Ohio State professor argues for understanding China’s Confucian culture through its language structure
Portland State’s Confucius Institute will welcome professor Galal Walker when he delivers a lecture titled “Learning Cycles, Instructional Cycles and the Confucian Pleasure” Wednesday, Nov. 23.
Walker, a professor of Chinese Linguistics and the director of East Asian languages at Ohio State University, has spent his career arguing for the importance of culture in foreign language-learning curricula.
“As a subject of study,” professor Walker wrote in his paper “Performed Culture: Learning to Participate in Another Culture,” “language which is framed in culture and inextricably commingled with action demands performance as a pedagogical necessity rather than inviting it as an option.”
In other words, when it comes to language and culture, you can’t have one without the other.
“Professor Walker has always looked at language learning and culture learning as the same thing,” said Patricia Wetzel, professor of Japanese and the associate chair of the World Languages department. “If you don’t go out of your way to learn about the culture of the language that you’re studying, then you won’t be able to access why it is that people say what they do or behave as they do.”
Professor Wetzel is well versed in Professor Walker’s work. They were Ph.D. students together at Cornell in the 1970s, she in Japanese, he in Chinese. Wetzel was instrumental in getting her former classmate to speak at Portland State.
The subject matter of Walker’s lecture—specifically the “Confucian Pleasure” portion—is especially relevant today.
“China is clearly a Confucian culture,” Wetzel said. “There’s a Confucian revival in China.”
The importance of language as “performed culture,” as Walker terms it, is most apparent in specific social interactions that differ across cultures. Imagine you are an American studying in China and “you have to go and ask your professor for a letter of recommendation,” Wetzel said. “If you follow the English norms for doing that in Chinese, you’re not likely to get what you want.”
Oftentimes, these common presuppositions and misconceptions are not merely ineffective; they may be perceived as downright impolite.
In China, “when you exchange business cards, they treat business cards as a person, not just a business card,” said Meiru Liu, Chinese language instructor and the director of the Confucius Institute at Portland State. “You have to read it carefully and show appreciation and say something. You cannot just silently accept the card—it’s very rude.”
As the Chinese language professor of the Master’s of International Management program at PSU, professor Liu emphasizes the care with which these delicate social interactions must be handled.
“I not only teach them business Chinese language, I also teach them Chinese business culture,” Liu said. “Everything they learn is related to culture, starting from the simple way of saying ‘hello.’”
As Walker writes: “Whatever you set out to accomplish in a social environment, whether by conducting business, research, or personal relations, your intentions must be recognized and accepted by the people with whom you are interacting.”
Professor Walker’s talk is the final event of the Confucius Institute’s Fall 2011 Lecture Series, which also included presentations on ancient Chinese medicine, the music of Southern China and former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.
“The fall term was very successful,” Liu said.
The Institute’s focus for the remainder of the term will be on its biannual Chinese proficiency test, which it offers again Sunday, Dec. 4.
“I encourage my students to take it,” Liu said. “It’s a good way to test their level, or even see how much progress they have made since the beginning of the program.”
As students become more proficient in Chinese—or any foreign language, for that matter—they must also become more culturally proficient, for the sake of cross-cultural understanding.
“A linguistic mistake is easily excused,” Liu said. “If you make a cultural mistake, sometimes it’s not that easy.”
The Confucius Institute at Portland State presents: “Learning Cycles, Instructional Cycles and the Confucian Pleasure”
Wednesday, Nov. 23, 6:30 to 8 p.m.
Portland State, School of Business building, room 490
Free and open to the public