Should You Even Bother to Learn Chinese? Part 2

January 4, 2009

Back after the Christmas hiatus I wanted to return to the topic of Chinese language learning.

In a previous post I gave some reasons why you may consider it not worth learning to speak Chinese when doing business in China.

Obviously, as I Chinese speaker I did take the time to learn Chinese and thought it a worthwhile exercise, as such I must have had some pretty good reasons for doing so. Here are a few thoughts:


Speaking Chinese shows a long-term commitment to China. Once you are over the highly annoying conversations about your Chinese ability people often do relax and treat you more as they would a fellow Chinese. It won’t happen all of the time but it is nice when it does.

95% of the time, your interpreter will be absolutely hopeless*, speaking poor English, adding their own bits here and there and generally making life much more difficult than it needs to be. Much better to actually be able to speak directly to people than rely on someone else.

If you do chose to live in China for any period of time then it really does help to be able to pay your electricity bill, get a taxi, order a meal or generally just do more than ‘get by’ or ‘survive.’

Speaking Chinese allows you to speak to the other 90 odd percent of Chinese people who do not speak English. Imagine just how skewed an opinion of Britain you would have if you only spoke to 5 percent of the population. Even more so if it was only the 5% that were educated enough to speak a foreign language.


Chinese is an amazing language- it is not so much conceptually difficult as just completely different to western languages and requires a huge ‘brain shift’ in order to learn effectively. This is a rather fun process and a great challenge.

As adults, I think that we lose some of the thrill of learning and gain a fear of looking silly when starting new things. It is spiritually good to actually do something that is so different and new, no matter how old you are.


This is a tricky one, people will tell you that speaking Chinese is a wonderful door-opening skill that will be your passport to riches and glory. It isn’t. Being super smart, a polymath and also speaking Chinese may well be, but speaking Chinese alone makes you about as attractive to a prospective employer as a gansu peasant.

Combine the ability to speak Chinese with just about any other important skill, however, and suddenly you become very attractive. If you are already a highly skilled engineer/ lawyer/ researcher/ IT expert and you take a couple of years out to learn Chinese then this is a winning combination.

If you are looking to study Chinese then my advice here is to study law or economics first, then plan to spend two years in China learning Chinese and networking. It will stand you in much better stead than a degree in Chinese ever would.


Hopefully, by now, you have decided if learning Chinese is actually worthwhile to you. Over the next couple of posts I will look at where to start learning, how to start learning and a few clever tricks to help you on your way.

*Shameless plug: Interpreters provided by my company are not hopeless, in fact, they are generally rather good so if you do wish to have your own interpreter then we can provide one at a reasonable cost.


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