5 Strategic Ways to Learn a New Culture as a Family


Many businesses and organizations provide training for the adults that they send to live overseas. Some even offer children's and teens’ programs to prepare the kids for the transition. However, there is often a bit of a gap between the training the adults receive and the training the children receive. After all, the family is moving into a new culture together and should therefore have tools that they can strategically use together as they learn a new language and culture. The children and the parents should not be operating with a different culture learning skill-set. Not only does that reduce the effectiveness of cultural integration, but, more importantly, it lessens the opportunity for the family to experience the growth and connectedness that learning a new culture together can bring.

Here are 5 ways that you can integrate into a new culture as a family:

1. Observe strategically. Observation is one of the primary ways you can learn about a new culture. However, unless you do so strategically, you will miss a considerable amount of information. Because we get comfortable operating in our home society, we often participate without thinking. It is easy to allow yourself to operate in this default mode when you enter a new culture instead of stepping back and taking the time to observe.

Talk with your kids about observing with all of their 5 senses: touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound. Choose one per day to focus on. Perhaps have each family member take turns deciding which sense to focus on for a particular day. All throughout the day, talk about the things you observe with that one sense. For example, all the things you smell throughout that day. You will be surprised by how much more you notice when you focus on only one sense at a time! Hold a family meeting each night to talk about your cultural observations. 

2. Keep an observation journal. As you explore with your 5 senses, keep a family journal of everything you observe. Take it everywhere with you and document every "sight", "touch", etc. each day. If your kids are old enough to write on their own, have them take turns documenting or give them each their own journal. During your family meeting at the end of the day, read through the documented observations.

3. Ask questions. The best way to learn about a new culture is by talking to the people who live there. Many families who move overseas enter into the "expat bubble" and don't interact with the nationals, instead finding other expatriate families to spend their time with. You will never fully integrate into the culture by only spending time with other expatriates who live there and that would be a huge loss for you and your children. Expatriates can only teach the culture of expatriates living in that country, but they will not be able to teach you about the true local culture. It can be intimidating for your children (and maybe you too!) to talk with people from a different culture, so come up with a plan to make it less daunting.

Have each family member come up with one open-ended question that they plan to ask multiple people that day. For example, "What do you like best about your country?" or "Where do you buy your meat?" It can be as practical or as deep as you'd like, but the goal is to see how different people answer your question. Are there common themes? Throughout the day, be looking for people to whom you and your kids can ask your questions. During your nightly family meeting, talk about this experience and the things that you learned.

4. Make national family friends. Again, it can be easy to get caught up in the "expat bubble," particularly if you relocated to the country for business. While it is not wrong and can be quite enriching to have expat friends, developing friendships with nationals is critical to learning the culture. It is equally as important that your new group of national friends include "family friends." By that, I mean friends who have kids roughly the same age as yours and who are in a stage of life similar to yours. These are the friends to whom your family will be able to eventually ask the deeper questions about the values, expectations, and thought patterns of the culture. By spending time with these friends, asking questions, and observing how they interact with each other, their children, wait staff at a restaurant, etc. you will have the opportunity to shadow them and practice learning to act as a family from that culture.

5. Go to the local hangouts. Find out what the nationals do together with their families and do it! Do they go to the cinema? Are there local museums? Parks? Do they shop at the market as a family? Go to the beach? Bike around town? Instead of being tempted to check out all of the tourist destinations, make it a point to spend your family free time the way that the nationals do. Not only will this teach you about the culture, but it is also a great way to make friends!

It is entirely possibly to live overseas and never integrate into the culture. Doing so would not only make you less effective in your work or ministry with the nationals, but it would be giving up an incredible opportunity that you and your children have to embrace a new way of life and learn to see the world from a different perspective. If you are planning to move overseas with your family, consider taking one of WorldView's culture-learning trainings for intensive, hands-on preparation for the whole family. Our teen and children's trainings parallel our adult trainings so that the family can practice their new culture-learning skills together. Every member of the family has the ability to contribute to the culture-learning experience, they just need the skill-set to do so!

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