Can language help teams cross the cultural divide?

With domestic workforces becoming more ethnically and linguistically diverse, and companies of all sizes increasingly tapping into foreign markets, today’s average business will typically list employees of mixed nationality and race. English may no longer be the dominant language, and personal values may range from compatible to conflicting. That these people get on and understand each other, both in the spoken word and in deeper beliefs, is paramount to the business’ success.

Over the past few decades, ever-advancing technology and cheaper foreign travel have made the world progressively smaller. Even in times of recession it makes good business sense to exploit this heightened accessibility by penetrating emerging markets that are less affected by the crises currently crippling western economies. In fact there is almost no reason for a business not to expand into foreign territory, hence the now common practice of international mergers and acquisitions, joint ventures and offshoring. With this often comes relocation of staff for short or longer-term stints, the transfer of skills between countries, and in effect a workforce with huge potential for growth and success.

It would however be naïve to enter foreign waters ill equipped. There is no quicker way to widen the cultural divide than to march into a foreign business or culture and expect them to adopt your language and customs to the detriment of theirs. Successful partnerships, whether with a new or existing market, depend on relationship building, and these relationships can only be formed with a degree of linguistic and cultural awareness.

Language training is key to opening communication channels and to maintaining the free flow of information and ideas within a business environment. Study of any language also naturally embraces the culture or cultures associated with it; you may for example learn about a country’s food or art, government or geography. Even basic etiquette such as greetings, socialising, time-keeping, dress and body language – each of which hold ample scope for faux pas – may be covered through linguistic development, as this often goes hand in hand with cultural sensitivities. Finally, on a practical level, the natural knock-on effect of improved verbal, written, reading and listening skills that come from learning another language will only enhance team communication further.

If organising language training for your company, it is advisable to tailor-make classes so they are geared towards the specific needs of your industry and target market, and thus cover cultural particularities at the same time. This will give staff the skills necessary to build sustainable long-term relationships, manage teams based in different offices around the world and reduce culture shock for any incoming and outgoing workforce. The resulting pooling of talents under a common language can only serve to boost a company’s productivity and inner harmony.

It is with this type of investment that language can go a long way towards bridging the cultural divide.

Boston Globe - 24 July 2011

New York-based Cactus Language Training offers cultural immersion trips to 60 countries that help travelers learn more than 30 languages. This year’s new programs include learning Spanish and Latin dance at a school on the banks of the Amazon River in Colombia, studying German in a Bavarian town overlooking the Swiss Alps, and mastering Russian in culturally diverse Kiev. Cactus incorporates cultural experiences, like wine tasting, cooking, dancing, diving, surfing, and photography, into each program. Prices start at $123 per week for instruction; various types of accommodations are available. Summer specials include free private lessons in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, when you book a two-week group course. 888-577-8451,

10 reasons to study Spanish in Murcia

1. The school is small and as such each student receives personal attention and the atmosphere is very friendly and welcoming – something that is sometimes less easy to achieve with larger schools.

2. The school has been awarded a Customer Satisfaction Excellence Award in both 2010 and 2011 from one of its partners.

3. As fewer people go to Murcia than other, more touristy, Spanish hubs such as Barcelona and Madrid, you are unlikely to hear English or other languages during your stay – thus creating the perfect environment to really immerse yourself in the Spanish language and culture.

4. The weather! Sitting on the aptly named Costa Cálida, Murcia boasts 330 days of sunshine each year and is the third sunniest region in all of Spain.

5. The food – namely tapas, which are said to be the best in Spain. Thanks to the Murcia’s location between some of Spain’s richest arable land and the Mediterranean, producing abundant fresh, local produce, you can happily spend each evening drifting between tapas bars and sampling delights such as spiced mussels, fried squid, hake goujons, quails’ eggs, ensaladilla rusa, grilled vegetables, freshly carved ham, garlic potatoes, paella and more – all washed down, of course, with a caña (draft beer) or two.

6.  Founded by the Moors in 825AD, Murcia is a melting pot of cultures: Spanish, Arabic, Christian and Jewish. As such the people are colourful in character, exuding a religious passion that manifests itself wonderfully in Murcia’s many vibrant festivals. Whatever time of year you visit, you are likely to catch one of these: joyful Spring festivals (Fiestas de Primavera) and Easter Holy Week lead to the September fair, bullfights and a string of music festivals. As if you needed any excuse, you can be sure of ample food, drink and merriment at fiesta time.

7. Murcia-San Javier airport offers direct flights to the UK via several low-cost carriers, including easyJet, Ryanair, and bmibaby. Being a smaller airport than many of those on the Spanish costas, your time at the airport may well be shorter and less stressful.

