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Theory Information

There have been five decades of scholarly work in the United States on the concept of Intercultural competence, which goes by a variety of terms. Key scholars whose work is cited in Spitzberg and Changnon's (2009) overview of main definitions and frameworks include Bennett's Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (1993), Byram's intercultural communicative competence model (1997) and Deardorff's intercultural competence model, which is the first research-based definition and framework of intercultural competence (Deardorff 2006). In this study, leading intercultural experts, primarily based in the United States, reached consensus on a definition and essential aspects of intercultural competence. Deardorff visualized the relationship of aspects in two different models, or frameworks. This work outlines aspects essential to intercultural competence development in a wide variety of contexts. For example, intercultural competence manifests differently depending on the field or discipline.

Key take-aways from the Deardorff study are that intercultural competence is an ongoing, lifelong process, that intercultural competence must be intentionally addressed through theory- based intercultural learning interventions, and that the developmental process is as important as the outcome. In addition, the study found that a multimethod, multiperspective assessment approach must be used to assess students' intercultural competence (Deardorff 2009). It is also important to recognize that there are different cultural perspectives on intercultural competence with a key theme from non-Western perspectives being a more relational focus (Chen and An 2009; Nwosu 2009; Zaharna 2009).

Related concepts to intercultural competence include identity, intercultural conflict, cross-cultural adaptability, and intercultural leadership. The recent Sage Handbook of Intercultural Competence features leading scholars from around the world who discuss these concepts in relation to intercultural competence, as well as non-Western perspectives on this concept (Deardorff 2009).


Postsecondary institutions in the United States and beyond often use the term "intercultural competence" or variations thereof in the institution and/or program mission and goals, frequently without defining this concept. It is imperative for this concept to be adequately defined if it is to be addressed more effectively in courses and programs. Programs and courses that are "connected" to Intercultural competence theory utilize well-defined concepts and frameworks found in the literature and align activities, experiences, and content with an intercultural competence framework. Assessment of intercultural competence and intercultural learning is also increasingly being emphasized. Programs and courses that are intended to increase levels of intercultural sensitivity, awareness, and/or competence should include multi-method assessment procedures designed to measure to what extent the programs are effective and to provide feedback and guidance to students' on their intercultural competence development.

Programs and courses that are "connected" to Intercultural competence theory meet one or more of the following criteria:

  • Is one of the goals of the program or course to develop students' intercultural competence and is that stated explicitly?
  • Are there specific measurable outcomes aligned with the goals that prioritize which aspects of intercultural competence are being addressed by the course or program?
  • Does assessment involve a multimethod, multiperspective approach?
  • Is there an assessment plan that is aligned with the stated goals and objectives?
  • Is feedback given to students (based on assessment data) on how they can continue to develop their intercultural competence?
Reflections Darla Deardorff
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