Module 3: Developing Your Intercultural Skills

Language as (Mis)Communication

How many languages do you speak? Have you studied any language before? Do you speak any other languages with family or friends? How much do you know about other languages?

Having the ability to speak in more than one language allows you to communicate and interact more holistically with people who speak that language: It helps you appreciate written works in their original form, can be very useful when travelling, and may open more doors when you are looking for employment. Another important reason why learning another language is beneficial is that it gives you the opportunity to glimpse into how other speakers construct meaning, part of which is also linked to cultural values and related behaviours.

Happy multiethnic men bumping arms on street

Activity: What Do You Know About Languages?

There are many interesting facts about languages that often help us understand people’s cultural positioning. Read the following statements and decide whether they are TRUE or FALSE based on your knowledge or best guess.

Adapted from 50+ Fascinating Language Facts You Didn’t Know

Explore the 50+ Fascinating Language Facts to Inspire You Infographic to review your answers and browse the rest of the information.

Which of these facts are new to you? Are you surprised by any of them? If you had the opportunity to learn another language, which one would you like to learn? Why?

Think About This

The following are questions you should consider for understanding your own views on preserving one’s language and the experiences around language. Use these questions to reflect on what happens when we move across cultures for a long period of time.

  • How important is language in cultural interactions?
  • How can language affect the way we interact and the way we perceive people?
  • Why do people who move to other countries try to preserve their language?
  • What motivations could they have to potentially avoid using their language?

These are important questions you might consider in order to understand your own views and experiences, as well as to start thinking about what happens when we move across cultures for a long period of time.

Activity: Language in intercultural exchange

Multiracial Group of People by the Table

You will watch a TEDTalk Lost in Translation by Janesh Rahlan (15’32”) describing his experience as the son of immigrant parents in the United States, including what he learned about preserving language and using it to transmit elements of culture across national lines. As you watch, think about how his experience can inform your own intercultural communication skills.

Take notes of Rahlan’s talk to help you remember key ideas and then answer the questions below, paying attention to strategies he describes that you could use in your own interactions.

Whether you have travelled abroad or have never left the country where you were born, it is very likely that making the effort to learn another language can indeed make all the difference in intercultural situations. If you travel abroad to study, work, volunteer, or just to visit, arriving in a country where you do not speak the language can be extremely challenging and stressful.

Look at this from a different perspective, consider what happens to new immigrants in Canada, who can be, for example, voluntary migrants, permanent or temporary residents, visitors, or refugees. Many new immigrants already speak English or French when they move to the country, but many others perhaps did not have the opportunity to learn any of these languages. Without the ability to speak the language(s) of the country where you live, it is more difficult to understand cultural norms, systems of transportation, ways to shop, how to open a bank account, rules and regulations, and so forth. All of these can turn into a struggle and increase feelings of loneliness and homesickness.

Making an effort to learn another language provides you with more than communicative skills; it facilitates the development of relationships, positively affecting your interactions with other cultural members. You do not need to become completely bilingual to begin experiencing cultures in a different way, but taking the time to learn another language is an investment in the rest of your life. In addition, learning about other languages can also help you understand how people think and culturally orient themselves when they speak in one or another language, as illustrated in the examples below. The examples are intended to show you a link between language and the relevant cultural background or tendencies without creating stereotypes, so you can better appreciate how learning another language (or learning about other languages) can help you gain a better understanding of its speakers’ perspectives.

