This week’s blog post was written by Aneta Quraishy, Senior Project Manager, Language Rich Europe.
Here at the British Council weekly internal polls for employees are posted on the intranet and one that caught our attention recently was a question on the type of intercultural competences we see as most important in our work at the British Council.
Along with other colleagues we were surprised to find that learning a foreign language was not the preferred chosen option. As British Council colleague Joseph Fraine put it,
“I tend to vote on the weekly surveys that are posted on the British Council intranet homepage, and find that I am normally grouped with the majority when I take a look at the results. This week, however, I found myself firmly in the minority. The vote was “Which of the following intercultural skills is most useful for working at the British Council” and, to my astonishment, I found that only 1 in 10 people agreed with me in thinking that the ability to speak a foreign language was the most important skill in that respect… Looking at the other possible survey answers – the ability to adjust how you communicate; understanding of cultural differences; ability to adapt to different cultures – I began to ask myself how it were possible to do so without having an understanding of the language itself. It seems to me that everything stems from your ability to engage with non-native English speakers, wherever in the world you are, in their language. Immediately you are adjusting how you communicate, you are adapting to a different culture, and you will very quickly understand cultural differences (on this last point, at least a hell of a lot quicker than you would by persevering in English).”
I understand that polls can oversimplify views and opinions and in fact hopefully the majority view is that all of these intercultural competencies are intricately interwoven.
At our Language Rich Europe final conference in Brussels last month Sjur Bergan, Head of Education Department, Council of Europe, made apt remarks along the same lines. Responding to our LRE Recommendations, one recommendation Bergan would have liked to have seen is an explicit reference to the importance of attitude when learning a language. He said that learning language is a fascinating exercise with many challenges and also has to do with intercultural dialogue – you can’t understand a country unless you learn something of its language. There are 3 learning outcomes when learning a language. First you learn to conjugate a verb/noun. Second, you start to understand how these work and when to use dative etc. The third step is when you are also able to use conjugations in practice – this is when you start to use the language. But there is also a fourth element and that is attitude. You have to be willing to speak a language, and speak it with respect for the country it is spoken in. I could not agree more with Sjur.
On a closing note I would like to encourage everyone to familiarise themselves with their employer’s policy on language support offered and more importantly to make use of those opportunities. The British Council for example with regards to overseas postings states, ‘a maximum of 100 hours of tuition, in the official language of the country of posting, may be made available provided the tuition is completed before the last six months of the post’.
You can also have a look at the LRE key findings of languages in business.