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The Business Language in China?

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The Business Language in China? [#permalink] New post 31 May 2010, 11:03
About a month from now, once I'm done with the GMAT, I am tinkering with the idea of learning a second language. Partially for the challenge, partially to expand my resume and skill sets, partially to keep my mind fresh and engaged, and partially to strengthen my memory.

Originally I wanted to learn German, but I think functionally the business language in China/Hong Kong/Shanghai might be more useful for the arena of International Business. Especially, come 10-20 years from now.

Which language should I focus on though - Mandarin, Cantonese, something else? What are some good resources to learn. Any suggestions?
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Re: The Business Language in China? [#permalink] New post 31 May 2010, 11:57
The common language in China is Mandarin.

Think of China like the British Isles -- English being the common language, and various regional dialects/languages such as Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Irish, and its variants. The difference being that in China the local dialects are more widely spoken than the local dialects on the British Isles.

Cantonese is just a regional dialect spoken in parts of Southern China. There's also hokkien, tiu jiu, shanghainese, hakka, etc. spoken in other provinces. In terms of the major business centers in the Chinese universe (not just China) -- Beijing (Mandarin only, like London with English), Shanghai (Mandarin and Shanghainese), HK/Guandong (Mandarin and Cantonese), Taiwan (Mandarin and Hokkien), and Singapore/Malaysia/Indonesia (Mandarin and Cantonese/Hokkien/tiujiu/hakka depending on the person).

There isn't a strict delineation anymore, although most of the time the local dialects are spoken in casual or personal situations - with family, friends, partners/spouses, or in everyday casual conversation as the situation arises. Otherwise, the default language is Mandarin - and especially in an office environment, Mandarin is used almost exclusively amongst Chinese people. Hong Kong is the exception - traditionally English in the workplace, Cantonese otherwise, but since the '97 handover Mandarin has become more widely used in addition to English and Cantonese.

As for learning the language, quite a number of the westerners have mentioned at least to me that it's not as difficult as it may seem -- at least the spoken language.

In Mandarin, the key is mastering the four tones (http://mandarin.about.com/od/pronunciation/a/tones.htm) -- once you do that, it's actually not too hard because grammatically Mandarin is very simple.

No tenses -- "I go yesterday, I go now, I go tomorrow, I already go, I go just now, I will go..."

No verb conjugation -- "I be, you be, we be, s/he be, they be..."

Gender-neutral pronouns - there's no "she, he, it" -- just a generic "it"

No adverbs -- "it sing so beautiful" rather than "she sings beautifully"

No distinction between plural or singular -- "one apple, no apple, three apple..."

The grammar is extremely, extremely simple (i.e. the complete opposite of German). Now you know why native Chinese speakers have such a tough time with English grammar.

As for ways to learn, obviously immersion is the best (living in China), but maybe start with the Rosetta Stone series. For many westerners, the four tones is usually the hardest thing to master because there really is no equivalent in western languages. The word "go" in English means the same thing whether you say it in a high tone, medium tone, low tone, or accented tone - but in Mandarin each tone will make it a different word (the about.com link above is a good example - "ma" could mean mother, hemp, horse or to scold depending on the tone, which is why it's so important).

Reading/writing however is another beast. Most people who learn Mandarin usually separate speaking and reading/writing because they are in many ways mutually exclusive. Unlike any modern language, all the Chinese languages don't use phonetic alphabet - it's all characters (like ancient Egyptians with their hieroglyphs). To learn how to read/write Chinese characters, you'll learn it much the same way Chinese kids learn it - straight up memorization. There's no patterns or anything - it's just memorizing. To be able to read basic everyday stuff (street signs, menus, etc), you'll need to know at least 1,000 characters (each character is a word, and multiple characters can also be a word but there is no way to know other than context -- if let's say each letter was a "character" or "word", then in Chinese a sentence would be written this way: "I a m g o i n g t o t h e s t o r e"). To be able to read a newspaper comfortably or business correspondence, you'll need around 2,000 characters. Most native Chinese speakers know around 3,500-5,000 characters -- writers/novelists/literary minded folks may know up to 10,000 characters.
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Re: The Business Language in China? [#permalink] New post 31 May 2010, 12:38
To learn how to read/write Chinese characters, you'll learn it much the same way Chinese kids learn it - straight up memorization.

i don't think memorizing is a good way to learn Chinese. once you get to know Chinese better, you will realize that each part of a character has its meaning. have fun learning Chinese. :)
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Re: The Business Language in China? [#permalink] New post 01 Jun 2010, 04:59
I wouldn't worry too much about learning to read/write Chinese at this point. Learning to speak Mandarin is enough of a challenge and if you're purely looking to learn the language for business purposes, you can get by just fine without being able to read/write Chinese. Some of my friends are expats who have been working in Beijing for several years and while they've picked up the spoken language they still really can't read much Chinese and it hasn't hurt them one bit.
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Re: The Business Language in China? [#permalink] New post 01 Jun 2010, 06:25
Would recommend studying Mandarin for sure if you are interested in China. And spending some time in the country, especially Beijing.
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Re: The Business Language in China? [#permalink] New post 17 Aug 2010, 18:24
Learning Mandarin is not a must to work in China. It really depends on where you work and what kind of work you do. If you are working in a MNC , the higher up you are , the less Mandarin you will need to know. I know managers, directors, strategy consultants who don't speak a word of Chinese. The position and the company decide whether or not Mandarin knowledge is required.
I had to learn Mandarin when I worked for a Chinese company fresh out of undergrad school for day to day work at office. Nowadays, most people I interact with speak English at work. However if you plan to setup your own company or factory etc, speaking Business level Mandarin is a must. Having said that speaking Mandarin is a huge advantage at work , meetings can sometimes take place in Mandarin.

The city of work also matters.Beijing and Shanghai are extremely foreigner friendly and one could survive without speaking Chinese. The same is not true for other cities , where speaking Chinese is a must to expand your network or circle of friends. Also some cities have local languages as lingua franca, for example in a city like Guangzhou, the lingua franca is Cantonese but the office language might be English or Mandarin based on make up of the personnel.

Learning to speak Mandarin is much easier than learning to read and write. I decided not to learn how to write characters but to just recognise them. I reasoned that if I ever need to write Chinese , it would be on a computer and I could use pinyin as input. It has worked out fine.. not to mention.. 'Google translate' is a good friend in China.
Re: The Business Language in China?   [#permalink] 17 Aug 2010, 18:24
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