11 reasons why you need cultural awareness when learning a language

English may be the language of business globally, or almost globally, but for employees relocating abroad, this is no excuse for failing to learn the local language. In fact, even learning the language is not enough. Without cultural intelligence, it’s only half the job done – akin to using an online translation tool that can interpret the words but has no notion of context. Here are a few reasons we believe language learning and cross cultural training go hand-in-hand.

  1. You could be fluent in a language but without cultural awareness, the nuance of what someone is saying might be lost on you. A Japanese colleague may be trying to give you negative signals by saying things like ‘I will see what’s possible’ or ‘I will try’. Anybody with intercultural training will know quickly to interpret this as ‘no’, or to realise that there is a problem. Similarly, a German colleague may say something that sounds unusually sharp or even rude. Most likely, though, they’re simply communicating in the typical, direct German style.
  2. Understanding the Indian head-wobble, the passion and expression of an Italian, the meaning of the African handshake or the cultural significance of the wai (bow) in Thailand are all part of an awareness of non-verbal communication. Textbook language learning will not teach you this – but all of these are essential elements of communicating.
  3. Cross cultural training in support of learning a language will teach you real subtleties of speaking, too. For example, volume. North Americans may speak much louder than, say, Scandinavians or Asians. Even with the best intentions, nobody wants to come across as loud and crass, or timid and unconvincing, simply because they have not been taught how to actually to speak the language in an appropriate way.
  4. Understanding the culture of a country makes getting by in everyday interactions much easier. Even the simplest things, like knowing always to say ‘Bonjour’ when you enter a shop in France, or knowing when and whom to tip in the USA. Small gestures, but these help to maintain the social fabric and help you to avoid any faux pas in your adopted culture.
  5. Speaking a language fluently is impressive, but somewhat lost if you arrive in a new country with no knowledge of how business is done. Intercultural cultural training in support of language learning will teach you how to sell, listen, negotiate, manage a team and delegate. So you can put your fluent Arabic to the test by building relationships with customers and suppliers before diving in to seal the deal, or use your Mandarin to listen quietly while your customer speaks, rather than interrupting them.
  6. Understanding the culture of a country is, of course, way more than mere business etiquette; it’s understanding what shapes society, how values are formed, what and who inspires people. Speak the language and you already have an advantage here. Read local newspapers, watch TV, study literature, go to a sporting event or chat in the local coffee shop. Look at art, learn about mythology and understand how local culinary specialities have evolved. These are all ways to improve your understanding of cultural sensitivity beyond formal study.
  7. Even if you are moving to another English-speaking country, the nuances of the language will be different. Language, like culture, is constantly evolving. A British person moving to South Africa would need to understand the culture there; the concept of ‘African time’, the hierarchy, the tribal system, the context of South Africa today. An Indian moving to the USA may speak English but would need to grasp the idea of speaking louder, more directly, coming across as confident and self-assured. This is all part of cultural awareness.
  8. Finally, possessing cultural awareness, especially following formal intercultural training, is a big selling point for any individual looking to work abroad. Employers are more likely to hire someone who is curious, tolerant and culturally aware than an individual who shows purely academic knowledge.

Do cultural differences impact productivity within your organisation? Our cross cultural training tool is used by 75% of Fortune 500 companies to develop cultural intelligence. It is imperative that diverse organisations support an inclusive culture where cultural awareness and cultural sensitivity are paramount. Contact us for more information on how we can support your organisation to overcome cultural differences and turn diversity into your competitive advantage.


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About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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