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English Is The Language Of Business (Except When It Isn't)

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2001 Annual Conference


Albuquerque, New Mexico

Publication Date

June 24, 2001

Start Date

June 24, 2001

End Date

June 27, 2001



Page Count


Page Numbers

6.445.1 - 6.445.8

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Susan Vernon-Gerstenfeld

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Session 3460


Susan Vernon-Gerstenfeld Interdisciplinary and Global Studies Division Worcester Polytechnic Institute, 100 Institute Road, Worcester, MA


Common wisdom tells us that English is the language of business—a wisdom that has negative implications for students and the larger public regarding the need to become proficient in other languages for business purposes. Common sense should tell us that the situation is far more complicated. Moreover, the literature and WPI’s experience tell us that spoken language is only one aspect of communication. For true understanding, in addition to hearing what is said, the recipient of the spoken word, also, must be able to process the messages and set them into context. To complicate matters further, the context is dictated by cultural cues. Thus, in business, native English speakers should bear significant responsibility for their ability to conduct at least part their work in the language of their hosts and cannot rely on translators to provide them with fully accurate translations.

This paper discusses WPI’s ten-year history at its project centers in Puerto Rico and Costa Rica and the impact of knowing Spanish on the student experience in organizational settings, on the outcome of their projects, and on their personal development. Such outcomes are tied to the literature regarding these issues as an effort to generalize somewhat from the local experience to the more general issues facing engineering education in global settings.

I. Introduction

For the past twenty-eight years all engineering students, in fact all students, at WPI, have been eligible to apply to one of the university’s competitive global project centers, which now exist in England, Italy, Thailand, Denmark, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, United States, Australia, Hong Kong, and Switzerland. There, the more than four hundred who participate each year are provided project-based experiences with local sponsors as part of their degree-required socio-technical projects. The projects they undertake are those that have importance to the sponsoring organizations but for which the organizations may not have sufficient personnel or time.

The premise of the WPI project experience is that an understanding of the culture is tied to a range of communication modalities, both verbal and non-verbal. We assume that some knowledge of the local language is necessary when English does not serve as the unifying language—or even when it does. But we believe that language alone will not guarantee our students access to the host culture. For that reason, language training is an

Proceedings of the 2001 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright © 2001, American Society for Engineering Education

Vernon-Gerstenfeld, S. (2001, June), English Is The Language Of Business (Except When It Isn't) Paper presented at 2001 Annual Conference, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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