Intercultural competence is an ability that is usually forgotten in the language class but can have serious repercussions for the competence of the language learner.
Personally, I have very often dealt with people from different cultures for some years now, as Barcelona is a popular city for foreigners to visit and live. However, it was not until I stayed in Ireland that I began having some serious misunderstandings. And I am pretty sure that if you have lived in a foreign country (or if you are going to be shortly), you have gone (or will go) through one or some of these situations in which you are interacting with a person from a different cultural community, and there is suddenly a problem because of something you did or said.
For instance, I remember that an Irish friend of mine got upset once because I grabbed her arm (too affectionately it seems) to pull her to the sofa to play a game. She might have thought that I had a different intention, and that may have been because Irish people may not touch each other that much. But why did that happen? Because I was acting according to my cultural perspective and I had not considered hers. In other words, I had an undeveloped intercultural competence, which is not precisely due to lack of language. But then, what exactly is it?
What is Intercultural Competence?
Intercultural competence is the capacity of an individual to adapt to and manage different situations with people from different communities and interpret cultural elements from those communities (Plan curricular del Instituto Cervantes: Habilidades y actitudes interculturales, from now on PCIC, Centro Virtual Cervantes, 1997).
But why is Intercultural Competence important for a language learner?
T. Hall (1976) believes that due to the increase in contact between different cultures, speakers are inevitably more aware that their way of perceiving the world is not the only one that exists and, hence, they must make the rules their culture works with very explicit. As a result, that awareness should force us to contextualize any action that could lead to misinterpretation. And that is a valuable skill to develop as human beings nowadays, as the world is becoming more and more globalized and that makes contact with other communities almost unavoidable, not only in the business world but also in our daily lives. That is why it is relevant food for thought when it comes to language learning and, unfortunately, both teachers and learners tend to forget about intercultural competence which is not, by any means, less important.
However, not developing intercultural competence can lead to cultural shock (the inability to adapt to and manage specific situations), cultural stress (a feeling of confusion about your identity because of a change of roles), prejudices and stereotypes. Nevertheless, is this capacity easy to learn just by interacting with other communities? I do not think so, as there are many aspects to take into account.
How can I be an intercultural speaker?
- Be interculturally aware, that is, be conscious about the diversity of cultures, analysing your way of understanding and perceiving things in order to understand those of others (Kramsch, 1998). That is, in order to understand how others think, you must first comprehend how you do so.
- Be open-minded, sensitive and sympathetic to other cultures. There is never only one way to do things.
- Look at other cultures’ diversity with an open and wide vision. For example, the fact that I am from Spain does not mean I like or dance flamenco. In the same way we do not only listen to that kind of music.
- Have a critical mind and be aware of the nuances when looking at the cultural references. In other words, ask yourself why they do what they do or say what they say. Because there is always a reason for people’s actions and we must look at the little things in order to understand them.
- Examine and comprehend the different social norms and conventions (PCIC). Go deeper to understand further. Here it is important to look at the context of things.
- State things clearly. That is to say, if you notice that something is wrong in a situation, explain yourself. That way, you will solve or even avoid any kind of misunderstanding.
All of the above can help the language speaker understand cultural differences and be successful when they communicate with people from other cultures, even in situations that are new and unfamiliar.
Nevertheless, this does not necessarily mean that the foreigner has to do what the locals do. If you are not comfortable or you do not like some of the habits from other communities, you do not have to imitate them. That is your personal choice. If you decide to do something, it must be because you truly agree with it and feel it.
I hope that these tips are useful, and do not be fearful of facing new situations you are unsure about.
- Hall, E.T. Beyond Culture. New York: Random House Inc., 1976. Print. [Spanish title: Más allá de la cultura, 1978]
- Kramsch, Claire. “The privilege of the intercultural speaker.” Language Learning in Intercultural Perspective: Approaches through Drama and Ethnography. Eds. M. Byram and M. Fleming. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 16-31. Print
- Plan curricular del Instituto Cervantes: Niveles de referencia: Centro Virtual Cervantes (1997)
- Plan curricular del Instituto Cervantes: Habilidades y actitudes interculturales. Introducción: Centro Virtual Cervantes (1997)