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Finding Inspiration in Diversity



Chris Cartwright offers examples showing how improved intercultural competence can motivate language learning

“You really cannot teach a language; it has to be learned. Fostering the student’s motivation is not only important, it’s essential,” states international business professor Tim Keeley of Kyushu Sangyo University, in Japan. Dr. Keeley identifies as a polyglot and is “functional” in over 20 and can “get by” in an additional ten languages, which he often learns in clusters (e.g., the Baltic languages of Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian were learned simultaneously over a few-month period). Dr. Keeley had a “hunch” that people who were most fluent in a target language were also those who were motivated to appreciate and connect with the culture and people of the language they were learning. To test his hypothesis, he measured both the oral language-acquisition acumen (fluency) and intercultural competence of 86 Chinese students studying at his university’s business school in Japan. All of the participants in his study had been in Japan for one and a half to two years, if not longer; all of them had studied the Japanese language and tested in the language at the appropriate levels to gain admission. But he noted that some students were far more able to communicate with their Japanese classmates and faculty than others.

He measured these Chinese students’ intercultural competence using the Global Competency Inventory, a valid and reliable psychometric intercultural assessment tool. He then had the students interviewed and recorded for approximately ten to 15 minutes; these interviews were then rated by native-speaking peers on a five-point scale ranging from high—being able to understand with close to native pronunciation and comprehension—to weak in both areas. Inter-rater reliability was carefully negotiated with his peer reviewers. He was careful to conduct factor analysis for attributes like age, gender, and time spent immersed in the target-language culture. When the results of these two assessments were correlated, Dr. Keely found that his participants clearly fell into five groups of 17 or 18 participants, with the highest levels of intercultural competency clearly correlating to the highest levels of fluency and the lowest levels of intercultural competency correlating to the lowest levels of fluency.

His results bear out his hypothesis that high levels of intercultural competency can be used as an indicator of higher levels of target-language fluency. He concludes that the students with the highest levels of fluency and intercultural competency were more motivated or had a stronger desire to integrate with Japan and that they had a clear affinity for the culture and the people.

Defining Intercultural Competence

What do we mean by intercultural competence, and what role do language educators play in “fostering motivation” in their learners? There are a plethora of definitions of intercultural competence, frequently based on the frame which the educator or trainer chooses to use in his or her work. There are those who focus on communication competencies (Byram, 1997), those who focus on a continuous cycle of deeper or more sophisticated intercultural learning (Deardorff, 2004), those who focus on a set of intercultural intelligences (Ang and Van Dyne, 2015; Livermore, 2011), and those who focus on intercultural competencies that support cross-cultural engagement (Bennett, 1986; Mendenhall and Oddou, 1985). I see great value in the multiple frames and definitions available and often recommend that teachers, faculty, and their program directors take time to consider the frame and definition that will best fit their pedagogy. For a more comprehensive discussion of defining intercultural competence, I recommend Darla Deardorff’s SAGE Handbook of Intercultural Competence (2009).

As an intercultural assessment specialist with a focus on development or training for intercultural competence, I have a bias for the competency camps. I prefer the following definition, written by my mentor and director Dr. Janet Bennett: “Intercultural Competence is a set of cognitive, affective, and behavioral skills and characteristics that support effective and appropriate interaction in a variety of cultural contexts” (Bennett, 2008). Note that I added the italics on effective and appropriate to emphasize that interactions can and should change in different cultural contexts. This definition allows me to employ my dual interests in assessment and instructional design to identify the starting points of my programmatic or curricular interventions and then map out the processes for growth, with a clear, measurable outcome.

At a recent Center for Educational Resources in Culture, Language, and Literacy (CERCLL) conference, scholars were discussing the need to reframe this work in terms of “intercultural communicative competence” in order to ensure that we include access to languages in our work. I am not a language educator and am intrigued by this construct. However, from my experience, learning languages and even cross-cultural communication skills are embedded within the overall scope of competencies but do not take into account all of the many things people need to be able to do to engage effectively across difference. There are knowledge sets like cultural self-awareness, cultural general frameworks, and culture-specific information; there are attitudes like open-mindedness toward, curiosity about, and motivation to engage cultural differences; and finally, there are skills like empathy, inclusive research, and problem solving, all of which are informed but not solely defined by language acquisition and/or communication skills. The competencies we are seeking in our leaners are (a) the ability to accurately discern and analyze the differences present; (b) the ability to identify the possible actions needed; and finally, (c) the behavioral flexibility and discipline to act effectively with a new population (Bird and Osland, 2006).

