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Should You Even Bother to Learn Chinese?

December 17, 2008

Before I get go on with thoughts on actually learning Chinese I wanted to address this topic.

Chinese, perhaps quite rightly, has a reputation for being one of the hardest languages on earth to learn. Certainly, it is not an easy language but since when has something being difficult meant that you shouldn’t do it?

I’ll get onto the difficulties of learning Chinese in another post and suggest ways to make life easier but for now it may be worth considering if it is even worth doing in the first place.

Firstly you have to consider your interest and involvement in China.

If you plan to actually live in China then I’d say being able to order a meal, buy a bottle of milk or pay your electricity bill is going to be a useful thing to be able to do.

I find, for the most part, people who live in China and still maintain learning Chinese is not worthwhile are just kidding themselves. There are, however, some convincing arguments against learning Chinese, particularly if your main focus on China is going there, doing the business and leaving with the minimum of fuss and bother:-

  • Devote your time to what you are good at- you only have so many hours in a day and you may want to devote them to your product. You can always hire a translator but you may not be able to hire someone to do your job as well as you can.
  • Speaking Chinese well may actually be giving yourself a demotion- it doesn’t look good to end up translating for everyone when you are the CEO. Using a translator also gives you thinking time, being the translator means you never get time to stop and think.
  • For some reason, the Chinese believe that foreigners can’t learn their language and are shocked if you speak Chinese. The first 20 minutes of every conversation are about you and your ability to speak Chinese. This is annoying, boring and wastes time when you’d rather be getting on with the job in hand.
  • Unless you are an exceptional linguist and speak lots of languages then it can make you look too China focussed. This may be a good thing but if you are trading on your international pedigree having taken 5 years out to learn Chinese can make people suspicious of you.
  • Some Chinese will not trust you and assume you have picked up some of the negative aspects of their culture. Remember, it is not just foreigners who think Chinese can be untrustworthy- many Chinese think that too!
  • Some people claim that they can in fact speak perfect Chinese but choose not to so that they can gain an advantage in meetings etc. These people are all, without exception, liars. Starting off a business relationship by lying to someone is madness and bound to end in failure. In addition, unless you are a champion poker player with nerves of steel and 100% concentration, at some point you will react to something said and give the game away. This would not look good at all.
  • Last, and most importantly you will be compared by every Chinese person you meet to Dashan. This makes you hate him and possibly wish him harm, which is unfair as I am sure he is a nice guy just using a talent to make money in this world.

My next post will be on the reasons why you should learn Chinese.

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One comment

  1. This is very cool. Look forward to reading the rest of these. Though I think the actual utility of learning Chinese, in nearly all cases, would be quite hard to match with the time spent needed to gain real proficiency. I think it is such an awesome language though, and totally worth the effort that goes into it. Amazing is a good description.



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