Cultural awareness has become a fashionable term in the 21st century. You find it in job ads, in marketing strategies and in university courses and business training programmes. Most often you will find it in the context of global business. So what is behind the term, why is it important to be ‘culturally aware’ and how do language classes help to increase cultural awareness?

According to Collins English Dictionary ‘Someone’s cultural awareness is their understanding of the differences between themselves and people from other countries or other backgrounds, especially differences in attitudes and values.’ It seems important here to acknowledge differences without assigning values like better or worse, right or wrong and also to avoid the use of stereotypes. Since culture is not really conscious to us, it can be a difficult task to be culturally aware. We don’t realise that our own cultural background has such an impact on our behaviour towards others.

Cultural awareness becomes central when we have to communicate with people from other cultures. What is considered an appropriate gesture or custom in one culture is often inappropriate in the other and can offend individuals. The body language of a person can lead to misunderstandings. A nod, for example, is in many cultures most commonly, but not universally, used to indicate agreement. A straight look into your face is regarded as disrespectful in Japan. Being punctual is certainly a very important trait in Germany but can be regarded as almost rude in South America. Coming from a western country with a Christian background you wouldn’t suggest to have a business meeting on a Sunday, but would you consider a meeting with a Muslim colleague on a Friday?

As there is a multicultural emphasis in society, an increased ethnic diversity in the workplace and many organisations now work on a global scale, cultural awareness has become a very important skill. In the business world it is said to enhance productivity and unity in the workplace and is therefore a key skill for both managers and employees.

A fundamental part of learning a language is acquiring familiarity with the culture associated with it. Language is culture! In fact, students cannot be considered competent until they understand the cultural context in which that language is spoken. Language teachers are increasingly recognizing the need to incorporate cultural customs and traditions into their classroom and getting to know cultural differences is usually a fun part for students.

Knowledge in foreign languages shows that you respect the ideas and the way of living and thinking of that culture better than somebody who does not have this background. As such it is not only valuable in your career, but also in everyday life as you will be better prepared to participate more fully in the global community and particularly when travelling because apart from being a capable communicator you will also be able to avert an initial culture shock.