Prof discusses global trends from Beijing

Kelm plays the san xian at the Simatai section of the Great Wall in China.
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.