The following is a guest post by Jonathan Poston. Jonathan is the Editor-in-Chief of the Learn Chinese Business Blog and Chinese Carolinas. Though learning Chinese well is obviously helpful for doing business in or with China, actually accomplishing can be so difficult that many a learner has given up or just pondered 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. Here’s Jonathan’s post:

If you Google “When will Chinese economy overtake US,” you will notice how many of the top results spit back a year that is closer than five years away: 2016. 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.

Pros

Government Subsidies for Mandarin Language Training.  The Chinese government is making 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 Popular Language on Earth. 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. There are also millions of other native Chinese speakers living in Taiwan and around the world, who use the language to conduct their regular business affairs.

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 always imparts a special 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 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 isn’t going to be need for a translator, but it can help non-native speakers catch some mistakes during negotiations.

Getting Around Easier.  American businessmen 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 1 cities like Beijing and Shanghai, but more business opportunities are becoming available in 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?

Cons

Takes Forever to Learn. The argument has been made over and over again 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 gusto that 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 peel back and process through the layers of complexity of a four tone, fifty-plus thousand character language.

You’ll Never Be “Chinese.” When you do business in China, you are, for all intents and purposes, an outsider (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 business people 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). This author saw where tour bus drivers from one region had trouble asking for directions in another.

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 effectively learn and standardize), 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 those planning to spend a considerable amount of time working with the Chinese, it’s definitely worth it. 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 (imagine how much Chinese you would know if you spent the same time learning the language as you do reading the Economist), learning Mandarin is just as rewarding as mastering any other skill, and well worth the time spent.  It all just depends on your goals.

  • Alex

    外国人 Wàiguórén
    It is extremely hard to learn! 😉

    • AquinoMeloCastro

      I see what you did there

  • The author might want to learn at least enough Chinese to be able to say “foreigner” (外国人/waiguoren) properly before offering any advice on the subject.

  • MHB

    The key is to learn to read and write! I was afraid of writing (my English handwriting is like a toddler’s) but when I started to write Chinese, my speaking and listening improved so much. Vocabulary stayed in my mind, instead of going in one ear and out the other. Pinyin alone can only get you so far.
    It’s common to hear that Mandarin is much harder to learn than other languages. I think this puts a lot of people off and makes the learning process more depressing, when it’s not entirely justified.
    I take evening classes now, and after 3 years of learning (two hours a week) the whole class is at a comparable level as my schoolmates were when learning French at age 16 (3 years, two hours a week). My language school teaches writing from Day 1 (I joined late), and it makes a big difference.
    Mandarin does take a little longer to get started than other languages, undoubtedly, but once you have learned pinyin you can start learning on an equal basis to any other foreign language.
    There is a natural vocabulary boost for learners of European languages which share roots from latin and greek, French and Spanish will always be easier for English speakers to learn.

  • I have to admit a lot of the points make sense, however, to add a few more Pro’s.
    1. You can negotiate a better price and build a company in China understanding the culture and speaking the language. It saved our customers a lot of money when they did that when they learned with Next Step China’s programs. The founder was able to register the company with a local Chinese company vs. a vulture international company
    2. Make a lot of new friends all over the world as the Chinese are traveling more and more.
    3. Use the language as an ability to attract Chinese tourists to your business. Look at UPS they even have their ads with Chinese people and Chinese characters. WE LOVE LOGISTICS, in English, Spanish and Mandarin. What does it say when UPS advertises in the USA these 3 languages?!?!
    4. Increase your job opportunities abroad.
    I think these 4 are pretty solid!

  • Doug

    Not near what I expect quality-wise from CLB – accuracy-wise:
    – Mandarin isn’t the native language for most Chinese speakers, it is their second language (first being their local dialect though they use a common written language)
    – Beijing has it’s own dialect that is similar to Standard Mandarin but in Shanghai the native language is Shanghainese with Mandarin spoken by virtually everybody (given the large numbers of domestic migrants); Shanghai’s Mandarin does have some slang that is local (e.g. 大拐/小拐 for 左转/右转) but if you can speak Standard Mandarin in Beijing you can communicate in Shanghai.
    – 外国人 is Wai GUO Ren not Wai GUA Ren
    Analysis-wise:
    – The top “pro” is not aimed at business people at all (who for the most part are short time not money to learn Mandarin)
    – Learning Spanish won’t make you a local in Spain either (even if you totally immerse yourself); the reality is that even non Mandarin speakers are included as 华人 (Hua Ren, the opposite of 外国人) as this is a racial category (so Cantonese speaking Hong Kongers and ethnic Chinese born outside China are included).
    – The appropriate conclusion should depend on context – an expat on a two year assignment in a non-customer facing role in a multinational in Shanghai and an expat setting up a distribution network and aiming to win relationship-based sales to SMEs in Shenyang would have different utility for learning Chinese (a different return on the invested time and hence different choices for how much to learn from a pure business standpoint)

