leads to the fact that Vietnamese students of English may master English in terms of its grammar and linguistics but have many problems in intercultural communication. This article aims to respond to the call for more attention to intercultural communication in ELT to develop students intercultural communicative competence. The article stresses the increasingly important role of intercultural communication in ELT and the necessity to develop students intercultural communicative competence. The three domains of intercultural communicative competence have been identified with an aim to draw attention to move the learning of intercultural communication beyond its cognitive domain. A variety of learning and teaching activities are put forward to be integrated in EFL teaching and learning with an aim to improve the current situation of EFL teaching and learning in general and in Vietnam in particular.
[private] Abstract:
As English has become an international language, teaching for linguistic competence cannot be separated from teaching for intercultural competence. However, intercultural communication has not been paid due attention to in English language teaching (ELT) in Vietnam. This partially leads to the fact that Vietnamese students of English may master English in terms of its grammar and linguistics but have many problems in intercultural communication. This article aims to respond to the call for more attention to intercultural communication in ELT to develop students intercultural communicative competence. The article stresses the increasingly important role of intercultural communication in ELT and the necessity to develop students intercultural communicative competence. The three domains of intercultural communicative competence have been identified with an aim to draw attention to move the learning of intercultural communication beyond its cognitive domain. A variety of learning and teaching activities are put forward to be integrated in EFL teaching and learning with an aim to improve the current situation of EFL teaching and learning in general and in Vietnam in particular.

Key words: linguistic competence, intercultural competence. EIL

Culture, an integral aspect of language learning, sometimes fades into the background in the language classes in Vietnam. The emphasis tends to be placed on the development of the basic skills, i.e., speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Many Vietnamese teachers believe in the teaching language first, and introducing culture later approach discussed by Omaggio (1993, pp. 357-358). The question raised with this theory is how language can be taught without culture. Language is communication, but not without an understanding of the culture. This leaves little time, if any, for cross-cultural or intercultural lessons, which partially leads to the fact that students may master English in terms of its grammar, lexis, phonology, but have many problems in intercultural or cross-cultural communication which can be defined as
an act of communication undertaken by individuals identified with groups exhibiting intergroup variation in shared social and cultural patterns. These shared patterns, individually expressed, are the major variables in the purpose, the manner, the mode, and the means by which the communicative process is affected (Damen, 1987, p.32).

Many researchers (e.g., Ortuno, 1991; Alptekin, 1993; Coffey, 1999; Martinez-Gibson, 1998; McKay, 2000) have shed light on the importance of cultural information in language teaching. They stress that communication is an interrelationship between a language and its people and if cultural information is not taught as a part of communicative competence, complete communication cannot happen. Besides, with the emergence of English as the chief medium of international communication in Vietnam, there is a need and desire for proficiency in English to communicate with people of other countries. Whenever two people from different cultures meet and use English to communicate with each other, they will use it in culturally distinct ways. Therefore, it is apparent that teaching intercultural interaction competence in English may well be among the most significant undertakings of the future. It stands to reason that culture needs to be integrated into the teaching of all language skills so that learners can learn to speak, but also to write, in culturally appropriate ways for specific purposes.
Meanwhile, the quality of English teaching and learning is still a concern to many Vietnamese educators. A document released by the Department of Secondary Education, within the Vietnamese Ministry of Education and Training, stated that the demand for English language teaching and learning is ever increasing…but the curriculum contents and textbooks are out of date…Consequently, the quality of teaching and learning English is unsatisfactory (Tran, 2001, p.15). In Vietnam, most classrooms have been teacher-centred or teacher-fronted (Sullivan, 2000). This is also supported by Kennett and Knight (1999), and Walker, Tao and Bao (1996, cited in Nguyen, 2000), who hold that teaching methods [in Vietnam] were outdated, relying almost entirely on strict teacher-centred methods and rote learning.
In this context, it can be recognized that there is a need to address these concerns by looking for the application of more effective alternatives, and pedagogy of appropriation for the fact that English is used as an international language in Vietnam. Although there has been a campaign in education to transform curriculum, text books, and teaching methodologies (Kim, 2001, p.140), progress has been very slow in teaching foreign languages. In a research study of ELT in Vietnam, Kramsch and Sullivan (1996) suggested pedagogy of appropriation and authenticity, which reflects an effort to make ELT both efficient for global transactions and relevant to the user s local culture (p. 211). Therefore, intercultural training should be integrated in ELT, thus preparing learners to be both global and local speakers of English and to feel at home in both international and national culture (p. 211).
This paper aims at raising the awareness of the integration of intercultural communication understanding and intercultural communicative competence in ELT in Vietnam.


