Intercultural Competence

As an International Business major, we are required to minor in a language. This is part of the reason why I became an IB major, I wanted to minor in Spanish. This being said, most companies that do business abroad speak English. Now, this is both a curse and a blessing. When traveling, you will most likely be able to find someone that speaks English to help you. While living in Spain, I found that many times when I would try to speak Spanish and practice, people would just respond in English. This would frustrate me and I would continue to speak in Spanish while they spoke English. How was I supposed to learn if they spoke to me in English?

Speaking another language is a great asset. I encourage everyone to try to learn a new language, or at least learn some phrases before you travel. People will appreciate your effort. Also, just because you speak another language does not mean that you can communicate successfully. Jane Jackson has conducted many studies concerning intercultural communication and linguistics. She has found that linguistic competence does not necessarily parallel intercultural competence.

In Jackson’s study, Globalization, Internationalization, and Short-term Stays Abroadshe observed 14 full time English students at a Hong Kong University. The university wanted to better prepare their students for a globalized world by internationalizing them. A Special English Stream program was created for students to study abroad in England. All participants were advanced English speakers, yet had taken no previous intercultural communication classes. She observed their progress of each student’s intercultural sensitivity throughout the program.

She found that each student repeatedly had an inflated opinion of his or her own intercultural sensitivity.I think many of us would like to think that we are culturally sensitive and openminded, but our actual sensitivity falls short of our expectations. Just because these students were fluent in English, they still struggled with cultural differences and social English. By the end of the program, most students had adjusted and moved past superficial cultural observations and had a deeper understanding of culture. Those who remained openminded showed more empathy and became ethnorelative rather than ethnocentric.

Jackson’s study proves that language competence does not mean intercultural competence. If you speak another language, you still need to learn about the other culture. It takes time to build intercultural sensitivity, but try to approach each new culture with an open mind, empathy and a willingness to try new things. A combination of language fluency and intercultural competence and sensitivity will help any person or company succeed abroad. Does anyone have any stories of being fluent in a language, but struggled to understand the culture?

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