Intercultural Competence

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Intercultural Competence
Martyn Barrett The Council of Europe’s White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue (2008) proposes that intercultural dialogue offers the best approach for managing issues of cultural diversity within contemporary societies. The White Paper defines intercultural dialogue as the open and respectful exchange of views between individuals and groups from different ethnic, religious, linguistic and national backgrounds on the basis of mutual understanding and respect, and it argues that such dialogue is crucial for promoting tolerance and understanding, preventing conflicts, and enhancing societal cohesion. However, the White Paper also observes that the competences which are required for participating in intercultural dialogue are not acquired automatically by individuals. These competences instead need to be learned, practised and maintained, and the White Paper assigns to education professionals the specific responsibility of fostering intercultural competences in learners. However, a difficulty confronting education professionals in fulfilling this responsibility is the bewildering array of conceptualisations of intercultural competence that are currently available. Over the past twenty years or so, there has been a proliferation of different models of intercultural competence across the social sciences, in disciplines as diverse as management, health care, counselling, social work, psychology and education. These various models have recently been reviewed by Spitzberg and Changnon (2009), who classify them into five types: (1) Compositional models, which identify the various components of intercultural competence without attempting to specify the relations between them – these models therefore simply contain lists of the relevant attitudes, skills, knowledge and behaviours which together make up intercultural competence. (2) Co-orientational models, which focus on how communication takes place within intercultural interactions, and how perceptions, meanings and intercultural understandings are constructed during the course of these interactions. (3) Developmental models, which describe the stages of development through which intercultural competence is acquired. (4) Adaptational models, which focus on how individuals adjust and adapt their attitudes, understandings and behaviours during encounters with cultural others. (5) Causal path models, which postulate specific causal relationships between the different components of intercultural competence. In their review, Spitzberg and Changnon observe that many of the terms used to describe intercultural competence in all five types of model (e.g., adaptability, sensitivity, etc.) have not yet been properly operationalised or validated in empirical research, and that many of the models may well have ethnocentric biases due to the fact that they have been developed within western European and North American societies and probably lack cross-cultural generalizability. Certainly, most of the models reviewed by Spitzberg and Changnon are underdetermined by the available evidence: they contain many speculative elements and, when they have been subjected to empirical examination, are typically tested in very restricted situations with limited numbers of participants drawn from only a small range of cultures or sometimes only a single culture. Compositional models make the fewest assumptions concerning the nature of intercultural competence, as they modestly attempt only to identify the various attitudes, skills, knowledge and behaviours which together make up intercultural competence, without speculating about the interconnections, casual pathways or developmental interdependencies between them.

2 Interestingly, and despite the large number of models of intercultural competence, there is considerable consensus among researchers and intercultural professionals concerning the components that comprise intercultural competence. For example, Deardorff (2006), in...
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