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Intercultural Communicative Competencies: A short guide for English learners

There are many aspects to consider when learning a new language, from vocabulary, grammar and sentence structure to understanding and producing sentences in writing and speech. However, other important characteristics help us understand people’s behaviour, language expressions and other cultural concepts, we call them Intercultural Communicative Competencies. Michael Byram became known for his model regarding these competencies in 1997. He divided Intercultural Communicative Competencies (ICC) into five parts: Knowledge, skills of Interpreting and Relating, Attitudes and Skills of discovery and interaction, and Critical Cultural awareness. In this article, I will explore each of the five parts and give you some ideas and examples of how you could use it to broaden your horizons on culture and as a result, help understand the English language better. 


What does it mean?

It is not just general knowledge but knowledge of social interactions, how people communicate with each other, stereotypes of a given culture and whether these have any effect on how individuals behave in a culture (Byram, 1997). Certain aspects of culture are visible, however by studying it and examining how concepts are conveyed you can deepen your understanding of why different cultures behave in different ways. Another theorist, Edward T. Hall, presented a model he called The Iceberg Model in which he explains that we can see only 10 per cent of culture and the rest is hidden beneath the surface (Hall, 1976). In many respects, this is true as there are several aspects not visible to an outsider, such as values or attitudes. 

What can you do? 

Watch This Is England, a the coming-of-age story of a boy in the 80s in England. It is a portrayal based on historical events which happened in England at the time. It will help you understand the behaviour of English people which is closely linked with the history of the country. After watching, analyse the plot of the story and find similarities and differences with your knowledge of your culture. Ask yourself if there were any periods in history which affected the society. Did it help to shape your culture? In what way? Did you experience something similar?

Skills of interpreting and relating

What does it mean?

It is your ability to comprehend an oral or written document or an event from another culture and relate it to your own. For this, it is important to use the skill of mediation according to Byram (1997). Mediation means presenting information in different ways. For example, you will listen to a lecture at university and make notes to summarise the main points. You will be practising your reading, writing or listening skills in such activity. Another example of mediation could be watching a film or a series and telling your friend about it, something we often do in daily life. 

What can you do? 

How many times have you planned a holiday and looked at things to do in a place? Take a look at this website: 

Imagine you are going on holiday to Australia and would like to experience aboriginal culture. Read the information and explain it in your own words to a person you would be travelling with. By doing this you will be practicing the skill of mediation as well as interpreting the information. 


What does it mean?

It is your understanding of how other cultures see you, that is to say, the beliefs and behaviours of your culture (Byram, 1997). This is often difficult to achieve because we need to decenter ourselves from our culture and look at it from a different perspective. From my experience, travelling helps to reflect on your own culture. Many times you are able to see how other people portray your society when you are in a place different from your own. Living abroad is another way of achieving such a perspective. 

What can you do? 

Watch this short clip from an interview with Michael McIntyre, a British comedian who compares British English with American English:

Think about how Americans use expressions which are different to the way the British use them. Which one is simpler? Which do you prefer? Do similar expressions exist in your native language? Do you think people in your country use similar expressions? This activity will help you reflect on your attitudes to language and culture and help you understand your own culture as a result. 

Skills of discovery and interactions

What does it mean? 

Discover and interact with a culture different from your own. You learn how to comprehend different cultural practices and recognise and appreciate how other cultures operate (Byram, 1997). By this, you will delve deeper into the historical meaning of culture to be able to better understand its customs and traditions. 

What can you do? 

This can be done by visiting places such as museums, libraries or historical sites and observing cultural patterns or customs to clear any misconceptions or stereotypes. If you don’t have time or money to afford an expensive trip to London, take a virtual tour of The British Museum where you will learn about the periods of history, art and culture to understand the roots of British culture.

Virtual museum tour:

Critical Cultural Awareness

What does it mean?

To practice your capacity to describe and comment on your own culture as well as reflect critically on different cultures. In this stage, you should be able to evaluate other cultures and its speakers (Byram, 1997). In other words, you will look at the positive and negative aspects of another culture, evaluate it as well as relate it to your own culture. The main skill is to be critical and allow yourself to observe aspects of culture not seen before. 

What can you do? 

Compare your education system with the British one, think about what you learn at school, types of subjects, concepts, etc. - is it different to how education is conducted in the UK? To do this, you can read, watch or listen to a variety of sources, from government websites to student’s opinions. For example, Finland’s school system abolished homework (Federick, 2020) whereas according to the Department of Education in the UK, homework is an ‘integral part of learning’ (Hinds,2018). What’s it like in your country? What conclusions can you draw from it? This is just one of many critical activities you can do to train yourself to be critically aware of culture. 

You may wonder, how this is connected with learning English. All the aspects mentioned above are connected with cultural awareness and the better you become at understanding culture the easier it will be to connect it to language. This is to say that by expanding your knowledge of cultural aspects you will become aware of the way people are, their behaviours, customs and as a result the language that they are to communicate with. Some say it is not possible to become proficient in a language without knowing its culture. This is true in many respects because you can know the grammar and vocabulary perfectly yet if you are unable to connect it to culture it becomes meaningless. 

You should have fun with the language and enjoy its culture while learning about people and their customs. You will not only expand your general knowledge but become an open-minded, critically aware person, ready to face any culturally different situation. 


Australia, T. (2020, March 6). Experience Aboriginal culture in Sydney - Tourism Australia.

British Museum, London, United Kingdom - Google Arts & Culture. (2009). Google Arts & Culture; Google Arts & Culture. 

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

Federick, A. (2020). Finland Education System. International Journal of Science and Society, 2(2), 21–32. 

Hall, E. T. (1976). Beyond Culture. Anchor Books.

Hinds, D. (2018). Education Secretary: I trust head teachers to decide their homework policies. The Education Hub. 

McIntyre, M. (2019). Simplifying English for The Americans | Michael McIntyre. In YouTube. 


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