There’s no question about it, Chinese is a difficult language to learn. And you are right to tell yourself that you can get by in China without any Chinese. But before you take the easy way out, take a moment to consider the advantages of learning Chinese for business.
First, even basic Chinese conversation skills can be an enormous help if you are doing business in China. Whether you are attending a conference or going out to dinner, even minimal Chinese is enough to give you at least a sense of what is going on around you. This is a good feeling and the more you learn, the better it gets.
Speaking Chinese opens doors for you. The moment you say “你好” (“ni hao” or “hello”) Chinese will smother you with flattery about your great language abilities, laughing at your amusing pronunciation at the same time. But Chinese are proud of their language and at the end of the day, they respect foreigners who take the time to learn some Chinese.
Without any Chinese, you are always dependent on somebody to help you accomplish even small tasks. I know, you’ve heard that lots of people in China speak English, so there is always somebody nearby you can communicate with. Nonsense. The fact is that most people in China do not speak a word of English. Beyond this majority, there are quite a few Chinese who know a few English words and phrases – hello, thank you, what’s your name, and the like. Even in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, Chinese who can communicate effectively in English are a relatively small minority.
Chinese is not as tough as you think. Sure, there are all those characters to memorize. But you are not planning to become a scholar of Chinese or read novels in Chinese. You need speaking and listening skills. Learning some characters can help, but you do not need to focus on character memorization.
On the plus side mastering basic spoken Chinese is not nearly as tough as mastering the written language. Chinese grammar is not complicated or full of rules. Chinese organize sentences pretty much as they please and so can you. Unlike Spanish or French, Chinese has no declensions or conjugations to remember. The word for “come” is “来” (lai). Period. Remember it once, and you have that word down.
The Chinese language is a window looking into Chinese culture. Studying Chinese gives you insights into how Chinese think that you just cannot get any other way. Bluntly spoken, learning Chinese for business offers distinct advantages to someone traveling to China to negotiate a deal.
Last but definitely not least, learning Chinese is fun. It’s a great feeling when you get good enough to order your dinner without pointing at the menu or small talk with Chinese you meet at a business conference. And if you keep at it, pretty soon cab drivers will be telling you, “你的中文真棒，你是半个中国人！“ (Your Chinese is great, you are half a Chinese!)