Should I Learn Mandarin Chinese?

The technical answer is “It depends”. The more honest answer is “Probably not”.

Lingua Franca

The reality of the global marketplace is that anyone doing business with multiple countries probably speaks English already.  Or has someone in the company who does.  One of the remnants of British colonialism and American military intervention is the wide-spread nature of the English language.  This has been bolstered by popular media from the US and UK, and solidified by the World Wide Web.

English–in one form or another–has become the “lingua franca” of the business world.  It’s the “go-to” language whenever people from different countries want to communicate.  When Chinese are talking with Nigerians, or Germans are talking with Pakistanis, they’re probably using English.  This is,  of course, great for those of us for whom English is our native language.   It’s a “linguistic passport” to most markets in the world.

This is not to say that everyone speaks English.  Or that those who do speak English do so well enough to get across complex technical or financial details.  When working with contracts or other aspects which require precise language, it’s best to hire a professional translator.   For most day-to-day communication,  however, even a basic understanding of English will be enough for most interactions.

Specificity, Not Scope

Most of those saying it’s important for business people to learn Mandarin are language schools, textbook companies, or others with a vested interest in getting you to spend money on lessons.  One of the “facts” they’ll bring up is that “Chinese is the most-spoken language in the world”. There are two problems with this “fact”.

By ProdigyUpdates via Wikimedia Commons
Global English usage: Darker = more.

First, “Chinese” is not a language; it’s a language family.  Even at it’s most simple,  “Chinese” means Mandarin (普通话) and Cantonese (广东话). The most forgiving of linguists will separate out 3-5 other major groups.  And anyone speaking realistically about the distinct dialects spoken under the umbrella of “Chinese” will place the number at anywhere from 200 on up.  It’s like saying “I speak European” or “I speak African”.   The number of people who speak Mandarin as their mother tongue is much smaller than the total population of China.

The second issue with the “most spoken” claim is the meaning of “most spoken”.  While in strict counting,  Chinese speakers outnumber English speakers (though just barely), the English language is spoken in almost every country on the globe, whereas Chinese speakers are mostly located in China and Singapore (with small concentrations in “Chinatowns”).

If you want a language other than English to learn for business, you’d be much better off to learn Spanish, which is spoken in over 20 countries, including most of the Americas. Knowing Chinese will only help you in China.

The Great Wall of Language

Chinese is not a language that you can pick up after a few night classes or a university extension course.   Unlike European languages which share many similarities, Chinese “thinks differently”.  It’s not a matter of just memorizing the vocabulary (which has it’s own obstacles) and popping the new words into familiar sentence structures.  Learning Mandarin requires learning an entirely different way to approach language.

Setting aside those who are linguistic prodigies, the time and effort needed (for an adult) to learn enough Mandarin to conduct business is almost certainly not worth it. The area of application and ROI are just too small.


If, however, you have a current business location in China, and plan to move there for an extended period (several years), the value of learning the language increases significantly.  Conversely, the effort needed to learn it decreases.   It’s much easier to learn a language in an immersive environment–especially when you’ll need it to order food, take a taxi, or deal with the hundreds of daily activities where speaking is involved.

Put it on the Payroll

If you’re planning on doing extensive business in China, don’t try to learn the language.  Hire someone that already does.  Specifically, hire a native Chinese who has learned English.  You’ll not only get the benefit of native fluency, you’ll get the benefit of native cultural understanding and insight.  Your translator becomes more than just a dictionary, they become a source of information and a guide through the tricky maze of dealing with such a different culture.

This post first appeared on Geekistan: 2017-08-03

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