by José A. Cárdenas, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • May 1997

Dr. Jose CardenasIn 1983 I wrote a series of articles expressing my concern over the quality of education and the ability of the country to meet the demands of a high tech economy. Although there is very high quality instruction in technology in a limited number of schools, it is not so pervasive that the economy can be assured of an adequate supply of skilled labor for the marketing and operation of technology. I predicted that the elitist system of education would fail to meet the needs of students who would have to function in a technological society.

This prediction came to mind a few weeks ago as I prepared for a trip to China. Every time I visit a foreign country, I get ready for the trip by buying Fodor’s or some other guidebook for the specific country and finding out all I can about the country and the sites I expect to visit. Invariably, these guidebooks include a section providing translations for the most common phrases used by tourists in a country where English is not the dominant language.

In preparation for the trip to China, I pored over the translations, painfully aware of the fact that I didn’t know any Chinese and of the problem that could create for me. After several days of working on Chinese translations, I finally announced to my wife that I was ready for the trip to China.

“Qing lái yi ping píjiu,” I said to her.

“What does that mean?”

“Bring me a bottle of beer.”

“That’s great! What else do you know?”

“What else do I have to know?” I replied.

My wife sees the upcoming trip to China as a venture into a gigantic shopping mall. “Well, how do you say, ‘How much for this,’ ‘Is that the best price you can offer?’ ‘Does that include shipment to the United States?'” She then continued giving me phrases involving all aspects of shopping for antiques and other items not commonly found in the United States.

I thought about this for a while and finally came upon a possible solution for the problem of developing Chinese translations for a large number of phrases. Some time ago, I did an evaluation of an English-Spanish electronic translator for an U.S. corporation. I found the electronic devices amazingly successful, although the translations had a number of bugs in them. Inflections in speech give words a different meaning, and the electronic devices were not sensitive to those inflections. Words in a language have different meanings, and sometimes the devices gave translations that were based on different meanings than the intended ones, even though the device uses the context to determine which meaning is to be used. In the material I reviewed, the electronic translator consistently translated the word “time” in terms of hours. A simple phrase such as “one time I saw…” would come out in Spanish as “at one o’clock I saw…”

At any rate, I found the electronic translators so effective that I decided that the purchase of an English-Chinese translator would help me tremendously in acquiring Chinese phrases that would be helpful for our visit to China. My wife suggested that I “let the Yellow Pages do the walking,” so I called several electronics firms to ask if they had an English-Chinese translator. On my third try, I hit the jackpot.

The saleswoman answering the phone said, “Just a minute. Let me check.” After a few minutes, she came back on the phone and said, “Yes we do.”

I said, “I’ll be there in a few minutes,” and took off for the nationally-known electronics store before a horde of other San Antonio tourists on their way to China could buy up all the electronic translators. On the way to the mall I had second thoughts. It was raining, it was cold, traffic was heavy, but I chose to go through with it and start on the list of translations my wife decided was essential to our trip to China.

I arrived at the mall and headed straight for the electronics firm. There was only one salesperson in the store, so I walked up to her and said, “I just called about an English-Chinese electronic translator.”

“Oh, yes.” She then pulled out a company catalog, flipped through the pages, and then pointed to an entry. “This is it.”

“Great! May I see one?”

She opened a cabinet, looked at the contents and replied, “We don’t have one, but I can special order one for you.”

I felt like screaming, “You just told me on the phone that you had one,” but I stayed cool and asked her to special order one for me, and I would be back in a couple of days to look at it. She then informed me that the only way for her to special order the device was for me to pay for it then and there. I didn’t mind doing that, but I had some questions about the electronic translator that were not answered in the catalog.

“Does the electronic device provide a translation in Chinese characters, or does it provide the translation in Pinyin phonetic phrases?” I asked.

She responded with a question of her own, “What are Chinese characters?”

“You know, the Chinese symbols made up of little lines or brush strokes that are used in written communications.” (I purposely refrained from using the word “ideogram.”)

“You mean the Chinese do not write like we do?”

“No, they use symbols rather than phonetic words and phrases.”

“Oh, come on, you’re putting me on.”

“No, I’m not. That’s why I want to know if the electronic translator will print out these Chinese characters that I can let the person I am communicating with look at or phonetic words that I can pronounce.”

“Gee, I don’t know, but let me call and ask.”

She then started making a series of calls. Finally, she contacted somebody at the home office or distribution center that could answer my question.

“I have a man here that wants to buy a Chinese dictionary …”

“No, no, no. Not a dictionary. I am interested in an electronic translator. I can get a dictionary at a bookstore.”

“He wants to order a translator like item AJH75 in our catalog, but he wants to know something.” She looks at me and asks, “What was it you wanted to know?”

“Does it print the translation in Chinese characters or in phonetics.”

She got a piece of paper and wrote down the words “characters” and “funets.”

“He wants to know if it writes in Chinese characters.” After a pause she continues, “Chinese don’t write in letters like we do, you know.” After another pause, “Really, they don’t.”

As she was getting into an explanation of the “funets,” I picked up my umbrella from the counter and walked out of the electronics store. I figured it would be easier to continue my translations using Fodor’s dictionary than to purchase an electronic translator.

Almost 15 years after I wrote the education and high tech articles, I am now convinced that I was right. The schools are not properly training students to function in a high tech society.

Dr. José A. Cárdenas, Ed.D. is founder and director emeritus of IDRA. Comments and questions may be sent to him via e-mail at

[©1997, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 1997 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]