The University of Texas at Austin
  • Prof discusses global trends from Beijing

    By Orlando Kelm
    Orlando Kelm
    Published: June 21, 2010
    Kelm plays the san xian at the Simatai section of the Great Wall in China.Photo courtesy of Orlando Kelm

    Orlando Kelm is an associate professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese and the associate director of business language education for the Center for International Business Education and Research (CIBER).

    I write these brief remarks from Beijing, where we are recording video interviews in preparation for some new online teaching materials that will be used for students in international business, language and culture.

    Why is study abroad important for students?

    There are two completely different worlds here in China.

    Yesterday, for example, I stopped at a small restaurant for lunch in a part of town that is less traveled by tourists. There were no English translations or pictures to help with the menu. In the end I ordered fānqié jī dàn miàn (tomato and egg with noodles). It was delicious, and the perfect example of what piping hot really means. The whole lunch cost me $10 RMB, about a buck and a half.

    Today I found myself at a Starbucks in Beijing. More than $30 RMB for a cup of coffee. There has been a steady flow of people paying $5 for a cup of coffee. Lot’s of beautiful people, mainly young and yuppie-looking, with a heavy dose of English-speaking Americans as well. In some ways, I do not worry about the students who have never traveled abroad. I worry more about the Americans who have traveled abroad, but whose only experience has been on the “Starbucks” side of things.

    Study abroad provides students an opportunity to see both sides of things. For those who only spend their time on the Starbucks side of the world, there is a perception that “everyone speaks English” and “things are the same everywhere.” That’s not to say students shouldn’t be exposed to the newest, latest and greatest when abroad, but a good study abroad experience provides an exposure that gives a more balanced picture.

    How does study abroad help with language barriers?

    Recently I observed a multinational engineering firm in Beijing where the official language of the company is English. Even in Beijing, among employees who have never traveled to the United States, people were using English among their colleagues. It was amazing.

    However, one of the employees was in need of a new computer and so he sent an e-mail to his supervisor that said, “I want a new computer.” The response was something like, “Sorry, we all want a new computer.” The problem was the Chinese word “yào” has a wide range of meanings, including both want and need. What he really meant to say was that he NEEDED a new computer. It’s a subtle difference that is difficult for Chinese speakers.

    The example illustrates well the issue of foreign language. On one hand it is impressive to see how much the professional world accepts English, so much so that engineers in Beijing speak to each other at work in English. But on the other hand, we see some of the problems that come up when we are limited by non-native proficiency.

    Students who study abroad appreciate both sides of this issue. Students who have studied abroad appreciate more the way English is used in the world, it helps to place their own foreign language skills in the context of their work, and it makes them more sensitive to language issues.

    What global trends present new challenges to students?

    There seems to be a weird exchange where the world is trying to adopt Western styles while we are trying to learn how others do things. It’s the proverbial two ships that pass in the night.

    For example, Americans are learning to kiss Brazilians on the cheek and the Brazilians are learning to just shake hands. The Mexicans are learning to be more direct, while the Americans are learning to spend more time with relationship building. Even on the freeways, Chinese try to imitate the look of things. All of the signs are in the familiar green with white lettering.

    The danger, of course, is that we start believing that because things look similar on the surface, they really are the same. However, deep down, the Chinese still believe that contracts are not valid with situations change. The Brazilians still think of themselves as more flexible than the Americans. And the Mexicans really do not want to wear sloppy clothes and elevate informality. So the challenge for students is to perceive what really has changed, without assuming that this implies a total adoption of American thinking.

