Developing Intercultural Competence: Understand, Resist, (Re)Structure, (Un)Learn, and Negotiate Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Learning Environment

Forward by Kelly Pengelly, Co-Founding Sr. Strategy Advisor of World Council, Co-Editor or the Intercultural Connector, and AUx Instructor and Advisor at American University. 

I met Hannah Hou after presenting with Dr. Chris Glass’ Global and Intercultural Perspectives on Higher Education class at Old Dominion University. She graciously offered to help with research in my various roles, including my former role as Sr. Strategy Advisor. I quickly connected her with World Council and Dr. Deardorff requested she gather annotated bibliographies in Madarin due to Hannah’s background and linguistic insight. As Hannah’s advisor for this task, I kept in the back of my mind that her work might serve as a template for other multilingual bibliographies highlighting as many thought pieces centered on the subject of Intercultural and Global Competence (ICGC).  This is just the beginning of what we at World Council hope will be the first of many bilingual annotations which will be added to our Resource Page and that someday linguistic affinity groups, much like World Council’s ICC/GC in Spanish Working Group, will arise to expand the potential of this endeavour.  

With the addition of multilingual annotated resources, World Council hopes to broaden the perspective of anyone interested in ICGC and to share the ideas of colleagues produced in languages other than English. Along with the important work already provided by the Underrepresented Voices in ICC Working Group, World Council intends for the inclusion of all ICGC resources to be shared for the purpose of deepening our personal and professional understanding of how language as culture impacts perspectives around ICGC.  I encourage you to stretch beyond your own cultural-linguistic thoughts about ICGC and “listen” to each other’s voices.  We hope to recognize different perspectives on ICGC and as a result to also “see” each other better so our collective vision of ICGC will come more into focus.  Feel free to contact the World Council should you wish to develop annotated resources in your primary language. It is with deep appreciation that I introduce Hannah Hou’s work on a Mandarin ICGC Bibliography, an outgrowth of her curious nature as she pursues her doctoral studies and promising career in International Higher Education. 

Originally from China, I came to study in the United States in 2014. I had some kind of understanding that U.S. culture is very different from Chinese culture, but I just did not know in what way. The professor was asking us to provide a self-introduction for the first class. When it was my turn, I stood up and introduced myself because I needed to show respect to professors (Chinese culture). I did not realize American students’ facial expressions, but they introduced themselves from their seats. Back then, I started to realize cultural differences. Afterwards, I started to observe my fellow American students in and outside the classroom to understand and experience American culture adequately and effectively. That is part of the reason my current work focuses on Chinese students’ intercultural competence (ICC)  in various cultures and the development of ICC in Chinese context. 

Culture plays an essential role in adequate and effective communication because it reflects and represents one’s background and experiences and also shapes one’s behaviors, beliefs, values, and identity in the transnational social fields. Culture is perceived as a cognitive concept, social practice, discourse, and ideology in which intercultural competence is deeply embedded for one’s identity navigation and negotiation (Baker, 2015; Liu & Fang, 2017). Individuals from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds bring various assumptions and practices. These assumptions and practices shape their intercultural competence and vice versa. Specifically, China’s Confucian culture has impacted Chinese students’ knowledge of self and attitudes, whereas studying abroad and intercultural communication opportunities impact Chinese students’ knowledge of others and awareness (Peng et al., 2015). 

Holmes (2006) critiques the current understanding of intercultural communication competence because it does not sufficiently consider culture- and context-specific understandings, nor does it consider power relations hidden/embedded in intercultural communication. Chinese education and students are deeply impacted by Confucianism, which considers the importance of face, dignity, respect, and honor in daily life. Particularly, Confucianism focuses on humanism, (ren), righteousness (yi), ritual norms (li), wisdom (zhi), and integrity (xin) in ethics and practices. Ren is humanism, which also means the relationships between two people from a linguistic perspective (Yun, 2007). The Chinese character Ren is composed with person and two, which indicates a collectivist culture. Yi is the righteousness and moral formation to do good. Li indicates ritual norms that lead people to act properly and politely. Zhi is the wisdom and ability to know others and know oneself. Xin is the integrity to take responsibility and loyalty to others and oneself (Nagel-Angermann, 2012). 

Confucianism and culture have shaped Chinese students’ values, beliefs, practices, learning process, and learning behavior between in- and out-group relationships (Holmes, 2006; Li, 2005). Chinese educational systems are very different from Western ones (Heng, 2017).  Western learning beliefs emphasize the mind, whereas Chinese learning beliefs emphasize personal virtue  (Li, 2005, 2012). Li (2012) highlights “the process of active engagement, exploration and inquiry, thinking and critical thinking, and self-expression and communication” (p. 108) in describing mind-oriented learning process in the West, and “five key virtues of earnestness/sincerity, diligence/self-exertion, endurance of hardship, perseverance, and concentration” (p. 123) in describing the virtue-oriented learning process in China. 

