How to Overcome Language & Cultural Barriers

globe terrestre image by Nicolas D from

When you move to, or visit, a foreign country, you will undoubtedly encounter many linguistic and cultural differences. Even when you are in another English-speaking country, there are phrases and words used in a different context that can make everyday life a challenge. While it takes time to settle into a new place, there are some things you can do to learn the local customs, shorten the learning curve and enable yourself to acclimate to your new environment.

Learn as much as possible about the country and culture before you go there. Many books are available on the accepted traditions and behaviour for almost every country in the world. You can also check out the CIA World Factbook and Countries and Their Cultures on the Internet. Read up on what is considered acceptable behaviour and what isn't. Preparation now can prevent a serious misstep later.

Learn the language beforehand. There are many resources available in book, CD, cassette tape and Internet versions to enable you to learn at least the basics of almost any language. If you have enough time before you leave, consider a college course or an adult education class at your local high school.

Arm yourself with an extensive dictionary in the language of the land and an all-purpose phrasebook for communicating in a hurry. Highlight common phrases you are likely to need so they're easy to find.

If you run into a problem making yourself understood, speak more slowly and check your pronunciation. If you have problems following a conversation, politely ask the speaker to repeat himself. Don't be afraid to ensure that you understand what is being said. It's natural to have trouble following a conversation in a new language. It's OK to ask if people speak English, but do not assume that they should adjust to your language in their own country.

Spend time unobtrusively studying people in your new country. Sit in the market square and observe the cultural interaction. Notice how the locals relate to each other in terms of their words, gestures and body language. How close or how far apart do they stand during conversation? Do they touch each other? Do they emphasise their words with their hands? Do they look directly at each other while speaking or do they glance away from time to time? Noticing these cultural cues will help you understand the accepted behaviour in your new country. Be careful not to be intrusive or to stare, though, as it is considered rude in some countries.

Do your best to fit in. Even if you get things a bit wrong, your hosts will appreciate your effort to do things their way. Never object to something simply because it is done differently than it is in America. Do not make fun of practices or customs in your new homeland -- that's just bad manners. Try new foods, visit popular sites and live like the locals do. Observe such things as traditional gender roles, attitudes toward time, personal space requirements and social taboos.

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