Is It Necessary for Expats Working in China to Speak Chinese

Chinese Language -- Is it important for expats to learn Chinese
Funny Chinese Phrases Well-Received Online

Chris Minyen(Founder / General Manager at Shanghai Linked): An interesting comment on this question: “I am a fluent Mandarin speaker myself, but I find the ability to speak the language has nothing to do with success or failure in China. In fact, I think it can be a liability in certain situations. In business situations, I usually hide the fact that can speak and read Chinese. It seems backward, but you will quickly lose all competitive advantage if you break out into Chinese in the middle of a negotiation. Focus more on understanding guanxi relationships and other cultural aspects of China and say a few phrases “Xinku nimen, ah!” Throwing yourself head-long into learning Chinese is a waste of precious time and money.” by Peter Cuthbert

Claude DENOUN(China Intercultural trainer at EurAsia21): Dear All, I have been living over 10 years in China and it changed my value system, reasoning, considerations on … all … now I run my own company and one of the activities is Cultural training on China for [French] companies willing to develop biz there. Those training materials are regularly updated [impacts of new generations BA/JIU LingHou] I’m still in China one week per month for my business [automobile engineering, auto parts production etc..] and I learn every day … I speak Putonghua mamahuhu … but most important for me is the C U L T U R A L aspects, as European mindset seems mentally wired from effects of Christian streams of thoughts while China are characterized from Confucianism + Taoism + Buddhism + Maoism + Modernization + …] ..My humble works in those fields are coached by sinologists.

Culture includes language … One of my former colleagues from HongKong speaks perfect Mandarin but faced heavy difficulties EACH TIME when dealing in Mainland.

Greg Vesey(Green lifestyle city development at kai Shi holdings): I have been living here 2 years ,traveling to this town since 2008 ,The interesting thing that might be of value to someone is that i am here purely though Guanxi , from a long time chinese business partner in NZ and now with his lifelong high nett worth friend . My friend said” learn the culture , keep my mouth shut and my ears open , dont worry about the language ” I think understanding the Chinese is the key and respecting them also of course .

Nikolay Guenov(Portfolio Manager, Network Systems Division at Freescale Semiconductor): It is absolutely important that you learn Chinese! Also I whole heartedly disagree that you lose advantage in negotiations if you do show you speak Chinese. Speaking from my experience – you get tons of advantage and respect if you are capable in the language

Ruud van Winden(Managing Director at Pspace China): A benefit of not speaking (or knowing and not speaking) is that you have time to frame your response in negotiations or discussions. While things are being translated, you yourself can think of what to say next. Observing responses and meeting dynamics, even though you do not understand the language, can prove to be invaluable.

Of course things could “get lost” in translation however with a good translator this should not be a major concern.

If you do speak Chinese, it better be totally fluent, you should be able to think in Chinese otherwise you might be busy translating and responding while not having enough time to really think through what you are saying. This is not beneficial for you or your Chinese counterpart.

Good business does not necessarily require good language skills, however speaking a bit is good to gain respect.

Back to the question, is it absolutely necessary, my answer is no. Is it helpful, absolutely.

Christopher Devonshire-Ellis(Principal & Founding Partner, Dezan Shira & Associates Asia at Dezan Shira & Associates): I started working inChina in 1987, and there were simply no Chinese courses that could be taken when I was educated. I’ve since learned four things:

* A degree of “street” mandarin that can get me from A to B and buy my meals, chat up a girl and get me home etc;

* That there is in fact no such thing as fluent Mandarin as the regional dialects are so different;

* That it is not 100% essential to learn Mandarin to be successful here;

* Learning and speaking Mandarin is of course a distinct advantage.

Take from that what you will…

Richard Soong(Program Manager at PCH International): Following the quote – in Rome, make sure you know what the Romans are doing!

It is always good to know the language as it will brings you into understand the culture and a lot comes with it. You can have your translator with you all the while and it will be beneficial to know – whether you speak good mandarin is another thing but the least is that you can get the message across to others rather than hand gestures and try to have someone to decipher what the **** you are talking about.

Dan Bell(President at Bell Consultation Washington D.C. Metro Area): Working inChina since 1982 and I can speak an entire sentence without having to watch a large group of people break out in laughter. So I can now state that I speak fluent Mandarin in some circumstances and with a very limited vocabulary.

Has it helped? Yes, but only in the sense that I have demonstrated an interest in being better at what I do and that does show people that you are dedicated to an understanding of the culture. I will probably never be able to discuss current events or technical issues but thankfully I am always forgiven for that shortfall.

Greg Vesey(Green lifestyle city development at kai Shi holdings): Very nicely written Dan ! I think the real point is that a well developed Emotional Intelligence factor [People skills, pleasing personality ] will beat being technically fluent in speaking the language every time , The recent generations put so much importance on how many degrees or certificates and exams they have passed , and often remain self centered boring B————s . Learn to get on with people and smile and make them laugh and get them excited and they will die to assist you in every way ” How to win friends and influence people, there is a whole chapter on remembering and pronouncing someone’s name correctly[solid gold] and another chapter just on “smiling” . . . there always some well “educated ” person around to do the technical communication . . . . People have the same emotional needs everywhere in the world . . . . they want to be loved and respected and listened to.

J. Vincent Nix, PhD (倪伟杰)(START Coordinator, College of Technology at Idaho State University): Depends on what you want. If you want to learn the culture and begin to have any sort of understanding of local customs, the language is necessary.

If you are out to make a buck and have someone you can trust that speaks the language and knows the customs, it isn’t necessary. BUT, you will not make the profit you would have, if you’d known the language and customs, ever.

