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Cultural and Linguistic Ambidexterity

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by Peter Galuzska

It didn’t take long for Diana Ramirez, a 23-year-old metallurgical engineering student from Mexico, to play her language card.

Last summer, the senior at the University of Texas at El Paso worked at an 11-week internship at a General Motors castings plant in Defiance, Ohio, that turns out parts for cars. An alert went out that a sister GM plant in Toluca, Mexico, was having a production problem that had afflicted the Ohio factory earlier. Company officials from Mexico were on the phone asking for help. But they needed a Spanish speaker also fluent in engineering terms and knowledgeable about casting.

GM put Ramirez on the line. “I was able to help,” she says. In short order, engine heads, blocks and crankshafts were being churned out again. Being bilingual “is very helpful,” says Ramirez, who is set to graduate in December and hopes to be a U.S. citizen by then. She expects to find full-time work in Mexico.

It might sound like a no-brainer that being bilingual or multilingual helps students planning engineering and just about any other career. But it is certainly true and is becoming more important as the economies of nations become more intertwined. What’s more, being able to go beyond mere language ability and understand cultural distinctions are extra advantages.

For evidence look to UTEP, situated at a pivotal juncture on the U.S.-Mexico border. Directly across the Rio Grande is the large Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez, so about 10 percent of the students are Mexican citizens and a higher percentage speak both English and Spanish. Some students commute daily across the border.

The border, moreover, has a special economic appeal. Thanks to free-trade pacts, the El Paso-Juárez region has emerged as the third largest manufacturing center in North America after Los Angeles and Chicago. On the Mexican side, a complex tapestry of “maquiladoras” or special tax-free production zones got a boost in 1994 when the North American Free Trade Agreement passed. NAFTA was a landmark bill that eliminated many tariffs and spurred trade among Canada, Mexico and the United States. Many marquee-name U.S. firms, including Delphi Auto parts, modemmaker Scientific Atlanta and peripheral-manufacturer Lexmark, have cross-border plants that take advantage of cheaper labor costs and no to low export fees.

UTEP students often work at the border factories after they graduate.

 “Especially at the border, there are a lot of plants in Mexico,” says Dr. David Zubia, an assistant professor of electrical engineering. “A lot of our students are from Mexico, and the ability to function in English and Spanish is critical to our work.”

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At UTEP, English is the language spoken in class and used in all official functions. However, since so many students are from Mexico or grew up in the United States speaking Spanish at home as their first language, it’s very common to hear it spoken on campus.

“Our classes are in English, but, if a student comes to my office because he or she didn’t understand something, we’ll speak in Spanish if it helps them,” says Dr. Gerardo Rosiles, assistant professor of electrical engineering.

Students say that being bilingual gives them more options on campus and off. Daniel A. Corral, a 23-year-old senior who is ma-joring in metallurgical engineering says, “there are nothing but positives” about speaking two or more languages. He’s already applied his skill on the job, just as Ramirez did. Last summer, during an internship at a Dallas steel mill, plant officials could not understand the details of an order placed by a Mexican customer. Corral was asked to help “and I was able to translate specific technical terms.”

The benefits go beyond providing emergency translations. UTEP students are able to help in cross-cultural aspects of technology, particularly by working in Mexico at technology centers set up by the government or private companies.

The Mexican state of Chihuahua, just across from El Paso, has a special technology center that acts as a magnet for UTEP students and professors, says Rosiles. “There is some serious collaboration going on,” he says, “and most of the work is conducted in Spanish.” One goal is to help Mexico upgrade its technology education so that their colleges and institutes can offer more graduate degrees in engineering and other fields, he adds.

Speaking both Spanish and English is not the only option. Auto parts giant Delphi operates a major technology center in Juárez. It is one of the 54 operations in Mexico operated by the multibillion-dollar company headquartered in Troy, Mich. The Juárez tech center is the largest one Delphi has outside the United States. It employs about 3,000 people, and some 30 UTEP graduates work there.

