LINGUIST List 32.2158

Wed Jun 23 2021

Review: Applied Linguistics: Byram (2020)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 18-May-2021
From: Boris Yelin <>
Subject: Teaching and Assessing Intercultural Communicative Competence
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Michael Byram
TITLE: Teaching and Assessing Intercultural Communicative Competence
SUBTITLE: Revisited
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2020

REVIEWER: Boris Yelin, Northeastern University


According to the original (1997) preface, the proposed audience of ‘Teaching and Assessing Intercultural Communicative Competence’ was “anyone interested in foreign language teaching and learning, whatever the context in which they live and work” (p. xvii), though primarily for language teachers. With the ‘Revisted’ edition, Byram’s aim was to incorporate developments from the past twenty years, to respond to critiques of the first edition, and to take a more critical (even political) stance with respect to intercultural communicative competence (ICC). Consequently, this review may convince you that the ideal audience is administrators of educational institutions, who often do not understand the benefits of language education.

The book is primarily organized into an introduction, six chapters, a conclusion, and an appendix. The main chapters are as follows: Chapter 1 – Defining and Describing Intercultural Communicative Competence, Chapter 2 – A Model for Intercultural Communicative Competence, Chapter 3 – Objectives for Teaching, Learning and Assessment, Chapter 4 – Curriculum Issues, and Chapter 5 – Assessment.

In the introduction, Byram outlines and briefly touches on the foci of the later chapter. Firstly, he describes the difficulties the average person faces in terms of interacting with other cultures by presenting his dichotomy of ‘tourist’ vs. ‘sojourner,’ which are both proxies for shallow versus deep interaction. He states that learners should adopt the attitudes of the latter. This adoption of deep interaction is made difficult, he claims, because pragmatic aspects of language, which are very important to communication in any language, are often left out or reduced to disparate chunks of information, such as formulaic phrases. Furthermore, he points out that it is often difficult to assess these qualities in ways which are apparent to educational institutions at large, which often have specific goals and accountability measures.

From the beginning, one can appreciate how the author has taken the time to define his use of terms and respond to critiques from the past, especially those related to defined meanings of terms. For example, he accepts that foreign language teaching and second language teaching contexts are different but puts forth that it is a difference of degree. Thus, he validates the choice of not discussing them as separate but rather addressing topics in a way that applies to both. In the endnotes to the introduction there are explanations clearing up confusion between terms such as ‘evaluation’ and ‘assessment.’ He also responds to critiques, such as Baker’s (2015), claiming that he focused on national cultures by explaining that what was understood was an oversimplification, i.e., his assertions apply to the many communities that exist in society within and between national borders. One concept that I appreciate him referencing is ‘languaculture,’ (Agar, 1994) to describe in one word what foreign language teaching conveys for the purpose of engaging in ICC.

It is important to note that he did not intend the book to be a ‘model of intercultural communication’ but rather a book for the teaching and learning of intercultural communicative competence and emphasizes that ‘learners become ethnographers rather than applied linguists’ (p. 9).

In Chapter 1, Byram dispels the notion that the ideal state for a second language learner to reach is that of a native (first language) speaker. He instead says that the goal should be an intercultural speaker. This involves “the ability to see and manage relationships between themselves and their own beliefs, values, behaviours and meanings, as expressed in a foreign language, and those of their interlocutors, expressed in the same language– or even a combination of languages– which may be the interlocutor’s native language, or not” (p. 17). Two qualifications are that students cannot be expected to achieve the deepest interactions at early ages, and perhaps there is a reason to have some first language use to discuss matters of ICC when students still have lower proficiency in the target language. Regardless of any accommodations, he says that ‘we must not underestimate young people by avoiding or over-simplifying a difficult topic”(p. 39). The takeaway message is that preparing learners as intercultural speakers grants them the ability to interact better with a variety of people even in their own culture and society. Furthermore, they are able to look at both other cultures and their own more critically. In this new addition, there is even more increased emphasis on critical pedagogy and creating ‘Democratic Culture’ in the case of the Council of Europe.

The combination of factors that he states are essential to cross-cultural communication can be boiled down to the social aspect, the linguistic aspect, and the task-oriented aspect. Furthermore, Byram criticizes models of intercultural competence that assign very little importance to language learning. One challenge he mentions is that there has long been a certain reluctance by language instructors to teach a lot of culture due to the limited time and the difficulty justifying increased emphasis when they often have standardized testing that assesses purely the linguistic elements. Still, he points out that there are more and more efforts to integrate ICC into the communicative language curricula. He understands that this, however, involves changing the way many still think about culture, i.e. as objects and practices rather than the underlying influences and reasons why they exist.

Lastly, he notes that both an applied linguist perspective and an ethnographic/anthropological one are necessary for language teaching and learning. Consequently, Byram makes clear that ICC is not the sole responsibility of foreign language education.

In Chapter 2, Byram discusses what would form a model for ICC. He points out the possibility that it may not be merely a language that differentiates an experience for people. For instance, he posits that two people with the same first language but from different cultures may also need a high measure of ICC. I would agree with this and add an example of someone setting me and a British person to meet for lunch while we were both in Argentina. I asked what the occasion might be, and I was told that it would be a nice opportunity to meet someone else that shares my first language in a place where that was rare. It turns out that we had a misunderstanding from the beginning of what time to meet when I was told ‘half-three’ and was not sure whether that meant 3:30 p.m. or 2:30 p.m. Another example was during a study abroad program in which another US student and I would speak Spanish to each other even when not engaging the rest of the Spanish-speaking group in the conversation, and we were asked why we would do that. The answer was that our goal was to improve our Spanish, and that the common goal superseded the perceived comfort of us speaking our first language to each other and/or our shared nationality. In essence, we were practicing one of Byram’s requirements, that one must be able to explain one’s culture to someone else in that person’s language.

