Though learning Chinese well helps do business in or with China, actually accomplishing it can be so tricky that many learners have given up or just pondered whether it is worth it. Though no one can predict the future, China is already the second most significant economic power globally, which begs the question as to when learning Mandarin-Chinese will be mandatory for aspiring international businesspeople worth their mettle. Let’s take a look at the pros (beyond China’s massive economy) and cons to determine whether it pays to learn Mandarin-Chinese for business.
Should I learn Mandarin?
Government Subsidies for Mandarin Language Training. The Chinese government makes it easier for foreigners to learn Mandarin as part of a highly organized campaign to strengthen their “soft power” abroad. U.S. high schools and universities are already recipients of Chinese government-subsidized Mandarin learning initiatives, which usually operate under the sometimes-controversial Confucius Institute marquee.
Mandarin is the Most Spoken Language Globally
Mandarin is the official language of the most populous country on Earth: China. That means Mandarin easily ranks as the most widely used language among native speakers. Millions of other native Chinese speakers live in Taiwan and worldwide who use the language to conduct their regular business affairs.
Understand the Culture to Build Stronger Relations
Developing a solid relationship with Chinese business partners usually precedes meeting at the official negotiating table and is in many ways paramount to the deal itself. Learning to speak with Chinese business partners in their native tongue always imparts a unique advantage to anyone willing to learn a language for the sake of business. It shows respect, and who wouldn’t appreciate that? Furthermore, foreigners who do business with the Chinese may have a partner or translator who speaks the language but relying on them too much can undermine crucial “bonding” experiences with influential Chinese decision-makers.
In most cases, knowing a bit of Mandarin won’t mean there isn’t going to be a need for a translator, but it can help non-native speakers catch some mistakes during negotiations.
Some businesspeople often make the mistake of believing that everyone in China learns English and that everything comes with an English translation. This might be somewhat true in tier-one cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Still, more business opportunities are becoming available in tier three or four cities, where English is more of a rarity. Even with a translator, what business thought-leaders want someone to order everything for them or even escort them to the public bathrooms at a tradeshow?
What do I need to know before learning Mandarin?
It does take commitment
The argument has repeatedly been made that Mandarin-Chinese is too difficult for foreigners to learn when weighed against the “business” benefits the learner stands to gain. Many who seriously tackle Mandarin with the enthusiasm it takes to become truly fluent do so for personal reasons rather than strictly for business. Though it’s relatively easy to take high school Spanish coursework abroad and make some use of it for business purposes, it’s almost impossible to expect a similar use-outcome from the same amount of time spent learning Mandarin. It takes many years of study and practice to begin to peel back and process through the layers of complexity of a four-tone, fifty-plus thousand-character language.
The Outsider Effect
When you do business in China, you are an outsider for all intents and purposes. (There’s even a term you’ll probably hear yourself referred to as Wai Guo Ren -外国人). No matter how much Mandarin you know, you’ll still never be seen as Chinese. That means you may be missing out on inside talks and preferential treatment the Chinese government has been known to reserve for Chinese-owned companies. So, while knowing Mandarin can give international businesspeople some advantages, it can only take you so far.
Regional Differences in Dialect
“Standard Mandarin” is what most Chinese language learners’ study. It’s what’s officially spoken in Beijing and supposedly in the rest of China as well. But the further you travel from the capital city, the less likely your standard Mandarin will “work.” So, what might pass for good Mandarin in Beijing might not be intelligible in Shanghai, much less in some more rural areas where Mandarin is amalgamated with the local dialect.
In the business context, regardless of where you are in China, standard Mandarin is always the language to be used in meetings, at business meals and all other professional settings. It is important to know the languages to build a relationship with your PRC partners and customers. Though many young Chinese speak English today, they are still more comfortable conversing in Mandarin outside the boardroom to build relationships. Furthermore, top management of corporations usually includes members of an older generations who typically use Mandarin when communicating from Shenzhen to Shanghai, or to Hanzhou and Chengdu.
Unlikely to be the Next English
Though many extol the virtues of learning Chinese to prepare for the new global economic reality of China’s dominance, because Mandarin is currently primarily used only by native Chinese speakers (because it is so difficult to learn and standardize effectively), it is unlikely to supersede “English” as the preferred language for global business communications.
With the above “pros and cons” in mind, readers might still be left wondering what to do. Do you learn Chinese for business or not? For businesspeople currently living in China or planning to spend a considerable amount of time working with the Chinese. For those planning to do a deal or three over a lifetime, it’s just not feasible. For personal purposes of tourism, ex-pat retirement escape plans, making international friends, or just expanding your world view, learning Mandarin is just as rewarding as mastering any other skill, and well worth the time spent. It all just depends on your goals.