People often ask me whether it’s necessary to learn Chinese to be successful in China. The short answer is “if you can, YES!”
To compete and collaborate with China, organizations need to understand and predict the actions of China as a nation and of Chinese people as individuals. This means understanding cultural context as well as current and historic events. And there is no more direct vehicle for grasping the culture of a nation, and knowing what is important, than its language.
Learning Chinese requires a huge investment: TIME….time as well as desire and persistence. Time is the equalizer. Second to time, is interest. For the sake of beefing up your knowledge (and interest) in the Chinese language, check out the ten facts below:
1. Globally, there are approximately the same number of Mandarin Chinese speakers and English speakers – over one billion each. This includes both native and non-native speakers.
2. Most Mandarin Chinese speakers are native speakers of the language, while the majority of English speakers DO NOT speak it as a first language. China promotes the study of Chinese as a Second Language internationally through the government-run Confucius Institutes though there has been controversy around the exact objectives of these institutes in recent years and they have been expelled from some North American campuses.
3. Mandarin is one of the six official working languages of the United Nations (as are English, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, and French).
4. Mandarin is the name of the most common Chinese dialect—the one spoken as a national standard in China and Taiwan. It is also widely spoken in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Flushing, New York. Cantonese is a second Chinese dialect, mostly spoken in Hong Kong and the Guangdong province on the mainland.
5. “Chinese” most accurately refers to the written language. Because it is not a phonetic language, it is possible to read Chinese without being able to speak it. Characters represent ideas, not sounds. This is one reason Chinese seems “hard” for speakers of phonetically based languages (like English). There are thousands of Chinese characters, versus 26 letters in the English language, and learning Chinese requires a completely different linguistic process.
6. Chinese movies and music videos usually have Chinese character subtitles because speakers of one dialect may not understand the spoken language in the movie or video (different dialect). Written words mean the same in all dialects even though the way characters are pronounced may vary greatly.
7. English instruction in China is a universal part of school curriculum from middle school, on. Anecdotally, the number of people studying English in China is greater than the entire US population. In contrast, Chinese language instruction in the US is still relatively minimal.
8. There are no verb tenses, plurals, or masculine/feminine articles in Chinese. Grammar rules are very straightforward and there are few exceptions (very different from English, which is FULL OF exceptions). The hard part is learning the characters. The spoken part is relatively simple.
9. Compared with English and other Western languages, Chinese language has received minimal influence from other cultures. This makes it a particularly useful window into understanding China, the Chinese mindset and how to do business there.
10. Learning even very elementary Chinese provides an advantage in building trust and strong working relationships in China. Being able to speak to someone in their own language has value that can not be duplicated.
Here’s hoping these tips encourage you to prioritize your Chinese language learning 2018. Happy studying and look for more on learning Chinese here in future blog postings. 加油！