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Get ready for beginners’ French
Get ready for beginners’ French

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3 Intercultural communication skills

This week you’ve been learning about the effect of cultural differences on attitudes in the workplace. As a learner of French, you will become more attuned to the differences between French-speaking countries and your own culture. But there’s a bigger picture here: through your studies, you will also develop a more open attitude to cultural differences in general. Getting used to communicating with people from different cultures – whether or not you speak their language, or have any prior cultural knowledge – is valuable. These particular skills are often referred to as ‘intercultural communication competence’.

Intercultural communication skills are useful in any social situation involving people from different cultures, and they’re highly valued by employers in all multicultural contexts. Transport or hospitality industries might immediately come to mind, as employees will communicate with tourists from all over the world. But think more broadly and you’ll find applications for these skills in many other fields: nurses caring for patients from all over the world; teachers with pupils from a range of backgrounds; charity workers helping out refugees; sales people with international customers; scientists cooperating with researchers around the globe.

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Figure 5 Intercultural communication in medicine

Activity 3 Interaction across cultures

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

Can you think of situations in your private or professional life in which you interact with people from different cultures? This could be at work, at school or university, while on holiday, volunteering with a charity, or any other context in your own life. Reflect on the potential differences in your cultural backgrounds and behaviour expectations. Do you think increased awareness would impact these interactions at all? Make some notes about your reflections.

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Developing intercultural communication skills will mean being able to keep an open mind when meeting new people, and not being fazed when they behave differently. You will also be able to pre-empt possible conflicts in communication. For example, if through learning French you have become aware that French people tend to have a more direct communication style, then when you are confronted with a customer who speaks their mind very directly, you will be able to reflect on the situation and understand that no offence was meant by your interlocutors. If you are a nurse, you may encounter patients whose understanding of personal space differs from yours; your intercultural awareness will allow you not to misinterpret this as a breach of respect. If you are a teacher, a new pupil who’s recently arrived from a different country may address you less formally than expected; if you have developed intercultural communication competence, you will be more likely to know how to react to the situation.

Language learners mostly acquire intercultural communication skills implicitly, by observing and reflecting on what they learn and getting used to different perspectives and ideas. They cultivate an appreciation of and respect for other cultures, are aware of different communication styles, and develop a natural ability to react to situations involving cultural differences with empathy. They are also able to reflect on their own behaviours and beliefs and to adjust to others’, and generally display openness, curiosity and flexibility. This group of skills is a key reason why linguists are regarded as highly employable, even for jobs which do not directly involve using another language.