Cultural Intelligence: The Multilingual Advantage

Cultural Intelligence: The Multilingual Advantage

by Felicity Menzies

Being able to communicate in a foreign language is fundamental to intracultural effectiveness.

The benefits of foreign language learning

Create shared meaning

Language is a primary tool for human communication. It is used to create meaning and to build rapport. Language fluency helps you achieve your personal and social goals.

Make a good impression

Poor language skills infer low competence, ignorance, or arrogance. Negative perceptions can interfere with goal achievement. One study showed that trainers consistently overestimated the career potential of managers whose native language was English (the course language), and they consistently underestimated the career potential of those from French- or Italian-speaking backgrounds.

Improve performance

Language barriers can prevent equal participation in information sharing and decision-making. This limits potential opportunities gained from diverse perspectives and experiences; for example, higher quality problem-solving, and innovation and creativity.  Language competency is particularly important for the effective functioning and performance of multicultural teams.

Increase your Cultural Intelligence

Research shows that foreign language fluency predicts high Cultural Intelligence. Language and culture are heavily intertwined. As a symbolic representation of core cultural elements—such as values, beliefs, and assumptions—language is a source of cultural knowledge. Foreign language skill improves one’s understanding of cultural differences (CQ Knowledge).

Language fluency also creates smoother social interactions– increasing a person’s enjoyment and interest in dealing across cultures (CQ Drive).

New evidence suggests that the relationship between culture and language is bi-directional. Core elements of culture—such as belief systems and values—influence language, but these elements might also be influenced by language. Learning a foreign language creates new mental frameworks scripts that increase cultural flexibility: it is easier to flex mentally (CQ Strategy) and behaviourally (CQ Action).  Research shows that when bilingual speakers switches languages their thoughts, values, and behaviours similarly change.

The limitations of the lingua franca

The widespread use of English as the global business language has been a significant positive for international business. But a common trade language does not preclude the usefulness of learning foreign languages. Although the surface elements of cultures are converging globally (for example, the widespread use of business English), similarities in superficial elements can mask differences in values and beliefs. Evidence suggests the core elements of culture are resistant to change. Relative differences between cultures with regard to their core values have remained stable over many decades.

Knowledge of the local language can help uncover hidden aspects of a culture. The widespread use of business English limits opportunities for cultural learning, placing native English speakers at a disadvantage when it comes to developing Cultural Intelligence.

The use of business English can also stigmatise and isolate non-native English speakers in the workplace, decreasing opportunities for the cultural sharing and learning that drive innovation and higher-quality decisions.

The multilingual advantage

Some countries have a higher number of bilingual or multilingual members than others.  Singapore and small affluent European countries such as Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the Scandinavian countries have a relatively high number of citizens who can fluently converse in languages other than their mother tongue. These nations have a strategic advantage in international business.

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Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.