Are you thinking about starting to learn a foreign language? Or do you need some motivation to brush up on your language skills? In either case, this blog series is for you. In the first part we looked at travel-related reasons, while in the second part we focused on the advantages of language skills in the labour market. In this third part, we focus on a skill that is increasingly in demand in our globalised world: intercultural competence. What exactly intercultural competence is and why you can acquire it through language learning, you can find out here.

What is intercultural competence?

We greet each other with “Hello”. The Thai greeting is called “Wai” and includes a bow. In Arabic, people use the salutation “Assalamu Aleikum” (“Peace be upon you”). In France (and French-speaking Switzerland!), people greet each other not with three, but two cheek kisses.

This example of different greeting rituals illustrates that people from different cultures have different behaviours, knowledge and attitudes. Consequently, intercultural competence is the ability to interact successfully – verbally and non-verbally – with people from different communities despite these differences. The aim is to create mutual understanding and build bridges between cultures.

Why is intercultural competence so important today?

Let us take Switzerland as an example: Switzerland is a multilingual country with a multicultural society. In our everyday lives, at school, at work – we are constantly in contact with people from different cultures. We say hello and goodbye, eat and drink together, observe each other’s behaviour, make small talk and much more. You are probably familiar with thoughts such as “She speaks too loudly”, “He speaks too quietly”, “You can’t say that, it’s much too direct”, “He has no table manners!” Interculturally competent people would challenge such thoughts. In general, intercultural competence is about knowing about other cultures and countries. It is about being curious and open and engaging with others. It is about empathy and reflecting on differences and questioning prejudices.

How to train intercultural sensitivity through language learning?

Learning a foreign language broadens our horizons and makes us more interculturally sensitive. As a matter of fact, when we become familiar with grammar and vocabulary, we learn – consciously or unconsciously – about differences. Here are some examples.

Qué tal?

In Spanish-speaking countries, we quickly realise that an answer to “¿Qué tal? (“How are you?”) is not necessarily expected. In fact, it would be strange to tell someone about your problems in response to this question. However, here in Switzerland, an honest answer is expected.

Direct communication

We distinguish between high context and low context cultures. While China, Japan and Taiwan are very high context, Germany is very low context. This means that communication is much more explicit and direct. The US also tend to be low context. Therefore, it would be perfectly acceptable to announce that you are going to the toilet during a meeting in the US. In China, however, this would not be communicated.

«You» and «thou»

Today, only the personal pronoun “you” is used in English, which corresponds to the polite form “Sie” in German and “vos” (V form) in Latin. The informal “Thou”, the German “Du” and Latin “tu” (T form), is no longer used today. On the other hand, in languages where there is still a distinction between the T and V form today, relationships of power or solidarity become visible: the V form often indicates a hierarchy, while the T form suggests friendship and intimacy.

How would you translate “Schadenfreude”?

Also interesting are words that exist in German but not in other languages. Examples are “Schadenfreude”, “Weltschmerz” and “Fernweh”.

On the other hand, there exist also words in other languages that are missing in German, such as the Portuguese word “clinomania”. “Clinomania” means that someone has an exaggerated need to stay in bed and sleep.

In Japanese there is a word “kuchisabishii”, which means “to eat because the mouth is lonely”.

Time and punctuality

There are also great differences in the importance that a culture ascribes to time. While time management is very important in Switzerland, Germany and the US, the Native Americans of the Dakotas, the Sioux, have no word for “time”, “late” and “waiting”.

Authority vs. flat hierarchies

We also distinguish between countries with low power distance and countries with high power distance. In countries with low power distance (e.g. Switzerland, Germany, US), hierarchies are much flatter and it is okay to disagree with an authority figure. In countries with high power distance (e.g. Japan, Russia), strong authority is desired; self-determination and personal responsibility, on the other hand, are less important.


The examples above are just a small selection. In fact, we are constantly confronted with situations that call for our intercultural skills.

Learning a language alone does not make us interculturally sensitive. However, immersing oneself in a foreign language, and thus in unfamiliar words and grammar, can be a first step towards more mindful interaction with people from other cultures.

Do you have your own examples of intercultural competence? I look forward to hearing your feedback and reading about your everyday experiences in the comments.

Nelly Müller – Sprachen Akademie

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