Learning a language – A gateway to intercultural competence

If you struggled with learning a language at school or have tried learning online or at evening classes as an adult, you will know that language learning can be a rocky road. Sometimes we can feel motivated and full of confidence. Other times it feels so frustrating you may wonder why you even started in the first place. Luckily, there are many very good reasons for learning a foreign language: it improves memory, develops multitasking skills and even delays the onset of Alzheimer’s. It can even be a political act - The Guardian’s Gabby Hinsliff recently highlighted how learning a European language could be seen as ‘a small act of defiance’ for firm EU-remainers. Beyond these benefits we can also develop broader intercultural skills that will help us in our international and multicultural interactions – making us more ‘interculturally competent.’

 ‘Intercultural competence’ – what is it?

Intercultural competence is the ability to understand that some of the ways we think and behave are strongly underpinned by the cultural groups we belong to. In order to be interculturally competent you need to be curious and open to other cultures and their associated attitudes, values and behaviours. Intercultural competence also involves suspending your beliefs about other individuals and cultures before making snap judgements about them: judgements which will often be a product of your own culture. Culturally-driven assumptions can lead you to misinterpret somebody else’s behaviour which can negatively impact cross-cultural relationships. These competences allow you to see the bigger picture during interactions and to realise that when communication feels frustrating it could be due to a clash of cultures rather than personalities.

An insight into other worldviews

The language we speak creates a lens through which we see the world around us and shapes our values and attitudes. For instance, tenses affect the way we perceive time or remember events. As Laura Boroditsky commented in her TED talk How language shapes the way we think, in English we tend to specify ‘who did what’ whereas Spanish allows the perpetrator of an action to remain ambiguous – “se ha roto el plato”/ “the plate broke itself”. It has been found that when recalling events English speakers are more likely to recall ‘who did it’ and Spanish speakers are more likely to remember that the event was an accident.

The Korean language uses honorifics: an address system used to ‘honour’ the other party. The honorific “nim” is added to the end of someone’s name and job title to pay respect to the person’s seniority. Even verbs change depending on the subject's level in the Korean hierarchical pyramid. There are six levels of politeness and how someone is addressed will depend on their status, the degree of intimacy and also the level of formality attached to a situation. This address system quite clearly demonstrates the importance of hierarchy and status within Korean culture. 

Specific words and expressions can also enable us to describe and consequently become aware of feelings and sensations that we might be less aware of if we spoke a different language. The word Fernweh  is unique to German and  means the yearning for a place different to the one you are currently in and is often used as an excuse for Germans to book a getaway. You may think that there is no culture more apologetic than the English but the Japanese have far more words to apologise: 20 to be exact. Specific terms exist to express humility, forgiveness and admitting a wrongdoing. For example, "Yurushite" is used to ask for forgiveness whereas “Shazai” is only used in formal emails. Japanese apologies are a window into Japan’s culture of politeness, respectfulness and mindfulness.  

Language helps to shape culture (and vice versa) and learning another language offers us an opportunity to step into this culture and perceive our surroundings in previously unimagined ways. Speaking a second language means you can switch between languages and lenses and ‘putting yourself in the other person’s shoes’ is a vital component of becoming interculturally competent. Being able to speak even just one foreign language is a strong reminder that other people understand the world differently and that we should think twice before understanding others through our culturally-constructed lenses.

Being comfortable with the unknown

We improve our language skills through trial and error and so making mistakes is both inevitable and necessary. Quite often we find ourselves in situations where we do not have the right words or expressions to get our message across, so we make mistakes and search for other ways of expressing what we want to say. As a result, we develop skills in thinking on our feet when we are literally ‘lost for words’ and confronted with the unknown. The more comfortable you become with the unknown the more you become tolerant of ambiguity – you see it as something attractive rather than frightening. This is useful in cross-cultural situations as being open and curious about differences in communication style will help to overcome feelings of anxiety and prevent snap judgements. Where someone might categorise a different communication style as ‘odd’ or ‘wrong’ or even ‘rude’ being open to the unknown allows us to suspend these beliefs and to discover the qualities of the other person. Repairing communicative mistakes is useful in cross-cultural interactions as our usual mode of communicating may not always have the same effect on a listener from another culture – for example, British sarcastic humour can leave others feeling quite confused. When there is a cross-cultural communication breakdown the experience of learning a language prompts us to reflect on our mistakes and search for other, more appropriate ways of communicating.

Workplace benefits

Intercultural communication skills have become a necessity in the workplace – even if you are not a regular business traveller you undoubtedly have email or telephone contact with partners from other cultures.  Seeing situations from multiple perspectives and being able to reconcile cross-cultural differences at work will help you create more positive relationships with contacts from other cultures and will also improve your creative thinking and strategic decision making.  Learning another language can give you more than just the language skills in themselves but can also help you to become more culturally sensitive.

Make the time and try learning a language, even if you never become fluent you will have some fun along the way and it will help you get inside the heads of people from other cultures and see the world, and the workplace, in a different way.

Libby Small Image

Libby Small

Libby is an MA graduate in Intercultural Communication with four years experience of teaching English as a foreign language in Spain and in the UK. Back in London, she is now interning with LSIC. 

All articles Next article