AFCLC, Air Force Culture and Language Center, Air Force's Global Classroom

Thinking in Chinese – Staff Sergeant finds meaning beyond words through LEAP

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  • By Jodi Jordan, AFCLC Outreach Team

“Do you understand me?” is a question often asked when people who speak two different languages meet. The question of understanding goes deeper than just the meaning of words, though – according to one Language Enabled Airman Program participant, language skills are only part of the equation. To truly understand what is said in these conversations, cultural competence is the key, and that’s something she’s gained as a participant in LEAP.

Staff Sgt. Jennifer Shelton is an equipment control officer at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., and she recently had the opportunity to use both her language and cultural skills to support a visit to Air University here from a delegation of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force of China April 11. 

Shelton has been a LEAP participant since 2015. LEAP, operated by the Air Force Culture and Language Center here, is a career-spanning program to sustain, enhance and use the existing language skills of Airmen. Through LEAP, the Air Force is developing cross-culturally competent leaders across all Air Force specialties with working-level foreign language proficiency. 

The program uses classroom and distance learning coursework, called e-Mentors, as well as immersive language assignments in the U.S. and abroad, to develop not just language, but cultural competence.

Born and raised in China, Shelton immigrated to the United States in 2000. As a native speaker of Mandarin Chinese, Shelton entered in to LEAP with a high level of understanding of the language. The instruction she would receive through LEAP seemed superfluous – at first. “When I learned about the e-Mentors course, I thought, ‘I grew up there – I could teach that class,” Shelton said. “But then I got into the class, and it was like, ‘Wow, this isn’t what I thought it was. I didn’t realize how much the culture affects the way you interpret and communicate, and how the culture affects the meaning and the translation.” 

Learning how to correctly interpret official documents, and how to give the most correct translations, while using that cultural knowledge, was eye-opening for Shelton, who said she found out it was more than just knowing which words meant what. 

Throughout 2016, Shelton participated in e-Mentors, so when the call came down from LEAP managers for an opportunity to support the PLAAF visit, she was ready. The one-day visit from 20 senior PLAAF personnel featured tours, briefings and the opportunity to learn, both for the guests and the hosts, Shelton said.

Since the PLAAF delegation had some of their own interpreters, Shelton spent much of her time just answering questions from the Chinese guests. Topics of interest included many things about how people are treated in the U.S. Air Force – everything from benefits, to the relationship between the enlisted and officer corps, she said.

“I learned that in China, the enlisted airmen aren’t treated the same as we are in the U. S. Air Force. The U.S. Air Force is relying on its enlisted people and empowering them much more. It made me feel very lucky,” she said. 

Shelton also said that her LEAP participation helped her to build relationships between the U.S. and Chinese groups, because she could do more than just translate word for word. She credited LEAP with helping her truly understand the meaning behind the words. “After being part of LEAP, I was better able to explain how the thinking is formed from the Chinese officers. I could explain things like how everything from their rank and their position influences their behaviors and attitudes.”

LEAP, and the opportunities for cultural immersion and language enhancement, is an invaluable program, Shelton added.

“The ultimate goal is a peaceful world, and that is possibly when people understand each other. You are not able to really understand another culture without being in immersed in that culture – it changes how you think. If I wasn’t in LEAP, I wouldn’t understand that.”

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