What Is Intercultural Communicative Competence?

The TESOL President’s Blog

In recent years, several researchers in the ELT field have raised a series of conceptual issues around how we should express our cultures in English (Honna,2005; Byram,2009; Wen, 2013,). As a speaker, should you stick to your own way of thinking? Or should you adapt to the listener’s way of thinking? As a listener, should you impose your own way of thinking on the speaker? Or should you be sensitive to and tolerant of the speaker’s different way of thinking and speaking?

Honna (2005) shared a study that she and her colleagues conducted back in 2000 using the following story (p. 78). The story was told by an Australian to a Japanese professor. It took place in the office of a superintendent of the Hong Kong Police Force prior to 1997. The superintendent was British and the constable was Chinese.

There was a quiet knock at the door and in came a young Chinese police constable. He was, of course wearing his uniform. He saluted the superintendent and stood smartly at attention in front of the large wooden desk.

“Yes?” inquired the superintendent.

“My mother is not very well, sir,” started the constable.

“Yes?” repeated the superintendent, beginning to frown.

“She has to go into hospital, sir,” continued the constable.


“On Thursday, sir.”

The superintendent’s frown was replaced by a look of exasperation. “What is it that you want?” he asked sternly.

At this direct question, the constable’s face fell and he simply mumbled, “Nothing, sir. It’s all right,” and turned and left the room.

As soon as the door had closed, the superintendent turned to me and said, “You see. A classic case. They can’t get to the point.”

“So, what would you want him to say?” I asked.

“Well, instead of beating around the bush, he should come straight to the point. He obviously wants some leave so he can look after his mother. He should ask for leave
and not waste my time going on about his poor mother.”

“You want him to say something like, ‘Can I have some leave please, sir?'”

“Yes, exactly,” replied the superintendent.

Honna surveyed 138 students asking them who they think was responsible for the communication breakdown in the interaction. Sixty-nine percent of the respondents expressed sympathy with the Chinese constable who used a common Chinese way of making a request in English. They believed that it was the British superintendent, not the Chinese constable, who was responsible for the communication breakdown because he was not able to accept the Chinese style even though he perfectly understood what his interlocutor said and meant.

If this exchange happened among two nonnative English speakers, for example, a Chinese and a Hispanic speaker, the outcome would be very different:

Chinese: “My mother is not very well, sir.”

Hispanic: “Oh, you must be worried. Would you want to take a leave and take care of your mother?”

Very often, nonnative speakers of English deviate from American or British norms of communication and thereby understand each other and establish rapport. They could communicate with each other better when they did not follow the native speakers’ norms than when they did (Honna, 2005; Wen, 2013).

These studies show that when teaching intercultural communicative competence, teachers need to teach both the local and international cultures. Teachers and native speakers of English need to be aware and respect nonnative speakers’ different ways of communicating. Nowadays, language teachers focus less on mimicking the culture and communication protocols of native speakers of English unless the goals of the interaction require it. The goal of English language teaching is not to produce language users who mimic inner circle countries’ language and culture but to produce language users who can use English as a lingua franca in a way that reflects their local language and culture.

The United States and the United Kingdom used to be considered the best places to go to learn English. But this idea is losing credence. What is important in intercultural communication is one’s competency and willingness to understand what the other has to say, not the disposition to impose one’s values and norms onto the other. As Honnar (2005) stated, “With some degree of intercultural awareness, one is capable of understanding the other even if the two persons’ communication styles are different” (p. 80). It is clear that communicating effectively and appropriately involves both the speaker and the listener.

In recent years, there have been more discussions and research focusing on the importance of intercultural communicative competence (Byram, 1997, 2009; Alptekin, 2002; Kohn, 2013). Intercultural communicative competence is the ability to communicate effectively and appropriately with people from other language and cultural backgrounds.

Effective intercultural communication requires

  • empathy: an understanding of other people’s behaviors and ways of thinking
  • respect: genuine admiration and appreciation of different ways of thinking and communication
  • tolerance: the ability and willingness to accept and acknowledge different behaviors and ways of thinking, the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with
  • sensitivity: the awareness and responsiveness to other people’s behaviors and ways of thinking
  • flexibility: willingness to adapt and open to change and different ways of thinking

Lippi-Green (1997) has emphasized the importance of “sharing the communicative burden.” She pointed out that oftentimes, “members of the dominant language group feel perfectly empowered to demand that a person with an accent carry the majority of responsibility in the communicative act. Conversely, when such a speaker comes in contact with another mainstream speaker who is nonetheless incoherent or unclear, the first response is usually not to reject a fair share of the communicative burden, but to take other factors into consideration” (p. 70).

