Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Mandarin is hard to learn

A couple of China trips ago I decided I was going to learn Mandarin. I enjoyed my time in China and I figured I'd enjoy it a hell of a lot more, and do a better job for Shoes of Prey if I could speak Mandarin. I had Vanessa teach me some of the basics and then when I got home to Sydney I borrowed a book and tapes from the library. I tried for about an hour at home then gave up, it's really hard and with all the things we're working on I just didn't have the mental space for it.

On my last trip to China I met up with a friend of a friend who travels to Guangzhou regularly for work. He works for a sourcing company, they source products from China for retailers in Australia and New Zealand. He studied Mandarin at University in Auckland, then received a scholarship from the Chinese government to study it for 2 years in China. He's very modest but his work colleagues tell me his Chinese is perfect, and judging by the reactions of many of the Chinese people he spoke to that's definitely the case. They were very impressed when he started speaking to them. I think I counted about 5 phone numbers subtly given to him from Chinese girls when we went out for a beer!

When I asked him how helpful it is for his job I expected him to say it was amazing. He said it certainly makes things easier, but it doesn't really help him perform that much better than his non-Mandarin speaking colleagues. He said if he had his time again he would have actually studied something business related. Most people he deals with in China speak English, and where they don't a translator works fine.

The more time I spend in China the more that makes sense. Being able to speak the language would certainly make spending time there easier, but the key people we deal with all speak very good English and for any business dealings where our contact doesn't speak English, Vanessa does a great job translating. Our employee Qun doesn't speak English and we get by just fine with Vanessa translating!

Given the time involved in learning Mandarin, I just can't justify it when weighing up what we will spend our limited time working on. And with technologies like the one in the video below on the way, language is going to become even less of a barrier.

That said, when it comes time to have children, they'll be off to a Mandarin/English school if I have my way! Languages are obviously much easier to learn when you're young and there's no doubt China is going to have a huge influence on the world this century.


  1. What about my on-the-fly crash course in Guangzhou last month?

    Taking 2 years off to study the language is one thing. And while getting anywhere does take some commitment, the list of free online language tools available will give you enough understanding to get around. And it probably only takes 30-60, a few days per week.

    The very basics: cabs, restaurants/karaoke (where most real business is done in China), social etiquette and emergencies.

    Three other things to consider:
    * The translation tools emerging online won't help you in these situations.
    * It's been my experience talking to employers and business people in Shanghai (one of the more expat-friendly cities in China) that there currently a shift back towards speaking Chinese for business.
    * Even if the people you are doing business with do speak english, having a small stable of phrases and limited understanding will earn you respect and get you much further than leading with english every time.

  2. Apologies. I intended to provide this link to free online language courses too

  3. Its a very hard language to learn. This is coming from someone that's Chinese, has learnt up to 5th grade in Saturday school, studied again in Uni briefly, and private tuition. I started taking classes now again.

    The reason I did so was because I started dealing with our Shanghai office, and I quickly realised that my Mandarin was not up to scratch. Having said that though, I do use an intermediary like you who translates for me to our team.

    If you don't practice it, and are around people that speak Mandarin, its difficult and anything you gained will be lost!

    There's another option I'm considering, which is Skype video. You can hire a tutor in china for $5 USD/hour. I'm going to try this out. It's seems to be quite popular in HK to learn this way.

    I reckon its worth learning some basic phrases.

  4. I agree with you to a certain extent. Learning Mandarin for business is difficult and time consuming. Also let's face it, unless your Mandarin is really fluent you are handing your Chinese opposite number a communications advantage.

    Having said that, knowing some Mandarin definately makes life in China much easier: even if you are just going over for short business trips.

    So the upshot is I think if you are going to be spending some time in China it is worth your while investing some time in learning the basics of the language. You never know you might get hooked and want to take it further.

  5. Pretty compelling I think you'll agree. We can even see it in the most legendary sci-fi character of all. Perhaps he just has his western collar turned up, but if he does, it's a very small collar, so borderline Mandarin...Beijing Interpreter