  • I agree and disagree. Yes learning Mandarin opens many personal and professional doors. The motivation to become proficient comes from personal rather than professional goals for most learners. But, how far you get in your learning and how difficult that journey is depends on your goals. Becoming highly proficient in conversational Chinese and learning to read at an equivalent level will take a very long time. If your goals are below this, you can get a lot done in a very reasonable time period with good instruction and good materials.
    I specialize in working with young children and their parents. Our goals are to facilitate daily activities in Mandarin. We’re not negotiating legal contracts here and don’t need that level of reading or speaking proficiency. We are negotiating how to play with and cajole a young child. We keep it fun, keep the English out of the picture (no translating for young kids or their parents – immersion is our method), and make all of what we cover relevant. Can you put what you have learned to immediate use? If not, it doesn’t meet the relevance test. From my experience starting Chinese as an adult, much of what I was taught in those college textbooks was not relevant, the drills were boring and so much was simply not taught.
    I just finished a lesson with an adult student preparing to relocate to Shanghai. in 2 hours we covered pinyin (focusing on the blends and phonemes that do not exist in English), basic grammar, tones, basic rules of writing characters (so you can count off your strokes), basic organizational structure of characters (so you can identify a radical), how to use a dictionary, taught 4 radicals, learned how to ask where the bathroom was, introduced numbers, and began to cover formal and informal introductions. Next week we really get started with the basic survival conversation skills now that grammar, word order, dictionary use, and tones are out of the way. My students get a mix materials (audio cds that are not boring dialogues – mine have songs, background music and sound effects featuring voice over artists that make it funny and interesting; video content, computer based learning, hands on learning aides and more).
    So I say – learn Mandarin, just be really picky about who is teaching you, how good they are and how relevant the materials and content are to your goals. Don’t let your teacher set your goals for you – be the driving force in that process. If your teacher cannot/will not adjust the program to your goals, find another one.

  • nulle

    Got a question, would Mandarin become a good second language like Japanese, German, and Spanish?

  • Mandarin takes way too long to master to make it practical for your average business person to learn for business purposes. If you have the opportunity, I think it’s great to get your kids started on it though.

  • Louie M. Valdivia

    Mandarin is not for everyone to learn. I have been studying Mandarin since 1964. Even though I graduated with a B.A. and M.A. degrees in Chinese language, I still have some difficulty reading Chinese newspapers and other media in simplified and traditional characters. My first Chinese language instructor was a native from Beijing. When he spoke he added the ‘er hua’ at the end of many nouns such as yi kuai er, wan er (war) etc. My second teacher was from Taiwan and did not hardly use the er hua when she spoke. I had Chinese teachers from Hong Kong and Guangzhou who also taught Mandarin and each spoke with a distinct accent far removed from Beijing. My ear was trained to listen to Mandarin spoken by different ‘native’ speakers each with a distinct sound and pronunciation. If the student today learns Mandarin from a Beijing native or Rosetta Stone course, he/she will only hear that one accent and pronunciation and be lost when someone else speaks Mandarin. This difficulty does not include all of the slang words used today, idiomatic expressions used only in mainland China, proverbs, and other colloquialisms, all adding to the difficulty of learning the language. I have been studying Chinese for nearly 40 years and still do not consider having mastered the language. Everyday conversation is no problem for me. Add scientific, technical, medical, legal, and business terms and that is a whole course in itself. Many foreigners can read the kaishu or standard script. But are stopped cold in their tracks when trying to read xingshu or caoshu calligraphy written in the grass and running styles. Chinese is a very difficult language to learn and is not for the feign of heart and those looking to make a quick profit in Chinese by going into business there.

  • I’m yawning at the cons here.
    “You’ll never be Chinese” – this cannot be more true, however the same is the case in so many other countries, Japan, Korea, India, Italy etc, whether or not you speak the language. There are very few countries in the world that have the multiculturalism and acceptance of other nationalities at a very high level of business dealings (in a relatively transparent way), such as in the US.
    Lots of countries have regional dialects which can make speaking the standard national language in many areas challenging. The one great thing about Mandarin is that it’s mostly the same written no matter where you are in the country. Unlike say, India which has over 20 major languages and hundreds if not thousands of dialects.
    As for learning Chinese, it is hard for westerners, but a number of Koreans and Japanese I know find that learning Chinese is easier than western languages. As with most things worthwhile, speaking/reading/writing it well will take lots of time and dedication. Folks from a western background will adjust to certain languages easier since they can read the script in front of them, even if they don’t understand it or mispronounce it and (in some cases) certain grammatic similarities, whereas this is not the case for Chinese/Japanese/Korean/many other languages.