Although the grammar-translation methods of ELT for students majoring in English is losing its popularity, emphasis still tends to be placed on the development of the basic skills, i.e., speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Consequently, the place of intercultural communication has not received the attention it needs.
Despite there being a new emphasis on developing communicative competence, there are no specific teaching guidelines for the development of this for Vietnamese students of English. As a result, intercultural issues seem not to be included in the curriculum in any integrated or significant way. This can be partially shown in an examination of several so-called cultural syllabi under consideration (Hue University, Danang University, and Colleges of Foreign Languages, Hanoi National University). Being aware of the link between language and culture, most of the foreign universities/colleges in Vietnam introduce cultural information about the target culture. For example, in the English Department of Hue University, Danang University, Hanoi National University, and other foreign language universities, American culture and British culture are explicitly taught in their program with the purpose of providing students with knowledge on major cultural issues of America and Britain, to get students to practise the four skills while studying the subject, to get them to make some comparisons between the culture of English speaking countries (typically American and British culture) and Vietnamese culture (Department of English, 2002). It seems that culture is embedded in knowledge about the history, geography and institutions of the target language country. Cultural competence in this case comes to be viewed as a body of knowledge about the country. Although students will indeed need to develop knowledge of and about the L2 culture, this receptive aspect of cultural competence is not sufficient (Lessard-Clouston, 1997, p. 137). Tseng (2002) also believes that culture can be learned as a process rather than as a collection of facts (p. 11). Consequently, it is important that learners should develop strategies which they can apply to further their own learning and to interpret cultural acts in the context in which they occur, not just some information about the target language cultural practices.
Moreover, what is ignored is the fact that nowadays English has increasingly become a means of intercultural communication, so with only the memory of the informational culture of the target culture, students may fail in communication with both native speakers and non-native speakers of English. Therefore, together with the understanding of the target culture, awareness of intercultural communication is indispensable in ELT. The picture gained from the examination of these syllabi is that insufficient attention is paid to the development of intercultural awareness. The aim in the syllabi appears to be primarily to develop cognitive awareness of cultural peculiarity-the stage of mere cognitive learning (Bochner, 1982, p. 32), which is discussed in the next part of this paper. The English Department at the College of Foreign Languages, Vietnam National University makes a great step by introducing cross-cultural studies, which cover most of the basic topics of cross-cultural (Vietnamese and Anglicist) communication. Yet it still targets the provision of information about cross-cultural communication. The opportunities for students to develop their affective domain and behavioural skills are limited. This is partly due to the fact that English learning conditions in Vietnam are limited in the classroom. Vietnamese students of English normally have few chances to improve their intercultural communicative competence outside the classroom. They generally have limited access to television or other media coming from outside Vietnam, or to people from other cultures. Opportunities for independent learning are even more limited because of the lack of related available resources and opportunities to be exposed to a foreign environment. All this suggests that the principal learning location is the classroom, which to a considerable degree hinders the development of skills. Therefore, this champions the need for students to master skills in cross-culturally appropriate communication and behaviour. In summary, most foreign language universities/colleges in Vietnam have recognized the role of intercultural communication in enhancing communicative competence. Yet it is usually restricted to culture-specific awareness in the cognitive domain, partially leading to Vietnamese students of English facing difficulties in intercultural communication (Suu, 1990; Thanh, 2000, Nguyen, 2000; Phan, 2001).
Therefore, this paper attempts to echo the need for integrating students intercultural awareness so that they can successfully communicate in English with not only native speakers, but also non-native speakers in intercultural communication.

