This article presents a view on the concept of intercultural communicative competence and how it connects with reading and listening skills in the context of foreign language learning at higher education. Additionally, a suggestion of activities is set forth, taking into consideration a blended approach to language development.
Intercultural communicative competence
According to Byram (2021, Chapter 3, Section 4, para. 4), the concept of intercultural communicative competence (ICC), refers to “the ability to interact with people from another social group in another language.”
In the context of this article, ICC has a relevant role, as foreign language learning should link the linguistic dimension with the sociocultural dimension, particularly in today’s world in which globalization and the internet make communication more instantaneous. In this regard, Porto, Houghton, and Byram (2017, p. 3) hold that when foreign language learning emphasizes ICC, the learning process leads to an expansion of one’s cultural awareness, a reflection about individuals of other linguistic and cultural backgrounds, and a comparison between the learners’ linguistic and cultural setting and others.
Before I present two suggestions for topics and activities aimed at the development of receptive skills and ICC, it is worth making a note about the learning materials featured in my activities. This article does not aim at commenting on how the learning materials accommodate ICC. Instead, the suggested activities present a recommendation on how to approach the given topics in light of the connection between ICC and foreign language learning. The materials proposed may be adjusted or may vary according to a teacher’s perspective and their classroom context because the materials and activities that fit one class may not exactly fit another one, as every class is different. In spite of the fact that the learning materials are a relevant element in the learning process, in the context of this article, the key element consists of the fostering of the connection between the linguistic and sociocultural dimensions.
The incorporation of ICC in the learning process implies that the use of a certain form of communication, which might be regarded as standardized in one’s cultural background, may need to be adjusted to the cultural setting of the audience one is communicating with. With regard to receptive skills, the inclusion of ICC in listening and reading activities enables learners to adjust their communicative purpose, as they tend to generate output that is in line with the input they receive, that is, conveying information more directly or discursively, more formally or informally, using only verbal communication or combining it with non-verbal communication.
When some individuals use a language other than their mother tongue, sometimes there might occur a certain natural and involuntary tendency to transfer linguistic aspects and forms of interaction from their L1 to the target language. Then, the purpose of including ICC in the learning of a foreign language is to develop the learners’ awareness of the necessity to adjust their linguistic interaction with another person considering that learning to speak a foreign language means going beyond the use of suitable vocabulary and grammar correctness. So, it is important to develop a form of interaction between individuals of different cultural backgrounds not only to fulfill the communicative purpose in a certain context but also to avoid possible uncomfortable situations and/or misunderstandings due to the unaware transfer of linguistic aspects and forms and communication from the L1 to the target language. Therefore, in the process of foreign language learning, and especially in the context of receptive skills, ICC might be regarded as an element that bridges the use of the language and the cultural dimension.
In order to develop ICC in the classroom, it is important that the activities offer the possibility of working on verbal and non-verbal communication, making the learners acquainted with a variety of communicative contexts, as well as using diverse resources to prepare the learners to use language in programmed or spontaneous interactions bearing in mind the cultural differences between people from different backgrounds. On one hand, the development of ICC requires time to prepare classes that combine both the linguistic and cultural dimensions. On the other hand, it is necessary to reflect about the differences and similarities of one’s own culture and the target culture. By reflecting on these aspects, the aim is not only to foster awareness about what approximates and distances different cultural backgrounds but also to avoid misunderstandings that may generate discomfort between speakers from different cultural settings throughout the process of communicative interaction.
On that account, the development of ICC has an important role in the learning process. Considering that ICC is the ability to interact successfully in distinct contexts, the notion of an intercultural speaker emerges. According to Porto, Houghton, and Byram (2017, p. 5), an intercultural speaker is described as
someone who can “read” texts of all kinds – linguistic and non-linguistic, spoken, written, visual,
digital, and multimodal for instance – in a critical and comparative mode,
analysing their meaning in their context but also knows how they can be interpreted from
another context, sometimes resolving conflicting misunderstandings in the process.
In sum, the presence of ICC in the foreign language process implies that learners gain a certain command of linguistic skills (verbal and non-verbal) and are aware of the communicative context to be able to interact with speakers of other languages and cultures effectively and appropriately.
Receptive skills and their articulation with ICC
Regarding receptive skills, in short, the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment—Companion Volume (Council of Europe, 2020, p. 153) highlights that in a sociolinguistic perspective, the development of these competences implies being able to identify different linguistic registers and use them based on the context and on other speakers, to identify their social background and their origin, and to be mindful of their sociocultural norms and local culture.
So, in order to comprehend information successfully, the learners should be aware of the linguistic dimension, of the context, of the interlocutor, and of the meaning it carries in certain communicative contexts which, in turn, entail the development of receptive skills.
While working on these skills, reading and listening activities can be complemented with visual resources to facilitate the understanding of the information and the learners’ expansion of their linguistic command and to stimulate a contrastive analysis between the students’ cultural setting and the target one. Some examples of visual resources might refer to gastronomy, architecture, events, among others, and they might serve not only as a visual reference but also prompt reflection about other ways of living and their importance to that cultural background and, ultimately, to understand them. Thus, the articulation of verbal and non-verbal communication demonstrates a connection between receptive skills and ICC.
