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Intercultural Language Coaching: blending language and culture for better performance

You may think that language learning and intercultural training are two separate fields. You may take a language class to learn a foreign language and you might participate in an intercultural training to gain intercultural competence. There is, however, much to be gained from blending the two. You can develop your intercultural competence at the same time as you advance your foreign language skills. Intercultural Language Coaching is effective and yields results.


Getting ready for a foreign assignment: a personal story


Quite a few years ago, my husband got the news that he would be sent on a six-month assignment to northern Mexico as part of a product launch. We, the two of us and our young daughter, had a few months to get ready for our relocation. Looking back, I would describe our emotions surrounding the upcoming move as positively excited, but also a bit anxious regarding the fact that we would be bringing along a toddler.

Mexican street

A few weeks before our departure, we were given the opportunity to participate in a half-day intercultural training workshop. At that time, I was still quite unfamiliar with the field of intercultural studies and did not know what to expect. Still today, I think of that workshop as the moment that sparked my passion for all things intercultural.


The topics covered in the workshop included some country information and what to expect from our new temporary home. Most of the training time, though, was focused on what it means to transition and adjust to a new culture. I was fascinated.


Side note: The training was conducted in English. The language of the host culture – Spanish – played no active role in it.


“Language-free” intercultural training: a common practice


Most intercultural trainers will say that you can help someone develop their intercultural competence without teaching them the language of a new culture. That is, of course, the case. I have, over the years, taught several courses on intercultural business communication and intercultural competence that did not have a foreign-language component.


An intercultural trainer can convey relevant concepts, lay the foundation for intercultural understanding, and encourage a global mindset without teaching a foreign language. Intercultural trainings should address the role of language as a communication tool. They don’t need to incorporate language teaching to have a positive impact.


“Culture-free” language training: an impossible task


Culture is always present in communication. Language as a communication tool is infused with culture. In this blog on Language Shock, I talk about how language is part of culture and at the same time expresses it. In language training, culture cannot be bypassed. What’s more, we can gain from bringing it from the background to the forefront.


Knowledge about culture: a valuable resource


When we talk about culture, we can mean things like literature, the arts, history, societal structures, institutions, common practices, food, traditions, festivals, and more. It encompasses vast bodies of knowledge about another country or group of people.

Moving boxes in empty room

That knowledge can be valuable for intercultural encounters. It tells you more about your communication partner's background. If you plan to travel or relocate abroad, it will give you a preview of what you’ll likely experience, help you find your way around once you are there, and make the transition easier.


Language courses often incorporate aspects of culture to create a connection between the language on the one hand, and the lives of the people who speak it in their communities on the other hand. At a more advanced level, cultural knowledge can be shared and discussed in the foreign language. This also supports language development. From literature to institutions to festivities – these topics all present opportunities to build cultural knowledge and, at the same time, advance language skills.


There is, however, more to culture that matters.


Intercultural competence: built on language


When we learn a foreign language for the purpose of communication – which is a primary reason for taking on a new language or wanting to improve existing skills – we enter the realm of intercultural competence.


Intercultural competence is, in essence, a communication competence: it’s the ability to communicate effectively and appropriately with people from other cultures. That puts language at the core of intercultural competence.


Side note: Even though the term intercultural competence is often used when we talk about national cultures, it can also be applied to communication between other cultural groups (based on age, gender, or profession, to name just a few).


Cultural norms: doing and saying the right things


When we speak with people from other cultures, language may be a big hurdle to overcome. But it’s not the only challenge. Communication follows guidelines and norms – and these are not uniform across cultural groups. Each group has shared communicative behaviors it considers acceptable and appropriate. Groups develop prevalent communication styles.


Making communication work is therefore not simply a matter of language skills and of accurate speaking. It’s about doing and saying the right things, at the right moment, in the right way.

No
Picture: Daniel Herron on Unsplash

Let’s look at the simple act of saying no. Even though the word “no” may easily translate into other languages, how you actually negate, disagree, or contradict in different situations goes well beyond the word “no” – and it differs from culture to culture. In some cultures, it's ok to respond to a suggestion with a direct “no”. Other cultures are more likely to combine “no” with a softening phrase. Some cultures voice disagreement indirectly without using the word “no” at all. You have to read between the lines to get the message.


It’s pretty obvious how not knowing or understanding a culture’s norms of disagreeing or contradicting can cause offense, create friction, or lead to big misunderstandings.


Cultural norms: what we expect from others


So, there are cultural norms surrounding communication. They determine what we do and say. However, they also determine what we assume will happen, what we expect from others, and how we interpret what others do and say. If our expectations are not met, we are thrown off balance, embarrassed, offended, frustrated, or even angry.


On top of that, we tend to judge behavior that is not in line with our assumptions and expectations. We find it strange, inappropriate, or even rude. Our judgment, however, is based on our own cultural norms. That’s where cross-cultural skills come in.


What do I need to communicate effectively?


To communicate effectively and appropriately in a foreign language, you need three skill sets:

  • Language skills: Without language skills you cannot express your thoughts, voice your opinions, understand what others say, or engage in conversations.

  • Cultural knowledge: Cultural knowledge helps you understand your communication partner and why they do and say certain things. For successful communication, you need to go below the surface and develop a deeper understanding of culture in the sense of attitudes, beliefs, and assumptions.

  • Cross-cultural skills: To develop cross-cultural skills, you need cross-cultural awareness. You need to understand the similarities and differences between your own and the foreign culture and how the differences may impact interaction and cooperation.

Frequently, we don’t notice cultural differences until they create a problem. Communication problems can be embarrassing, costly, and have repercussions for further cooperation. Cross-cultural awareness will allow you to prepare and develop strategies before problems happen and deal with them when they do arise. Cross-cultural awareness is a prerequisite for intercultural competence.


Side note: Cultural and cross-cultural knowledge must be well-researched and founded on a body of evidence to avoid stereotyping. It’s never about absolute truths that apply to everyone. We can only describe societal tendencies as they relate to our own culture.


Intercultural Language Coaching: where it all comes together


Intercultural Language Coaching combines elements from all three skill sets. It's a holistic approach aimed at professionals who want to enhance their language skills and develop their cultural and cross-cultural competencies, because they work in a foreign language, work or do business with people from other cultures, or plan to travel/relocate to a foreign country.


If these and similar situations apply to you, ...

... you want to refine your language skills: widen your vocabulary range, learn relevant idiomatic expressions, work on your comprehension, get more confident at ad-hoc speaking, etc.


In addition, you want to gain cross-cultural soft skills - “people skills” and common practices. These could be skills such as how to give feedback effectively, how to capture people’s interest as a presenter, how to navigate business and social events, etc.


Furthermore, you’ll need to develop an understanding of people’s culture and worldview. What are the values and likely motivations behind their actions? What are common beliefs and assumptions affecting communication and cooperation?

And finally, it’s important to think about how your own cultural practices and your own worldview relate to the new culture’s practices and worldview. Where do you see similarities you can build on? Where do you see differences you need to be aware of? What are challenges you might encounter and what's the best way to deal with them?


Intercultural Language Coaching can help you develop the skill sets you need to competently and confidently handle intercultural situations at home and successfully navigate transitions and adjustments abroad.


Contact me if you want to find out more about what Intercultural Language Coaching can do for you .




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