The following is a guest post by Jonathan Poston. Though learning Chinese is obviously helpful for doing business in or with China, actually accomplishing this can be so difficult that many give up or just ponder whether it is worth it. I asked Jonathan to write a post on the pros and cons of learning Chinese for business because his Learn Chinese Business blog so often delves into issues relating to China’s business culture.
If you Google “When will Chinese economy overtake US,” many of the top results spit back a year that is closer than five years away. Though no one can predict the future, consider that China is already the second greatest economic power in the world, which begs the question as to when learning Mandarin-Chinese will be mandatory for aspiring international business people 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.
1. The Pros of Learning Chinese for Business
Government Subsidies for Mandarin Language Training. The Chinese government is subsidizing foreigners to learn Mandarin as part of a campaign to strengthen China’s “soft power” abroad.
Mandarin is the Most Popular Language on Earth. Mandarin is the official language of the most populous country on Earth: China and it easily ranks as the most widely used language among native speakers.
Stronger Relations. Developing a strong 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 imparts an advantage. Foreigners who end up doing 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 important Chinese decision makers.
Catching Bad Translations. Knowing a bit of Mandarin in most cases won’t mean there will be no need for a translator, but it can help non-native speakers catch some mistakes during negotiations.
Getting Around Easier. American businessmen often think everyone in China learns English and that everything comes with an English translation. This is somewhat true in Beijing and Shanghai, but more business opportunities are becoming available in China’s tier 3 and 4 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?
2. The Cons of Learning Chinese for Business
Takes Forever to Learn. Mandarin-Chinese is difficult for foreigners to learn. Many who seriously tackle Mandarin with the gusto 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 actually 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 process through the complexity of a four tone, fifty-plus thousand character language.
You’ll Never Be “Chinese.” When you do business in China, you are an outsider. No matter how much Mandarin you know, you’ll still never be seen as Chinese. Though knowing Mandarin can give you some advantages, it can only take you so far.
Regional Dialect Differences. “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 of the more rural areas where Mandarin is amalgamated with the local dialect — which might not even be Mandarin-based at all.
Unlikely to be the Next English. Mandarin is primarily used only by native Chinese speakers and it is unlikely to supersede “English” as the preferred language for global business communications.
For businesspeople currently living in China or those planning to spend a considerable amount of time working with the Chinese, learning Chinese is worth it. For those planning to do a deal or three over a lifetime, it isn’t feasible. For personal purposes of tourism, expat retirement escape plans, making international friends, or just expanding your world view, learning Mandarin is just as rewarding as mastering any other skill. It all depends on your goals.