How Learning Languages Increases Your Cultural Intelligence
by Fernando Sanchez-Arias and Rosemary Crawford (*)
Negotiating internationally, studying abroad, being part of multicultural teams or working with multinational companies is challenging. Cultural intelligence increases dramatically when one speaks one or many languages different than their native language/s. Learning a foreign language increases one’s ability to be successful in cross-cultural interactions.
According to Ann, Van Dyne and Kok, prestigious researchers in cross-cultural management, being culturally intelligent means mastering four key factors which allow us to act effectively in culturally diverse situations:
- (1) Meta-cognition: the ability to know how to think and learn to effectively interact with people from other cultures
- (2) Cognition: the ability to acquire knowledge about the differences and similarities between different cultures
- (3) Motivation: the ability to desire and enjoy intercultural interactions
- (4) Behavior: the ability to act and implement what we know and want in visible actions with observable results in every situation of cultural diversity.
Knowing and learning another culture goes beyond the explicit learning about the values, beliefs, behaviors, customs and artifacts that a certain group of people use to live and function with each other. Knowing a new culture requires tacit knowledge that shows an unconscious competence of the native practices to effectively interact with another culture. It is not enough to just read about the country or culture with which we interact. We must live the interaction, we have to exchange thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Learning the predominant language in that culture plays a fundamentally important role. Studies show how speaking the most frequently used language in the culture with one interacts, accelerates the integration process and increases the effectiveness of cross-cultural relationships.
In our own experience; Fernando speaks English, Portuguese, and Spanish. Rosemary speaks English and Spanish and attempts to use the knowledge of Catalan, Portuguese, and Arabic. Fernando learned his English by studying in a US Embassy program in Maracaibo, his hometown in Venezuela, and then improved it through active participation in AFS and Junior Chamber International (JCI) and then progressively during his work and life in American companies in USA and his presentations and trainings around the world. Fernando’s Portuguese was learned working in Brazil. Rosemary grew up in Waukesha, Wisconsin with no foreign language exposure, acquired her Spanish through a year AFS exchange in Valera-Venezuela, as a college exchange student in La Complutense in Madrid and earned her MBA only taking business courses in Spanish and Catalan from ESADE in Barcelona. Rosemary’s professional career has had her work in Spain and throughout Latin America. For us, to speak the language of the culture we work or socialize in has been critical to our success in cross-border interactions. We highly encourage international managers and expats to learn the native language of the culture they are or will be interacting with.
What to do? How to do it?
- (1) Select the language that you reside or most work with or one of the global high frequency languages: English, Spanish, French, Mandarin, Arabic or Portuguese. Start with the first or second most spoken language in your country of work or residence. Start today, don’t wait for a better time because there will never be a better time.
- (2) Register for a language learning program. Rosetta Stone for Business is an excellent choice for this. Practice, learn and study as often as possible. It is more important the frequency in which you learn and expose yourself to a language than the length of time! For example, 5 or 10 minutes a day is much more effective than one hour session once a week.
- (3) Visit international restaurants and attend cultural events with and from people who speak the language you are learning. This will allow you to develop part of the cognition and motivation, helping you to have the strategic behavior required to have successful cultural interactions. Don’t be shy and have a sense of humor! Try out some words in these safe environments and ask how you did and be ready to laugh at yourself if you make mistakes.
- (4) Learn key basic phrases and practice them unashamedly. Practice, practice, practice. Do not try to impress others with translated versions of impressive big words or phrases in your native language. Keep it simple, keep it basic and keep doing it!
- (5) Ask a good friend or close colleague who speaks the language you’re learning, to take notes and correct your faults of pronunciation, grammar and spelling so you can improve them continuously. Make it a fun social event where you pay for the coffee or meal with them. Respect your native language mentor by practicing the key errors they identified so the next time you can show them that you learned from them.
- (6) Read aloud a book by a renowned author of the culture whose language you are learning. Buy the audio version and read along with the author/narrator, this will allow you to start learning (consciously or subconsciously) the nuances of intonation, inflection and vocal variety.
- (7) Enjoy movies in the language you are learning by placing the sub-titles to mentally associate the verbal sounds with the written language. If you are brand new at your learning, set the sub-titles to be in your native language but LISTEN to the native language and then try to watch again in the native language and sub-titles. This is something easy to do on long international flights and can help you get into the mindset of the culture you are going to.
The seven simple actions outlined above have helped us improve our mastery of a second or third language, allowed us to expand our knowledge about other cultures, and motivated us to interact with more people. We have been able to carry out actions, allowing us to achieve our objectives effectively which is a true advantage in international and multicultural relations.
(*) About the Authors
Fernando Sanchez-Arias is an PennCLO Executive Doctoral Program student.
He has served multinational companies and organizations in more than 70 countries.
He is the Corporate Director and Chief Learning Officer (CLO) of an oil & gas manufacturing business group and founder of MEJORAR, a cross-cultural leadership and intelligence center.
Rosemary Crawford has a graduate certificate from Northwestern in Learning and Organizational Change, a MBA from ESADE and a MIM from Thunderbird.
She has worked in three continents with international companies such as Abbott Labs, Cargill and General Electric.