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How many CEOs of Fortune 500 companies can you think of that speak Chinese as a second language?
You should be able to think of one, at least.
The Internet is still abuzz after Mark Zuckerberg unveiled his latest product: his own Mandarin skills.
The majority of the online community was impressed with his dedication – he studies daily, as you should too – and with his courage to get up in front of a crowd and spend 30 minutes communicating in a language he speaks imperfectly.
Public speaking is deeply frightening for many. In fact, it’s at the top of the list of most responses to surveys regarding our greatest fears. It’s also something that the Facebook CEO wasn’t particularly good at early on in his career. But public speaking in a second language, one that you don’t speak fluently? That’s the stuff of nightmares.
Why Mark Zuckerberg Is Really Learning Mandarin
Why did he do it? We know he’s been studying Chinese for a while, but why would someone so powerful put himself in a position so vulnerable to critique, even attack? For that matter, why study Chinese in the first place?
Why would the incredibly wealthy, extremely busy leader of one of the world’s most successful companies dedicate hours of his time on a daily basis to language learning?
In his Q&A session, Zuckerberg gave three reasons: His wife is Chinese, he’s interested in Chinese culture and he likes a challenge.
While the CEO of Facebook certainly wouldn’t be the first North American or European guy to learn Chinese to impress a girl or win over her family, it’s a safe bet that Mark has more than one motive for taking up Mandarin, and for pressing on with his studies long after his wife’s grandmother gave him her blessing.
The third reason Zuckerberg gave for learning Mandarin seemed a bit contrived, too. Because he likes a challenge? Come on. There are lots of challenges out there. Learning Arabic is a challenge, as is juggling, baking beautiful soufflés and coding in C++. Scratch that last one. Surely Zuckerberg knows C++, but if he were after a challenge for the challenge’s sake, he could learn to code in Malbolge or something equally esoteric.
The point is, a CEO with the kind of demands on his time that Zuckerberg must have, would wisely choose to pursue activities that offer the greatest return on investment – and Mandarin stacks up pretty well in this regard.
It’s no secret that Facebook wants into China in a bad way. The market is just too large and too ripe to be ignored, regardless of the obstacles the company faces. It’s for this reason that Zuckerberg’s second answer to the “Why are you studying Chinese?” question is, I believe, the most telling. In an understated reply calculated to please his audience, he said that he’s very interested in Chinese culture, and that China is a great nation. It goes without saying that understanding language is key to understanding culture. What Zuckerberg left unsaid, but understood, is that understanding a culture is key to understanding a market.
Chinese job sites are flooded with want ads looking for native Mandarin-speaking Personal Assistants to CEOs of a wide range of enterprises. Mark Zuckerberg could easily hire a team of interpreters and consultants on Chinese business practice, or he could follow the path of many other business leaders and lean heavily on his wife’s native expertise. Instead, he has chosen to invest his own time and energy into learning about this language, culture and market because he believes that will pay off in the long run.
Why You Should Consider Studying Mandarin for Business
Whether you’re the CEO of a company or on the front lines of customer service, if your industry does business with China, learning the language and the culture is a valuable investment of your time. Go beyond the cursory 你好 nǐ hǎo (hello) and 干杯 gān bēi (cheers!), and accepting a business card with both hands.
Take small steps to really converse with your Chinese business partners in their language, even if the conversations are short and you have to switch to English for more complex issues. The gesture, I assure you, will not go unnoticed. On the contrary, it will set you apart.
Chinese companies, for the most part, are well-versed in the art of doing business with the Western world. If you have been to China on business, no doubt you have experienced firsthand how many companies bend over backwards to make foreign business partners feel welcome.
They hire English-speaking sales staff, pick us up at the airport or train station in late-model luxury vehicles, wine and dine and 干杯 gān bēi (toast) us within an inch of our lives. They overlook most of the unknowing cultural faux pas we commit as foreigners and adapt their customer service strategies to suit our needs as Westerners. And most business people accept this status quo as the way things ought to be.
What happens when we, as Western professionals doing business in China and with Chinese, step out of that line of thinking and make genuine efforts to understand the language, the culture and the business environment of our Chinese counterparts? Almost without exception, they are unbelievably appreciative of those efforts.
Watch the video of Zuckerberg’s Q&A session again and pay special attention to the audience. Despite the widely publicized fact that Zuckerberg has been studying Chinese for some time now, no one expected him to say even a phrase in Mandarin, let alone sustain a conversation in the language for over 30 minutes. The audience was thrilled.
While your own attempts to practice and converse in Mandarin may not be greeted with gasps and applause, your Chinese colleagues and business partners are sure to notice and appreciate your efforts to bridge the cultural and communication gap.
So then, if you’re convinced that learning Chinese is a valuable use of your time, what should you do? Here are a few ideas:
How to Get Started Learning Mandarin for Business
1. Start with the Basics
• Learn Pinyin
• Learn the Chinese Tones
• Start learning Chinese grammar
2. Business Chinese Vocabulary Lists
Check out these business Chinese vocabulary lists from Anytime Mandarin:
• Terms to know for consultants
• Work email lingo
• Names of worldwide companies
• Occupations, functional roles and positions