Intercultural communication

The term intercultural communication is identified in a less complicated way. In general, it refers to communication between people from different cultures (Dodd, 1998; Ting-Toomey, 1999; Samovar et al, 1997; Damen, 1987). More precisely, it refers to symbolic exchange processes whereby individuals from two (or more) different cultural communities negotiate shared meaning in an interactive situation (Ting-Toomey, p. 16). In the symbolic exchange process , people from cultural communities encode and decode the verbal and nonverbal messages into comprehensive meanings . This definition obviously emphasizes the influence of cultural variability and diversity on communication. There is no doubt that when two or more people of different cultural backgrounds attempt to communicate, cultural barriers to communication often arise due to the differences in their patterns of life, social style, customs, world view, religion philosophy and so on. This is often the case when the communicators share a foreign language.
Nowadays, intercultural communication plays an important in ELT partly because English assumes the role of an international language which is used extensively by millions of people outside its original geographic boundaries to convey national and international perceptions of reality which may be quite different from those of English speaking cultures (Alptekin, 1984, p. 17). As English continues to spread as an international language, the number of second language users of English will continue to grow, far surpassing the number of native speakers of English. It is also the case in Vietnam. Vietnamese learners of English use it to communicate more with the second learners of English rather than the native speakers. It is apparent that English is the main link language across cultures today (Schnitzer, 1995, p. 227). Therefore, the goal of learning English shifts to enable learners to communicate their ideas and culture with not only the speakers of English but also those of other cultures. Consequently, the question of intercultural communication is clearly indispensable in English language learning and teaching if the aim is to develop students communicative competence, which is further discussed in the next part.

The term intercultural communicative competence deliberately maintains a link with recent traditions in foreign language teaching, but extends the concept of communicative competence in significant ways. Generally, it has been identified by many researchers (Kim, 1991; Schinitzer, 1995; Byram, 1997; Byram et al 2001; Byrnes, 1991; Krasnick, 1984; Baxter, 1983; Hyde, 1998; Meyer, 1991) as the ability to interact with people from another country and culture in a foreign language. More precisely, it is defined as the overall internal capacity of an individual to manage key challenging features of intercultural communication (Kim, 1991, p. 259), to efficiently negotiate a mode of communication and interaction by ability to use and adapt language use appropriately in culturally different contexts. The challenging features of intercultural communication can be identified as cultural differences, unfamiliarity, and incompatibility between the interactants. This status of English as a means of international and intercultural communication brings many challenges to teachers and learners of English. It stands to reason that successful communication is not simply about acquiring a linguistic code; it is also about dealing with different cultural values reflected in language use. This lays out the philosophical base for a growing awareness that communicative competence should be conceived as intercultural communicative competence (Baxter, 1983), including not only the knowledge of basic values and norms; verbal and nonverbal interactional competence in using English in intercultural communication; competence in using language as social action; competence in creating and interpreting linguistic aspects of social reality (Krasnick, 1984, p. 218), but also the cognitive, affective, and behavioral adaptability of an individual s internal system in all intercultural contexts (Kim, 1991, p. 259).
Learners of English who hope to carry out intercultural interactions effectively must be equipped with this set of abilities to be able to understand and deal with the dynamics of cultural differences because of the inseparable relationship between foreign language learning and intercultural communication.
It is obvious that if a teacher wants to maximize students communicative effectiveness when interacting with members of other culture, the students should be also receiving cultural awareness training as an integral part of their English courses. However, teaching or emphasizing cross-cultural awareness in the English language classroom is not an easy task. The next section discusses the contribution of several research studies towards the development of cross-cultural/intercultural skills

The levels of intercultural competence

What are the characteristics of effective intercultural communicators? Descriptions are found throughout the literature on intercultural effectiveness. Baxter (1983) summarizes these, suggesting that an effective cross-cultural communicator needs not only to tolerate ambiguity well but also be able to adapt to new social conventions and behaviour demands (p. 307), and then understand his or her own cultural roots and the effect of other cultures on personal behaviour.
Similarly, Gudykunst (1993) also sees the effectiveness of intercultural communication being determined by our ability to mindfully manage our anxiety and reduce our uncertainty about ourselves and the people with whom we are communicating (p. 37).
The first thing an English teacher, in particular, and a language teacher, in general, will ask is: Can this be taught? How can the learners acquire this in the language classroom?
A number of researchers (Brislin et al, 1986; Gudykunst & Nishida, 1989; Martin 1994; Brislin & Yoshida, 1994; and others) have tackled these questions. In designing cross-cultural training for the development of intercultural communicative competence, they suggest there is a need to address the three areas of cognition, affect, and behaviour.

