Cultural and intercultural literacy… What is it?


On completion of this activity, you will be able to:
  • define key concepts pertaining to cultural and intercultural literacy
  • discuss the importance of cultural and intercultural literacy

What is cultural and intercultural literacy?

According to the Oxford Dictionary online, the term cultural literacy is:

“The ability to analyse and understand a particular society or culture; familiarity with the customs and characteristics of a culture.”

The term was popularised by E.D.Hirsch with his 1987 US best-seller “Cultural literacy: What Every American needs to know”. It holds an appendix providing a list of 5,000 essential names, phrases, dates, and concepts described as the shared knowledge needed for effective communication. Several problems with Hirsch’s view have since been pointed out.


For Belshaw, mentioned by Dudeney and Hockly in Literacies, Technologies and Language Teaching, cultural literacy is

“an essential element of digital literacy. It refers to an understanding of the different digital contexts we may encounter online, from more traditional, structured environments such as school virtual learning environments (VLEs) to less organised spaces such as Facebook. As we move between these environments we are encouraged to change the way we interact and operate. In Web 1.0 terminology this might equate to the notion of netiquette, whilst in language learning terms we pay think of notions such as register and genre, and a need to accommodate to different situations”.

Dudeney, Hockly and Pegrum (2014: 34) define intercultural literacy as

“the ability to interpret documents and artefacts from a range of cultural contexts, as well as to effectively communicate messages and interact constructively with interlocutors across different cultural contexts”.

Why is cultural and intercultural literacy important?

Culture is often described as being like an iceberg (Iceberg analogy of culture by E.T.Hall): there are only some aspects of culture which are visible, while most aspects are not immediately visible.

Understanding digital artefacts from other cultures and interacting effectively and constructively with people from other cultures takes on even more importance in our global world, where intercultural contact via digital communication is increasingly possible and increasingly likely (Literacies, Technologies and Language Teaching, Dudeney and Hockly, 2016: 120).

Exposure to difference needs careful management. History has showed that unless cross-cultural interactions are well prepared, well structured, and well supported by teachers, they can lead to confusion, misunderstandings, and, worse still, reinforcement of stereotypes and prejudices (Helm, Guth and Farrah, 2012; Lamy and Goodfellow, 2010; November 2010). However successful collaborations allow students to learn from and about other cultures while acquiring the art of ‘digital diplomacy’, as they share their stories with members of cultures that are different from their own (Solomon and Schrum, 2007, Kindle locations 1662-8, with references to David Jakes) (see Dudeney, Hockly and Pegrum (2014: 35)).


Test your knowledge!

Cultural and intercultural literacy Quiz 



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Cultural and intercultural literacy, what is it?EN, FR, GE, SP

Source/attribution:  Digilanguages.         Author: Johanna Keogh

Blog where you can test your American cultural literacy.

TEDxTalk on Cultural (il)literacy: What modern America needs to know, by Reg Stewart (2015):

An interesting article trying to define common cultural literacy for an increasingly diverse nation (the US).

A section on Cultural literacy from Western Sydney University.

A lire

Prise de position sur les mérites de l’alphabétisation culturelle de E.D.Hirsch dans un article des Echos.

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Définition du terme interculturalité sur le Toupictionnaire.


A voir

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Ein Video zum Thema interkulturelle Kompetenz:

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Este enlace lleva a un artículo sobre la alfabetización audio-visual y la interculturalidad publicado en la página de la Universidad Antonio de Nebrija. También el siguiente artículo de un periódico digital muestra el nivel cultural de los españoles e incluye estudios que muestran los conocimientos culturales que tienen con relación al resto de Europa.

El siguiente video ofrece una visión sobre cómo muchos problemas sociales surgen debido a la falta de la comunicación intercultural.

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