Cultural Competency Key Terms

Definitions and Perspectives

What do we mean by cultural and linguistic competency? Unfortunately, there is no single, authoritative definition. Instead, cultural competency is open to multiple interpretations often based on the particular discipline or field of practice being discussed, or the point of view of the writer. On this page, we provide a number of those definitions and perspectives, along with the names of the individuals or  organizations that developed them


Cultural competence requires that organizations:

  • Have a defined set of values and principles, and demonstrate behaviors, attitudes, policies, and structures that enable them to work effective cross-culturally.
  • Have the capacity to (1) value diversity, (2) conduct self-assessment, (3) manage the dynamics of difference, (4) acquire and institutionalize cultural knowledge, and (5) adapt to diversity and the cultural contexts of communities they serve.
  • Incorporate the above in all aspects of policy-making, administration, practice and service delivery, systematically involve consumers, families and communities.

Cultural competence is a developmental process that evolves over an extended period. Both individuals and organizations are at various levels of awareness, knowledge and skills along the cultural competence continuum.


National Center for Cultural Competence,
Georgetown University


Cultural competence is the ability of individuals and systems to respond respectfully and effectively to people of all cultures, classes, races, ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and faiths or religions in a manner that recognizes, affirms, and values the worth of individuals, families, tribes, and communities, and protects and preserves the dignity of each.

  • Cultural competence is a continuous process of learning about the cultural strengths of others and integrating their unique abilities and perspectives into our lives.
  • Cultural competence is a vehicle used to broaden our knowledge and understanding of individuals and communities.
  • Cultural competence or the lack of it will be reflected in how communities relate to and interact with service providers and their representatives.
  • Cultural competence is having the knowledge, ability, and skill necessary to identify and address the issues facing organizations and staff that have cultural implications, and the ability to operationalize this knowledge into the routine functioning of an agency.


Child Welfare League of America


The term cultural competence means services, supports or other assistance that are conducted or provided in a manner that is responsive to the beliefs, interpersonal styles, attitudes, language and behaviors of individuals who are receiving services, and in a manner that has the greatest likelihood of ensuring their maximum participation in the program.


Administration on Developmental Disabilities


Cultural competence is a key factor in enabling educators to be effective with students from cultures other than their own. Cultural competence is having an awareness of one’s own cultural identity and views about difference, and the ability to learn and build on the varying cultural and community norms of students and their families. It is the ability to understand the within-group differences that make each student unique, while celebrating the between-group variations that make our country a tapestry. This understanding informs and expands teaching practices in the culturally competent educator’s classroom.


National Education Association


Developing cultural and linguistic competency allows public health officials and emergency managers to getter meet the needs of diverse populations and to improve the quality of services and health outcomes during and after a disaster. To be effective, however, cultural and linguistic competency must be included in all phases of a disaster or public health emergency – preparedness, response, and recovery.


Office of the Asst. Secretary for Preparedness and
Responses, U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services


Cultural competence in health care describes the ability of systems to provide care to patients with diverse values, beliefs and behaviors, including tailoring delivery to meet patients’ social, cultural, and linguistic needs.

J.R. Betancourt et al, Cultural Competence in Health Care:
Emerging Frameworks and Practical Approaches, The
Commonwealth Fund, October, 2002, v.


Essential to law enforcement officers’ effectiveness is their ability to effectively communicate with the wide variety of people who live in their communities, to understand what is being expressed to them, and to make themselves understood by the public they serve. Developing cultural competency encourages individuals to break free from their usual ethnocentric view of the world and examine various circumstances from the perspective of the involved individual or individuals. It allows people, including officers, to communicate their suggestions, directions, or mandates within the context of the individual’s culture in order to ensure compliance. Applying cultural competency skills reduces antagonism, confusion, suspicion, and the potential for conflict that may ultimately lead to a solution that involves the application of force. Misunderstanding and miscommunication are less likely to result in negative law enforcement-citizen interactions if the officers have been trained in and apply the concepts of cultural competency.


“Community Engagement through Cultural
 Competency,” The Police Chief, September, 2016


Cultural competence is the ability to interact effectively with people of different cultures. In practice, both individuals and organizations can be culturally competent. Culture must be considered at every step of the Strategic Prevention Framework (SPF). “Culture” is a term that goes beyond just race or ethnicity. It can also refer to such characteristics as age, gender, sexual orientation, disability, religion, income level, education, geographical location, or profession.

Cultural competence means to be respectful and responsive to the health beliefs and practices—and cultural and linguistic needs—of diverse population groups. Developing cultural competence is also an evolving, dynamic process that takes time and occurs along a continuum.


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration