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.

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Photo of Dan Harris Dan Harris

Dan is a founder of Harris Bricken, an international law firm with lawyers in Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, China and Spain.

He primarily represents companies doing business in emerging market countries, having spent years building and maintaining a global, professional network. 

Dan is a founder of Harris Bricken, an international law firm with lawyers in Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, China and Spain.

He primarily represents companies doing business in emerging market countries, having spent years building and maintaining a global, professional network.  His work has been as varied as securing the release of two improperly held helicopters in Papua New Guinea, setting up a legal framework to move slag from Canada to Poland’s interior, overseeing hundreds of litigation and arbitration matters in Korea, helping someone avoid terrorism charges in Japan, and seizing fish product in China to collect on a debt.

He was named as one of only three Washington State Amazing Lawyers in International Law, is AV rated by Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory (its highest rating), is rated 10.0 by AVVO.com (also its highest rating), and is a recognized SuperLawyer.

Dan is a frequent writer and public speaker on doing business in Asia and constantly travels between the United States and Asia. He most commonly speaks on China law issues and is the lead writer of the award winning China Law Blog. Forbes Magazine, Fortune Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Investors Business Daily, Business Week, The National Law Journal, The Washington Post, The ABA Journal, The Economist, Newsweek, NPR, The New York Times and Inside Counsel have all interviewed Dan regarding various aspects of his international law practice.

Dan is licensed in Washington, Illinois, and Alaska.

In tandem with the international law team at his firm, Dan focuses on setting up/registering companies overseas (via WFOEs, Rep Offices or Joint Ventures), drafting international contracts (NDAs, OEM Agreements, licensing, distribution, etc.), protecting IP (trademarks, trade secrets, copyrights and patents), and overseeing M&A transactions.