To support cognition, several researchers (Lambert, 1999; Schmidt, 2000) advocate introducing specific knowledge regarding topics such as history, geography, politics, and economics which help the students engage in communicating with people from the host culture. To some extent, this approach can provide students with a certain understanding of specific areas of culture such as the artefacts which the culture uses, so that they have the basis for intelligent conversations with the people of the host culture, and help decrease stress (Weaver, 1993, p. 154). However, this aspect of culture does not greatly influence communication. If the interactants do not understand the underpinning rules of behaviours, they are likely to face misunderstandings and failure in intercultural communication. On the other hand, the danger of this approach is that too many facts are presented and there are too many challenges to the students memory and their tolerance. It can never be sufficient and learning such information can be time consuming and tedious (Brislin and Yoshida, 1994).
Several researchers (Pease, 2000; Ting-Toomey, 1999; Axtell, 1993, Weaver, 1993) suggest another approach to develop culture-specific cognitive awareness by providing learners with a list of basic do s and don t s to a particular culture, which at least helps them at the beginning when they encounter a new cultural environment. This means they would be aware of the pitfalls that they should be wary of when interacting with members of the other cultures. To some extent, this approach can provide students with a certain understanding of specific areas of culture, helping them avoid behaving in an offensive way. However, a number of writers make the point that mere cognitive learning (Bochner, 1982, p. 23) will not assist students in developing the necessary skills to successfully negotiate cross-cultural encounters and thereby reduce the anxiety and the uncertainty that Gudykunst (1993, p. 37) talks about.
Developing intercultural communicative competence needs to go beyond the mere transmission of facts about a culture and provide knowledge to enhance participants understanding of how and why people perform certain behaviours and have certain attitudes during cross-cultural encounters. As Brislin et al (1986) point out, misunderstanding is reduced when people know when, how, and why certain attributions will be made (p1-34). To provide this knowledge, Brislin and Yoshida (1994) suggest that a language program which develops students awareness of cross-cultural communication should initially concentrate on culture-general cognitive training and should include familiarisation with the major differences in fundamental cultural patterns of attitude and behaviours. Such knowledge refers to specific theories or themes that are commonly encountered in cross-cultural interaction regardless of the cultures involved, such as enunciated in the work of Hall (1976), Gudykunst (1986), and Ting-Toomey (1999) on high and low-context cultures as well as knowledge of how to perform and make behavioural adjustment in intercultural communication.
Cognition can be considered as the first step in any intercultural training. In particular, this stage focuses on knowledge and awareness, aiming to help students understand how their culture influences their interaction with people of other cultures (Gudykunst et al, 1996). To accomplish this in a language program, the language teacher can give lectures or present readings, or listening materials or, as Brislin et al (1986) suggest, foreign language learners should take part in problem-solving activities, and the analysis of critical incidents which can develop their awareness of how behavioural attributions are made during interaction.


