Roberto Basilio

Roberto Basilio is a 40 year old Portuguese national who is now the Latin America CFO for the Dermocosmetics Division of L’Oréal. He worked in France from 2010 to 2013 for the same company. 11 years after his immersion course in the Cognac region, he discusses the benefits of a language and cultural immersion programme and the importance of culture within the language learning process.

Roberto Basilio
Latin America CFO for the Dermocosmetics Division of L’Oréal

Roberto, you are Portuguese and speaks several languages. What is learning a language to you?

I have always loved languages. What I love in particular is what is beyond the language itself. And to me, this is what learning a language is all about. I am not really keen on learning grammar & rules etc. I’m much more interested in listening and the mimicry. I always try to reproduce, as best I can, the pronunciation and facial expressions of the person I’m talking to in order to sound like a real local. My learning process actually involves 2 steps. The first step is the analysis of what I am listening to and what I can see and the second step involves practicing to reproduce it. But the most difficult yet fascinating part is to learn the implicit cultural elements of a language!

As an expatriate working for L’Oréal, you were entitled to have a French language training here in France. You were proposed a French language and culture immersion course. Can you explain us the concept of this programme?

Actually it was a full week immersion course in the Cognac region in the south west of France. The morning was dedicated to the learning of the language with my coach (you! 😊) and the afternoon to cultural visits in the region. Some dinners with local people were also part of the package. I got the chance to discuss a wide range of topics (politics, economy, travels) all in French! So it was not only a language course but a language and culture immersion course where I also had to run a cultural project on Cognac and do a PowerPoint presentation at the end of the week in front of a small audience!

After how many days did you start feeling a difference on a language and cultural level?

When you are literally surrounded by French people English is not really an option. It obliged me to practice and my coach was really helpful 😊. This context is crucial for a real assimilation of the language. I think that from the 3rd day onward you start giving “automatic” answers in French even without noticing! You learn how to deal with locals and you reduce response time when you go to a restaurant, when greeting people in the morning, etc. You really start to feel the difference… And that feels great!

What does the word “culture” refer to according to you?

Everything is culture: codes, history, food, habits, background… Even facial expressions are, in a wider sense, part of the culture… and very important when you learn a language! I love the French “Pff” when someone is a bit angry or skeptical for example or “Voilà” (here you are or here is/are) or “Euh…” (hem). Those little expressions are really part of the communication process and codify an interaction. But having your green salad with your cheese. This is also French culture. Like being theatrical or emotional in a meeting or being formal in emails. Procedures are also very French. Humor is culture as well. And French humor is full of social references and subtleties.
Everything is culture! Really!

Alambic Cognac Charente

Can you try to explain the importance of culture within the language learning process?

To help me understand culture and decode certain behaviours I often use the iceberg theory of culture. When you look at an iceberg floating on the water only approximately 10% of it can be seen – most of it is below the surface. If you apply this idea to people you realize that this model is quite useful in helping us understand behaviours of other cultures. In the “visible” part we have ways of life, laws and customs, institutions, methods, techniques, rituals and of course language. All the rest (ideologies, beliefs, desires, assumptions, expectations, values etc.) is actually “under the water” but it’s so important to ‘dive in’ in order to get the whole picture! Everything beyond the language can be considered as culture and should not be differentiated from the language itself. It’s like a package. Speaking a language without knowing the underlying codes is like riding a car with no brakes. You can drive straight into the wall without knowing it or before you even realize it! You should work with your coach on the implicit cultural aspects of the language. This is part of the learning process and of any good language training!

Can you let us know about your personal experience during those 5 days? Has this experience changed your perspective as an expatriate?

It has. When you arrive in a different country and you are immersed in a language and culture programme like the one I did you start thinking “ok, now I’m here let’s become a local!” It gave me the opportunity not only to jump a level but also to break the distance between my host country and I. This is when I started to act and react like a local and feel much more comfortable in my new environment. And it has always worked like that for me. I can say that, after four years in France part of my DNA is, and will always be, French!

So what are the direct benefits of this immersion on a personal & professional level?

This immersion gave me all the language and cultural tools for my future adaptation. I felt pretty much prepared for all kinds of professional and social interactions. It was like an accelerated integration process for me. It was really useful. On a professional level I noticed immediately that in a meeting I was far more comfortable in my exchanges because I practiced that all the time during the immersion.

So would you recommend anyone to take a language and culture immersion course? If so, under what conditions?

Definitely! I had a wonderful week! The assimilation of any language takes time and one has to be realistic about the integration process. Experiencing the language in daily situations or through cultural visits helps a lot to gain confidence, to break the barriers and to give you the flexibility required to adapt to your contacts. A real context gives you a million more messages that you need than does a traditional class environment. That’s real French! As I said, culture is part of the learning process. An immersion focusing on both (a culture AND language immersion course) is thus by far the best deal you can find to perform better because at the end you manage not only to communicate much better but more efficiently!

What is your best memory of that week?

My best memory comes from the people I met and how generous they were : Francis and Raymonde, a couple of farmers from whom I gained a 1962 homemade Cognac bottle and learnt all the production process 😊 – the visit of their large property lost in the middle of the vineyards where vestiges of the 100 years war could still be seen was amazing ; but also the family that has welcomed me in their home during the stay and with whom I became an expert in the famous Angoulême Comics, and all the other dinners with locals where I learnt a bit of everything about France: politics, culture, History… Those memories are still vivid and I hope I can go back there one day!

Today, 11 years later, in a new expatriation adventure in Latin America, what is your vision on this French immersion course and what do you retain from it?

I do believe it has really triggered my language learning process and actually recommend it to all my colleagues that have recently been expatriated to France! It has been an intense week full of great experiences, I have improved so much and felt much more confident, and you do not feel you are learning a language – it just comes naturally! For me that’s the key factor!
arnt a bit of everything about France: politics, culture, History… Those memories are still vivid and I hope I can go back there one day!