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Kuora: The usefulness of learning Chinese

Last Thursday’s episode of the Sinica Podcast featured Mark Rowsell, a.k.a. Dashan, and David Moser talking about the Chinese language — referencing this article by Frankie Huang on the usefulness of Chinese proficiency to job prospects. To piggyback off that, this week’s column comes from one of Kaiser’s answers originally posted to Quora on December 12, 2011:

Is learning Chinese (Mandarin) really worthwhile for business?


Unfortunately and rather unhelpfully, the only truthful answer is “it depends.”

Make no mistake: It’s a huge investment of time. One never truly masters it as a second language, as even the most famous of non-native but highly fluent Mandarin speakers like Mark Rowswell have attested. Anyone setting out to learn it really ought to read this wonderful essay by David Moser, with the no-minced-words title, “Why is Chinese So Damn Hard.”

For an adult non-native learner, investing enough time to learn to speak enough of the language to demonstrate respect and interest is one thing. Learning to speak well enough to actually conduct business in China is quite another.* Unless you’re reasonably sure that China-related business is something you’ll be pursuing for the balance of your working life, you’re probably better off sinking that time into burnishing other facets of your skill-set and leaving the language work to the already-bilingual. Just memorize some everyday niceties out of the ol’ phrasebook.

But for those who are either still young enough to have plastic brains capable of learning new languages quickly, or who have that rare gift for languages that allows them to pick them up with (what to me is simply maddening) facility, there’s no question that it’s worthwhile. It’s all a matter of opportunity costs. If they’re low enough, as they are for children and language geniuses, then hells yes, you’ll be opening up a world of business possibilities.

* To be clear, I don’t flatter myself to think that mine, even after all this time of (admittedly mostly osmotic) learning, is at a level where I could really do business primarily in Chinese, certainly not without feeling at a distinct disadvantage.

Sinica Podcast: Dashan and David Moser on the Chinese language


Kuora is a weekly column.

Kaiser Kuo

Kaiser Kuo is co-founder of the Sinica Podcast and editor-at-large of SupChina.

2 Comments

  1. Annuojie Reply

    I think the above makes it a little too black and white. It’s not a choice between ‘some niceties’ and ‘conducting business’. I’ve been working and living in China for a while now. While I can only dream of reaching Rowswell’s level, I’m now able to go into a small discussion with a taxi driver over which route to take, order a variety of coffees and let staff know that I wish to use the points on my loyalty card. It’s still pretty darn hard work every day, but with every month, I feel slightly more confident. So don’t get discouraged; learn a little every day!

  2. jixiang Reply

    Learning Chinese is useful and worthwhile if you want to live in China. If you don’t live in China, then I certainly wouldn’t recommend learning it simply for the material returns. Learn it if you have a passion for it, otherwise don’t bother.

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