To achieve effective intercultural communication, she emphasizes that speakers from dominant cultures need to apply the same willingness to share the communicative burden when interacting with a person who speaks with an accent, i.e., nonnative English speakers and people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and not to reject their fair share of the communicative burden.

As TESOL educators, I hope you’ll agree with me that the willingness to share the communicative burden and apply empathy, respect, tolerance, sensitivity, flexibility, and openness in communicating with speakers from different culture and linguistic backgrounds is more important for successful intercultural communication than just imposing the native English speaker’s norms. I’d like to hear your perspective on this issue.

By the way, Prof. Michael Byram will be a part of a panel discussion for the James E. Alatis Plenary at the TESOL 2015 convention in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The panel, which also includes Jun Liu and Lourdes Ortega, will lead a discussion titled “Redefining Communicative Competence and Redesigning ELT in the 21st Century.”


Alptekin, C. (2002). Towards intercultural communicative competence in ELT. ELT Journal 56(1), 57–64.

Byram, M. (1997). Teaching and assessing intercultural communicative competence. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters

Byram, M. (2009). The intercultural speaker and pedagogy of foreign language education. In D.K. Deardorff (Ed.), The Sage handbook of intercultural competence (pp. 321–332) Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Honna, N. (2005). English as a multilingual language in Asia. Intercultural Communication Studies 14(2), 73–89. Available from http://www.uri.edu/iaics/content/2005v14n2/06%20Nobuyuki%20Honna.pdf

Kohn, K. (2013, March). Intercultural communicative competence: an English as a lingua franca perspective. Paper presented at TESOL Arabia, Dubai, UAE.

Lippi-Green, R. (1997). English with an accent: Language, ideology, and discrimination in the United States. London: Routledge.

Wen, Q. (2013, November). What kind of English do Chinese students need to learn in the future? Paper presented at TESOL International Symposium in Guangzhou, China.

About Yilin Sun

Yilin Sun
Yilin Sun has served as president of TESOL International Association, as chair of the TESOL Affiliate Leadership Council, and president of Washington Association for the Education of Speakers of Other Languages (WAESOL). In 2011-2012, Dr. Sun was a Fulbright Senior Scholar in Taiwan at the National Taiwan Normal University. Dr. Sun received her doctorate in applied linguistics/curriculum and instruction from the University of Toronto, Canada. She has more than 28 years of experience in the field of TESOL as a teacher educator, a researcher, a classroom teacher, and a program leader with various institutions of higher education in China, Canada, and the United States. She is the author and co-author of books, book chapters, and research papers in refereed professional journals. Her research interests include curriculum development, program assessment and evaluation, L2 reading, vocabulary learning, classroom-based action research, teacher education, adult education, teaching English to young learners, World Englishes, ESP and nonnative English speaking teachers (NNEST) in the ELT field.
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7 Responses to What Is Intercultural Communicative Competence?

  1. Eman says:

    I have phd research on icc . ..
    I want to publish it …any help ?

  2. Jani Reddy says:

    In the context of World Englishes intercultural competence is important for all whether it may native or non-native speakers. This is the only way we could solve our current challenges as we are living in global village.

  3. Julia Hedges says:

    Absolutely! I agree with you!

  4. John says:

    Having spent a considerable amount of time in a foreign country learning a new language and culture, I understand the significance behind being competent in intercultural communication. Cultural differences are often misunderstandings that are easily remedied through proper application of effort and understanding. This allows each of us to in our own way become a type of intercultural speaker which allows us to foster and grow strong multicultural relationships.

  5. Thanks for the kind words, Tia! Happy you found it helpful.

  6. Ivano Buoro says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more Professor. I recently published an article on the value of languages other than English in vocational courses in Australia. During my research I came across many situations where Australian monolingual English speakers to partake in the responsibility for intercultural understanding. You can see the article here http://www.voced.edu.au/content/ngv64673
    An article I wrote focusing more on the cultural aspects of understanding will be published by The college of Teachers in the Spring edition of ‘Education Today’. In writing these articles and presenting at the affiliate ACTA TESOL International Conference in Melbourne this year, more questions were raised for me. A participant in the presentation I gave asked me how the issues of misunderstanding I raised could be addressed. From the point of view of my study there was no answer; it was an observation – a case study. Your article goes a long way in helping to understand and overcome instances of what I cal pride of monolingualism.
    Kind regards
    Ivano Buoro

    • Yilin Sun Yilin Sun says:

      Dear Ivano,

      Thank you for your response to my Dec. posting on Intercultural Communicative Competence. This is one of the areas that we, TESOLers, have come a long way but still have a long way to go to achieve this competence. Effective intercultural communication requires openness, empathy, respect, tolerance, sensitivity and flexibility. More importantly, everyone needs to be ready and willing to “share the communicative burden”. Thank you again and I hope to meet you at TESOL 2015 Convention.


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