All intercultural interaction involves some degree of stress, adjustment, anxiety and uncertainty in participants due to unfamiliarity and cultural differences. It is understood that participants may face complex emotions such as confusion, and anger. Therefore, several researchers (Brislin & Yoshiba, 1994; Gudykunst et al, 1996; Kim, 1991; Lamber, 1999) have emphasized the higher aims of cross-cultural awareness at the affective level, which is to enable the students to effectively manage their emotional reactions, thus maximising the effectiveness of their interactions with members of other cultures. This leads to the readiness to accommodate intercultural challenges (Kim, 1991, p. 269). Sharing this idea, Gudykunst et al (1996), Burleson (1983), and Weigel & Howes (1985) believe that the challenge for intercultural training is not only to provide learners with the necessary awareness of why uncertainty and anxiety occur and to provide them with the tools and information to manage that anxiety (p. 75), but also to encourage them to confront their biases and prejudices so that they can more effectively deal with them. Gradually, they can accept the viewpoint that people from different cultural backgrounds have different ways to behave and interpret their behaviours, but that difference does not mean deficiency.
Numerous authors (for example, Baxter, 1983; Brislin & Yoshiba, 1994; Gudykunst et al, 1996) have suggested different kinds of activities to develop learners cross-cultural awareness at the affective level. Among these, it is worth mentioning case studies, discussions, simulations, role-play, and cultural assimilators involving the use of critical incidents. At this stage, the use of critical incidents is an effective way to understand the viewpoints of culturally different people, prompting discussion concerning the participants emotional reactions, and developing the ability to identify culturally appropriate behaviours (Brislin & Yoshida, 1994; Black & Mendenthall, 1990). Meanwhile, a well-prepared simulation or a role-play helps students to put themselves in the shoes of others and experience such emotions, paving the way to understand how culture influences their behaviours and emotions. In these activities, which may be culture-general or culture-specific, the learners are required to consider and discuss either their own reactions or those of others when they take part in observing posed cross-cultural interactions. The object of these activities is that participants become aware of the many and varied emotional reactions that may arise during cross-cultural contact and learn, through the discussion stage of the activities, the reason for the emotional reaction given the background, thus providing the basis for the development of cultural empathy and sensitivity (Irwin, 1996).
However, it is not sufficient for a language learner to have knowledge of another culture and some degree of affective identification, because without an understanding of the behaviours and social skills necessary to accompany communication, breakdowns in the process will occur. The next part, therefore, will discuss the behavioural dimension of intercultural training.


Awareness and knowledge to face emotional challenges are not sufficient for success in intercultural interaction. According to several researchers (Brislin & Yoshida, 1994; Gudykunst et al, 1996), practice in engaging in behaviour must be increased to develop student s intercultural communicative competence. More particularly, in developing learners cross-cultural awareness, the teachers need to help them recognize that changes in behaviours lead to greater probability of success in interaction with culturally different people. In turn, this develops the ability to read the behaviour of other participants in cross-cultural encounters and learn a repertoire of social skills in effective cross-cultural interactions (Cushner & Landis, 1996). In the behavioural dimension, a student needs to develop their ability to be flexible and resourceful in actually carrying out what he or she is capable of in the cognitive and affective dimensions (Kim, 1991, p. 269). In other words, it is the ability to discover, interpret, relate and adapt to the requirements posed by different contexts (Byram, 1997).
It is obvious that if a cross-cultural training integration is to maximize its effectiveness, it needs to incorporate all three domains cognitive, affective, and behavioral. However, the next question is how to these three domains in EFL teaching to develop EFL learners intercultural communication understanding as well as their skills to deal with barriers in intercultural communication in the classroom. The following teaching and learning activities are put forward to achieve those aims.

Learning activities

With an appropriate cultural orientation, most learning activities can take on intercultural aspects, offer obvious opportunities for developing cultural and interactional competence in addition to communicative competence (Krasnick, 1984). For that purpose, the following activities are suggested.

Lecture and readings

One common approach to prepare students for intercultural communication at the cognitive level is simply telling students about the things which may cause the greatest problems, i.e., the differences, and provide readings on the subjects (Argyle, 1982; Robinson, 1985).

Cultural assimilators

A cultural assimilator is a brief description of critical incidents of cross-cultural behaviors that would probably be misunderstood by students. After the description of the incident, the students are presented with explanations from which they are asked to select the correct one (Seelye, 1984), followed by possible responses. Cultural assimilators are not only more fun to read but also help the students to identify differences in cultural values. This increases students understanding of culturally complex issues, which serves to develop their cognitive and affective dimensions. It offers great potential, and is an effective way of teaching individuals to make culturally appropriate interpretations or attributions of the meaning of other behavior (Krasnick, 1984, p. 217). It encourages greater sensitivity to differences in cultures.