Fostering Motivation in Our Learners

Unlike Dr. Keeley, I identify as profoundly monolingual; my high school and college Latin coursework prepared me to read Homer’s Iliad in Latin and some letters from Gaul (France) by Julius Caesar, but little else. I do, however, have a network of fine educators and trainers to call upon to share their experience of motivating learners and the role of intercultural competence and language in their work. The case studies I am sharing in this article all use the same model of intercultural competence, based on the research on intercultural adaptation by Mendenhall and Oddou (1985). In this model, the learner is able to demonstrate competency in three primary factor areas:

the ability to learn effectively across cultural differences;
the ability to make and maintain relationships across cultural differences;
the ability to self-manage in the face of cultural differences.

There are two statistically valid and reliable assessment tools available based on this model. The Global Competency Inventory (GCI) has 17 dimensions of intercultural competence split between the three factor areas above. The Intercultural Effectiveness Scale (IES) has six dimensions split between a similarly defined set of three factor areas. For a more complete description of this model and the two assessment tools employed here, visit

I am using these cases with the shared model of intercultural competence in order to simplify the explanations of the different cases. I believe these same cases could be described with a different model and/or set of assessment tools, and I know that there are many other cases of intercultural competence that could be linked to language learning. Readers are welcome to visit my agency’s online list of possible intercultural assessment tools. There are many to choose from.

Case Study 1: Intercultural competence as an indicator of language acquisition with Dr. Keeley in Japan has been offered above.

Case Study 2: Intercultural competence and cultural self-awareness can motivate early new-language acquisition.

Donna Evans is a senior lecturer and chief departmental advisor in the Computer and Information Technology Department at Miami University Regional Campuses. In her courses, nontraditional (working adult, returning) computer technology students learn how to work effectively with diverse and international teams (virtually and in person). To cultivate her learners’ active participation in achieving their intercultural learning objectives, she has her students carry out personal development plans based on the Intercultural Effectiveness Scale (IES) results. They also complete a multileveled, team-based web-page project for an organization either from another culture or serving people from another culture. They are asked to frame their project work using the concept of becoming a bridge builder in order to construct:
Scaffolding from their own perspectives to those of cultural others;
Scaffolding from themselves to their team members;
Scaffolding from themselves to the company they are serving;
Scaffolding from themselves to the global economy;
Scaffolding from themselves to other U.S. Americans.

This type of frame causes her learners to focus on their soft skills in relationship building across difference and to cultivate intercultural competencies in each factor area outlined above. They are supported in these tasks by taking the GlobeSmart Profile (GSP), an inventory based on the work of Hofestede (2003) and Trompenaars and Hampton-Turner (2011) that identifies their culturally preferred mindsets and behaviors, such as preference for a more individualistic versus a more collectivistic societal engagement. GSP also allows them to analyze the profiles of their class teammates as well as the preferences of their target audience case-study organization. Evans shares that her students “love, love, love learning about their cultural bounded behaviors.” Many of her students report, “now I know why those people frustrate me,” adding that they finally understand why past teamwork (both academically and professionally) failed or had trouble as a result of not knowing about culturally derived behavior patterns.

The Miami University computer technology students have demonstrated consistent gains in intercultural competence as measured by the IES over the years, as well as a willingness to attempt new languages, even though it is not required in their program of study. Evans’s learners frequently research key terms in their case-study audiences’ target languages and drill themselves on correct pronunciation and spelling for their final class presentations. She states that “the motivation comes from my students, their desire to connect with global clients and each other.”

