You should learn Chinese, because if you don't someone else will

Business, as in life, is competition. Unless you are unbelievably lucky, you will have competitors, and your customers will be judging your business against others... so you should too. Is your business model as strong as somebody else's? Is your product as good as somebody else's? Are your customers happy? If not, why not? If they are, why, and how do you keep them happy, and how do you keep them coming back tomorrow? 

Answering these questions is a fundamental part of running or working at any successful company... so, can you do it? Can you do it in English? What if your employees speak a different language? What if your customers speak a different language? 

In recent years, if a film does not walk that fine line of catering to both a Western and Chinese audience, it can halve its earnings at the box office, and it's similar with many international products. Any business that ignores the Chinese market only to have a competitor make gains, is in a dangerous place. Whilst it's true that the Chinese economy has started to look more fragile than had been hoped, the prospect of serious financial turmoil is distant due the amazing scale of government directed collective action. Markets in China are still strongly influenced by government policy and intervention, and any cooling of the Chinese economy will be fiercely controlled to prevent it being a shock. 

Yet, even with China's meteoric growth over the last 30 years, English speakers have been able to live comfortably whilst never really being forced to learn a new language. So much of the world's economy has depended on trade with the US that many international trading bodies and organisations have adopted English as their official language (or one of them), creating an anglophone hedgemon heavily biased towards confident English language users. The next largest language group is not Spanish, as some might guess, but Hindustani (a family of closely related languages including Urdu and Hindi). Yet, because the attractive trading partners in this group also tend to have strong English skills, neither Urdu or Hindi has made it's way to the stage as a global business language. This used to be true of Mandarin speakers also, but times are changing. 

The largest language speaking group in the world - larger than English, Spanish, or Hindustani - is Mandarin Chinese. There are more native mandarin speakers in the world than native speakers of any other language. For Hindustni and Spanish, even their total number of language users doesn't match the number of Mandarin native speakers. For English, the numbers are closer, but as China's strength in the world increases, it's attractiveness to ambitious new students will grow with it, and the pool of talented Mandarin speakers will swell. 

Chart shows more native Chinese speakers than any other language, and more native speakers than all Spanish speakers.

My point is that there are great opportunities in China, and to unlock them you must be able to interact with China. This requires a strong understanding of the language and the place, and a gentle and careful approach to the differences between China and other countries. It's not easy to learn Mandarin and develop cultural understanding, but it is possible, and if you don't start learning Chinese - if you continue to believe that everyone important will just learn English - you will find that in the coming decade your business will be isolated from opportunities that others can take advantage of. You will find that instead of your business hiring talented English-speaking Chinese employees, there will be talented Mandarin speaking ex-employees with flights booked to Beijing, and if you don't speak Chinese, and aren't up to date on China issues, you may not see it happen, because the news will be written in 汉子.

China is a large enough place that world changing businesses can grow and develop within the borders and be significant to your industry before they've made international news. Back in 2016 Dalian Wanda group spent $4.5 billion dollars within 12 months purchasing two major movie studios in the US, Dick Clerk Productions - which produces the Golden Globes - and Legendary Entertainment - responsible for blockbusters like Jurassic World.

It's important not to find yourself left out of the party. China has a long and fascinating history, and is full of interesting people. Business is thriving, but done differently, and building the relationships that will see you succeed can take years. You cannot have a China strategy off the ground in months - you need to start now!


The Sinology Institute trains non-Chinese students, professionals and executives with the required language skills and cultural appreciation to succeed in China, and is licensed by the Ministry of Education in Beijing. For more info, please contact Tom Stanley on or 13126823715. Statistics in the article are from