Galal Walker: Communicating in the Culture

An interview with Galal Walker, expert in Chinese language teaching. Walker has been committed to Chinese teaching for over 30 years, and several thousand students have been trained under his guidance and instruction. He advocates learning Chinese by means of understanding Chinese culture so as to produce students who can develop a deep understanding of China.

Confucius Institute Reporter
Gao Yanqun and Li Chengcheng
There were only 8 schools that offered Chinese courses in Ohio,U.S.A. in 2005, whereas in 2010 the state had 127 schools offering Chinese courses, with the number of students learning Chinese rising from 700 to 7,000. The rapid increase can be partly attributed to the essential role played by Professor Galal Walker who also established the first doctoral program for Chinese language teaching in America. Prof. Walker has been committed to Chinese teaching for over 30 years, and several thousand students have been trained under his guidance and instruction. He advocates learning Chinese by means of understanding Chinese culture so as to produce students who can develop a deep understanding of China. Prof. Walker’s tie with China can be traced backed to his childhood when he read works by Lin Yutang (1895-1976), a well-known Chinese writer.


Galal WalkerGalal Walker is a professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and literatures at Ohio State University, and the Director of the National East Asian languages Resource Center. He has served as the President of the National Association of Self-Instructional languages Programs, and been on the Executive Board of the Journal of the Chinese language Teachers’ Association. His publications include Chinese: Communicating in the Culture and Spoken Cantonese: Context and Performance. He is the recipient of the China Language and Culture Friendship Award, the highest award given to a foreign citizen by the Ministry of Education of China.


Question: I understand that when you were in college, you changed your major from economics to Chinese. Why did you make such a change?

Galal Walker: I studied a double major in economics and linguistics and in order to get the degree in linguistics, I needed to study a non-Western foreign language, so I picked Chinese. When I was in high school, I read a lot of books about China and I became interested in it as a society with a long history. That’s why I picked Chinese.

When I was studying economics, my goal was to go to law school and become a lawyer. My college had a program for students who wanted to go into a career for which they didn’t have any relevant background or family connections. The student advisors knew that I didn’t have any background in the law profession so they introduced me to four lawyers and I was given some university law textbooks. I visited the four lawyers, and then decided that I couldn’t be a lawyer.

Their lives seemed so miserable to me. I didn’t want to continue in that direction. At that time, Cornell University had offered me a Ford Foundation Fellowship, so I went to Cornell and studied for a degree in Chinese literature.

Galal Walker
Ohio State University

Question: You established the first Doctoral degree program for Chinese language teaching in the US. What impressed you the most about the process?

Galal Walker: When beginning my teaching at Ohio State, I just tried to train our undergraduate students to learn to communicate in Chinese, we wanted our students to graduate with a high level of Chinese language proficiency. That was the goal, and we worked hard to achieve that. The graduate students who studied Chinese literature or linguistics started to work with me, because they were interested in how to design Chinese-teaching programs, how to design teaching materials and how to help our students learn more quickly. That eventually became a programmatic focus at the graduate level. Graduate students could then get a Master’s degree in Chinese language pedagogy. Eventually, they could earn their PHD’s and go on to faculty positions teaching Chinese language and culture in colleges and universities.

Question: Were there any difficulties in establishing the program? How did you persuade your university to do it?

Galal Walker: It is very difficult to establish a new graduate program at any university. You have to persuade a lot of people—faculty and administrators, you have to fill in a lot of forms, and you have to write a lot of reports. I guess one of the reasons we eventually persuaded them is that we developed a reputation for our high caliber Chinese language students, so the university recognized that we could train American students to perform well in this field. That’s how they were persuaded to establish the Chinese language pedagogy program. We were also able to establish an MA degree program for students of Chinese language and culture.

Galal Walker

Question: Do you think that it is difficult for Chinese language teaching to be integrated into the American education system?

Galal Walker: It should be said that America does not have a centralized education system, so there is no target that we could integrate into. However, the federal government does have programs of support for such crucial disciplines as Chinese as a foreign language. For example, Ohio State has an institution called the National East Asian Languages Resource Center, supported by the US Department of Education. This Center supports the teaching of Chinese, Japanese and Korean. Right now most of our attention is on Chinese, because there is such a strong demand. The Center has two goals: one is to get American students to learn Chinese at an early age; the other is to focus on getting American students trained to advanced Chinese language skills. When I say advanced, it means that our graduates are able to work in Chinese in their respective career fields. If they become engineers, they can do engineering in Chinese; if they go into biochemistry, they can do biochemistry projects in Chinese; if they go into marketing, they can do marketing in Chinese.