    • Quote 2
      Diane said on July 15, 2010 at 9:34 p.m.
      I agree with you, there is something about assimilation that inslaves a culture. We should each embrace our differences and learn from them. I lived in Shanghai, China for two years and saw the younger generation embracing our Western culture so eagerly. It was kinda shocking. I guess I liked the traditional culture and wished they wouldn't let that slip away....
    • Quote 2
      Brian Adkins said on June 26, 2010 at 3:02 p.m.
      Being very close to my 64th birthday I am aware of the fact that we as an Americans have seemed to adopt an apologetic attitude for not knowing every other ethnic culture which we encounter. I certainly believe that we should make an effort to know how to display behavior toward others that does not offend, but not everyone is going to be able to study abroad. The errors in English are certainly no worse than the ones that are made by anyone from a non English speaking country attempting to communicate in a language such as Russian or Spanish. Most of the article and the comments about it are certainly valid and expressed well. I would like to point out that we are not the only English language based nation nor the only one whose citizens travel abroad. Does an Italian expect a Turkish native to not err in some way it in Italy?Maybe we beat ourselves up by taking responsibility for all cultural misunderstandings upon ourselves.
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      Irene Perez-Omer said on June 24, 2010 at 11:49 a.m.
      I think all students should take advantage of a study abroad opportunity during college. Given the global nature of business today, it is so important for young people to get a wider perspective of the world, its different cultures, languages and customs--even when the whole world seems to want to adopt some parts of American culture. I emigrated from Venezuela 25 years ago and I still discover new things about the English language, and American customs. I am also teaching my son Spanish, which he learns reluctantly. He is only 8 an already has the perception that everyone in the world speaks English, so he feels he doesn't need to learn Spanish or any other language. I am not sure how this perception gets ingrained in a child here in the USA so early in life. Nevertheless, we are doing Spanish summer at home, speaking Spanish and studying everyday with Rosetta Stone. I expect him to learn Spanish and then learn another language. However, traveling is essential; it is as important to study customs and cultures as it is to learn languages. The language only gives us part of the picture. Before traveling anywhere, I always research the customs of the people in the countries I will visit and if I don't know the language I make an effort to learn several words and phrases that will be helpful, polite or break the ice before I ask if they speak English, Spanish or any other Romance language I can understand. People always appreciate my efforts to speak in their native language and more often than not ask if they can practice their English while they give me directions or help me out. Even the French were very nice and helpful! I have also found some books for business travelers that give helpful cultural advice. For example, in Venezuela if you hold someone's gaze the whole time when they are talking to you or you are talking to them, this is perceived as aggressive behavior. In Ireland, if you don't interrupt or interject when someone is having a conversation with you, it shows you are not interested in the what they are saying. In India, they shake their head when they mean 'yes,' and will never give you "no" for an answer because it is not auspicious. So you have to frame your questions correctly. So instead of asking, "Is the museum open today, or tomorrow or Monday?", you should ask "What is the museum's schedule?" Lastly, "tomorrow" never means "tomorrow" in India; it only means some day in the future. "Tomorrow, itself" is really what we call "tomorrow"; but it is rude to insist something be done "tomorrow, itself." How can one ever learn these things in a language course? Traveling abroad is absolutely essential to fully understand any language and culture. If you have the chance to study abroad in college, take it!
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      John said on June 24, 2010 at 10:35 a.m.
      Thank you for this insightful article! I joined the Peace Corps straight out of an academic environment & consider that experience as much a part of my education as any class or degree program. As you point out, most countries today have both a traditional & a "Starbucks" side, & it behooves visiting Americans to at least attempt to experience both if we are to understand more realistically the complex world in which we live.
    • Quote 2
      Matha Wong said on June 24, 2010 at 9:28 a.m.
      I just returned from a 14 day trip in China and agree 100 % with your comments. Experiencing the true Chinese daily way of life is so different from the "Americanization" of China and other countries. Since China will soon surpass USA with manufacturing, we need to understand the "drive" and customs of the Chinese people. Being a Chinese American, I, too, must learn even more. Thanks for your observations.
    • Quote 2
      Laura Mery said on June 24, 2010 at 9:22 a.m.
      I enjoyed the comments on the cultural differences, is this a challenge to the notion actions speak louder than words?
    • Quote 2
      Orlando Kelm Discusses Global Trends from Beijing said on June 24, 2010 at 9:07 a.m.
      [...] By Orlando Kelm from KNOW [...]
    • Quote 2
      Elizabeth N. Hoffmann said on June 24, 2010 at 7:36 a.m.
      Hosting exchange students has been educational for us. I now share with teachers early in the year that writing the word may be especially helpful. Our first full-time Brazilian son heard "do" when the teacher said "due". Erick expected to work on the assignment during class, but the teacher expected the work to be ready to turn in at the beginning of the period. Recently I heard "alone" in a financial discussion. The comment made sense when I recognized the sound had been spelled "a loan" in the speaker's head.
    • Quote 2
      edward abou jaoude said on June 24, 2010 at 12:51 a.m.
      Is it possible for UT students to meet professor kelm in beijing ?
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