Researching Cultural Approaches to Work

As many as 20 languages are spoken, besides Spanish, including Chinese, German, Japanese and Russian at the Juárez center. Work starts at 5 a.m. so specialists can be in touch with other Delphi teammates across the world, from Asia to Europe, to the United States, says Michael Hissam, Delphi’s regional director for communications in Mexico. The Juárez tech center works in a “virtual” environment that uses the Internet and high-speed connections to exchange information on the design of new car parts and other products. Doing so extends each team’s workday so they can accomplish more. Since opening in 1995, the Juárez center is credited with 200 U.S. patents, Hissam says.

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English is the business language throughout Delphi’s global empire, but speaking the local language is a major plus, says Xochitl Díaz, manager of communications for Delphi in Mexico. Knowing the language in the vernacular of technology is essential, she notes.

“If you know the language, then you know there’s a cultural context and a larger cognitive context,” says Dr. Charles Elerick, a professor of languages and linguistics at UTEP. As a linguistics expert, Elerick takes advantage of UTEP’s strength in engineering and proximity to Mexico to further his study of how language is used in the workplace. “How do you say ‘conveyor belt’ in Spanish? It’s interesting to see how two highly placed professionals handle the extra cognitive aspects of this,” he says.

An area worth studying is how individuals from different cultures approach work in different ways, Elerick says. Dealing with the differences can smooth over what would otherwise be serious misunderstandings.

One example, Elerick says, is what tasks professionals see as their job responsibilities. In one tropical country, for instance, a health science professional studying malaria might say that a reason why a particular project missed its deadline was because his microscope needed cleaning. Elerick notes that in that particular culture, cleaning microscopes is a chore considered beneath the dignity of a researcher. An American researcher, by contrast, might simply clean the microscope without a second thought.

  

Pecking orders in the manufacturing area are also key. In some cultures, it is considered impolite to note that problems exist, even though they might be shutting down a production line. Elerick says the field is so rich that he and some scientists fom Purdue University are seeking a five-year National Science Foundation grant for its study.

Indeed, studying the work differences between Mexico and the United States may make UTEP an especially worthy laboratory for research. Some of those differences can affect how companies work. According to a paper co-authored by Benjamin Sackmary at the State University of New York at Buffalo, there are distinctly different cultural approaches to work. Mexicans tend to have greater respect for tradition, honor personal relationships, dress conservatively and are more ceremony-oriented than their American counterparts. Americans tend to be impersonal, more punctual and to the point, his study notes. Mexicans may see money as a way to enjoy life, while Americans see earning money as an end in itself.

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UTEP senior Corral says that in his internships in the United States and Latin America, he has noticed “very, very big differences” in approach. “If you visit a Mexican plant, they treat you well, they offer you water and ask you to sit down and relax. In America, they stick to business,” he says.

The advice Delphi’s Díaz has to offer is this: “Learn everything you can about the culture, but go there with big, open eyes.” In other words, to avoid stereotypes at all costs and don’t assume people of different nationalities will act in a particular way. This can get touchy in Mexican-U.S. job relations because the wage scales paid by U.S. companies to Mexican citizens are lower. Yet Díaz says this doesn’t especially bother her. “That’s the reality,” she says.

Despite such imbalances as pay, there is little question that the global economy demands more bilingual or multilingual workers. Elizabeth Cercado, a 23-year-old mechanical engineering student at UTEP, hopes that her bilingual experience will help her after she graduates this December. She says she does not know whether she will concentrate in design, research and development or manufacturing.

Last summer, Cercado had an internship at a diaper factory with global personal products giant Procter & Gamble. The company gets a good portion of its $76 billion in annual sales from overseas markets, so it needs to be sensitive to cultures and tailor its products accordingly. Procter & Gamble has fashioned diapers to meet the needs of babies around the world. A few years ago, for instance, it did research in the Philippines and found that its diapers were too hot for infants, so they designed a bikini-style diaper that isn’t as stuffy.

Diana Ramirez knows just how much her GM experience and her instruction at UTEP helps her as she searches the job market.

Speaking in Spanish, I can communicate with more people and if you know how to refer to the culture, even better.”

–Peter Galuszka

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