Why Fluency of Chinese Matters.

Friday, February 3, 2012 1:43

I have been here 10 years and my Chinese is probably 75-80%, but even at that level, one of the things that I have come to accept about my last 10 years in China is that I could have accomplished much more (during my time in china) had I been fluent in the Chinese language.

It’s not something that I honestly think about much on a normal basis because the people who surround me, the people I manage, and the people I teach are all bilingual and are expected (by one system or another) to operate around me in English.  Sometimes simply because I am in the room and there is an unwritten rule that whenever a laowai is in the room that everyone should speak English.

So, managing the day to day is not the problem, at least when it comes to my immediate core of people. A core of people who I have worked with, mentored, and managed, but more importantly serve as my only means of communication with the “outside” world at times… world that includes Chinese CEOs, government officials, and community leaders

It is, because I am trying to compete against Chinese, my ability to interact and communicate with externals (government officials, corporate executives, community leaders) at a level that allows them to pick up the phone, call me, discuss a problem/ project, and then feel so comfortable that they would refer me to their friends/ colleagues… over a Chinese peer who (as my wife says) has lived in the Laowai’s world.

So, as I have come to understand, being fluent is a critical piece of that puzzle, and regardless of whether or not I have the best strategy, research, or team, it is my inability to personally speak at a DaShan level of fluency that is the barrier. In a sense, because I Am not fluent, I am running in a race that I have no business being in.

Were I working for a multinational it likely would not be a problem. Were I interacting exclusively with, or selling exclusively to, a foreign set of externals it wouldn’t be a problem.

Something I am not sure other entrepreneurs in China have faced, but it is certainly something I have faced over the last few years…. and it is certainly something that those interested in Cihna should consider beforehand as well

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4 Responses to “Why Fluency of Chinese Matters.”

  1. Emil says:

    February 3rd, 2012 at 4:28 am

    You could not be more right. But there are probably more people who have climbed mount Everest than there are Laowai’s in china with the language (& cultural) skills that makes Gov. Officials feel they would rather call the Laowai than the local. Assuming you are going to try to reach your target I would live to hear a follow up.

    (After struggling for 5 years I have promised myself to reach fluency this year – as defined by HSK, not DaShan, so this is no critique – hope you get there! And start by getting rid of that unwritten rule)

  2. Rich says:

    February 3rd, 2012 at 5:58 am


    Thanks for the comment.

    It is a balance. There are several key government officials and executives that one of my organizations interfaces with, and the good part is that I have a good relationship with them (on a personal level), but that they still work directly with my directors. The best for the organization. But, again, getting back to the personal benefit, I am missing out on some level to take the next step with those relationships.

    Good luck on the HSK.


  3. Etienne says:

    February 3rd, 2012 at 11:05 pm

    I agree with you Rich. Although 15 years ago, it was possible to do business without mastering any Chinese, now it is getting much harder because the local alternatives are much stronger and non fluent Chinese speakers (like me) miss part of the subtilities. Chinese authorities would maybe not pick their phone to speak to us, but I am positive that they would be happy to take our calls and speak frankly in Chinese. For the last few years, i also sense that I have reach a level and that I need to learn more it I want to pass beyond it. It is not easy, of course.
    If other people in China for many years share the same feeling and never made their mind to spend time and effort at getting fluent, let’s get together to organize some targeted training session and create a gentle peer pressure.
    This is the year of the dragon, after all !

  4. Andeli says:

    February 6th, 2012 at 9:07 am

    I agree, but I would like to add something.

    When I came to study in 2003 there were two kinds of people; those in manufacturing and those who were English teachers. Over the years I have seen these people slowly going out of business, being replaced by locals or just giving up. In that light I see myself as the next generation here.

    I sell consumer products to Chinese, so I have to speak Chinese in a way that is convenient for the customer. To me It´s not the ability to communicate with officials (I still believe communication with officials in any country should be kept to an absolute minimum. Stay low and legal) that matters, but the ability to understand and think like my customer.

    I think the last 15% before fluency is knowing the cultural context a conversation is based in. This may prove difficult with Chinse officials as you don´t “live” in their cultural sphere, but it might not be impossible with the laobaixing sphere. Still there is not such things as being fluent in “Chinese”. Just as my putonghua hits the spot the customer starts speaking some form of mutated Hebei hua, and I am back to when I first learn Chinese. I find comfort in the fact that my Chinese employee who lived all his live in Beijing didn´t understand what the guy was talking about either. In the end we found a local girl who spoke our kind of “Chinese”.