Do I need to learn Mandarin to do business in China?

Does this sound like you?

You are running a business and struggling with low growth in your home market and mounting pressure on costs?

Unless you’ve been living in a bubble it can’t have escaped your attention that while the European market has stagnated China continues to boom or that goods for your business can probably be sourced from China at a lower cost than at home

Perhaps you have thought about the potential that China offers, either as new market or to cut your supply costs, but are worried about how to do business over there as an English speaker.  You are not alone.

So, do you need to learn Mandarin to do business in China?
The case for learning Mandarin
1. Getting around China more easily
Landing in Shanghai, Beijing or Hong Kong you can easily be fooled into thinking that you can find you way around relatively easily using the odd English sign and helpful person that you occasionally come across.

It gets a lot harder once you move beyond the comfort of China’s tier 1 cities, and with costs in Beijing and Shanghai now comparable to New York, your best opportunities will be found much further afield where English signs and speakers are extremely rare.

Having a basic ability to read and speak Mandarin will not only make you feel more comfortable, it will also avoid you being over reliant on a translator in front of business partners for basic activities like ordering food and finding the bathroom.
2. Building relationships
More than anywhere, good business deals are based on personal relationships. No-one is going to pretend that you can quickly establish a good relationship with a Chinese business partner through basic Mandarin, but it will give you some level of mutual respect and raise your status with them.

A relationship need not be about language fluency, but about communicating feelings and how each perceives the other’s status. If you always have to interact through a third party, there will always be a barrier.
3. Avoiding basic contract pitfalls
It may come as a surprise but written legal Chinese is relatively easy to comprehend. Many expressions are common across contracts so once you know what to look for, you will be able to make a simple interpretation of a contract.

Without basic Mandarin reading skills you won’t be able to spot if someone has added a clause, missed out two pages or even accidentally sent you the contract for another company.
4. Avoiding bad translations
While you will inevitably need a translator during discussions, it is common for bad translations to change the meaning of a conversation or send the wrong impression when matters get delicate.

Having a working knowledge of Mandarin means you are more likely to be able to catch that bad translation early.
The case against
1. The time needed to learn
It takes longer for a native English speaker to achieve a useful level of Mandarin than it would for a European language like Spanish or French. For most people, time is a rare commodity and it isn’t hard to make an argument to oneself that time would be better invested elsewhere. Then again, the business rewards in China could transform your business or career, so think about the return on your time investment carefully.
2. The depth and breadth needed
Mandarin comes in many dialects. Think of how many different accents in Britain or America can be heard when travelling just a hundred miles. China is much larger, and consequently the language much more diverse.

“Standard Mandarin” is what is officially spoken in Beijing, but the further you stray from Beijing the more the language is mixed with local languages and dialects. Mandarin in Shanghai is generously mixed with Shanghainese. Most people from Beijing struggle to understand those from Hong Kong and Guangdong where the first language remains Cantonese.

You might ask yourself what hope has a foreigner? In a sense though, since Chinese people from Beijing and Hong Kong struggle to communicate well in Mandarin, perhaps the expectation that you will be fluent is lower too.
Our conclusion
There is little doubt that if you go to China to do business you are likely to need a translator whatever your fluency of Mandarin. You might ask yourself in that case, why bother?

However for the reasons outlined, if you want to establish a good business relationship that can deal with the rough as well as the smooth, and avoid basic embarrassing pitfalls, you have to invest time learning Mandarin.

The anecdotal evidence is clear too. Those people that have an enduring and mutually successful business relationship with the Chinese, also have some knowledge of Mandarin.

The post was written by Richard Blundell, editor of Asian Business Daily, an online news site for people doing business with Asia.