  • Pete Marks

    This is actually a really interesting take on the subject. Thanks for running this.

  • Quigley

    Thanks for your post. Is it actually possible for foreigners, in particular those without Chinese heritage, to master Chinese? I think the only white American I’ve met that was truly fluent in Chinese was, not without coincidence, a Chinese teacher of mine, Perry Link.
    Although I’ve thrown nearly fifteen years into the pursuit of Chinese myself, I am not sure that I would recommend studying Chinese to my worst enemy. But, I love it. And, of course, hate it as well. I regularly work on Chinese related legal matters, and I would like to just add one major pro to studying Chinese that you didn’t include:
    Pro: Instant (and free) translation between languages is getting closer but it is still a ways off. Google and many other programs have gotten much better, but they were quite good five years ago as well.
    Even given the challenges, I still think there are tremendous benefits to studying Chinese and that these benefits will continue to exist a long time in the future as well.

  • Mi Fu

    I have excellent technical personnel and sales reps in my company, i couldn’t have hired them if I wouldn’t be able to speak Chinese.
    Relying on English-speaking staff, our company would have to pay much higher salaries but would probably not get the same technical qualification.
    I need local people who sell machines and are able to repair them, not people who are talented in learning English.

  • MHB

    Pro – Chinese is a totally different way of thinking. The grammar and characters mean ideas are associated together in ways totally different to English.
    Occasionally on this blog, people have complained of the Chinese obsession with homophones – so many things are lucky or unlucky because of how they sound. But this makes total sense in Chinese! With so many homophones, characters and meanings are associated.
    In many Western countries, 13 is an unlucky number, because it associated with Judas. The idea of 13 is unlucky – so it is nonsense to change lift numbers – the floor is still floor 13 whatever it is called. In China, 14 is an unlucky number, because of how it sounds (shi si = must die). If it is spoken, it is a curse. If you change the lift numbers, the curse is gone – the floor is called 15. No-one says 14. The idea of definite death is not invoked. Plato didn’t reach China.
    Words conjure up ideas. Words are important in China in ways they are not in the West. They relate to each other and to ideas very differently. It is an amazing and mind-expanding experience to learn any foreign language, but the great differences between Chinese and English mean there is more to learn.
    I studied French at school, and had a similar feeling – particularly at an advanced level – but French and English have a lot in common. There is less to be learned because the differences are fewer.
    Pro – Mandarin is a second language everywhere in China! You can drive just 100 miles in England and find an accent you cannot understand. Drive a few miles across a city in the US or UK and see how accents change! Imagine China! Nevermind that the written language doesn’t change much at all.

  • Twofish

    * You’ll Never Be “Chinese.” When you do business in China, you are, for all intents and purposes, an outsider (There’s even a term you’ll probably hear yourself referred to as: Wai Gua Ren -外国人).
    More likely in colloquial speech, you’d be seen as “laowai”.
    On the other hand, sometimes it’s good to be an outsider. Lot’s of foreign companies get hired precisely because they are outsiders that aren’t part of the local system. It can be useful to know some basic Mandarin, and pretend that you don’t (it also works the other way. Always assume that everyone understands English perfectly.)
    Also in many parts of China, (the Pearl River Delta) pretty much *everyone* is an outsider so that being an outsider is not much of a social handicap. You got factories run by Hong Kong or Taiwan Chinese with managers from Shanghai and factory workers from Hunan. Even the “local” people have been living there for only 2 or 3 decades.
    Also for many Chinese, Mandarin is a second language, and there are large numbers of Chinese that don’t speak it well. If you take that factory and you have two people from the same group, they’ll likely be talking in dialect rather than Mandarin, and Mandarin is the language that people use to talk to “outsiders.” If you are in a part of China that doesn’t have many outsiders, they aren’t going to be speaking Mandarin.
    Even in Beijing which is theoretically the national standard, there is an obvious difference between “Beijing dialect” and Mandarin and when two people from Beijing start talking Beijing dialect very quickly, it can be hard for someone from south China to follow.
    The other thing is that being Chinese doesn’t make you an insider. Just ask anyone that doesn’t have a local residency permit if they feel like they belong where they live. Also, I’ve found that class and profession usually mean more than nationality, so two Harvard MBA’s are likely to have more in common with each other than a peasant from the countryside.
    Finally, with Japanese, either you are Japanese or you aren’t. Chinese, it’s not so obvious if someone is Chinese.
    – I have been studying Chinese for nearly 40 years and still do not consider having mastered the language.
    I don’t think that anyone in China has ever mastered the language. Chinese is like China. It’s big. Really big. Too big for any one human being to comprehend.
    One other curious thing is that I’ve found that legal/written Chinese is surprisingly easy to understand, because you have the same expressions appear over and over again, so that once you know what you are looking for, it’s not that hard. Teenage/college student slang on chat rooms, I find difficult because I’m not a teenager or college student so I have no clue what people are talking about.
    Also for legal purposes, even small amounts of Chinese learning can be useful. For example, if you know even minimal Chinese, you can take a look at two contracts and notice that someone has added a clause, or that someone has accidentally mailed you a contract for another company or that three pages are missing.
    If you are *completely* illiterate, you can’t do that.