This chapter is also where he lists the elements of ICC: linguistic competence, sociolinguistic competence, and discourse competence, along with the elements of intercultural competence: skills of interpreting/relating (savoir comprendre), knowledge (savoirs), critical cultural awareness (savoir s’engager), attitudes – curiosity/openness (savoir être), and skills of discovery/interaction (savoir apprendre/faire). He follows up on these by stating objectives that would be evidence of developing these elements.

In Chapter 3, Byram explores the inherent difficulty in setting objectives for ICC because often it involves acquiring knowledge and attitudinal changes that are not easily seen in one’s behavior. He goes so far as to state that “some objectives can be introduced as curriculum development…but others may not be compatible with classroom work as usually conceived” (p. 91). He says that there are three ways in which one acquires intercultural competence: “the classroom, the pedagogically structured experience outside the classroom and the independent experience” (91). Of all the savoirs, the ‘knowledge’ one is the most familiar and suited to classrooms where learners explicitly learn about the perceptions of cultures of themselves and others, the national histories, etc. In terms of engaging with other cultures, Byram points out ‘fieldwork’ as the main pathway, which can be attained by study abroad or virtual experiences in which there is a connection between the learner and someone from the target culture(s). And for independent experience to be successful, it is important to be autonomous in one’s learning and to reflect on the otherness that one feels.

In Chapter 4, Byram outlines what curricular elements are at play within ICC. Primarily, values are important, and it is also important to consider in what order those values will be acquired. Byram presents the analogy to how, in language teaching, new concepts are often simplified until the learner is ready to address them in a more complex way. This also necessitates repetition of an idea in different contexts and with varying levels of specificity. He also states that the goal of an intercultural speaker should be seen as a threshold; after this threshold the learning is more about breadth than more ‘advanced’ concepts. When creating a curriculum, he suggests the following stages for considering the content: geopolitical context, learning context, developmental factors, identification of objectives, the ICC threshold/goal, and the sequence in curriculum. It is relatively easy to identify the first three elements, e.g. in his two cases of high-school French students in the United States in a region where there are not many French speakers versus the highly motivated and supported English education of K-12 Taiwanese students. The other three elements require more thought as to what one wants the students to achieve/what they can realistically achieve, how to measure success, and whether they consider their own culture before others.

In Chapter 5, Byram addresses assessment, which he did not do in the first edition. The chapter has a fair amount of repetition from the previous ones, but with assessment ideas attached. Byram explains the different between ‘assessment for accountability’ versus ‘assessment for education’, whereby the former is more useful for institutions, while the latter is what educators really care about. The difficulty, as mentioned above, is that learners do not develop attitudes at the same rate, and it is difficult at times to see the change. Thus, the prevailing idea in terms of how to assess the ‘savoirs’ is through the use of portfolio work and continuous (formative) assessment, which jibes well with the increasing emphasis on project-based curriculums in the language education.

The conclusion is a reflection and a brief synopsis of how the field has progressed since the late 1990’s to today. The appendix at the very end has a nice example of an elementary school program’s implementation of ICC.


There is little way that anyone can read this book and not believe that all universities should have a foreign language requirement, but that would take a rebranding and complete buy-in on the future of foreign language education. Most programs still place a heavier focus on linguistic competence rather than on intercultural communicative competence, in which language and culture are interwoven. That’s where this book comes in as a how-to from theory to practice of implementing ICC and its benefits. This book argues successfully that in the face of nationalism, ethnocentrism, etc., there is a great need for mutual understanding and empathy. As Byram explained, intercultural ‘communicative’ competence gives students an extra lens to view the world; it is an experience which teaches people how to feel like an ‘other’ and how to navigate the uncomfortable and unknown. Thus, ICC enriches and strengthens their skills of interacting with those from other cultures or from those within their own culture (or a subculture) who hold different values.

One strength of this edition is that it has a powerful perspective with respect to time since it spans the past twenty plus years and addresses the critiques directed toward the first version. As someone who had not read the first edition, I felt that transitions from old to new content went smoothly, with mostly the citations and references to the present time as obvious indicators of new content. Another strength is that Byram very clearly states the definitions of the terms that he adopts and the pros and cons of using a particular term. Initially I thought that the repetition of the information between chapters was unnecessary, but it enables anyone to start any chapter and have enough information to digest the information without looking elsewhere.

There is a long way to go for all language education to modernize past the curricula where language is the main focus compared to culture. However, Byram’s work has laid down a lot of the groundwork for language educators to make sense of how to incorporate ICC at different levels. Though gifting this book to your administrator may be a longshot, it definitely belongs in the hands of anyone that will be teaching and/or creating content for language education from now on.


Agar, M. (1994). Language Shock: Understanding the culture of conversation. New York: William Morrow and Company. Education, 36(1), 63-79.

Baker, W. (2015). Culture and identity through English as a lingua franca: Rethinking concepts and goals in intercultural communication (Vol. 8). Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG.


Boris Yelin is currently Assistant Teaching Professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Northeastern University as well as the Coordinator of the Portuguese Program. His main teaching interests are Spanish, Portuguese and Spanish Linguistics. His research interests lie in SLA and Pedagogy with a focus on L3 acquisition. Past research has included looking at the intersection of language variation and semantics with respect to mood and the pluricentric nature of Spanish.

Page Updated: 23-Jun-2021