Relocating to an Unfamiliar Culture: Crossing More than Just the Language Barrier
Posted by: Amy Kampschroeder Director, Language Academy, Intercultural and Language Solutions
When the regional president of a Texas-based oil company needed to relocate to the South African country of Angola, he faced a considerable challenge. He had just four months to learn enough to effectively lead a group in Angola, and be ready to start to build strong relationships with his staff, with no familiarity with the language or culture. He needed knowledge of the cultural context surrounding the language, including the nuances of local interaction, since it was critical for him not to be seen as a foreigner who didn’t ‘get’ the culture. I knew that my team and I needed to build a unique program to address this pressing and time-sensitive need.
Creativity and Customization Lead to Success
My team created a highly customized and culture-focused hands-on immersion program for the executive. This included having a diverse and strategic array of tools at his disposal. One of the biggest hurdles for the executive was his extremely busy schedule, so we scheduled him with virtual trainer-led sessions that he could take right in his office. In this way, he was able to learn the basics of Angolan Portuguese. Bolstering this strategy, we also set the executive up with self-paced tools, like flash cards and mobile apps, that helped reinforce the linguistic fundamentals while he was home, taking a business flight, or waiting at a restaurant.
With a plan for a linguistic foundation established, our team launched the next step. Since the single best way to learn a language is to be immersed in a linguistic environment, he was paired with a personal language trainer for two intensive weeks. He spent half of each day in a classroom, and half of each day interacting only with other Portuguese speakers: ordering in cafes, reading street signs and train schedules, and engaging in practical scenarios.
Going Beyond Language to Understand Culture
Importantly, we ensured that Angolan culture formed a central component of his training, which was pivotal to understanding the country and his role there as a company leader. The executive was taught, for example, that Angolan companies consider themselves families and he was playing an important role as head of that family; that maintaining eye contact and offering a lengthy handshake (which at first felt strange to him) are essential in gaining trust; and the importance of never criticizing someone publicly, (e.g., his staff), as Angolans place great value on “saving face.”
Our creative mixture of customized strategies provided the executive with a wealth of learning opportunities despite a short lead-time. The four-month crash course led to a successful, and well-prepared, transition for the executive to his new role.