Cultural and Linguistic Ambidexterity

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The University of Texas at El Paso is a unique incubator for bilingual and multilingual students, who are increasingly being sought after by employers in a global economy.

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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 US. 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"

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 majoring 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. …

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