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Intercultural Competence and Foreign Language Learning in HE: Present and Future Directions


In the spring and summer of 2021 Prof Sonia Cunico organised two workshops and a two-day international conference, all on the theme of Intercultural Competence and foreign language learning. Intercultural Competence is the ability to think, communicate and work with people from different cultural backgrounds.

Foreign language skills and intercultural competence are essential to the development of interpersonal relationships in multilingual and multicultural societies and workplaces. However, at a time when the UK has recently left the EU and the study of foreign languages in the UK, from GCSE to A level and undergraduate Modern Languages degrees, has suffered a steep decline, the UK has become seriously disadvantaged in this regard. Further, in UK Modern Languages the importance of intercultural competence as an objective of learning a foreign language is not always recognized in syllabi and is sometimes confused with specific knowledge about the societies in which the foreign languages are spoken. However, the acquisition of at least some degree of intercultural awareness is often seen as fundamental to students who do not study a foreign language. HE education strategies often make reference to ‘global citizenship’ which includes the ability to understand and respond appropriately to linguistic and cultural diversity.

The workshops and conference examined this phenomenon and possible future directions for the teaching of Intercultural Competence in the UK.


The workshops took place in February-March 2021. The workshops focused on the challenges of adopting a less ethnocentric position when we come into contact with speakers of other languages whose cultural and value point of reference may be different from ours. In particular, the workshops’ focus was on professional settings such as the European Union and International Trade. The workshops explored the role played by language/s in shaping our understanding of reality and the common misguided assumption that our cultural norms are universally valid and relevant. They also provided evidence of the pitfalls of English as a lingua franca and miscommunication arising from using the ‘same’ language’ but having different cultural expectations.

The two workshops were opened to University of Exeter College of Humanities students and also to Purdue University STEM students taking a module on Intercultural Competence as part of COIL (Collaborative Online International Learning). The two workshop speakers were:

  • Ben Leonard | International Trade Adviser - Department for International Trade: Effective business communication across the global economy
  • Dana Blockmans | European Union Freelance Interpreter: How does multilingualism in the EU work?

The speakers offered first-hand insights into cultural and linguistic diversity in the workplace, and provided tangible role models to inspire students’ success and future career opportunities, as well as evidence that multilingualism and intercultural competence are assets in the workplace.

More than 30 students attended each online event.

The feedback collected after the events was extremely positive:

  • It was really another excellent guest lecture today! Ben had so many practical examples […] I could have stayed all day and asked more questions!
  • Excellent range of information with very useful practical examples!
  • The wide range of examples Ben used to illustrate his points.
  • I loved hearing about the struggles of becoming an interpreter. Being from the US, it was also interesting to hear about all the languages behind the EU
  • I loved the activities because they gave a great sense of what translators and interpreters do and just how involved it can be when working with so many different people.


The remaining funding was used to support the organisation of the international conference Intercultural Competence and Foreign Language Learning in HE: Present and Future Directions, which took place online on 1-2 July 2021.

The Conference featured 3 plenary speakers:

  • Troy McConachy: Developing intercultural understanding in teaching and learning pragmatics
  • Amy Rossomondo: On integrating language and intercultural learning: Opportunities for structuring and assessing development among students at foundational levels
  • Prue Holmes: Developing global citizens through critical intercultural pedagogies

The conference booklet and programme are available to download here. There were 28 presentations, and more than 200 people attended.