Cultures and communication: Intercultural learning

Defining intercultural learning

Intercultural learning is a complex process which entails learning about one’s own culture and other cultures. It is therefore about putting one’s own culture in the context of world cultures.

Intercultural learning is one of the main achievements of collaborative school projects based on intercultural exchanges. Its first-hand dimension involves interaction with people from different countries. Learning is therefore shaped by the learner him/herself and it is supported by insights into various cultures on one hand. On the other hand intercultural learning enables learners to acquire knowledge and attitudes on a more solid basis, since experiences shared in books might be forgotten more easily, as they lack interactivity (Gragert, 1999, Riel, 1993).

Sharing an intercultural learning experience, Bridgetown, Barbados, 2000

Sharing an intercultural learning experience, Bridgetown, Barbados, 2000

In many European countries, intercultural learning is not a curricular area as such, but a long term objective to be met in a cross-curricular manner. In some countries intercultural learning is expected to be the task of teachers of foreign languages while in some others intercultural learning is just the initiative of teachers in charge of international school subjects.

Communicating cultures

Intercultural learning implies communicating cultures. A culture is “a fuzzy set of attitudes, beliefs, behavioural norms, and basic assumptions and values that are shared by a group of people, and that influence each member’s behaviour and his/her interpretations of the meaning of other people’s behaviour” (Dahl, citing Spencer-Oatey, 2003). A culture is communicated from a generation to another within a certain geographical area.

Communicating a culture inside (to succeeding generations) or outside of its own settings, is “a complex social activity, embedded in different contexts” (Dujardin et al., 2002, p.28) and it is “culturally based because the way individuals and groups communicate is in large culturally determined” (Putnis, 1997).

Communication involves a sender, a receiver and a message. By transmitting a message, a sender conveys ideas, knowledge, feelings, and desires in the form of written or verbal symbols, which are expected to be recognisable by the receiver. A set of such symbols is the message itself, which is decoded, analysed and evaluated by the receiver, in order to respond to it.

Intercultural communication

Intercultural communication (ICC) occurs when people from different cultures interact. The ICC definition of Scollon and Scollon (2000, p.5) covers not only communication between cultures, but also communication between subcultures (parts of the same culture), like communication between men and women, or people from different generations. The two authors state that ICC is: “the entire range of communications across boundaries of groups or discourse systems from the most inclusive of those groups, cultural groups, to the communications which take place between men and women or between colleagues who have been born into different generations” (2000, p. 5).

Researchers agree that there are two concepts relating to the field of communication between cultures, namely cross-cultural communication and intercultural communication. They are not similar because cross-cultural communication examines similar communication contexts or actions in different cultures while intercultural communication looks at the communication process between people from different cultures.

Intercultural communication is built on intercultural dialogues and it is far more than establishing contacts among people from different cultural settings. It involves, on one hand, a degree of sharing experiences of individuals or group of individuals and, on the other hand the perception of these experiences by the dialogue counterparts.

Alsina (citing Rodrigo, 2003, p.171) argues that successful face-to-face intercultural communication is achieved if seven key aspects are taken into consideration:

  • A common language or a common communication system;
  • Information about other cultures; a minimum knowledge of the partner culture may avoid miscommunication;
  • Putting the own culture in the context of the world cultures;
  • Eliminating prejudices and accepting cultural diversity as such should be based on a solid knowledge of the own culture which leads to identifying the differences in other cultures. Furthermore, avoiding classifying world cultures in two categories – major and minor – helps raise awareness of the equal role played by all cultures within the world heritage;
  • Ability to empathise, that is putting oneself in someone else’s shoes; this may minimise negative emotions and may help feel what the others feel, as emotions play a crucial role in communication;
  • Knowing how to make use of metacommunication: metacommunication means the communicative attitude of the parts involved in a communication activity which entails both communicating the meaning clearly and anticipating the effect of the message. Metacommunication implies motivation, which should be the desire of both sides to establish an intercultural dialogue. It may help overcome and minimise possible conflicts;
  • Achieving balanced interaction: the intercultural exchange must be balanced, by leaving out any tendency of victimisation or paternalism.

(Adapted after Alsina, 2003, pp.171-172)


Alsina, M.R., (2003), “Intercultural Communication: Context, Filed and Practice”, in Studies in Communication Sciences, 3/2 (2003), pp.163-174
Dahl, S (2003): “An Overview of Intercultural Research”, Society for Intercultural Training and Research, UK I/10 (2/2003)
Dujardin F. et al, (2002), Communication theory, Module 1 “Communication planning & theory”, Sheffield Hallam University
Gragert E., (1999), The Internet Potential for an Education of Hope, online, [accessed March 2014]
Putnis, P. (1997), Intercultural communication, University of Canberra
Riel, M. (1993), “Global education through Learning Circles”, in Global Networks: Computer and International Communication, L. Harasim, (Ed) Cambridge: MIT, pp. 221-236
Scollon R. and Scollon S.W. (2000), Intercultural Communication: A Discourse Approach, Blackwell Publishers

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