Question: How has the American education system integrated Chinese language teaching at the University level?

Galal Walker: Chinese language teaching in the US is generally done by Chinese native speakers who have a background in literature or linguistics. What we are trying to do is to develop a more specific language-teaching approach, based on modem research in fields such as cognition and socialization. This means we must focus on culture as the key element in human societies and minds. The basic idea is that if you understand a particular culture, say Chinese, you can better learn the language as a means of negotiating that culture. You can then better retain the required knowledge and memories of how to communicate in typical Chinese situations. Our graduate students can teach in universities after graduation, they can teach Chinese language and also Chinese culture. They even teach courses such as Chinese films or business practices. This requires a knowledge of Chinese humanities. Many students of Chinese as a second language do not have any background in the humanities that are intimately familiar to ordinary Chinese people. So, our Chinese courses on the graduate and undergraduate levels purposely incorporate the study of Chinese humanities.

Galal Walker

Question: What common grounds do Chinese and American education systems share, and where do they differ?

Galal Walker: Everything seems to be changing right now. I think the Chinese education system has changed a lot since I first visited China. American education is much less a system than education in China. Common grounds are beyond my capacity to describe. However, I can mention some student behaviors that show a difference. The American education system has changed too, but there are still some major differences that affect students and teachers. For example, when graduate students from China come to our department, it takes them six months to a year to learn how to deal with the American academic expectations. When American students go to China to study at an advanced level, they have a hard time to fit into the Chinese educational system. So a lot has to be done to adjust them to their new educational environment, to support them to adapt to the new relationship between professors and students. For example, when I have students from China, I try to get them to disagree with me, because I want them to be able to argue their intellectual position. I want them to be able to understand that if they have a strong position, they should be able to state it clearly and persuasively. But when students are fresh out of China, they will not argue. After a while, they will do that, but that’s a very different professor-student relationship to what they were used to in China. If our students go to China, they can’t have this kind of relationship with their Chinese professors, right? But I want my students in America to be able to argue with me. I want them to find a different way if they think I’m wrong. I want them to tell me why they think I’m wrong. To me, that’s the biggest difference between Chinese and American students.

I’m the adviser to a student club with about 200 Chinese students at Ohio State and we once had a big discussion about how to talk to professors. I asked “If you disagree with your professor, what do you do?” Most said they would wait till after the class to tell him. So I then asked “Why don’t you just tell your professor in class that you disagree?” They said that’s not respectful. I tried to explain to them that if the professor said something that you disagreed with, you needed to point it out straightaway. Of course, the student will have to risk being wrong in front of classmates. In America, if you think your professor can’t deal with your question, you are showing disrespect to your professor. So I would feel very bad if students came to me after class. That’s another difference about college education between the two countries.

Question: You”ve mentioned that both American and Chinese people should learn more about Chinese culture and Chinese traditions, why?

Galal Walker: Well, I don’t know if I was advocating the teaching of traditional Chinese culture in the classroom. What I meant was that we should understand how people in China take advantage of their traditions; our students need to know how to engage with Chinese people, with Chinese culture. When American students learn Chinese, I encourage them to talk to Chinese people, no matter the subject. I did my PhD on Chu Ci (楚辞),a collection of poems from the early Han period (汉代), most people say xi han (西汉)or earlier. But I found there was no Chinese person on this planet who was interested in my research on the whole poetic tradition, they were only interested in the poet Qu Yuan (屈原). So what I do is to teach my students of Chinese as a foreign language about how the Chinese feel about Qu Yuan as a historical figure and a cultural symbol and I do not bring up my conclusions about the entire tradition. I want my students to know about personages such as Zhuge Liang (诸葛亮). If they know about Zhuge Liang, they can mention him to anybody in China, workers, doctors or even CEOs. From my experience, every Chinese person has an opinion about Zhuge Liang, so that’s the kind of thing we want to focus on. Chinese culture is rich in terms time and breadth. Even with our own cultures, we only know parts of them. No foreigner is going to be a master of Chinese culture. No Chinese person who comes to the United States can fully understand American culture, but we can identify the most important cultural features. The features that can help people to get along and understand each other.

