Almost all of us speak at least one foreign language. But not everyone knows that a good knowledge of grammar and vocabulary is not enough. In order to really understand a language, you also need to know the culture that goes linked to it.
Why is intercultural communication so important?
To show you, I would like to share with you my most recent experience: I’ve been living in Spain for more than 3 years now, but I have been studying Spanish for almost 9 years. In all that time, I have always been a part of Spanish culture – some of my language and science teachers were native speakers from different parts of Hispanic world, we made a school trip to Spain after the first year, we were constantly taught about the different Hispanic customs, we tried their food and also tried to prepare it (actually went pretty well!).
After 5 years of learning Spanish, I moved to Spain in order to begin my university studies. The first year was tough. Learning a foreign language in class or chatting with some friends from time to time is not even near to the experience of living in that country. And I realized that for a living, the language itself is definitely not enough. You have to have a good idea about how that different culture works. What can you say, what you can not say, when, how…
Those were the times I felt amazingly grateful for all those classes of cooking tortilla or seeing some real-life videos about Spain. It not only made me feel less as a stranger but it also helped me a lot with finding new friends – I was able to understand them much better than other students who did not take culture classes.
What intercultural communication is?
In order to understand what intercultural communication means, you first have to understand the way that every natural language behaves. Let’s play a little game. Grab a blank sheet of paper and a pencil. Now, draw a tree and a clock. On the clock, mark which hours mean “morning” to you, which are “afternoon” and which are “night”. If you have some international friends, you can compare your drawings with theirs and very likely you will see some differences.
Most people would draw a broad-leaved tree, but if you are from a northern country, you would probably at least consider drawing a conifer, or if you are from some tropical country, you might even draw a palm. In case of the clock, you would be really surprised how can those words‘ meanings differ from one country to other.
That means that language is actually a reflection of its speakers‘ reality. That reality is different in every culture – therefore, you can not just translate word by word. You have to understand the meaning in the culture of the language you’re learning.
Why should I be bothered about what they think?
First of all, only the fact of realizing that what is 100% true for you might not be the same for someone else makes you open your mind, become a more tolerant person, it forces you to analyze the situation and makes you more empathetic.
It also gives you a new knowledge of history, religion, or social circumstances of that culture and that helps you to understand not only much better what people say, but also why do they say it, why do they use certain words, voice tone, gestures, facial expressions or how loud they are and why… And not only that, you will also be able to understand their jokes or irony, you will know which words are really bad words and which are not, even if the translation to your language would be different.
You will also understand how much of body contact is considered normal and why you will learn some basic knowledge about what do they consider courtesy and what not and you will see many things you would normally not even think about.
What can I do with all of that knowledge?
There are actually some degrees where you can study either just intercultural communication itself or which incorporate it into its syllabus. It is vital in international relations and most international business and negotiation studies and you can actually work as an intercultural advisor.
Some universities also have a specific program you can sign up for and where you will have to work as an advisor for one international student, teaching them how things work in your country, university, and culture. That said, having a good knowledge and maybe a degree in intercultural communication can really be something you can use in your future work or studies and has a real value for your CV.
How can I learn about the culture of the language I’m studying?
If you are studying a foreign language and want to know more about their culture, I recommend getting in touch with native speakers – as many as you can. A basic knowledge of history will also give you an incredibly big amount of information.
If you have that possibility, visit the country/countries, but if that’s not the case, I would recommend watching TV or just browsing internet for some information and then experiencing as many things as you can: cook their national food, try to do something they usually do in their everyday life, think about how they are and about the reasons of being that way.
If you are living in a foreign country which is still new for you, don’t feel shy and ask for help if you really need it, try to find a friend who could explain to you all of their habits and everything you need to know in order to have a normal professional and social life.
For the end, I would like to give you some piece of advice about what worked the best for me. First of all, I find observation one of the best methods of learning. I do it basically all the time when I get out of my house and it taught me a lot about the culture I’m living in.
And second, the most important for me: NEVER forget who you are and where you come from. You should adjust to the new culture the best as you can but why should you pretend to be someone who you’re not? Being yourself makes you special and unique so don’t worry if people can tell you’re a foreigner based on your accent or how you look. But that doesn’t mean you should accentuate your nationality instead. There’s absolutely no need for doing either – what really matters is your personality, who you are and why are you like that.
Any experience related to intercultural communication is different and if you have some, we encourage you to share it with us in the comments below! We hope you liked our article and if you have any feedback to share, go ahead!