Is Chinese language really the key to success for foreign entrepreneurs and Executives in China?

Today Romain Tournier, founder of TailorMade  explains to us his vision about be able to speak Chinese and be successfull in China, for Expat Entrepreneur or Excecutives.

Tailormade– Is Chinese really useful for a career in China?

This is the question that all those preparing to move to China ask around. Opinions can vary, and some managers already in China for few years keep on wondering.
Generally speaking, the answer is clearly yes: mastering the language of the country in which you want to grow has always been a key strength, anywhere and at all ages. However, the Chinese may be more or less useful depending on the responsibilities of the position, the industry and the environment in which an individual evolves. Furthermore, learning a new language is always a challenge, especially when dealing with a language as far from the mother tongue of most of expatriates as mandarin, and often with fully booked working agendas right from the first day in China.

– Beyond being “useful”, will speaking Chinese really help someone’s career in China?

There are different types of careers in different types of structures. In the fields where advanced technical knowledge or some concrete experience over complex internal processes is required, mastering Chinese becomes less essential. That is the case for example with technical experts, or top managers sent by their company in order to achieve a specific mission, generally limited in the time. It can also be the case when customers targeted by the company are foreigners or groups of Chinese people who can speak English.
Conversely, for all those managing local teams or simply working with them every day, for those targeting local customers, trying to investigate the local market or willing to develop a strong local professional network, as well as for entrepreneurs, mastering a little more than Chinese basics becomes almost mandatory. So yes, Chinese can really helps your career in China and even beyond. A significant part of Southeast Asian economy is also controlled by Chinese migrants, so it is not uncommon neither to do business using Mandarin in the Philippines, in Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia.


– Are expatriates who can speak Chinese more appreciated by key decision makers in China?

This is the kind of thing a Chinese speaking expatriate can better judge for example. It’s not because you speak Chinese that your manager will leave you alone, that local media or local government will support you, or that your competitors will share with you their secrets. But mastering the local language helps to be considered as an equal. Foreigners who speak Chinese are systematically viewed as more open, more respectful, cleverer, and this eventually makes people feel closer. So overall, yes, Chinese as well as foreign decision makers, like Chinese people generally speaking do prefer expatriates who took the challenge to learn Mandarin. Besides, in China most of influential people do not speak English, especially beyond forty years old, and speaking Chinese becomes the only way to directly address them.

– Is Chinese mandatory to manage a Chinese team?

If your team is fully bilingual, no it is not essential. However in most cases, teams are not perfectly bilingual, and even though having your team members communicating together in a totally unknown language is not ideal, people sharing the same mother tongue will always end using it at some point.


So everything again depends on the type of industry and team, and generally speaking the higher the level of the team, the lower the need the need of Chinese for the foreign managers. It is more acceptable for a foreign CEO to not speak Chinese if all of his departments’ heads are English speaking, than for a sales manager or the manager of a local team of more basic level. And inevitably, since there are fewer foreign CEOs in China than mid-level managers engaged with local teams on a daily basis, mastering Chinese language becomes more a necessity than a simple strength for many.

– After how many hours of classes an expatriate can handle basic conversations in Chinese?

After 30h of lesson (plus homework), and if training objectives are well defined from the beginning, a student can “survive” in China. This means he or she is capable of traveling alone, taking cabs, bus, subways, or asking for directions if needed. The trainee should be able to negotiate prices and purchase goods, order food in restaurants, briefly introduce himself and exchange about all what is related to basic daily need.

From 50h, it is possible to start trading simple ideas, and begin to feel the positive effects at work, especially if you learned on top of basic vocabulary the few words that always come back at your office and in your industry.

Above 100 hours of 1 to 1 lessons, depending on the daily practice and seriousness of the trainee, results can be quite amazing in the space of a year or two, at a rate of 2 to 3 hours lesson per week only.

More generally speaking, it is recommended to all expatriates to take at least 30 hours of Chinese lessons. These 30 hours can even fit into most busy agendas over a 3 to 4 months period, and it will allow trainees to master the minimum necessary to be independent on a daily basis in China. But the ideal solution is to start classes before moving to China, when possible with a recognized institution operating in China. Indeed, many teaching methods used abroad are still too theoretical or not adapted to the reality on site, but the environment does not allow most of trainees to challenge themselves as they almost have no opportunity to practice Chinese in real conditions during their training.

– How many hours of classes are necessary for an expatriate to reach a proficient level and being able to deal directly in Chinese with Chinese partners?

To discuss about prices and volumes of a particular product, 50 hours of lessons may be enough. But to negotiate the terms of a partnership or exchange in detail about a market, 150 to 200 hours of class minimum are required, with practice and personal work on top of it. Reaching this level in that amount of hours also means exclusively focusing on the oral part, because mastering all characters corresponding to such a level would requires a lot more hours, essentially homework. 150h courses at a rate of 3 hours per week can be completed in just over a year, so a diligent and motivated trainee can reasonably hope to speak a rather fluent Mandarin in less than 2 years. Expatriates in northern cities or other cities where local language is very close to standard Mandarin are also more likely to progress faster, because the vocabulary used in everyday life is more accurate and the pronunciation of words purer, allowing them to better assimilate. The proportion of English-speaking Chinese in the local population can also play an important role, and it is easier to survive in Shanghai without any Chinese skills than in the northern city of Shenyang for example.