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Mandarin Literacy For The 21st Century Workforce

By Luisa Lim

Source: Leaderonomics

I missed out on working on some of the lucrative China deals because they would staff it with Singaporeans who spoke Mandarin. 

The Ideal Modern Employee

What do employers look for when they are hiring? 

These days, in addition to all the usual soft skills and job-specific competencies, the answer seems to include ‘Mandarin speakers’. It is an important (if not key) factor when considering a candidate. All things being equal, it’s certainly an ability which gives one an edge over others. 

When I was working in an investment bank in Hong Kong back in the early 2000s, I was interested to interview a candidate who looked good on paper. However, my boss was not as keen because he was not a Mandarin speaker. Frankly, I could understand why! China was booming and deals were coming thick and fast. Perhaps that’s why any new addition to the team had to be a Mandarin speaker. 

If you were a Westerner like my boss, you could turn up at meetings, greet the client with a “ni hao” and they would be charmed. He could request for a translator to be present during meetings in China, while I on the other hand, with my Chinese looks, certainly couldn’t.

I also missed out on working on some of the lucrative China deals because they would staff it with Singaporeans who spoke Mandarin. 

‘Mandarins’ now come in all shapes and colours

Even Westerners these days have upped their game, with the likes of Australia’s 26th prime minister Kevin Rudd and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivering speeches in Mandarin. 

Some have taken it even further. For instance, American financier Jim Rogers who moved his family to Singapore so his daughters could learn Mandarin as a mother tongue. 

Whether you attended an international school or a ‘Sekolah Kebangsaan’ (public Malaysian school) like me, it’s never too late to learn Mandarin. 

During the financial crisis in 2009, I moved to Beijing to study Mandarin full time. People from almost every country you could think of were there. Learning Mandarin was easy, it was fun! I spent a total of 8 months in China, after which I could speak, read and write at an intermediate level. I had made up for missing out on 6 years of Chinese primary school!

Before this I had tried and failed. So what was different? 

Global versus local Mandarin

Firstly, the methodology was different to what we had in Malaysia. The syllabus for non-Mandarin speakers was delivered by teachers who were degree holders in Teaching Mandarin as a Foreign Language.  

In Malaysia, Chinese schools teach Mandarin as a first language, where one is presumed to understand and be able to converse. Tuition centres support students in excelling in their exams. The focus was on reading and writing, not communication. There was no real place for people like me.  

Secondly, in China, the immersion factor, enhanced by cultural experiences made a world of difference. Learn it, and then live it. 

It was interesting to discover the cultural differences between Chinese nationals and Malaysian Chinese. Besides the difference in pronunciation, there is also a difference in terminology and grammar.  

In class one day, I remember gasping when my teacher commented that a student who was absent had “shui lan jiao”. She was surprised to learn from me thatlanjiaowas an impolite term in Malaysia and Singapore, because in China, it just meant to sleep in, literally translated as ‘lazy sleep’. If you’re reading this and Malaysian, I don’t have to tell you what it means in our country. 

Secondly, in China, the immersion factor, enhanced by cultural experiences made a world of difference. Learn it, and then live it. 

Our local Mandarin grammar is influenced by dialects like Hokkien and Cantonese, and our pronunciation is similar to Southern China (Fujian, Guangdong). LearningPutonghua (standardized Mandarin)is actually easier for new learners. This is because the pronunciation is based on standardized phonetics, unlike local Malaysian Mandarin. Some local Chinese have the impression thatPutonghuais synonymous with the Beijing dialect, (which has a lot of tongue rolls). This misnomer is like declaring Cockney is the Queen’s English!

The Language Tree was born 10 years ago to give everyone the China learning experience without needing to go there. Not everyone can leave their studies or work and go to China to study for months (but if you can, you should!). 

The popularity of Mandarin-for-work has never been higher

We currently see a lot of non-Chinese picking up the language. For corporate training in particular, the majority are Malays, followed by foreigners from a smattering of countries. For a new learner who attends classes twice a week, they should be able to handle basic daily-life dialogue in 3 months and be considered literate after completing 9 months of study. Students who were once beginners have progressed to Advanced Business Mandarin and Newspaper Reading after 4 years. 

Even local Mandarin speakers can benefit from being exposed to Mandarin as expressed internationally through our training. We had a client who approached us for lessons because when their Chinese school-educated staff were in China making presentations, the audience was highly amused although the presenters were not making jokes – it was just cultural differences and awkward choice of vocabulary.  
Local law firms have also been upskilling their Mandarin-speaking staff due to the changing landscape of Chinese companies increasingly doing business here.

Our corporate clients tell us they want their participants who are new to the language to be proficient in Business Mandarin in six months, or sometimes three. This seems like a very tall order, since we take years to learn English and Bahasa Malaysia in school before we reach business language level. It’s important to set realistic expectations. You had an entire lifetime to learn your native language, so why expect to become proficient at a new one in three months?

The value of mastering the written word

Quite often, we have students who shun Chinese characters, saying they only want to learn to speak but do not care for literacy. This is like telling your music teacher that you want to learn an advanced piece without reading any notes. While possible, it nevertheless limits future progress.

Still, there is good news for learners of today. In the digital age of WhatsApp and emails, adults just need to read, writing is not a must. Recognising characters and typing them out usinghanyu pinyin(phonetics) is easier than writing them. For those who want to learn how to, they may learn and practice dialogues usinghanyu pinyin. 

However, the lack of literacy limits them from progressing to more advanced levels as there are no books to support them. Hanyu pinyinhas no meaning; it is just phonetics. Nonetheless, we have had corporate programmes where Malay students mastered customer service dialogue in 6 months so it can be done. 

In conclusion

We live in a global village where China is taking on a more prominent position than ever before. Jim Rogers said “China is the future”. What are you going to do about it?