Cultural competence and intercultural understanding

Are your ears older than your eyes?

At the northern reaches of the Great Rift Valley, the Afar people gather around their fires and tell stories, just as they have done for thousands of years. To the Afar people, our senses belong in different time periods. The Afar believe that your eyes have your age; but your ears have your father’s age. Your eyes see the present, but your ears hear the past.

It is cultural differences such as these, which open our eyes to diversity and new ways of thinking, asking us to question our own world views and those of others.

Is the route to greater wisdom, a journey through language and culture? And if so, how should these be taught?

How do we know what we know? How do we make sense of our world? Did we always think this way? What can we discover about our history through our languages and cultures?

What is the role of formal instruction in developing cultural competence and intercultural understanding?

What do we mean by cultural competence and intercultural understanding?

The current National Curriculum Programme of Study for Key Stage 2 in England begins with a clear statement of purpose: Learning a foreign language is a liberation from insularity and provides an opening to other cultures. A high-quality languages education should foster pupils’ curiosity and deepen their understanding of the world. While the purpose is clear, there is little description of how these aspirations are to be achieved.

Through research and shared experience of classroom practice, we can begin to develop a refined approach to developing cultural competence and intercultural understanding in our teaching. But what exactly do we mean by these terms? As our starting point, we can build on the strong foundation provided by the work of the Council of Europe and the recently published Competences for Democratic Culture: Living together as equals in culturally diverse democratic societies. Using the model, we can explore the values, attitudes, skills, knowledge and critical understanding that are the essential components of cultural competence and intercultural understanding.

How can cultural competence and intercultural understanding be systematically taught?

Can (and should) we measure cultural competence and intercultural understanding?

Accountability measures in education mean that our teaching tends to focus only on what can be assessed. Some of the less tangible but most valuable outcomes of learning may remain invisible. New in 2018, the OECD has included global competence in its PISA studies. The OECD has published a framework to measure global competence and for the first time we see language and culture recognised more prominently in sustainable goals for our global society. Developing cultural competence and intercultural understanding begin from an early age.

How can we make cultural competence and intercultural understanding more visible in primary language learning?

Media literacy, diversity and cultural awareness?

In today’s interconnected world, young people are ‘born global’. They are never too far from a mobile device with access to anyone with a high speed mobile connection around the world. According to Ofcom research, 41% of 5 – 15 year olds now own their own smartphone. But does access to worldwide connections extend our knowledge of the world and deepen our understanding of one another? Are we more or less culturally curious? Or do we live by algorithm, confined by technology to a restricted environment, narrowed by our own likes and preferences from an early age?

How can learning a language in primary school foster pupil’s curiosity and deepen their understanding of the world? How do children of primary age form their world views?

If you have any questions about the topic of cultural competence and intercultural understanding, or if you are a school or classroom teacher who would like to take part in classroom-based research, please feel free to contact us. 

Cultural agility
A key finding from recent employer research shows that cultural agility developed through language learning and international experience is crucial to employment prospects and significant to the economy. In a school curriculum which tends to favour STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) over languages and the humanities, the need for cultural competence and intercultural understanding can be overlooked.

How do we begin to prepare children in the primary classroom for future study and work in international contexts? What does cultural agility mean for children from the age of seven?

Bibliography – Cultural competence and intercultural understanding

British Academy, Born Global: A British Academy Project on Languages and Employability, 2016

Holmes, B. (2017) Global Britain requires more and better language skillsIn MEITS Dialogues
Holmes, B. (2017) Speaking to a Global Future: The Increasing Value of Language and Culture to British Business Post-Brexit. In M. Kelly (ed.), Languages after BrexitPalgrave Macmillan
Holmes, B. (2016). The age of the monolingual has passed: multilingualism is the new normal. In E. Corradini, K. Borthwick and A. Gallagher-Brett (Eds), Employability for languages: a handbook (pp. 181-187) Dublin:
Holmes, B. (2015) Case study: The Value Added Recruit and Case study: The Value of Language Skills to SMEs. In The Value of Languages - Cambridge Language Sciences (pp.8 - 11)
Holmes, B. (2014) Born Global Summary of Interim Findings. British Academy