8. If you’re after sea and beaches, Murcia is your place. With 250km of coastline as well as 18 natural parks, fields, mountains and valleys, the region boasts beautiful natural landscape which also lends itself perfectly to outdoor pursuits and sporting activities.

9. Murcia is a very safe city in comparison to many others. You can walk safely through the streets at any time of day – although it is of course advisable to take usual precautions as you would in any city.

10. Culturally, Murcia is something of an open-air museum. Alongside 15 museums you will find many art galleries and exhibition halls, and the vibrant student population (more than 35,000 split between two universities) adds even more to the city.

Cactus offers a variety of Spanish courses in Murcia, which can be combined with accommodation in a host family on a half board basis or a room in a shared apartment.

Cactus attends BETA reception at the House of Lords

UK Managing Director Richard Bradford and English Product Manager Stephanie Bon joined over 150 industry members, MPs and peers at the House of Lords last week to celebrate the 8th anniversary of the British Educational Travel Association.

This was a wonderful chance for Cactus to catch up with school partners and agents and, importantly, to stay in touch with what’s going on in the industry. The event brought together members of the youth, student and educational travel industry as well as government departments, who together are trying to promote travel abroad for educational purposes. Not only does this give British young people the opportunity to see the world and gain better skills, it is an important ingredient for the future prosperity of the British economy as it contributes to our resources, wealth and social fabric.

Meeting at an event such as this prestigious invitation-only parliamentary reception provided the ideal grounds from which to promote the interests of the industry and communicate the message at the highest level to government and tourism authorities.

Richard and Steph were able to meet members of organisations dealing with inbound, outbound and domestic tourism, including youth and student tour operators, language schools, gap year and volunteering organisations, school travel organisers, work exchange programme organisers, overseas delegates and more.

(In the above image from the reception, Steph appears at the far right and Richard fourth from the right).

Making the most of your gap year: volunteering, work experience, TEFL and language courses

Whether you’re looking to fill a week, a month or a year before university or full-time work, there are plenty of ways for you to spend your time usefully and enjoyably whilst impressing your future employers…

With the academic year coming to a close, now is the time when many young people’s thoughts turn to what to do next. Many graduating from school or university will inevitably be moving onto university or a graduate job. Whether you have a few months or a full year ahead of you before the next chapter, however, there are still plenty of ways for you to spend your time usefully and enjoyably – all whilst satisfying future employers that you have not simply squandered time and money sunning yourself on a tropical beach.

That’s not to say that you have to rule out beach time though. To the contrary, there are some excellent gap experiences to be had on some of the world’s most coveted stretches of coastline: what line of interviewers wouldn’t be impressed with a Spanish-speaking volunteer placement at a turtle hatchery in Costa Rica, a TEFL course in Phuket or professional work experience within a Spanish company in Valencia? As long as you can prove you have learnt and ‘gained’ something – be that a language, a qualification or a skill – it will show that you have used your initiative and spent your time wisely. And no need to mention the spare time you had to relax on the beach outside all of this.

Volunteer Placements


There are even places where you can combine more than one activity. In La Ceiba, Honduras, for example, you can take a Spanish & Volunteer programme which combines learning Spanish with a two-month placement in special education for children with learning difficulties, with the Red Cross or teaching English, to name but a few examples. La Ceiba is also known for being one of the cheapest places in the world to learn how to dive, so volunteers can easily gain their PADI certificate in the warm Caribbean waters during their time here. A few new skills up your sleeve and time well spent, most would agree.

Language and volunteer packages run from 12-20 weeks and are available in countries across Latin America, in a range of different fields including social work, education, healthcare and ecology.

All Language & Volunteer placements >

Work Experience


For a more professional working environment, our work experience language courses are ideal for few months’ stint before or after university. Ranging from 8-16 weeks in duration, they give you the unique opportunity to learn a language and then put your skills to good use on a professional work placement in locations as far ranging as China, Chile and Russia. Available in local companies specialising in fields ranging from design, fashion and marketing to IT and ecology, you are likely to find a placement that will coincide with and give you extra confidence in your future work plans. British citizens taking a work experience course within the Europe Union can also take advantage of being able to work freely should they wish to stay on.

All Language & Work Experience placements >



TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) courses are available the world over, from exotic beach destinations to some of the world’s most exciting cities. These are seen as a great way to get paid to see the world, bestowing you the valuable skill of public speaking in addition to a deeper knowledge of the English language and rewarding contact with the locals that you would not otherwise experience. In select destinations you can even add a language course and a week’s chill-out to your CELTA package, such as in Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca and Mexico’s Playa del Carmen – the language element making a real difference to your experience and subsequent teaching job in your host country. The only thing is, you might not want to come back…

All TEFL courses >

Language / Language & Activity Courses


Of course the mere act of taking a language course is sufficient to gain a new skill – regardless of whether you combine it with a volunteer or work placement. Some gap year students choose to take a long-term language course to ensure they achieve a decent level in the language during their time away; you can either choose from one of hundreds of language courses or, at the upper end, enroll on an Academic Year course which particularly suits those with long-term aims in the language.


