Since the age of Babel, teachers have been seeking ways to overcome the hurdle of language barrier and give students practical skills to navigate new lingual and cultural waters. This challenge becomes much harder when the teacher doesn’t speak their student’s native language, or when each student speaks a different language or dialect.

Sound impossible? This scenario is one facing thousands of teachers all over Europe, as both professional instructors and informal volunteers try to teach national languages to incoming refugees with little to no prior knowledge of the language. In France, these instructors are known as profs de FLE: French as a Foreign Language teachers. The acronym FLE stands for Francais comme Langue Étrangère, and refers to specialized curriculum for teaching French to international students.

To adapt their lessons to migrant populations they’ve found new ways to bridge the language gap, offering important insights about intercultural communication.

1. Vital Visuals: A picture is worth a thousand words, and in FLE, visual aids are priceless. For students familiar with a different alphabet or struggling with reading, the use of clear visuals that provide context and explanation for the teaching material is key. While we don’t all speak the same language, images provide some common ground that helps facilitate understanding.

Even if you speak the same language as your international associate, misunderstandings and misinterpretations can still occur. Utilizing visual aids in your presentation or communication, such as example photos, charts, or graphs help ensure that every point is crystal clear.

2. Hidden Culture: While lingual proficiency may be the principal goal of FLE, classes also teach various aspects of subjective culture. These soft-skill activities have important hidden lessons. For example, students may be asked to answer questions about events on a calendar (teaching cultural concepts of time), to roleplay scheduling a doctor’s appointment (teaching interpersonal communication), or to identify those who receive the formal vous form of address (teaching cultural concepts of authority).

This pedagogic tool holds an important lesson for intercultural communicators. When conveying your message to a multicultural group, consider the hidden cultural implications of your words and delivery. Standing on a platform behind a podium may suggest higher power distance, while a collaborative team presentation might indicate collectivism. Spoken words are accompanied by silent signals, so pay attention to the messages you’re sending.

3. Et Vous ? : One salient trait of FLE instruction manuals is a prompt for professors to ask et vous? (“what about you?”). This simple question opens up an intercultural dialogue that permits students to discuss their own customs, traditions and ideas, and to find similarities within their new environment. The question also reflects empathy and curiosity regarding the student’s own background, offering them a chance to share their experiences and bridge the cultural gaps.

In any multicultural scenario, it’s important to embrace different points of view and be ready to learn about alternative ways of life. Even if these new perspectives are unfamiliar or seem illogical, demonstrating interest and acceptance will strengthen your intercultural relationships.

No matter the situation, breaking the communication barrier demands patience, creativity, and empathy. The next time you’re faced with a cross-cultural communication conflict, consider these three lessons from FLE professors to help bridge the gap.

Sharon Schweitzer and Amanda Alden co-wrote this post. Sharon Schweitzer, J.D., is a cross-cultural trainer, modern manners expert, and the founder of Access to Culture. In addition to her accreditation in intercultural management from the HOFSTEDE centre, she serves as a Chinese Ceremonial Dining Etiquette Specialist in the documentary series Confucius was a Foodie, on Nat Geo People. She is the resident etiquette expert on two popular lifestyle shows: ABC Tampa Bay’s Morning Blend and CBS Austin’s We Are Austin. She is regularly quoted by BBC Capital, Investor’s Business Daily, Fortune, and the National Business Journals. Her Amazon #1 Best Selling book in International Business,  Access to Asia: Your Multicultural Business Guide, now in its third printing, was named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2015. She’s a winner of the British Airways International Trade Award at the 2016 Greater Austin Business Awards

Amanda Alden is an intercultural research assistant with Access to Culture. She graduated with honors from St. Edward’s University with a major in Global Studies and a minor in French, and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Intercultural Mediations at l’Université de Lille III. Feel free to connect with Amanda at on LinkedIn.

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