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Cultural Competence is Key for Language Professionals

20th February, 2014 I by Harry Hogue

Language competence is a set of attitudes, skills, behaviors, and policies that enable international companies to effectively communicate and interact with overseas partners and clients. When employees of international companies possess cultural competence, they are better able to adapt to the country’s market and customer base.

Language professionals using languages, of course, but they would be unable to effectively communicate without the cultural backbone of their languages. Imagine you are meeting someone for the first time, and you know the formal greeting in their language, but you don’t know if you should shake their hand, nod to them, bow, or simply smile. It would be very awkward and confusing. As another example, imagine you sit down to dinner and are handed chopsticks to eat with, but you’ve never eaten with chopsticks in your life. If you are accustomed to only eating with a fork, you would be uncomfortable and feel out of place.

These are the types of situations in which cultural competence is not only helpful but also necessary. Cultural competence goes beyond the language used in daily communication and explores the underlying beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and attitudes of a people from a particular language group. Language researchers need cultural competence to explain puzzling forms of speech and unknown linguistic elements. Interpreters require cultural competence in order to accurately interpret cultural nuances into a source or target language, in real time. Finally, translators must possess cultural competence in order to render written language appropriately in a variety of contexts, from literary to legal. In advertising slogans, for example, cultural references dictate the type of language to be used and its associated impact. If an advertisement talks about the “typical breakfast,” this means quite different things to different people. For some it may mean bacon and eggs, and for others it may mean rice and beans, or perhaps spicy food that may otherwise be associated with a meal served at dinnertime.

Body language is also a primary reason for language professionals to be familiar with and comfortable in the target culture. Much communication is done using body language, with no verbal cues at all. In these cases, cultural competence is critical, as communication relies solely on the cultural interpretation present through non-verbal communication. It is said that a smile is universal, but what about clapping one’s hands? Should a certain hand gesture be interpreted as “come here” or “go away?” It all depends upon the culture in question, and those with cultural competence can accurately distinguish the differences between the two cultures.

Have you ever been confused by unfamiliar cultural interactions or non-verbal interaction? What do you think is the most effective way to bridge the communication gap?

One response to “Cultural Competence is Key for Language Professionals”

  1. Martine Yeo says:

    Excellent article, Nisar!

    I totally agree. It’s very important but few people realize it. In any case, a translator or interpreter who has lived in various countries has a real advantage.

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