Other students opt for a Language & Activity course, a popular choice which combines learning a language with a fun local activity such as diving, surfing, dancing, music, cooking, wine tasting, painting or photography. A great way to share your passion with others from across the globe and come back having learnt a lot more than just the language, an activity course can fill just one or several weeks, acting as a ideal stepping stone before you settle down to full-time work or studies.

All Language & Activity courses >

The Guardian Careers - 12 July 2011

Cactus’ Jenny Johnson once again joined the panel at to contribute towards a live discussion about finding TEFL jobs.  Jenny provided expert help and tips across a range of TEFL queries, alongside other industry luminaries:

Spanish film review: ‘The Skin I Live In’ by Pedro Almódovar

You don’t need a profound knowledge of Almódovar’s films to know that his work is extreme, fantastical and somewhat controversial. So it will come as no surprise that his latest release, ‘The Skin I Live In’, has been greeted with both scepticism and awe. There is no denying, however, that it is sleek, stylized and unmistakably his.

‘The Skin I Live In’ tells the story of a successful plastic surgeon, played adeptly by Antonio Banderas, who has a private operating room in his opulent home. Kept prisoner within his house is a beautiful woman called Vera, who he uses as a guinea pig as he carries out experimental work to create a new kind of skin. Vera is similar in looks to his late wife, who was burned in a car crash twelve years before – and who could have been saved by the very skin he is now creating.

To add another quirky and almost implausible twist, Vera also has something to do with the surgeon’s raped and dead daughter – to reveal more would give the game away but, needless to say, it is a twist that only Almódovar can get away with, the plot expertly executed with superb set design and cinematography as well as an atmospheric score by Alberto Iglesias. Lesser directors would not get away with the feat that Almódovar has achieved with ‘The Skin I Live In’, yet somehow this Spanish veteran has created a thriller that combines horror, insanity and parody in a way that is compelling and almost believable.

Almódovar has based the latest of his thrillers on the 2003 novel ‘Mygale’ by the late French writer Thierry Jonquet. It was filmed in Madrid in 2010 and this year premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, to much expectation. It will be released to Spanish, US and US audiences later this autumn and, personally, I can’t wait to set eyes on this much-talked-about movie.

Cactus offers evening and part-time Spanish courses in the UK, US and Canada, as well as in-country Spanish immersion courses across Spain and Latin America.

Setting a good example: Prince William parle français

There are few things more quintessentially British than the monarchy, but the recent royal newlyweds were less than British in character as they greeted the Canadian public last week. Addressing an enthusiastic crowd in Ottawa during a tour of Canada with his new wife, Prince William broke with British stereotype by speaking not just English, but French too. The traditional image of Brits abroad talking brazenly in their own language, or at best fumbling with an order for dos cervezas, was cast aside instantly as William spoke slowly, apologetically but admittedly very well, to his Canadian audience in French.

The cheer that erupted as the first words in French rolled off his tongue was proof enough that his efforts were appreciated. Not that they were necessary – the truth being that us Brits can get away with speaking English, and only English, almost anywhere in the world – but that’s not really the point. The majority of us may sit back and expect the rest of the world to speak back to us in English, which for the most part works, but the effort to learn even just a little of the language of the country you are visiting can touch hearts and get you much further than fluency in your own language. You will likely endear yourself to the locals, meet people you may not otherwise and experience local life in a way that a non-comprehending visitor may not.

For this we salute William for getting up there and putting his French on display, flaws and all (not that there were many), for the Québecois. Whatever your thoughts on the monarchy itself, William has acted as a true role model and done the nation proud by showing that we’re not all inept at languages. At Cactus of course we know that, sending thousands of you away on foreign language courses each year, but with GCSE language uptake dwindling each year and the dominance of English gathering momentum, his speech couldn’t come at a better time.

As Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands it goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language it goes to his heart.”

French course locations in France – fantastic options for all tastes

Below are our destination recommendations to suit various interests.

1. The outdoor enthusiast

France is a country that is well suited to outdoor enthusiasts. There are endless options for outdoor pursuits, whether you like surfing, skiing, biking, hiking or an array of other activities. One of the regions which is most synonymous with this though, and which offers perhaps the greatest variety of activities, is the Alps, and the area around Chamonix and Annecy specifically. Whether you go in summer or winter there will be a wealth of pursuits for you to enjoy in conjunction with a French course.

