In our third installment of my series of posts on doing business in China, I am sharing my experiences on the importance of learning the language. How well does one need to know Mandarin (mainland China) or Cantonese (primarily in Hong Kong) in order to conduct business transactions? (Read my earlier posts on being black in China and the importance of business card usage to Chinese business protocol.) Let’s state this as plainly as possible: If you are going to conduct ongoing business transactions in China, you will need full command of the language.
My colleague and I were connecting with employers to identify potential internship opportunities for a university client. The continual request from human resources departments and the hiring managers was, “knows Mandarin” and “ knows Cantonese.” While the degree of other skills varied by each employer, all of them wanted some exposure to the language. This was a constant reminder to me why Black Americans should consider studying Mandarin and Cantonese if we ever want to compete in this global marketplace – myself included!
Even employers who shared in their written meeting request that full comprehension of the language was not necessary required some level of basic language skills. I participated in several meetings with university alumni who translated our entire meetings with their team members. Those were tough meetings! They tended to be lengthy as it required dual translation–i.e. English to Mandarin and Mandarin to English. You knew that huge chunks of the conversation were not being relayed – to both parties. I continually would search for short phrases or easy sentences to communicate my thoughts and often stumped my translators with idioms and common American phrases that tend to be hard to translate.
I can’t imagine how difficult this would be if I were involved in the process for longer than a one-hour meeting. Bottom line: Learn the language.
Before I left for China, I took some basic lessons online using Rosetta Stone as well as downloadable Mandarin language software (some of it free). Besides my guidebook, I listened to a crash course on the plane and gained a few phrases during my stay.
The biggest difficulty with learning Mandarin and Cantonese are the tones. The untrained ear doesn’t hear the different distinctions and inflections in the languages. For example, many Romance languages allow you to pronounce the word in any manner you can muster. In Mandarin and Cantonese, your inflections changes the entire meaning of the word. The word shu can be pronounced where it sounds like “shu” “sha” and “shuu.” Also, if you enunciate the beginning of the word instead of emphasizing the falling tone at the end, you change the entire meaning. Yes, you will make mistakes. I had the most fun with cab drivers who drove me to completely wrong areas of town. And I have been sent to the restroom instead of a store I was searching for.
After a long day of interacting (or attempting to speak) in Mandarin, I became very receptive to hearing English. In the past, this was never a concern in my travels to other parts of the world. But China was different. I found I had a natural affinity for and a tendency to migrate to areas with expats, and became very adventurous about approaching individuals or groups when I heard the familiar sounds of English. It’s easy to connect with the expat community abroad and you’ll receive a ton of great recommendations for local attractions, restaurants (for example, Black Sesame Kitchen), and sightseeing. (In Shanghai, I recommend checking Hip in Shanghai, TravelChinaGuide.com, Wikitravel.org/en/Shanghai/Bund, the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Longhua Temple.)
If you know any phrases that you would recommend to business travelers visiting China, please post them below. Share both the Chinese pronunciation and the phonetic pronunciation.
The next installment of this series will share some cost-effective and time-saving tips for daily travel in Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong. Don’t forget to check out my earlier blog posts as well!
Malla Haridat, the founder and CEO of New Designs for Life, is a nationally recognized expert in the specialized field of entrepreneurship education and has trained over 1,000 students. She has traveled extensively throughout the United States working in partnership with companies developing creative solutions for entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs. A dynamic thinker, strategist, and speaker, Malla now works with a wide variety of organizations applying her creative talents to the challenges of business transformation. Her company was awarded the 2005 New York City Small Business Award of the Year by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and has been featured in publications like The New York Times and on Martha Stewart Radio.