Case Study 3: Multicultural (intercultural) competence through civic engagement with language acquisition (Mexico):

One of the most intriguing examples of cultivating intercultural competence and language acquisition comes from the PrepaTec, Tecnológico de Monterrey, a well-resourced comprehensive school system in Mexico. I spoke with Lisa Petro, the system’s multicultural education consultant, about her role in assessing and developing intercultural competence in their 8,000+ high school–aged students on their 31 different residential campuses across the country. All of PrepaTec’s students are bilingual (Spanish/English) upon entering the schools, but to earn the multicultural certificate, they must learn a third language.
Petro and her colleague, Maria José Pineda Garin, director of academic quality, have worked to cultivate multicultural learning throughout the PrepaTec system by bringing together school principals and multicultural program coordinators in each school to define their goals, assess their learners, agree on a path for growth and development, and map their progress (2017). Together, these educators “reimagined [PrepaTec’s] approach to global competence education and redesigned its multicultural program, all through a focus on relationships.” Figure 1 gives an overview of the model constructed to frame their system-wide program.

Each campus multicultural program director and principal then works to develop core coursework and interdisciplinary projects in a selection of the following arenas:
Connected multicultural learning with a national focus
Connected multicultural learning with an international focus
Community service learning
Formative experience abroad
Entrepreneurial/social entrepreneurial

Petro referred me to a very enthusiastic French language teacher, Damien Jean Phillip Lesca, from their campus in Ciudad Obregon. Lesca told me of a student who studied abroad for six months in a French-speaking province of Switzerland but returned with less mastery of French than when she left. He also reported that the majority of his students were choosing to study abroad in Canada, a country considered “easy” for his students. They were traveling in groups and living in shared housing, which was causing them to be complacent about their French language acquisition. The individual case combined with the seeming lack of motivation to stretch themselves in more complex settings led Lesca to re-evaluate his program and seek ways to motivate his learners differently.

Lesca partnered with another teacher in his school (a literature and arts instructor) and uncovered the rich story of the ultramarathon race in the Chihuahua region of Mexico. This race is famous for being run by the indigenous Rarámuri tribe, often barefoot or in simple sandals. The native people pay no entry fee, but all others (Mexican and international) do. All proceeds from the race go to the Rarámuri people. The curriculum and projects that flowed from this story met the multicultural learning objectives (both national and international), civic engagement, relationship building, and social justice focus the PrepaTec programs seek.

The students in this project were inspired to:
Learn about this form of race, its origins, the story of the founder, Micah True, known as Caballo Blanco, and the book and movie based on his work (Run Free);
Compare and contrast the Mexican form of the race with the racing form popular in France, where runners collect litter while running. They Skyped with the founder of the Run Eco Team Race, Nicolas Lemonnier, in French. They also attempted to hold an Eco Team Race on their school grounds and became discouraged by the large volume of trash they collected in a short time;
Connect with Indigenous and French-speaking participants in the race, learning to engage with them, and seek new perspectives on their lives and cultures;
Debate the ethics of the Nike corporation’s sponsorship of the race and introduction of a sandal-like running shoe;
Discuss the native construct of korima, an Indigenous cultural mindset of sharing all natural resources, which makes the concept of begging not understandable in their culture;
Discussed the duality of perceptions of a grandmother running the race at 65 to get two bags of corn meal;
Make documentaries about the race (see references);
Study the manifest of French surrealist theater philosopher Antonin Artaud to see how the concepts he learned in this same region of Mexico influenced theater around the world and especially New York in the 1960s.

This multitiered experiential learner motivated his learners to work well beyond their fourth semester of French. The students were guided to learn deeply about their own cultures, values, and behaviors as well as those of culturally different others. Lesca stated that their French composition and comprehension greatly improved, and that their oral acumen improved as well. He is particularly pleased that more of his students are signing up for study abroad in France, Switzerland, and other European countries and that they are opting for homestays as opposed to group settings. He believes they will be challenged to employ their French more frequently. The cultural competency results based on the IES are being tabulated in the central office, but gains are expected in that arena as well.

Intercultural competence is a complex construct to wrestle with, but this same complexity can be leveraged to motivate learners to go beyond surface-level learning about languages and cultures. The cases presented here are not exhaustive but hopefully add some insight into ways that other bright and motivated teachers (like the readers of this magazine) can access intercultural competence to enhance language learning.

References available at

Chris Cartwright is the director of intercultural assessment for the Intercultural Communication Institute, where he supports educators and trainers from all sectors of the economy and around the world in assessing and developing intercultural competence and global leadership skills. He has an EdD in postsecondary adult and continuing education and 39 years of experience teaching, training, researching, and managing in organizations focused on developing people to be effective across difference.

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