Intercultural communication: what is its place in language learning?
By Claire Jaynes
Today, more than ever, we are working with individuals on a daily basis from around the world. At Trebinshun this week, we have a microcosm of these globalized working partnerships: a Swiss student who uses English, French and German in her job; a German student who works for a Japanese company and deals with suppliers in Russia, China and India and a Spanish student now based in the UK. Not to mention our other students who all have their own reasons for learning English and working with different cultural groups.
Our work on the Intensive Executive programmes involves refining English use for all these different contexts and at the same time, raising awareness of language and cultural differences. What are the most important features to consider?
1. Language which can cause misunderstanding or a breakdown in communication.
Knowing how to give opinions and disagree politely is an important area of language that we frequently cover on our training courses. There can be vast differences between cultural groups in the way that they disagree - some cultures can be straight to the point or direct e.g I disagree with your main point' and others, are less direct and polite forms are commonly used (I wouldn't agree on that point) or 'weaker' phrases are used 'I partly agree' (when the meaning is, 'I quite strongly disagree'). This differs even amongst language speakers, for example, Swiss German speakers tend to use a more indirect style than German speakers from Germany. This is just one example but another area to consider would be formality and how that is marked or shown in different languages (use of modal verbs in English; the various 'you' forms in German, French, Spanish etc). In the classroom, it is important to look at a range of language expressions which can be used in such discussions and negotiations and in this way, the student can match their own natural style with what is appropriate from a language and cultural perspective.
2. The role of non-verbal communication
Observing our students in the early part of their stay, it becomes clear that each group has their own way of saying hello and greeting each other each day: hand shakes, kisses on the cheek (how many?!) or perhaps nothing. We are often not aware of the subtle ways we use our bodies to communicate: how much space we generally leave between us when we're talking or how much eye contact is comfortable. However, we do soon notice what is not comfortable. In the classroom, we often start with raising awareness around these key areas and invite students to comment on the behaviour and habits of their own culture which can even differ from region to region. This is certainly the case in a country like Switzerland which has elements of four cultures. Presentations are a very effective way to combine language use (for example, how to open a talk) as well as how to interact with your audience (how much eye contact to use?).
3. Cultural norms in different countries
Working with people from other countries on a regular basis reveals what is considered to be standard practice in that country. Issues frequently arise with time: what periods of time are spent in the office (is lunch thirty minutes or two hours?). How important is it to arrive on time for a meeting or for it to finish within the allocated time? In addition, we may all agree on the role of meetings in our working lives but in some countries, the function of a meeting is to make decisions and in others, like Japan, the purpose is to explore ideas (and not make a final decision). Consider other norms such as the role of giving gifts in your country. In some countries like Argentina, it may be perceived as a bribe whereas in others, it serves to build the relationship. Even how you present your business card can be important. In the classroom. The majority of our students need or want to broaden their understanding of the world in which they operate. Not only can they learn from teachers who have worked in Europe, Asia and South America but from each other too.
The process of intercultural learning is about becoming more aware of other cultures around the world and the aim is, of course, to increase cross-cultural understanding and tolerance. Why not tell us what you have learnt from working across cultures?