Professional translator and China engagement strategist, Greg Mikkelsen, talks on the importance of speaking Chinese in today’s Asia-focused business environment.
Should you learn Chinese? The short answer is ABSOLUTELY you should. The real question is how much Chinese should you learn. Read on as I’ll discuss this below.
Why Learn Chinese?
Let me start by explaining why I believe EVERYONE going into business should master the basics. I’m not going to bore you with statistics about how the Australian tourism, education, property and mining industries have all experienced a huge boom because of China. I do however want to emphasise how Chinese language skills can help you understand Chinese culture, build rapport with Chinese people and ultimately be more successful in business.
Let’s work backwards and see why it’s so necessary. When negotiating an important deal, mutual trust and understanding are essential. The deal can look great on paper (especially if it’s been translated into both Chinese and English) however often there needs to be some personal trust or relationship between the parties to give them the confidence to proceed. This level of trust can be difficult to achieve even with other people who share a common language or cultural background. Imagine how much harder it is to form this kind of relationship with Chinese people who don’t speak English. I’m not saying that you need to speak fluent Mandarin to secure a deal – BUT IT IS ESSENTIAL TO BUILD TRUST.
Most people already know that a lack of cultural knowledge or understanding can lead to mistrust or even prejudice views of other people. This is true whether talking about differences in terms of race, nationality, age, gender or sexuality. If you want to be able to build rapport with Chinese people you MUST make an effort to understand their culture and way of life – and I’m not talking about traditional Chinese culture – so put down your history books. You need to develop an appreciation for modern Chinese culture. Of course, Chinese traditions and Confucianism can be very informative in this regard however a more relevant understanding will come from actually engaging with Chinese people and contemporary Chinese society. Which brings us to the importance of learning Chinese.
Chinese language skills are a gateway to understanding the essence of contemporary Chinese thinking and culture. Language and culture are tied up in one. As you learn the language you learn about the culture. Similarly if you try to just learn about ‘Chinese culture’ without the language, so much of it will not make sense and will just be completely out of context. You will find yourself trying to create new English words to explain concepts or things which are uniquely Chinese – it’s best to learn the words that the Chinese use to describe these concepts. Some examples are the concepts of ‘面子’ (face), ‘土豪’(new money) as well as various Chinese foods.
How Much Chinese Should I Learn?
Now that you understand the importance of learning Chinese, the real question is – How Much Chinese Should You Learn?
Chinese is a difficult language to learn for Westerners and it takes many hours and much dedication to reach a high level of proficiency. If you are fortunate enough to start from a young age or can take several months off to do in-country study you may be able to reach fluency. However for most people this will never be a reality. However, unless you want to be a translator or use Chinese in a professional working environment it’s not necessary to attain this level of proficiency.
A command of basic spoken Chinese is all that is required to build rapport and strong relationships with Chinese people. Chinese people are very proud of their language and culture and truly appreciate any person who goes to the effort to learn and use Chinese. A simple self-introduction in Chinese or being able to order from a Chinese menu will impress your Chinese business partners and also act as a great conversation starter. You’ll also find that if you know the basics – Chinese people will be all too keen to help you practice and learn more.
The Best Way to Learn
Everyone learns differently, so you really need to find out what suits your learning style. Here’s a few suggestions for how to improve your Chinese:
- Listen to Chinese language and culture podcasts
- Attend a night class at TAFE or University
- Get one-on-one lessons with a Chinese tutor
- Take a trip to China
- Watch Chinese movies, TV shows or online videos
- Practise with Chinese friends
Remember that learning Chinese requires perseverance and a positive attitude. It does require a relatively large investment in the early stages but once you master the basics you’ll have a solid foundation to build upon.
Good luck or jiayou (which means ‘add oil’).