Language Example Relation to cultural knowledge
Arabic Among Muslim people, it is common to use the expression “Insh’Allah” in formal and informal conversation, which means “God willing.” Most people from Arabic-speaking countries tend to have an external orientation, which indicates that they generally accept there are things they cannot control.
Italian There are two genders in Italian, masculine and feminine, which speakers use to refer to themselves and others. To express the idea of “I’m tired” in Italian, speakers may say “Sono stanco” (masculine) or “Sono stanca” (feminine) depending on their gender identity. Using genders creates a distinction between the way a man or a woman speak; in addition, since all nouns in Italian are either masculine or feminine, people often associate certain qualities to one or another: “il ponte” (the bridge, masculine – strong, long), “la luna” (the moon, feminine – beautiful).
Korean Personal pronouns change depending on the age of the person to whom one is speaking. It is important to know the correct form to use when addressing someone older or someone younger. The term “friend” is commonly used only with someone that is of the same age. Korean society tends to place high importance on hierarchy and ways to show respect to elders, employers, professionals, and people with authority. As a result, there are ten ways to say “you” in Korean, depending on age, type of relationship, context, and level of formality.
Spanish Each Spanish-speaking country has its own accent. Pronouns and the meaning of some words may differ from one place to another, eliciting different ways to connect and establish relationships with others. If you visit countries such as Mexico, Argentina, Panama, Colombia, Cuba, or Chile, you may connect better with people if you use the form “ustedes” (you, plural) instead of “vosotros” (you, plural, informal) commonly used in Spain.

Woman in Brown Leather Jacket

Activity: Critical Incidents

Working with real-life scenarios can help you develop your intercultural skills. This is because they help you visualize the situation and perhaps you can even relate to them based on your own experience. Read the following situations and decide which option best explains what happened in each case:

When we communicate, we are, in fact, participating in a transaction where one person starts with an idea, then the other takes that and replies based on the intended meaning. Miscommunication indeed occurs with people of our own culture, our closest friends, relatives, or workmates. When communication takes place across cultural and linguistic contexts, the chance of misinterpreting messages is higher. That is where your communication skills in English or other languages become more relevant. To learn more about what is involved in the process of communication and how miscommunication can happen, watch the video from TED-Ed, How Miscommunication Happens (And How to Avoid It) (4’32”) by Katherine Hampsten.

Delighted diverse couple having breakfast at table

Takeaway points

  • Miscommunication can happen between members of the same or different cultures. Be aware of how you are communicating, use your listening and observation skills, pay attention to the nonverbal signals, and take time to really understand what the other person is trying to convey.
  • Learning another language will increase your ability to gain cultural insights and will allow you to create connections with speakers of that language much faster. In addition, this will also boost your communication skills and your employability.
  • If you do not speak another language, and even if you do, it is also important to learn about how other languages work because culture and language constantly influence each other. Expanding your knowledge about how other languages work will give you a glimpse into how other people create meaning through their language, which in turn will help you develop skills to improve your communication and understanding.
  • Humour is culturally constructed and does not translate well if it requires specific cultural knowledge to understand the references (e.g., political figures or events). If a joke is a play on words, it may not be clear to all speakers of other languages. It is okay to tell jokes but be mindful of how humour may or may not translate.

Try these strategies

Here are 10 strategies to help you communicate better with speakers of other languages:

  • To communicate more effectively across cultures, pay attention to the speaker and be patient, English may be their second, third, or fourth language.
  • If communication is not clear, you can try to write things down or use drawings.
  • If you or the other person are not able to convey a message, you can also try to use a web translator (e.g., Google translate). Remember, these applications are not entirely reliable, as they translate words but not the intention within a given context.
  • Speak clearly and use simple words; this does not mean to speak loudly or in broken English.
  • Avoid using slang (e.g., to ghost, to flex, lowkey, dope, GOAT, lit, sick), jargon (words used by a particular profession that are difficult to understand: legal, sports, medical jargon), idiomatic expressions (e.g., “It’s raining cats and dogs,” “Break a leg”), or colloquialisms (e.g., ballpark figure, rain check, gong show).
  • Avoid using yes/no questions to check their understanding. Invite the person to explain what they understood in their own words instead. Use yes/no questions when communication is more challenging to help you simplify the message.
  • Do not get frustrated; focus on how to make it work. Remember, communication goes both ways.
  • To become a better communicator, make the conscious effort to talk to people across cultural lines; you would be building bridges and making connections with the added benefit that you would be developing a variety of skills.
  • Learn another language and glimpse into another culture through it.
  • In addition to the language itself, be mindful of what is discussed and how it is addressed. Prepare yourself to have uncomfortable discussions, for example, about anti-racism and dominant group privilege. You can do this by learning more about these topics and understanding and supporting people who have been unfairly treated or discriminated against. Learn to communicate across difficult topics.