There is no question that for expats moving to China, having some working knowledge of Mandarin is extremely beneficial. However, what puts many people off from attempting to learn Chinese is the difficulty of reading and writing Chinese characters.
Language learning has changed a good deal, however, and while traditional teaching may have focussed on reading and writing, modern Chinese lessons now focus much more on speaking and listening.
But is it possible for an expat with no previous experience of the language to learn Mandarin without investing a huge amount of time?
The quickest and most convenient way for an expat to gain some basic Mandarin is by learning Chinese online. Before relocating to China, any new expat should aim to complete a beginner’s Chinese course that takes about 3 months and which will involve committing to 1 hour of online Chinese lessons a week, coupled with 2 hours of self-study each week.
If you understand the syllabus and the learning goals for each level of the course, you can expect to make significant progress, and you’ll find that when you start achieving your targets, you’ll be encouraged to continue with your learning. It is advisable to stick to a routine and learn regularly each week, even when scheduling is flexible. You can also complement your Chinese lessons with some great Chinese learning apps.
Here are what we consider to be the eight most significant benefits for expats moving to China of learning some Mandarin (or Cantonese) before they move:
1. Communicate more easily with the locals
Although English education has been introduced into secondary schools in China over the past two decades, the general levels of proficiency remain low, particularly when it comes to speaking and listening. Although it is estimated that about 100 million Chinese are fluent in English (with varying levels of proficiency), that’s less than 10% of the total population!
2. Make everyday life easier
The film Shanghai Calling illustrates the frustrations an American expat experienced at not being able to speak Chinese while living and working in China, from simple things like riding a taxi or ordering food, to more complex affairs like understanding the arguments among local staff who do not speak English. Everyday tasks become a good deal easier, and you are far less dependent on others, if you can speak some basic Mandarin.
3. Expand your social and professional circle
Not being able to speak Chinese – whether it’s with your a yi, the local community or business colleagues – can result in expats being unable to engage with people beyond their own immediate expat community. It is thought that 73% of expats livings in China can barely speak Chinese, with only 8% being able to speak basic Chinese. And yet 50% of expats (around 300,000 people) stay for 5 years or more.
4. Build rapport with senior executives
Older people in China tend not to be able to speak English, yet they are very often the senior executives or business figures you may want to connect with. As Nelson Mandela said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
5. Grow connections
Guanxi is important in a country like China. Being able to speak Mandarin helps build connections with your local team, make new friends, and deepen existing relationships.
6. Adapt to local culture faster
Language portrays national culture. Getting some familiarity with the culture of your target country will help ease cultural shock and help expats adjust faster in the new environment. It will also prevent cultural faux-pas.
7. Develop cross-cultural skills
By being able to communicate with your local team in their native language, you will be able interact with them more freely, which in turn will develop your cross-cultural skills in a way that’s far more engaging and informative than spending time attending cross-cultural training.
8. Have a rewarding global career
With a solid understanding of Chinese under your belt, you’ll find that you’ll approach your overseas assignment with enthusiasm and discover the many wonderful things your new home has to offer, instead of dealing with the often petty frustrations caused by language barriers.
Anny Lu is a Language Consultant with Asian Language School, an online language trainer specialising in the Chinese language and other Asian languages. She studied Linguistics in China and continued her study in languages in Australia.