Chinese Made Easy [Capital Region Business Journal]

By Lisa Maddux, The Capital Region Business Journal

No one needs to sell Chris Rampton on the importance of knowing a foreign language in the business world.

The 39-year-old studied mechanical engineering and Japanese in college and has traveled to Japan about seven times. Employed as a hydraulics buyer for John Deere, Rampton said his proficiency in Japanese was one reason he got the job.

And with more business taking place in China and many of John Deere’s suppliers there, Rampton hopes to get involved in that arena as well.

Those are some of the reasons he’s taking UW-Madison’s first online language course, offered in Chinese.

“I had my doubts about an online class,” Rampton said. “But in learning a foreign language, being able to listen to the recorded conversations over and over is an advantage to learning in a classroom. Because there is no set schedule for meetings it is an ideal class for working professionals.”

In addition to fitting into Rampton’s schedule, the online class fits his geography: Rampton lives in Dubuque, Iowa.

Increasing enrollment

Rampton is one of 12 students enrolled in Elementary Conversational Chinese for Business Professionals, the first for-credit fully online language course offered by UW-Madison. Many of the students are full-time professionals also enrolled in the university’s School of Business evening MBA program, according to Dianna Murphy, associate director for UW-Madison’s Language Institute. Others are just particularly interested in Chinese language and culture or feel it will benefit their careers, she said.

According to Yongping Zhu, an assistant professor of Chinese in the Department of East Asian Languages and Literature who is overseeing the course, the number of UW-Madison students studying Chinese has increased from about 190 in 2004 to 330 this year.

Yang Liu is the class instructor and co-author of the class materials. She came to the United States in August 2006 to pursue her doctorate in second language acquisition. Liu was born and raised in Beijing and speaks standard Mandarin. She has a background in, among other things, English literature and worked as a lecturer of English literature at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Liu said because so many people don’t have access to a typical classroom, this online program is very popular. Although there are many Chinese courses offered on the UW-Madison campus, they don’t work for everyone.

Conversation assignments

In addition to working independently through online lessons, students partner with a classmate for conversation assignments via online voice chat tools. Students also speak with Liu at least 20 minutes a week over the phone or Skype, social networking software used to make free calls over the Internet.

The course includes six lessons, which take about two weeks each to complete.

It is organized around six themes, including formal introductions, visiting a Chinese family and eating at a Chinese restaurant. Students turn in character writing and translation assignments by fax or mail and take timed tests and quizzes online.

The students listen to recordings of Chinese conversations and phrases online and also record themselves speaking the language so they can hear how they sound compared with the example. All of the assignments are put in a cultural context, which make a difference for students struggling to learn a new language.

Likes online format

Rampton said he thinks the format is about the best available.

“First-year language courses are always hard and I think this format is probably the next best thing to actually going and living in the place where the language is spoken,” Rampton said.

The emphasis on cultural experiences as well as language particulars is something Liu and Murphy said is crucial.

“We really see culture and language as being inseparable. It’s impossible to learn another language without learning about the culture in which the language is spoken,” Murphy said. “If you don’t know the culture, all you know are abstract linguistic forms.”

“When learning a language such as Chinese that’s relatively more culturally ‘distant’ from American English than the more commonly taught west European languages, culture becomes more important,” she said. “All of our professional and personal social interactions are influenced by unspoken and unwritten cultural assumptions. If we bring those assumptions into interactions with people from another culture, we risk being misunderstood, or even worse, risk offending others.”

Personalized instruction

Liu said several students have told her they feel like they get more attention in this course than they would in a more traditional classroom setting, particularly because there’s a dedicated time to work with the instructor.

“They have flexibility, they have a lot of aid and help from the teacher and their classmates,” she said. “As far as I know they all are really enjoying it,”

Alanna Baldwin, 20, became interested in Chinese because she heard a lot of people speaking it during her time on the UW-Madison campus. When she moved away from Madison and needed online courses to continue her enrollment, this one fit the bill.

Baldwin said she has found the format of the class easy to use and very instructive.

“I like the time frame – having two weeks to finish a lesson at your own pace instead of having someone else tell you what to do. I like being able to practice on my own, in my home, and then speak over Skype to another student in the class,” she said.

Baldwin said she particularly likes using the audio clips on the Web site.

“I can listen to them as many times as I want to, until I really have the words down,” she said.

Baldwin, an undergraduate student who works part time, now lives in Fort Atkinson and plans to move back to Madison soon.

Although UW-Madison offers classes in more than 60 languages, Chinese is the first to be featured in an online version. Murphy said the Language Institute is working on future online language courses, including a second semester of Chinese for business professionals. The extent to which those courses come to fruition depends largely on funding, she said.

The online course is funded by the Division of Continuing Studies, the College of Letters and Science, the Center for International Business Education and Research, and the Center for East Asian Studies. The Language Institute also receives financial support from the Claire Giannini Foundation to develop and offer similar courses to high school students in Wisconsin.

Although he has business reasons to take the class, Chris Rampton also has another, more personal, impetus for learning Chinese. His wife, whom he met in Japan, is Chinese. Their common languages have been English and Japanese, but Rampton is the only one at home who isn’t fluent in Chinese.

“My two kids are pretty fluent in Chinese and I would like to be able to converse with my family and in-laws in Chinese,” he said.

Rampton has traveled to China four times on vacation and said he’s tried numerous other teaching methods to learn Chinese on his own. He found that those were good for vocabulary or some useful phrases, but weren’t interactive enough to really help.

“The UW Madison Chinese course is balanced in using Chinese characters, conversations with coworkers and with our teacher, written translation, fill-in-the-blank and multiple choice,” he said. “This online course really a good way to learn Chinese.”

Wisconsin businesses have an increasing presence in China:

In 2006, Wisconsin exports to China exceeded $870 million, a 29 percent increase over 2005.

China has grown from Wisconsin’s 18th largest export destination 10 years ago to its third largest trading partner today.

Wisconsin’s top exports are China’s top imports: In 2005, China imported more than $333 billion in machinery, electrical machinery, medical equipment and vehicle parts – Wisconsin’s top four export industries.

Two years ago, Johnson Controls of Milwaukee served six cities in China. Today it has operations in 29 cities.

Beijing’s PLA Hospital recently purchased a first-of-its kind CT image-guided, intensity modulated, radiation therapy unit from Madison-based TomoTherapy.

GE Healthcare in Waukesha exported millions of dollars of high-end electrical equipment to China last year.

In 2004, Waukesha-headquartered Husco International signed $500 million in long-term Chinese contracts for a wide range of products. The deal required the expansion of Husco’s Whitewater factory and is expected to support 100 new Wisconsin jobs.

Source: “China: Opportunities for Wisconsin Business,” from the Wisconsin Department of Commerce, September 2007

Lisa Maddux is a Portage freelance writer.