Let’s talk—in Mandarin

It goes without saying that a second or third language can provide an edge in the competitive job market


Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

There is absolutely no English here. No one even knows the names of companies like Colgate, because it has a different name here,” says Deepak Gupta on email. Gupta, a 32-year-old sales executive with Colgate-Palmolive, moved to Guangzhou, China, in 2015 on a two-year assignment.

He needed to work closely with front-line sales teams to understand their challenges and processes before the company could shape a national strategy. But the language barrier was costing him business as well as social relationships. “I approached my company to assist me in enrolling in a Mandarin course. I spent the next six months learning the Mandarin language and Chinese culture,” he says. 

Many professionals and businessmen find themselves in the same situation today.

Mumbai-based Ajay Hattangadi, the India chief executive officer of InnoVen Capital, a venture debt firm with investments in companies such as Snapdeal, often travels to China on business and has to rely on written instructions from his hotel concierge to get around. He too has started learning Mandarin. Four months into the course, he can ask for directions and order food at restaurants. But he still needs a translator for business meetings since most of his business is conducted in Mandarin. He believes it will take him a few years to have a basic but fluent conversation with a local Mandarin speaker.

But, he says, “I think learning a new language has made me more flexible and open to newer cultures. I know that as my business grows, my ideas cannot be straightjacketed into thinking business will happen exactly how it is done in our culture,” explains Hattangadi.

With teams now located in different parts of the world, employees travelling abroad and clients visiting from overseas, it goes without saying that a second or third language can provide an edge in the competitive job market.

According to international communication specialist Semantika Ltd’s April 2011 report, “Language Management Strategies And Best Practice In European SMEs: The PIMLICO Project”, there are employability benefits for individuals with language skills. “For working professionals it is important that they can speak to their colleagues. While negotiating a deal or finding the right price for a contract can and will usually be done by trained translators, social interactions with clients can be hampered if you cannot carry on basic conversation,” says Nazia Vasi, founder and chief executive officer of InChin Closer, a Mumbai-based language school that specializes in teaching Mandarin.

Shailesh Singh, business head for recruitment process outsourcing at human resource solutions and technology company PeopleStrong, believes that “more than the language itself, it is the soft skills that you gather from learning a language that help you connect better with local teams, become a better people’s manager and bond and connect with a more diverse team.” That said, however, Singh says he has never seen foreign language proficiency being “stated” as a requirement for recruitment offers.

Choose your style

But the very fact that most schools and institutes have introduced special courses for business travellers is a clear indicator that there is greater interest from firms too.

Schools such as Alliance Française, Instituto Hispania and Goethe-Institut offer customized courses ranging from 12-hour ones to more intensive, 200-hour ones for those who already have a basic knowledge of the language.

Across cities and towns, institutes are using different methods to fulfil this need, from role-playing to informal skits and audiovisual methods. A karaoke could help students remember certain words, movies or comics could encourage them to see how the words they do know can be used in real-life situations.

InChin Closer hosts plays for its students, who re-enact popular Bollywood movies with dialogue written by the students in Mandarin, while Goethe-Institut hosts board-game nights during which participants must speak only in German (at whichever level they are comfortable in).

“To have more than a textbook knowledge of any language, it is very important to actually carry out a conversation. For starters, learn how to express a thought without memorizing one way to say it,” explains Vasi. For example, you may know how to respond to a “how are you” in Korean, but you might find yourself at your wit’s end if someone asks, “Are you fine?”

The Landour Language School in Mussoorie, which teaches Indian languages to expats, employs the Growing Participator Approach (GPA) and GLUE methods. In the GPA method, students start off by just listening for the first few sessions. The teacher (known as the nurturer) repeats words to students, often 10-15 times, till the students can identify the object whenever they hear the word.

The GLUE method depends not on the presence of a teacher, but of people who can speak the language—be it friends, colleagues or neighbours. There are four distinct but simple steps: (G) get the text according to your need; (L) learn the word after asking a friend to translate it for you; (U) use the text by speaking to people; and finally, (E) evaluate what you have learnt.

And if all else fails, you can download some of these apps to practise and learn a language at your own pace. Choose from Duolingo, HelloTalk, Memrise, Babbel and Fluent Panda.

Gupta is now more comfortable speaking Mandarin and has picked up some writing as well.” I prioritized learning spoken Mandarin because that was more useful in day-to-day life. But I have gone from Ting bu dong (can’t understand ) to Ni shou de Zhongwen hen hao (your Chinese is pretty good). “This,” he says, “has not only helped me have a better living experience in China but also in mixing with local people and being like them to learn more and collaborate more.”

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