Active engagement refers to one’s mind that is fully involved as well as physically present (Li, 2012). Observable active learning engagements include, but are not limited to, reading various kinds of books, going to the library, going on field trips; unobservable active learning engagements include the use of cognitive strategies, metacognitive strategies, and support strategies. Students also have after-school programs to engage active learning. Inquiry is important in the Western learning process. Western learners are highly encouraged to express their questions and to explore the answers. Compared with Western learners, Chinese learners have less freedom to inquire into a variety of topics. Li (2012) addresses how critical thinking is a value-added act as well as an outcome in the West.  There are three key components relevant to critical thinking: truth seeking, open-mindedness, and the analytical process. Truth seeking is a process that leads learners to seek the best knowledge. For instance, Western students challenge authority in the classroom, which will not happen in Chinese classrooms. In Western higher education, students have public speaking courses to engage in formal training and give oral presentations of their projects. Open-mindedness means that students have an open mind toward different views and explore their own biases. Analytical process means that students tend to examine information rigorously from seeking truth.

Chinese learners also value effort in their learning process, but mentally oriented understanding alone is not that important to their learning beliefs (Li, 2005). The purpose of learning is mainly to “perfect themselves morally and socially” (p. 191) for Chinese learners. The virtues of sincerity, diligence, endurance of hardship, perseverance, and concentration are the main virtune to accomplish the purpose. Earnestness/sincerity aims to make one “instructable, teachable, receptive, and open to learning while putting one’s ego out of the way” (p. 124). The following are some Chinese old sayings to describe earnestness/sincerity: Learn earnestly and make daily progress; effort never lets down the resolute person. The virtue of diligence/self-exertion emphasizes familiarity with the learning material (shu), practices (lianxi), and mastery (jing). Familiarity/Shu is the first step of learning anything with the purpose of understanding the ‘surface’ details for a given task. Practices/Lianxi refers to learning as a long endeavor. Chinese students work on each component repeatedly and practice over and over again to ensure achieving the mastery level. In order to develop one’s intercultural competence, they also need to practice repeatedly, reevaluate, unlearn, and embrace their home culture as well as their host culture. 

According to Li (2012), learning is difficult rather than fun for Chinese learners. Instead, as a serious endeavor, learning is not only academic, but also a personal moral obligation as well as commitment for Chinese students. The outcome of learning is good, but the process is filled with endless challenges and hardship (ku). Thus, Chinese students need perseverance (hengxin) for the completion of the learning from the beginning to the end. Last but not least, concentration (zhuanxin) is the virtue of every moment for learning, which means students are not encouraged to have side-talking because they need to pay attention to teacher’s lecture. To fully understand and develop ICC, individuals cannot separate from their linguistic or cultural backgrounds. In a linguistically and culturally diverse environment, students could bring different levels of cultural awareness and knowledge about culture. Students also could develop their ICC through encountering, understanding, accurating, resisting, (re)constructing, negotiating, and reevaluating their learning beliefs and process.  

Chinese international students’ ICC and how they negotiate and construct notions of adequate and effective communication is under-researched (Holmes, 2006). Peng et al. (2015) conducted an empirical study to assess Chinese college students’ ICC with a fuzzy comprehensive evaluation index system and model. The findings showed that most participants’ ICC was average. Most students’ knowledge of others is inadequate due to the limited opportunities for intercultural contact and training. The authors found that intercultural training and communication skills were important to develop students’ ICC. 

Due to cultural backgrounds, the way Chinese perceive ICC is different from the Western view (Liu & Chen, 2000). Intercultural competence has been developed in a variety of areas in the Chinese context. For instance, in Jiao et al.’s (2020) research, the authors conducted a semi-structured interview with four Chinese international business practitioners, and an evaluation survey with more Chinese international business practitioners to explore key components of intercultural business communication competence (IBCC). They developed an Intercultural Business Communication Competence Scale to use among Chinese international business professionals to explore the key components of IBCC. In addition, Confucian values are deeply embedded in Chinese students’ concepts of  “tolerance, respect, and harmony” (Peng et al., 2015, p. 152). Chinese students tend to build harmonious relationships by avoiding conflicts, respect authority, and complying with social norms. All these values have impacted Chinese students’ ICC development. 

Currently, I am reviewing and analyzing the subject of Intercultural and Global Competence (ICGC) in Chinese context and Chinese students’ ICGC in different cultures. There are English and Chinese bilingual annotations that are created in spreadsheets. If you know relevant resources or this is part of your research interest, please feel free to email me at Or, you can write annotations in English, Chinese, or both and send them to me.


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.

Heng, T. T. (2017). Voices of Chinese international students in USA colleges: ‘I want to tell them that … ’. Studies in Higher Education, 42(5), 833-850.

Holmes, P. (2006). Problematising intercultural communication competence in the pluricultural classroom: Chinese students in a New Zealand university. Language and intercultural communication, 6(1), 18-34.

Jiao, J., Xu, D., & Zhao, X. (2020). The Development and Validation of an Intercultural Business Communication Competence Scale: Evidence From Mainland China. SAGE Open, 10(4), 2158244020971614.

Li, J. (2005). Mind or virtue: Western and Chinese beliefs about learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14(4), 190-194.

Li, J. (2012). Cultural foundations of learning: East and West. Cambridge University Press.

Liu, J., & Fang, F. G. (2017). Perceptions, awareness and perceived effects of home culture on intercultural communication: Perspectives of university students in China. System, 67, 25-37.

Nagel-Angermann, M. (2012). The five virtues. (confucian virtues ren yi, li, zhi, and xin). Calliope (Peterborough, N.H.), 22(5), 16. 

Read the complete article with Chinese characters here.

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