Cultural capsule

Cultural capsules are brief presentations showing one or more essential differences between cultures, accompanied by visuals that illustrate these and a set of questions to stimulate class discussion. Cultural capsules can be recorded or written.


Mini-drama approach as suggested by Gorden, 1970 (as cited in Robinson, 1985). The mini-drama consists of from three to five brief episodes, each of which contains one or more examples of miscommunication. A discussion is led by the teacher after each episode. The purpose of the mini-drama is to provide cultural information and to evoke an emotional response which results in self-confrontation (Argyle, 1982; Gudykunst et al, 1996; Krasnick, 1984).

Role play

In role-play activities, students imagine themselves in an intercultural situation outside the classroom, and perform a role-play about a situation within one s own culture or another culture. Experiencing the situation from different perspectives can contribute to a clearer perception, greater awareness and a better understanding of one s own culture and culture of other people (Fennes & Hapgood, 1997, p. 109).

Cultural simulation games

Simulation developers state that the purpose of the games is to simulate culture shock. They maintain that experiencing cultural shock prior to field experience will cushion actual shock by increasing awareness of cross-cultural problems (Krasnick, 1984; Gudykunst et al, 1996). Therefore, students can become sensitized to the helplessness of people from different cultural backgrounds when confronted with a totally new and foreign situation. The preparation for intercultural interaction provided by rehearsal and practicing in the games can make a measurable difference in the stress inherent in these situations (Fowler, 1986, p. 73).


Discussion involves various topics about intercultural aspects, contributing greatly to learner s motivation and critical thinking (Tomalin & Stempleski, 1993; Gudykunst et al, 1996). Discussion activity can provide students with good learning atmosphere in which students can cooperate better with one another, learn from the content of discussion and from one another. Discussion activities in the class can be in pairs or in groups.

Inviting Foreigners

People from other cultures and people who are recently returned expatriates are invited into the class to talk about their culture or their experience. This activity is useful in helping students experience real life intercultural interactions (Argyle, 1982). However, this type of activity can be considered optional because it is not always easy to invite people from other cultures to come to class. It is possible that the teacher encourages students to interact with foreigners and recall their experience.
Each activity described has some merits, and it seems likely that a combination of activities would be the most effective. Language teaching, therefore, should use the aforementioned experiential activities such as role-play, simulation, problem-solving, critical incidents, discussions, and so on, which provide learners with opportunities to practise their learned behaviour and so develop their social skills. The acquisition of a repertoire of coping skills for social interaction has the additional value in that, by indicating how to behave, it serves as a means of reducing the stress and anxiety which may be generated in cross-cultural interactions (Brislin, Landis, & Brandt, 1983). Besides, these activities will engage students in using the language interactively, and communicatively for the meaning. These activities, if handled correctly by the language teacher, can develop students intercultural communicative competence, build up their vocabulary, expand their grammatical accuracy, and develop their communicative competence (Scarcella & Oxford, 1992; Brislin et al, 1983).


It is obvious that intercultural communication is significantly important in English language teaching in Vietnam as English has increasingly become an international language and Vietnamese learners have more and more chances to be involved in intercultural communication. In response to the call for reform in the field of language teaching and learning in Vietnam, attention to intercultural awareness can be considered as an alternative.
It is clear that the integration of cross-cultural awareness into language teaching is of immense value in developing students communicative competence. Many research studies in the literature offer insights into how language teachers can incorporate cross-cultural/intercultural dimensions through language teaching practices. It is obvious that if EFL teaching aims at maximizing the effectiveness of intercultural communicative competence, it needs to incorporate all three domains cognitive, affective, and behavioral. Given the fact that English has become a means of intercultural communication, integrating intercultural communication learning into English language teaching is both necessary and possible.
In conclusion, it is impossible to deny the important role of intercultural communication in ELT in general, and in the context of ELT in Vietnam in particular. The more we believe in its indispensable role, the more we count on the necessity and feasibility of the integration of intercultural communication into EFL curriculum plan to develop students intercultural communicative competence.


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Category: Monthly Editions, Volume 21