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Renowned International Scholar Interview

Topic: Figures Of BFSU—-Li Ke :a "Chinese German"professor


L:Professor Li Ke / B: Bethy 李佳朋 / A:Allen 谭一铭

Time:2015/9/28/10:00 a.m.

L:Shall I use Chinese or English or German?

B:Any of them is okay, but Chinese is better.

L:Of course you cannot speak two languages at the same time.

B:OK let’s start from the beginning. When did you first come to China?

L:It was in 1997, 18 years ago.

B:We were just born at that time. Were you destined to China? And why did you choose China?

L:Umm…First of all I have always wanted to understand how the human mind works and the role that language plays in that respect. So I decided to study psychology and linguistics. But I soon found that in order to understand the way how language affects thinking, one has to find a way to separate thinking from language. This of course is not possible in a theoretical way, as the analytic mind still makes use of the patterns of everyday language. So, one has to search for a way to experience the clash between language and thought in a direct and, so to speak, physical manner.

One way is of course meditation, which is very effective but its effects are hard to share with others. The second way is immersing oneself into one or more completely different types of languages, which forces you to talk about unfamiliar subjects in an unfamiliar way. So I have studied numerous languages but probably none of these languages as intensively as Chinese, which I found the most rewarding language so far in terms of shaping my personality. Studying Chinese provided me with new perspectives on my research topics and on the question of the language-thought interface in general.



B: Well what do you think is the biggest culture shock between China and Germany? How did you overcome those which are difficult to adapt to?

L: One crucial experience is the low value that is attributed to personal privacy in China and generally in Asia. At first I was really bothered by all these questions about my private life, income etc. I suppose I used to react very impolitely at the beginning, telling people to mind their own business. But then I realized that even Chinese are not always willing to respond to this sort of questions, but they don’t tell you to shut your mouth. Instead they answer more or less politely without giving away any real information by being vague or sometimes even just making up stuff.

Another thing is the high appreciation of material things. In Germany we very much cherish symbolic and personal gifts to express our appreciation for another person, like some artifact or book that seems to correspond to her personality. I very quickly realized that this line of thought and the attempt to explain it will only make me look ridiculous and even stingy in front of my Chinese friends. 

One big difference between China and Germany is in the attitude towards learning. While China is commonly regarded as a society where learning is held in high esteem, Germans are more eager to instruct others. Many foreigners seem to misunderstand the Chinese emphasis on learning and erroneously attribute the interest and openness they are treated with by the Chinese to their personal charms, wisdom etc. instead of the Chinese learning culture. Germans are very prone to fall into this trap and feel unduly flattered. 

In general I find the Chinese attitude to knowledge and learning a very pleasant trait of character, from which I have personally benefited a lot, although there is of course a negative aspect to it as well. Learning from others without ever giving away your knowledge can turn into egotism and self-righteousness as much as dogmatism and stubbornness, because the eternal learner never exposes himself to criticism in much the same fashion as the bossy teacher. So I believe bringing together Chinese and Germans can be highly inspiring for both sides.  


A: It seems that you have thought deeply about China. What do you think of your teaching experience at BFSU? Could you give us some advice on how to improve our campus? Furthermore, what are your views on Chinese education? Will you give us some examples from your experience at BFSU?

L: Two aspects. One is internationalization; I can see that BFSU is making great efforts to improve teaching, research and living conditions on the campus. I think it is moving in the right direction. Of course we all want BFSU to become a worldwide renowned address for language teaching and research. On the outside we should present ourselves as a multilingual und multicultural environment, so the decision of BFSU to put up a multilingual website is a great step forward and I am happy to contribute to it. But in order to attract more international students we also need to offer more courses in English, and probably other languages, and announce them as early as possible on our website – including credits, workload etc. – so that those students who are interested in coming to us on an exchange program can immediately start to plan their stay. I had been contacted by international students who finally decided to join an exchange program with South America instead of BFSU because we were not able to provide the English coursework in time. 

The other aspect is undoubtedly teaching. Compared to 5 years ago the undergraduate students have made great progress in many respects. They have become more open-minded, individualistic and sometimes more challenging to teach (in the good and in the bad sense). As for graduate students, who are supposed to contribute to the research activities, I found that most of them are still stuck in the passive learning mode, mainly aiming at producing the correct answer to well-defined problems. This may still work for undergraduates, but if you are supposed to introduce a new idea, or shed new light on an old topic you need to convince people not only of the viability of your ideas but also of their intrinsic value. If you stick to the truth aspect alone you won’t be convincing but boring, as you end up repeating and reproving common sense facts. The value comes from connecting seemingly distant concepts by telling a coherent story. The first step here is to question common sense. Let’s take language as an example: We are used to say that language is a means of communication. We take this is a fact and don’t even bother to think about the origin of this metaphorical concept. What, if language was not a means of communication, what else could it be? You might find the question odd because you think the meaning of the word “communication” is self-evident. Now, let’s substitute the fuzzy sociolinguistic notion of communication by a different concept. In physics class you have learned about the communicating tubes. They are different in shape and size but interconnected. Filling any of the tubes with water will have the effect that all other tubes will level up. Now if ,we compare the tubes to individuals, the leveling up to communication and the liquid to the emotional and cognitive state of an individual at a certain point of time, what role does language play? We might argue that language represents the diameter of the tubes, implying that linguistic competence and cognitive resources are interrelated although these differences tend to be leveled out in social intercourse. At this point you have transferred a well-known concept from one sphere to a completely different sphere and can now start to explore the consequences of this transfer. Isn’t that what creativity is about? Another example how a simple conceptual transfer might provide you with a new vantage point: When dealing with international politics, many people tacitly assume a neo-realistic attitude, more or less believing that states are discrete entities that are competing for their own benefit and survival. This again leads to mutual distrust, the so-called security dilemma. It seems quite natural that the only way out of this dilemma is a system of multilateral treaties that minimize distrust. This way of looking at international affairs seems very natural in a highly individualistic society. But what if the international community is not regarded as a set of competing strong individuals but as a herd of sheep, who consume and produce their wool peacefully and non-competitively as long there is enough grass around? Now, imagine the addition of a shepherd to the scene—-new questions pop up: Could he be a sheep himself? Why would a shepherd be necessary? If necessary, for what purpose, serving whose interests? You see that you get a lot of new questions as soon as you change the mental setting of an event.

This way of playing with ideas is not yet very common in China, but I believe it is nothing but a habit that can be taught and acquired in a structured fashion. I would find it useful to offer courses in this direction at BFSU.


B: Our last question is: do you have any plans about your future career?

L: Besides teaching, I’d like to take more advantage of the language programs of BFSU myself. I would also like to do some experimental research on the influence of grammatical structures on logical and symbolic reasoning, comparing Chinese, German and other typological distant languages. A sort of dream would be setting up a sort of an institute where the interaction of mental models, languages and patterns of reasoning could be examined in detail.

B: We wish you all the best for the future. Words fail to express our gratitude for your cooperation!

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