Professor PAN Yaling

Professor PAN after her lecture at the Chinese-German Conference on Intercultural Communication at the Humboldt University of Berlin, with Professor Henze © PAN Yaling

Professor PAN Yaling, member of the Advisory Committee for German Studies as a Subject at Chinese Universities and of the Scientific Advisory Board of the , as well as an editorial board member at ‘Germanistische Kulturwissenschaften’ (German cultural studies)

Professor PAN Yaling’s priorities in research and teaching lie in the fields of intercultural (business) communication, teaching and promoting intercultural skills, intercultural training, research into intercultural language teaching, Chinese/German language learning theory and interpreting, and international German studies / German as a foreign language.

She is one of the few Chinese experts to enjoy recognition from both academics and politicians in Germany. On 24 May 2018, she was one of eight Chinese cultural representatives to take part in a round table discussion with German Chancellor Dr Angela Merkel in Beijing. She was also selected as a Chinese cultural and academic representative for a round table discussion with Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the then Foreign Minister, in April 2016.

Did you already know during your studies that you would be drawn to Germany? Why did you decide on Germany, and what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of your funding period?

I studied at  to earn my bachelor’s and master’s degree in German Studies. As a German Studies student, I naturally dreamt of studying in Germany. But at that time – 30 years ago – there were very few opportunities to study abroad. I was very fortunate at the end of 1990 to be selected for the advanced training programme for highly qualified interpreters and translators from the People’s Republic of China. It was implemented by the  in the Department of Applied Linguistics at the University of Mainz, so I had the opportunity to study in Germany from 1991 to 1993.

At the start of 1991, Germany and China were very different in many respects. I’m therefore very glad that I was able to establish a circle of German friends during my 2-year study period, and we’ve remained friends for many years. My deepest impression at that time was that we were able become very close to one another as human beings, despite our different cultural influences. That was a wonderful experience for me.

When you now think back to your stays in Germany: are there any situations that particularly shaped you?

What particularly shaped me during my study stay in Germany wasn’t so much one event or the other, but rather the people I got to know and learned to appreciate in Germany; and the constant process of interacting with them, which required communication and the integration of different perspectives. I was able to develop my intercultural learning skills via the process of intercultural communication with them.

You’ve dedicated your professional life to research and teaching: how did your personal stays abroad contribute to this?

My interest in researching and teaching intercultural skills has developed mainly because of my personal and professional experiences of intercultural communication. Not only was my interest and curiosity aroused during my many study and research stays in Germany, my enjoyment of intercultural learning was also developed. On a daily basis, I’m able to channel this same joy of intercultural learning into my research on issues of intercultural communication.

In today’s globalised world where intercultural communication is becoming ever more prevalent, there is a growing desire to improve the quality of intercultural communication, which is complex and subject to constant change processes. Foreign language studies should not only impart the culture of the target language to students, they should also provide them with the opportunity to acquire those key skills that enable them to cope with complex change processes in intercultural practice. The experiences and findings I mentioned before form the basis of my work, and it is precisely these experiences and findings that have led me to make ‘intercultural skills’ a focus of my research and teaching.

What do you understand by the complex term ‘intercultural skills’? Are these inherent, or do we have to learn these skills? Should intercultural skills not be taught much more extensively during education, for example at higher education institutions?

I’ve been dealing with this issue for almost 20 years. My research results are revealed in the book published in Germany in 2008 entitled ‘Interkulturelle Kompetenz als Prozess – Modell und Konzept für das Germanistikstudium’ (Intercultural Skills as a Process – Model and Concept for Pursuing German Studies), and the book published in China in 2016 entitled ‘Inhaltliche Bedeutung und Förderung interkultureller Kompetenz — am Beispiel der Fremdsprachenstudierenden an chinesischen Hochschulen, in English The substantive significance and promotion of intercultural skills – Using the example of foreign language students at Chinese universities’.

If I had to summarise my understanding of the concept of intercultural skills in a few short phrases, I would say that intercultural skills constitute the ability to take into account both the source culture and the foreign culture on an affective, cognitive and conative level in situations involving intercultural communication; to actively use these and to interact with members of another culture regarding their respective experiences and expectations, to facilitate appropriate and effective communication that satisfies all participants, to build and sustain harmonious relationships and long-term cooperation.

Intercultural skills are not skills that an individual possesses forever after acquiring them, but rather involve a lifelong learning process that occurs on several levels. Intercultural skills are also not complementary skills that can be considered in isolation from personality, but are an integral part of it.

Professor PAN with Professor Grueske, the former president, and with Professor Hoernegger, the president of the FAU, at the award ceremony for the Medal of Merit on 4 November 2019.

Why is communication between different cultures so difficult?

I wouldn’t wish to make the blanket assumption that the communication between members of different cultures is necessarily more difficult than that between members of the same culture. We run the risk that intercultural misunderstandings and even conflicts become a kind of ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ if too much focus is placed on the challenges of intercultural communication.

On the contrary, it is important for foreign language teachers in higher education to foster interest and curiosity in foreign cultures, thus paving the way for a positive attitude towards intercultural communication. I’m also convinced that we should encourage continuous engagement in the process of intercultural communication, thereby increasing interest in Chinese culture and strengthening cultural self-confidence. Students have the opportunity in intercultural practice to realise that ‘all living beings grow and prosper in nature, and they do not harm each other. All truths exist simultaneously, they do not contradict each other'.

Different cultures can coexist in harmony and have many similarities. Their forms of expression may differ, but their essence is similar. We should therefore seek common ground and preserve differences, even actively use cultural differences to achieve synergies, and take joint efforts to find innovative solutions to cross-cultural problems.

What advice would you give to Chinese students? How can they get the most out of their experience abroad?

Although studying abroad is associated with some intercultural challenges, a stay abroad is the ideal opportunity to improve your own intercultural skills. We can hope that Chinese students will develop the courage to break out of their comfort zone abroad, to approach international cultures with openness, respect and tolerance, and try to understand and get to know them. This will enable them to improve their intercultural introductory skills and cross-cultural awareness, and to contextualise their experiences and reflect on them.

At the same time they need to learn more about Chinese culture, to enable them to communicate better with members of other cultures on an equal basis. So I hope that studying abroad will not only help Chinese students to develop their professional knowledge and skills, but that studying abroad will also enhance their intercultural skills, strengthen their intercultural personality and enable them to become lifelong learners.

The series of portraits of leading women in the Chinese-German alumni network and in the DAAD was originally published on the DAAD China website.

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