|(Photo Credit: GR Sipe)|
Starting with the students. Nanjing (the first city I lived in) is especially known for the large community of foreign students that come from around the globe to study Chinese language, Chinese medicine, engineering, etc. It is also a good way for students to leverage the opportunity to learn English. I’ve seen students from under-developed countries or slowly developing countries get combination scholarships from the Chinese government and their home country government. In the first year most students (no matter their eventual subject of study) have to study at least one year of Chinese language. The default language of the Chinese textbooks for translation is Chinese to English. So if your native language is Portuguese, French, etc. and you want to learn Chinese, first you have to translate from Chinese to English, then to your native language. So while learning Chinese, many are also learning English. Which is usually much cheaper than going to America, Canada or the UK to study. The serious students are the ones who have been in China for more than a year and plan to stay for at least two-three years. When I would meet a student on a study abroad trip for a semester, my first question would be, “When do you plan to come back to China?” Since it is literally impossible to gain any level of proficiency in the Chinese language within one semester.
The next level of people are those coming to China for business. These are the people I’d like to focus on today. Most expats come with the ambition, determination and motivation to be successful in China. But the one thing they usually don’t have is the language ability to go along with that motivation. We (expats) usually also don’t understand the culture but that is for another blog…. That said, the expat living in China has a few choices. She/he can get a translator or use a colleague in the office for translating during meetings, emails, etc. Another option is to live in one of the larger, more international cities (Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei, Beijing). In these larger cities, there are usually enough foreigners to use English daily and do business in English. There is also a multitude of Chinese with a high level of proficiency in English. This is mainly because in the larger cities, access to better education, jobs & opportunities is obviously more abundant than the smaller cities, the countryside, etc. The third and final option is to learn Chinese for oneself.
Let’s be clear. There is no easy option. Each of these options will have high points and low points, but the most difficult by far is learning Chinese. Most of the expats come here at a time in life when they have already started their career & family so they are really coming here to expand their business. To start learning a new language at age 30 (or later) is difficult. Too difficult for some. The time commitment involved, as I said before, starts at about two years and up from there. If you talk to those who truly love the language, they will tell you learning Chinese is a life-long test of humility. There is no finish line. You have to love it or giving up will seem the easiest option.
After being here for a while, I see the different level of foreigners. There are some who learn just enough to talk to taxis, buy food in the street, yell at people, etc. Then there is the next level, where maybe they studied Pinyin, but never got to the characters. Pinyin is a system established to help beginners learn Chinese. Because you have to understand, after the initial level of this beautiful language, there are no roman letters. Therefore in intermediate & above Chinese language study one must learn to read a character & memorize its tone and meaning. But I would argue, that if you only learn Pinyin, you will hit the ceiling of language learning. There are a finite number of sounds in the Chinese language, so by only learning Pinyin, you will inevitably get to the point where it just sounds like you are repeating the same sound over and over again.
Then there is the next level of language lovers. These are the people who I would submit, love the language & culture, love living in China and are probably a little crazy for staying so long! For this group, you will normally find some sort of dictionary on their person at all times. They are always looking for the next Chinese conversation and/or an opportunity to learn more characters. When I first started studying with my private tutor, it was a painstaking process. She drilled me on the tones for the first two months! I was so tired; I didn’t know what to do. But after persevering on, I realize the method to her madness. I honestly couldn’t hear the difference in the tones as a novice, but the more I studied and practiced, the more I began to hear the distinction. This was creating a solid foundation.
So how does it all play out? Well, as our expat careers continue in China, they are very much molded by how much Chinese we can speak. The Chinese definitely respect you more when you walk in and can communicate independently. They recognize how difficult this language is to master, so if you can competently communicate, you are put in a different category (mentally) of foreigners than those who merely come here to do business. In my opinion, the Chinese business community is a bit leery of the expat coming here to capitalize on their economy. So by learning the language well, it shows a true commitment to China and as a result, open doors that may otherwise not have been visible.
|(Photo Credit: GR Sipe)|
The question then becomes whether or not to make the commitment and learn Chinese. And the answer is, it all depends on you! The language takes a long time, which is a luxury many of us do not have. There is a financial commitment (one semester of language study at Nanjing Normal University cost me about USD 1,200 including tuition, books & materials). There is also something I would refer to as language learning confidence. I have seen many students come here from Africa, Europe, etc. who are already studying language number four, five or six. For these individuals, learning a language is a part of life. Then I see the other type of expat who has never learned a foreign language and Chinese is their first foreign language. For this crowd, it will definitely be an uphill battle.
So in conclusion, I would definitely recommend learning the language first and attempting to do business second. If one has the time, money and determination this will make a huge difference in the long run. But if there is no time, money, motivation, this is not to say you will not be successful in China, but you will be caught in a situation where you are constantly depending of the kindness of others (translators, co-workers, friends, etc.) to translate for you. And in business, with opportunities coming in real-time, a strong network will be mandatory to stay abreast of the fast paced business conducted here in China.
Either way, good luck for those willing to persevere!
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