The Benefits of Cultural Competence in Language Learning

At CPG CogBlog, we are always interested in learning more about the imperative role culture plays in cognitive learning and understanding.  Here is a brief summary of an interesting cultural competency article by Chunhong Zhau and Karol Griffiths titled, “Intercultural Communicative Competence” which focuses on a study out of Beijing Sport University.  We thought the findings were intriguing.  Let us know if you agree!

Cultural Competence and Language Learning

Intercultural communicative competence is the ability to communicate in an effective manner to yield a desired result, regardless of cultural context.  This competence plays an important role in today’s globalized world.  However, it may also prove difficult when one is communicating in a language other than his or her own native tongue as there are many cultural nuances of which one must be aware.  It has, therefore, been hypothesized that language learners who are knowledgeable in the cultural components of the language they are learning may have a better overall communicative competence.  The Beijing Sport University in China assessed this theory resulting in noteworthy findings.

Participants and Method

The participants of the study were 102 university students ranging in ages from 17 to 21, all of whom were active pupils in an English course.  As well, seven international professors took part in the study though their means of contribution differed from that of the students’.  The students responded to a questionnaire of ten multiple choice questions and three open ended questions all of which concerned the customs and traditions of the Western world.  The professors, however, were emailed four open ended questions pertaining to the areas where intercultural communicative competence skills could be better developed.

Analysis and Results

Surveys where then analyzed both quantitatively and qualitatively, dependent upon the nature of the question.  Within the quantitative survey analysis, the question of, “Should a Westerner call and make an appointment before visiting someone?” received the highest average score (0.80) with most participants indicating that this was, in fact, the proper course of action.  The lowest score in this category (0.42) was found as a result of the question, “In the West, does the host show the guests around the house?”  Within the qualitative analysis, some common themes among the students included lack of understanding, fear of communicating, and insufficient use of learned structural English patterns.  Students also exhibited interest in learning more about Western pop culture, traditions, and customs.  Within the qualitative analysis of the professors’ answers, it was found that the lack of English skills was contributing to communication difficulties.  Instructors also identified that the understanding of a Westernized values system would be beneficial to overall communicative cultural competence.

Implications for the Future of Language Learning

This study suggests that being exposed to solely the structural components of a language without the inclusion of cultural nuances is not enough to fully comprehend a new language.  For this reason, instructors should implement a more culturally based approach to language learning that will improve the ability to communicate with a greater rate of intercultural communicative competence.

The implications of this study go beyond the university sector and can apply to our Warfighters. Warfighters often face difficulty in adjusting to new languages as they are unaware of the cultural tones which exist behind the spoken word.  Therefore, training must be designed to account for this by devising a mode of instruction which would focus heavily on not only linguistic component but also implicit cultural elements.  It appears that the military language programs that are integrated with simulations of real word environments (e.g., role players, virtual/video-game simulations) would be the most effective approach to language learning. Moving beyond the classroom and providing our Warfighters simulated experiences of using the new language and interacting with the culture. These are promising results for our Warfighters and the future of culture and language simulation development in the defense industry.

-Tegan Brown


Zhou, C.and Griffiths, K. (2011). Intercultural Communicative Competence,

English Language and Literature Studies, 1(2), 113-122.


About the Author:


Cognitive Performance Group, LLC is a woman-owned small business with offices in Orlando, Florida, and Cleveland, Ohio. It was founded by Dr. Karol G. Ross, Jennifer K. Phillips, and William A. Ross. The three CPG Principals developed the concept for a company to support cognitive performance improvement in industry and government. (more...)

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