A blended approach towards the development of linguistic skills
Bearing in mind that nowadays the use of technology pervades our lives, it is relevant to incorporate it in the teaching and learning process. In this regard, this article considers a blended approach in which the activities I propose are aimed at a face-to-face and online asynchronous context. However, it is also possible to develop them in an online context by means of synchronous and asynchronous classes.
Face-to-face learning should offer moments of interaction that allow students to reflect on the curricular contents and to give them guidelines, together with meaningful examples, on how to achieve specific communicative goals so that they are equipped with tools to self-regulate their learning, to be more autonomous, and prepared to attain determined outcomes when working online. In the context of blended learning, here are two suggestions of topics and activities aimed at the development of receptive skills and ICC.
1. Topic: Gastronomy
a) Face-to-face setting
In a first stage, the teacher presents information about their eating habits and a dish they like or is curious about with reference to the gastronomic sphere related to the foreign language. Afterwards, a video can be watched in the class in which a speaker of the foreign language prepares that dish. Subsequent to this activity, to make sure the students have assimilated the information, a multiple-choice quiz can be taken in the class. With this follow-up quiz it is possible to work on reading skills and ICC, that is, the students may become aware of food items which they are not familiar with and/or that might be cooked/eaten in a rather different manner from what they are used to in their own culture.
b) Online setting
According to the size of the class, each student records an audio file about their eating habits and a dish they like, or are curious about, within the gastronomic sphere related to the foreign language, in line with the classroom activities. To be concise and captivating, each file should not be longer than three minutes. Then, the teacher prepares a quiz (i.e., true/false, multiple choice, drag vocabulary onto text) and uploads the students’ audio files to a site the students can access. Subsequently, the students are given a few days to solve the quiz, as they are required to listen to all the files in order to solve it. Thus, students improve their receptive skills, as they listen to the files and assimilate the information on the quiz; are sensitized to ICC, as they are exposed to a wide range of cultural aspects; and generate answers to a particular context, while answering the quiz.
2. Topic: Class Poetry Day
a) Face-to-face setting
Another possibility to connect language and its cultural dimension is to bring a form of artistic expression into the class. Each student and the teacher will choose a poem of an author of the literary sphere related to the foreign language and prepare a reading activity. Although the teacher might suggest some poems/authors, the students may present other suggestions. After getting all these aspects arranged, and being sure there are no repeated poems, the teacher prepares a reading comprehension worksheet about their poem and, in the classroom, reads the poem aloud and the activities are solved, for example, matching, true/false, filling blanks, grouping vocabulary, identifying synonyms/antonyms. To further develop ICC, the worksheet can include biographic information about the poet in the format of mixed paragraphs so that the students read them, assimilate the information, and reorder them. Finally, in case some students need to read their poems in the class before preparing their assignment, they should do it to obtain feedback about their reading. While practicing reading in class, it is possible to observe different reading styles and to have a first contact with distinct poems, including themes, vocabulary and grammar structures, and their authors.
b) Online setting
Regarding the online context, it is recommended to have a site the students can access where the teacher uploads an audio file with their reading of their chosen poem to start the activity and to set an example to follow. Students are given a few days to record their reading and to upload it and, if necessary, to request assistance before submitting the task. Ultimately, they share their assignments on the course site so that the entire class can have access to a variety of artistic expressions, through the readings of the poems, and improve their receptive skills. If possible, the settings of the course site should be adjusted so that only the teacher and the students may access it as a resource just for the class context.
These activities aim at fostering the learners’ awareness of the target culture and to develop a positive attitude towards it. Whereas eating habits and the preparation of dishes might present similarities and differences relative to one’s own culture, approaching poetry contributes to the expansion of the learners’ knowledge about artistic expression.
To put it briefly, the learning process should draw attention to receptive skills, as they generally represent the first contact one has with a foreign language. If the input is assimilated appropriately by the learners, then they generate meaningful output. Together with ICC, activities focusing on the development of receptive skills can contribute to increasing students’ awareness of distinct forms of communicating and of other cultures. Finally, when reading aloud there is a thin line separating reading and speaking, which means that to develop a skill it is sometimes necessary to articulate it with the practice of other skills.
In essence, the development of linguistic skills, in general, and of receptive skills, in particular, should be articulated with ICC, as this connection leads to linguistic proficiency and awareness of other cultures. Furthermore, the use of a blended approach allows students to self-regulate their learning, to have a more active role throughout their learning, and to be more creative.
Byram, M. (2021). Teaching and assessing intercultural communicative competence: Revisited (2nd ed.).Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.
Council of Europe. (2020). Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, teaching, assessment—Companion volume. Strasbourg, France: Council of Europe Publishing. www.coe.int/lang-cefr
Porto, M., Houghton, S., & Byram, M. (2017). Intercultural citizenship in the (foreign) language classroom. Language Teaching Research, 22(5), 1–15. doi: 10.1177/1362168817718580
Luís Elói is a PhD student in Linguistics and holds a BA in Portuguese and English and an MA in Contemporary Literary Creations. His work experience includes teaching English and Portuguese in Portugal. Currently he teaches Portuguese in Istanbul at a higher education institution.