Study abroad during university, and more importantly study abroad with the goal of improving one’s ability with a foreign language by spending a prolonged period of time in another country has been changing over the past years. There is a rising demand of intercultural competence. Within Europe the Erasmus Student Mobility for Placements Program provides this opportunity and an increasing number of US universities also facilitate internship programs abroad. The increase in numbers of students interested in this type of study abroad is directly related to the need to acquire professional experience that will make them more employable.

In a parallel manner, companies have recognized a need for a more international staff and for employees with foreign language abilities in order to help them to compete in this increasingly internationalized world market. Students who take part in internship programs in other countries and in other languages fit in well with the needs of the current labour situation. While being able to work in a foreign language is key, it is interesting to note that language ability alone does not make a business successful. It is important to have intercultural communications skills and a wider understanding of cultural differences

The relationship between foreign languages and business needs has undergone some investigation in recent years. One such investigation is the report published in 2012 by The Economist Intelligence Unit entitled “Competing across borders. How cultural and communication barriers affect business” (http://es.slideshare.net/Management-Thinking/competing-across-borders-how-cultural-and-communication-barriers-affect-business). The paper draws on two main sources, a global survey of 572 executives and a series of in-depth interviews with independent experts and senior executives from a number of major international companies.

Here are some of the key messages emanating from the survey:

  • Contrary to the expectations of many experts, the current economic downturn is spurring companies to become more international.

  • Effective cross-border communication and collaboration are becoming critical to the financial success of companies.

  • Most companies understand the cost of not improving the cross-border communication skills of their employees, yet many are not doing enough to address the challenge.

  • Organizations with international ambitions increasingly expect prospective employees to be fluent in key foreign languages. English is the most important, followed by Mandarin and then Spanish. About one quarter of the companies surveyed recognize that at least half their employees regularly need to speak in a foreign language.

  • Misunderstandings rooted in cultural differences present the greatest obstacle to productive cross-border collaboration.

From the finding of this survey it seems that while companies are in need of a more international workforce and recognize that they need to improve cross-border communications in order to have better collaborations and hence yield a more profitable business, improvement is still needed in the area of solving problems that arise from cultural misunderstandings. It is not enough to speak the language of the countries where they do business; they need to also understand the culture and the communication tools used in each of them to avoid misunderstandings.

By means of internship programs in other countries, universities are enabling students to pick up knowledge in cultural differences and language skills. Students who participate on these experiential learning programs may become very successful at cross-border communication if in addition to the internship experience, their programs also provide them with integration strategies for the international workplace.

There are many books that provide valuable insights to how business gets conducted in other countries. While these books serve as guides to outline fundamentals as to if you should kiss the cheeks of your business partner and how many times or if you should stretch out your hand in greeting, a sound internship abroad’s program must also provide an environment in which to analyse the differences the students are experiencing. These need to be explained within the context of business and cultural understanding so that the student may integrate the experiences and extract communication tools that will be beneficial for that particular professional practice experience as well as for future employments.

Programs for internships abroad should include a session or sessions in which students can make connections between what they are experiencing professionally and how the local culture communicates and conducts business. Frequently the misunderstandings that arise are based on how the students or the companies expect the other to communicate and act in a work environment.

While we recognize that each country’s culture is different and that it would be difficult to address a common set if items that are valid for all, there are a few areas in culture that can be analysed and that will enrich understanding. These are:

  • Explicit or implicit communication styles and the degree to which the message or the context govern understanding the meaning of what is said and expected

  • Prevalent personality types with regards to what is to be done: optimist vs. realist outlooks

  • Sense of time for actions and the reasoning behind them: present to future vs. present to past orientation

  • Degree of planning of a task or project, from very specific to outright spontaneous

  • Societal identity: if it depends on the individual or on the group

The internship, if properly structured between the university, student and host organization, serves as a safe and experimental space in which to learn and then integrate cultural differences that will then make the student more employable. By assigning an academic tutor that works with the students on analysing cultural differences, students will be given tools to navigate their companies’ business environments with more success. Businesses will benefit from an employee that has learned to communicate effectively in a foreign culture by having already experienced some degree of problem solving in his or her internship.

By Almendra L. Staffa-Healey (Coach for Intercultural competence) 


Almendra Staffa-Haley