2. The culture vulture

If you were asked to choose one place in Europe that is most revered as a cultural centre, you’d probably say Paris. Paris is known the world over for its arts and culture, and has been for centuries. You will quite simply be spoilt for choice when it comes to museums, galleries, cinemas and theatres, and you’ll probably stumble upon a festival or two as well.

3. The beach lover

France has no shortage of coastline, and stunning coastline at that. From the wide, sandy beaches in the north to the palm-fringed beaches and turquoise waters of the Mediterranean in the south, there is something for all tastes. Antibes is a lovely, compact resort on the Côte d’Azur that is known as an upmarket yet traditional place, and Biarritz is a chic and trendy surfer’s paradise on the Basque coast. Both offer fantastic options for beach lovers who want to study in the morning and soak up the sun in the afternoons.

4. The foodie

Let’s face it, France was made for foodies. No matter where you go in the country, you’re guaranteed some delicious food, but there’s one place in particular that has gained a reputation as the nation’s gastronomic centre, and that’s Lyon. Aside from the many Michelin-starred restaurants, Lyon is also well known for its ‘bouchon’ restaurants, family-run and unpretentious establishments that serve traditional bistro-type food. If you’re more interested in wine than food, the definite choice for a French course would be Bordeaux, the centre of one of France’s premier wine-growing regions.

5. The history buff

France has a long and interesting history, but one place with particular historic significance is the city of Rouen. Perhaps Rouen’s most famous historical association is Jeanne d’Arc, but the wider Normandy region has plenty more history to explore too – from the stunning basilica in Lisieux to the Normandy landing beaches and the coastal retreats where Monet got so much of his inspiration. 

6. The party animal

There are many French cities which offer a lively and varied nightlife, but one in particular is Montpellier. As a university city, it easily caters for the students who live there, offering an impressive array of bars, clubs and restaurants. Another place with good nightlife is Nice, although this can be more expensive, and generally only applies to the summer season. 

7. The student on a budget

As is the case in any country, some of the more popular French locations can be a little on the pricey side – Paris and Nice in particular. There are plenty of interesting and accessible locations that are more affordable though, one of which is Brest. Located in Brittany, in the northeast of France, it is a thriving university city on the coast with plenty of entertainment options but fewer visitors than its Mediterranean counterparts. This actually adds to its appeal as a French course destination as you’re likely to have more opportunity to practise the language.

8. The artist

Aix en Provence enjoys an idyllic setting in the countryside of Provence. It epitomizes the image that foreigners have of this region, and its setting and light have long made it a popular destination amongst artists – Paul Cézanne being the most famous. During a stay in Aix you can visit the atelier that became his shelter and place of work, stroll along the streets that were such an inspiration to him, and even have a go at painting yourself. 

Find full details of Cactus’ French course in France on the Cactus Language website

Learning French in Normandy: won over by Rouen

I have a confession to make. After many trips to France and quite a few extended summers visiting family in various cities and little towns, I have never been to Normandy.

Honestly, I had been told it was boring. They said it wasn’t as pretty as Provence, and certainly not as fun as Biarritz, and nowhere near as historical as Paris, So when Cactus decided it would be worthwhile to send me and my co-worker Stephanie to Rouen to visit the region and spend a weekend with our partner school there, I was excited for the trip, but honestly not expecting much. It’s Normandy. Nothing happens in Normandy.

I could not have been more wrong. Normandy as a region is actually quite spectacular and Rouen couldn’t be a more ideal place to spend a week, a semester, or even a year learning the French language and the many facets of its amazing culture and complex history.

(Below image from left: Eleri, from our partner school in Rouen, with Adrienne & Stephanie from Cactus)


imageRouen alone carries a large weight of France’s history. Want to see where Joan of Arc was tried? Go to Rouen. Or care to experience a tour offered by the school and follow Joan of Arc’s path from where she was being held to where she was burned at the stake? Again, go to Rouen. Or perhaps you’d like to sit exactly where Monet sat when he painted the Rouen cathedral? No problem. Or sit at the same café where Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were known to, shall we say, canoodle? Yes, that’s right. Rouen again.


Combine the amazing history of Rouen where the school is based with the numerous tours available that can be organized during your stay – Normandy landing beaches, Monet’s garden at Giveny, a visit to a Calvados distillery – and you’ve got a perfect language holiday or study abroad experience. We had an amazing weekend with our hosts Eleri and Tom from our partner school, went to some amazing French markets, saw everything that Rouen had to offer and we even created a French Normandy cocktail! Book a course and we’ll send you the recipe so you can get a taste of Normandy before you start your travels!