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Letter: Chinese students chastised for speaking Chinese at Duke

I was amazed to read about a member of the Duke faculty criticizing some Chinese students for having a discussion in their own language while on the Duke campus. I was pleased to read about the prompt reaction to this absurd event. Most of the world’s leading universities have a somewhat international student body these days and it was hard to fathom what was going through that professor’s mind.

After graduating from Duke and MIT, I earned a Doctorate at the ETH in Zurich in the 1960s.  The primary language of teaching there was German which became my second language, but many languages were heard among the student body. The native language of most of my colleagues included Swiss-German dialect, German, French, and Italian. Those not native to one of those languages often spoke English. An amusing characteristic of conversations among students and my colleagues was that, in a given conversation, words from two or three languages might sometimes be used in a single sentence. Basically, the first words that sprang to mind were used, and we rarely had any problem deciphering the meaning of that conglomeration of words.

I suspect that the addition of Chinese to the language mix in American universities has probably developed mostly in the last 20 years. Between 1981 and 2010 I made 15 business trips to China, adding up to the equivalent time spent of about 9.5 months. My Chinese colleagues were predominantly engineers. Those over 40 often could speak Russian as a second language. Those under 30 often spoke very good English. Anyone who plans to work in a field which brings them into contact with groups of foreigners had better get used to the fact that they may frequently find themselves near groups conversing in a language that they don’t understand a word of. If they are uncomfortable in such an environment, there are three obvious options. Get an interpreter, learn an additional language, or find a different job.

Arthur J. Wennerstrom

Duke BSME, 1956

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