Becoming intercultural

by Terence MacNamee

Now is the time when in many parts of the world students are preparing to go on language travel. Having learned a language at school, college or university, they go to spend study time in a country where the language is spoken. For most of them, it will be their first real experience of living in a foreign culture.

Culture is a part of language learning. When you learn a foreign language, it is almost inevitable that you will encounter a foreign culture too. The cultural component of language learning has traditionally been neglected. Yet it may turn out to be the most important part. As a learner of language and culture, you embark on a human adventure that most of the world’s people never embark on. It changes you – if you let it.

Language travel immerses you in the culture that goes with the language you learn. So take the opportunity that is presented. It will not always feel comfortable, but it will be rewarding. Before you go, read up about culture in general as well as the particular foreign culture you are going to find yourself in. This preparation will be the beginning of cultural awareness.

Culture, as I said, may turn out to be the most important part of language learning. The reason is that, in today’s world of unparalleled human mobility and international encounter, we need to form a cadre of intercultural people who will prepare for the even greater changes coming in the world of tomorrow.

The intercultural person I speak of moves between languages and cultures, and ends up knowing two or more cultures so well that they cease to be unreflectingly part of their own culture. Such people will be the mediators of tomorrow’s shifts and exchanges. Human beings were not necessarily meant to be this way. For most of human history, people have lived within their own languages and cultures like a skin, never imagining that they could or should go beyond it. But the human world is changing, and intercultural people are the sort of social mutants who will facilitate the change and hopefully avoid the disaster and conflict that might otherwise happen between cultures in contact.

When you set out on the journey to be an intercultural person, you never know in advance what awaits you. Perhaps if you did, you would not start! But once you do start, you never stop learning and growing. And when you get to the end of your journey, you will be a different person from the “you” who set out.

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