Nik Stankovic(CTO at China): Depends on the business and your position in the company. If you are managing a fully local team and your clients are in China, then…. well…. nothing is mandatory and people have done it without speaking Chinese, but you will not do very well. If you are a client buying things then it might be less important.

So my answer is…. sometimes it’s necessary but it’s always beneficial. I am fluent, but I agree there are certain situations when it is beneficial to pretend not to speak the language and let the other side struggle with their English. That option, though, you only have when you can speak the language. Like a weapon, you can pick and choose when to use it.

Learn the language. It used to be enough to be Western inChinaand all doors opened. That is no longer enough, as it shouldn’t be.

Jacqueline Boone/柯琳(VP of PR at 2nd Street Masters, a local Toastmasters Group): I lived inChina for 3 years (2006-2009) inHunan,Hangzhou, andBeijing. When I first moved there, I didn’t speak the language, and I was living in a small, rural town inHunan province where most people did not speak English. I learned enough of the language to be conversational that first year, and it made a profound impact in my understanding of Chinese culture and the relationships and friendships I was able to make. Later, when I moved toHangzhou and then toBeijing, I worked hard at becoming fluent/highly proficient in Mandarin, which was extremely helpful in business and while supervising Chinese staff for the Olympics.

Chinese is a challenging language, and Chinese people recognize its difficulty. Therefore, if you’re an expat who has clearly dedicated time to learning and appreciating Chinese language and culture, that will speak volumes about the kind of person you are and your willingness to invest your time and energy into China.

More importantly, if you don’t speak the language, you lose so much of the experience in “lost in translation” moments and miss out on the genuine beauty of the language.

In short, is it imperative? No. Is it valuable and worthwhile? Aboslutely. Business in any country is ultimately about connecting with others to create a mutually beneficial agreement. The more you know about the person you are going into business with (their culture, language, background) the better equipped you are to make good decisions for your business. If you are unable to dedicate the time to become fluent, work on becoming conversational. Chinesepod is a great resource, as is (a dictionary) and Qingwen (iPhone app). Hope this helps!

Brian Ahn(International Trade Director at Bio-Log International): 那当然会说普通比不会说普通话好多! Language is a huge part part of culture and knowing the language give you better insight and perspective on Chinese people. I lived inChina for a year and picked up chinese through QQ, not classes. While inChina, not learning the language is an opportunity missed. Plus, taking the language ability back to theUS give you a competitive advantage in the job market.

David TABACZNYJ(Translator, Cultural consultant at WFF Investment): When it comes to work on a business point of view, English is the language that has to be spoken, for a foreigner, if you try to do business in Chinese with the Chinese, then you have to speak better Chinese than the locals, otherwise you’ll look like a fool. I live in mainland for more than ten years, and I entered in China by languages and culture courses previously in France, when I’m out on a mission that deals with business or quality control or something related to a deal, I use English because that’s the language which fits to my appearance, and the language that I am expected to talk, even though people in front of me could be aware that I’m fluent in mandarin. On the other hand, for internal management or more after hours meeting, I won’t hesitate to use mandarin.

Natasha Moore(Government Affairs Manager – Europe at Jeld-Wen): Well I studied Chinese at uni and then fell into politics. After more than 10 years in politics I want to bring my Chinese into the mix. I think this is a double sided argument. If you speak Chinese then the Chinese know you have spent some time in China and have taken the time to learn their customs, culture and ideology, which I agree are very different to western culture. But if you speak Chinese and deal with westerners who don’t know Chinese, you are more likely to convince them of your understanding of how the ‘system’ and business works in China. This is my theory at least. I will let you know if I am right or wrong. I also speak French and Spanish fluently and they LOVE it if you can speak the lingo. This has been a very interesting discussion and I have read everyone’s comments carefully as I am just about to go to China and enroll back at school so I do appreciate everyone’s feedback. Best Natasha

Ruud van Winden(Managing Director at Pspace China): Another perspective is to look at the time someone is going to actively work inChina.

Quite a number of expats are inChinafor a limited time say 2-4 years while others would spend 5, 10 years or even a lifetime here.

Since different levels of proficiency require different investments in time to learn, what would be (regardless of environment and other factors) “good” combinations of proficiency level vs the time people would stay in China as an expat?

Say 4 levels (to not over complicate things):





Would also love to see what Chinese nationals would say about the expected Chinese proficiency levels for a foreigner living inChinain relation to their time spend.

Simeon (Jin Xi Wen) Duke(Representative at EV Fashion Design): I believe that if you are going to work inChina, learn the language. Especially if you are going to be in a leadership position, it would lower your persona if you didn’t make effort into learning Chinese. Communication is a major key in everything that is Business. Since our minds can remember pictographs with more ease, the least that could be learnt are Chinese characters. I’m young and this is my first time being described as an Expat or “GuoWai.” In my experiences in the first few months, learning Chinese and especially ‘Shanghainese’ if you’re living in Shanghai, can give you a big advantage. Plus, if you’re a guy and you want to date a nice Chinese lady. .Like I am trying to right now, and boy, it’s hard.

Francesco Reggiani(Senior Consultant at CHINA TEAM / GV21 CHINA): I’ve seen many times Chinese people becoming more open to me when I started to use my intermediate level mandarin, even if I cannot speak fluently. While often, some clients prefer to speak with my Chinese colleagues, because even if they are fluent in English, they say “it is a better understanding”.

To conclude, I really hope one day to discuss current events and technical issues in Chinese 🙂

Thanks for the great topic introduced.

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