It is commonly claimed that the main goal of learning and teaching a second language is for communication. While this would seem both appropriate and beneficial, the goal and associated processes for learning are most accurately described as intercultural communication rather than just communication. One of the consequences of this lack of interest in the intercultural in L2 teaching (or L3, L4 etc…), is that too often teaching and learning has focused on a fixed code or set of linguistic structures with little consideration of the wider intercultural communicative practices they are part of. This has been addressed in recent decades, in part, by the increasing interest in the cultural dimensions of language teaching and learning and in particular the notion of intercultural communicative competence. The key to intercultural communicative competence is cultural or intercultural awareness.
In this article I examine the role of cultural awareness (CA) and intercultural awareness (ICA) in classroom theory and practice. CA and ICA can be roughly characterised as an awareness of the role of culture in communication with CA focused on national cultures and ICA on more dynamic and flexible relationships between languages and cultures. I consider the findings from CA and ICA research that have not been well applied those that have been well applied and those that have been over-applied to classrooms. In particular, I argue that CA and ICA are more prevalent in pedagogic theory, and to a lesser extent policy, than they are in practice. While the cultural dimension to language learning is now fairly mainstream, where elements of CA and ICA are applied or translated into the classroom they typically take the form of comparisons between national cultures, often in essentialist forms. There is still little evidence of classroom practice that relates to the fluid ways cultures and languages are related in intercultural communication, especially for English as a lingua franca or other languages used on a global scale.
Such an evaluation will necessarily be subjective, and I draw on my own experiences of teaching masters level courses in the UK to language teachers from around the world, as well as my experiences of and continued interest in English language teaching (ELT) in Thailand. At the same time though, I relate these experiences to what we currently understand through research about the role of cultural and intercultural awareness in L2 use and learning. Given my experiences of ELT, the discussion mainly focuses on English language teaching and English as a lingua franca; however, many of the issues are relevant to teaching other languages.