Nuances in communicating in Mandarin and challenging accepted cultural norms

By Erin Chew

Nuances in being able to communicate fluently in Mandarin and challenging the accepted cultural norms that English as a language is no longer of utmost importance.

The world as we see it is a very connected one. Gone are the days where English and other European languages were the pinnacle skills of doing business globally, and no longer is Asia considered as a sleeping giant.

Where once upon a time, it was not normal for non – Asians to go and learn to speak, read and write Mandarin fluently, it has now become a trend and one which is going mainstream. With the economic growth, opportunities and prosperity within Asia and in particularly China, the notion of business needs to be turned on its head and it starts with being able to effectively communicate in Mandarin.

Now, one thing which needs to be made clear is that the methods of doing business in China is not the same as how business is conducted in the West and in Europe. What this means is that certain business etiquette is required to seal a business deal in China which may appear to seem unethical in the West and Europe. So imagine being a business person without any skills in communicating in Mandarin and trying to figure out how to capitalise on China’s economic prosperity. Having the language skills is a major precursor in understanding the ways of doing business in China. And this is why countries in the West and in Europe are adding learning to communicate in Mandarin as part of the school system’s syllabus. It is all about setting the future generations on the right foot to begin with, as with each year passing, the world will be even more connected and language skills will be of utmost importance.

The idea of educating children under 18 to communicate in Mandarin is extremely powerful. One major reason is that a child’s brain is able to absorb more knowledge and information. With that being said, this is a reason why Mandarin (and other Asian languages) are now offered as subjects in school syllabuses. In Australia, this has become a mandatory requirement in many schools, with children as young as 5 learning how to count to ten as well as understand common phrases in Mandarin. Mirroring a similar story to Australia, the UK has also adopted Mandarin as an important language for its country’s success. According to an article published in The Telegraph:

Research released last week as part of the Mandarin Excellence Programme highlighted that those with children aged under 18 see Mandarin Chinese as the ‘most beneficial’ non-European language for their children’s future – followed by Arabic and Japanese. As well as 51 per cent of those surveyed believing that speaking Mandarin would boost their children’s career prospects, 56 per cent saw it as a skill that would open their children’s minds to an ‘exciting and dynamic culture’.

This is quite an interesting fact, that both Australia and the UK are recognising the power of communicating in Mandarin.

The other point to note is that parents are seeing the significance of this language. In saying this, a major benefit from learning Mandarin is bridging the cultural gap and slowly preaching tolerance, understanding and harmony of different cultures which is not Anglo or Euro-centric. Teaching the importance of various cultures and in the case Chinese, starts with learning the language and/or dialect, which is the most powerful link in better understanding different cultures.

Learning Mandarin as alluded to earlier also makes a lot of business sense with many of the large corporations engaging with China at a large scale. The Telegraph also discusses this fact stating that research by the CBI just last year showed that 28 per cent of almost 500 British companies rate Mandarin Chinese as being useful to their business. With that being said not being able to speak Mandarin can be seen as a major disadvantage. It is better to understand what is going on and what is being said rather than have an interpreter translating a business conversation, and this is why so many non-Asians are making efforts to learn Mandarin.

For the Chinese diaspora the perceptions of the growth of China varies and is generally dependent on geo-political and fear mongering agendas. This has fragmented how the diaspora views China’s prosperity, but that does not mean being able to communicate in Mandarin isn’t viewed as being important. Considering Mandarin is a dialect spoken among a huge segment of the diaspora, there are different versions of Mandarin as a spoken dialect. Many children who were born or raised in the West or Europe would have memories in attending “Chinese School” every weekend. For better or for worse these memories and experiences form part of the culture of the Chinese diaspora. The most interesting part is, for those in the diaspora who do not speak Mandarin at home, have and will find it a learning challenge. However, the memories of learning how to read and understand pinyin (romanisation system for standard Chinese – basically helps with the tonal pronunciations of Chinese characters) is one which many would have picked up quickly. The reason for mentioning this is that the creator of China’s pinyin system – Zhou Youguang, just recently passed away at age 111. It is with linguists such as Zhou Youguang, who have actually made Chinese a language that is based on a standardised system, making it a little simpler to pick up for non-native speakers, and hence making it such a powerful language/dialect to understand.

Regardless of how a person views China, its power and its influence is rapidly growing. And let’s face it, knowing how to fluently communicate in Mandarin is extremely powerful, and will open doors to an economy and a country where the opportunities in doing business is endless. Western countries such as Australia and the UK recognise the importance of it and have taken steps to implement learning Mandarin as part of the nation’s education system. So in closing, if you are unable to communicate in Mandarin, it may be high time to learn in order to capitalise opportunities in an extremely connected world.

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