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Gaining Deeper Insights through a Shared Language

As it has often been repeated, speaking the local language where you are is a key element in learning more about a foreign culture. From a simple greeting like “good morning” to a more heartfelt “I am sorry to hear of the unfortunate incident that happened to you”, speaking the local language will endear you to the locals. It will allow you to pick up on local jokes and nuances that are often lost in translation. By speaking the local lingo, you will indicate to locals that you respect their language and culture, and are interested in and open to finding out more.

While it may take a few months of intense and dedicated learning before you can speak a language fluently, here are a few key areas and phrases that will open the door to the culture of the person you are speaking to – learning these phrases and potential answers in the local language is a good starting point.

1) Food
Food is one of the key elements of any culture and there are many conversations that can be exchanged about this. For example, what do they/you eat daily? Which utensils do they/you eat with? Are there certain foods that can only be eaten on special occasions? Is there a specific order in which the meal has to be completed? The important thing to remember, as with any cross-cultural encounter, is to keep an open mind that is non-judgemental but curious to find out more.

One of the key phrases that has helped me over the years to express delight and show interest when I’ve been served food at someone’s house is:
“This food is delicious! How did you make it?”

2) Hobbies
What people do in their free time – and in fact, if they actually have much free time – is indicative of what is acceptable in the local culture. Is it a culture that values hard work or is it one that is more receptive of a perceived work-life balance? Do the locals play sports with friends every Sunday or are they expected to spend the weekends with their large extended family? Are they a culture where people stay indoors often due to the weather or is the weather conducive to outdoor activities resulting in a culture that is more extroverted?
To get started, try sharing what you enjoy doing and then ask the listener for what s/he enjoys:
“I love reading. What do you do in your free time?”

3) Travel
Ever noticed that among your social circle, once someone has been to one place and comes back with photos and travel tales, pretty soon many other friends will also want to travel there? Whether it’s the gorgeous holiday snaps creating envy or the travel promotions available to the local market, where people go on holiday is usually indicative of what is valued and popular in their culture.
Before you ask the following question in your chosen local language, do bear in mind that holidays cost money and consider the economic situation of your listener so as not to place him/her in an uncomfortable or embarrassing situation:
“Where did you last go on holiday?”

With these phrases in the local lingo to hand, you will already have a head start on getting to know the local culture where you are. However, just speaking the language and visiting a place which speaks the language is not enough. Having the motivation to learn a new language is only the first stepping stone on the path to cross-cultural competence. Cultural intelligence is tripartite and it needs the body, heart and mind to be working together for you to accept and co-exist with a culture that is different from yours.

Monica Devi Lim

Hi, I am Monica Devi Lim, and I am originally from Singapore. I started my career in the television industry where I got to travel to a different country every few months, and then moved on to aviation in search of more of the world. During my free time, I love cooking exotic dishes and also reading for further travel inspiration. I speak several languages and now live between Belgium and Spain with my husband of Danish descent.

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