Question: How do you feel about the influence of Chinese culture on the modern world?

Galal Walker: When I explain Chinese culture to Americans, I tell them that there is over one billion more people in China than in America. I always ask them, “Do you know how much a billion is?” For example, if you had a billion dollars and you want to spend a billion dollars, one dollar every second, do you know how long it would take to spend all that? OK? what’s your guess, one month? One week? It takes roughly 31.7 years. As there is a billion more Chinese than Americans, people have come to realize that a huge part of the human experience is about Chinese culture. So Chinese culture is inevitably becoming a bigger and bigger part of world culture. That is why I do what I do. I’m aware of Chinese culture and I respect Chinese culture, but primarily my job is to prepare Americans for the future they will share with Chinese.I can’t do much for Chinese society, but I at least can make Americans more aware of the world, especially the world of the future.

Question: What are the main differences between Chinese culture and American culture?

Galal Walker: There are a lot of things. For example, the Chinese language is stricter than English, especially for foreigners. Americans speak English in many different ways and change it frequently, but nobody says ifs wrong. They might think you are being humorous or maybe from a different segment of society.

But I find that if a foreigner changes something like a chengyu (成语) or changes a saying in Chinese, people won’t accept it. Or when you have a meeting in China, the meeting will begin in a much more conventional order than in America. One of the most important things Americans need to take into account is that Chinese people have a set way of doing things and they donH like foreigners to play around with those ways. Some things in China and in America are just completely the opposite. For example,when it comes to hospitality, Chinese say Ke sui zhu bian (客随主便), which means guests follow the choices of the host. If you are a good guest, you make the host feel good about his choices. In the US ifs usually just the opposite, it is zhu sui ke bian (客随主便  ). If Fm the host, I want to present choices to my guests. The more choices I can give them, the better. If they each make different choices, I feel even better. Such things are very different in Chinese culture and American culture, totally different, and those are the things foreign speakers of Chinese have to know. If I invite you to dinner in the US,usually I won’t order for you, secondly, you are going to be asked a lot of questions about what you want to eat and what you want to drink. Every time when I go to restaurants with Chinese friends I realize that they hesitate to ask for what they want. Sometimes when Americans go to business dinners with people from China, they can feel uncomfortable because they might have the idea that their hosts are forcing them to eat and drink particular things. So I feel that Chinese and Americans on different occasions follow very different rules.

Question: Do you think the two cultures will merge together at all in the era of globalization?

Galal Walker: Cultures will change. For example in places like Shanghai, people are behaving more and more cosmopolitan and it is easier for Americans to follow. In places like San Francisco, you see more and more signs of Chinese cultural influences. Cultures will change, but I don’t think different cultures will eventually flow together. Twenty years from now, I think when Americans go to China, they will still have to follow ke sui zhu bian. And Chinese in America will have to put up with the way we invite guests.

Question: Do you think China is unique for having significantly different dialects? For example, a large portion of the Chinese population speaks Cantonese. What do you make of this?

Galal Walker: There is also Shanghai hua and Fujian hua— and Fujian hua is growing in popularity. There are indeed a lot of Chinese dialects. When I talk to ordinary Americans about China, I ask them to think in non-political terms about China as they might think of Europe. They all have the same writing system, but I know German speakers canH go to Italy and understand what is going on. I have observed Cantonese speakers can’t go to Fujian and understand whafs going on when people are speaking the local dialect. China is a huge country, has many different cultures, many different languages, even differences in Mandarin are great. I have spent some time in Shandong, I can go around Shandong where most of people speak Mandarin, but I have been in places where I have to guess at everything. China is a complex place and Chinese people are complex. I think that’s probably China’s strength. This complexity encourages creativity and has contributed to the advancement of the Chinese civilization—both in the past and also into the future.

Question:If language carries cultural identity , so do you think different dialects in China affect the definition of Chinese culture?

Galal Walker: Sure, everything will affect culture. You know in the US? there are a lot of Spanish speakers. They will change the attitudes of American people and their linguistic behavior to varying degrees. I know people from India who speak English as their first language, but that’s only a part of their identity. I think the more someone is aware of their identity, the more impact they will have on their culture. In my opinion, that’s a good thing, it makes a culture more responsive and more creative.


Published in Confucius Institute Magazine
Magazine 44. Volume 3. May 2016.


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