  • Twofish

    Poston: 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
    Which isn’t a big deal, since the vast majority of Chinese people don’t get inside talks or preferential treatment.
    Also, a lot of it involves the identity of the company rather than the identity of the employee. For example, it’s not uncommon for a large multinational corporation to have most of its staff in China be local Chinese, but even in that situation, for the purpose of government policy, that company is still considered “foreign,” which is not necessarily a bad thing since working for a US, German, or French company is something of a status symbol.

  • Thanks everyone, for a great discussion on the topic. Also appreciate that some pointed out my typo; I’ve made a request for correction.

  • Dan (another Dan)

    When I younger (80s-90s), most of the non-Chinese Westerners I met who were fluent in Mandarin were missionaries or were part of a Missionary family. Some missionaries had other occupations like English teaching, medical profession, some import-export business, etc. Depending where they spend most of their time, they also picked up local dialects or the local ways of speaking Mandarin.
    The pros, cons and experiences have been touched on by everyone here so far. If there is anything I could add, it’s that in the end of the day, at times, the relationship can supersede the language matter. Sometimes, it’s not a matter of fluency but feelings. Not everyone, but quite a lot of people will do that. People will act and handle certain issues, personal but also professional too, differently (for better or worst, both are possible), depending what is your status towards them. Relatives, old-time neighbors, former classmates, sometimes co-workers, friends of friends, etc. Currently, a lot of people don’t have that strong of an attachment towards these type of bond-ships as before (for various reasons), but quite a few folks are still affected by them.
    Though I think the same can be said for everyone else, in various degrees, not just the Chinese.

  • Hannes

    Thorough discussion to and fro. What strikes me is it just comes back to whether you want to study a foreign language or not, in most parts of the world it’s absolutely natural to do that. It makes a huge difference what you can comprehend and how you can interact when you have language capability. China is the natural stomping ground for all serious international companies. This debate is like a time warp 10-20 years back. Chinese is just another language.

  • Bacalan Boy

    If you have a taste for it, then study it, it will be both enjoyable and useful, if you do not have a taste for it, then do not even try, as it is difficult, takes time, you will hate it and you will fail, while you could have used the time and resources to do something useful/enjoyable..
    As for me, I am glad I studied it, I very much enjoy interacting and reading in Chinese, I feel at home and independent in China and it is a great feeling..

  • Alex

    I also think, and it’s pretty indisputable, that one way that learning Chinese is good for ‘business’ is that to have learned Chinese to any kind of working level (eg new HSK 6) says a hell of a lot about that person’s determination, attention to detail, and ability to pick up and run with things that are difficult and unnatural. It’s kind of like doing a mental Ironman, and deserves a lot of respect!

  • Well, first of all, ” fifty plus thousand character language” needs a bit correction. Currently used Chinese characters are between 3500 to 4000. Most frequently used among them are only about 2000. Not that scary I hope 🙂
    Secondly, “Reginal dialect difference” should not be a concern for business purpose. A person that can’t understand or communicate in mandarin in China is not likely to be assigned as business contact. If you do have the need to come to the local crowd and talk, your mandarin is very likely to be understood. But you might not able to understand the other side if they speak mandarin with “local accent”.

    That being said, you do have a good summary of the pros and cons on learning Chinese. Nice read!

    Grace

  • Would you be interested in appearing in a debate titled “Is it worth learning Chinese in Shanghai?” in CityWeekend Shanghai? We’re looking in particular for sources to represent the “no” side of the debate.

  • evveeee

    I’m ten, and I’m Chinese, and I have done a Chinese Gcse. It isn’t really difficult to learn if your parents constantly speak it around you, but otherwise, it’s one of the most difficult languages to learn, as the characters bear no resembelance to how they are said.

  • Freedomrequiresresponsibility

    Or, you could study five other languages in the same amount of time and become reasonably fluent in all five……..

  • Learning Mandarin may be difficult and may have lots of cons but by changing your perspective and looking at it in a fun way could make the negative side lesser. Enjoy learning. Just like what Mary Poppins said; “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down”.