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Learn Some Mandarin But Master English Too

The Financial Times     December 25, 2013




Future Chinese executives will hear foreigners struggle with Mandarin and switch to English

UK premier David Cameron at a primary school in Chengdu

Ditch your French and German textbooks and start learning Mandarin, David Cameron told the UK's school pupils after his return from a visit to China last week.

The UK prime minister should be happy with any language skills his young compatriots manage to pick up. But it is true that it would be useful if more people spoke the main language of the world's soon-to-be largest economy.

I asked China-based colleagues if they knew of any foreign business leaders who spoke Mandarin. The list was short and limited to executives working in China. Roland Decorvet, the Swiss head of Nestlé in China, speaks fluent Mandarin. Peter Humphrey, the British fraud investigator who did work for GlaxoSmithKline and who has been detained by the Chinese authorities, also speaks excellent Mandarin.

No doubt there are others, but there don't appear to be many. A colleague who travelled with Mr Cameron and his large business delegation says he did not hear any of them make a speech in Mandarin.

If they are to make progress, children should start learning early. But Mandarin is very different from European languages and harder for an English speaker to learn than French or German. Also, in the race to learn other languages, the Chinese are way ahead in learning English. Although the English-language component of the Chinese university entrance exam has been reduced, there are 50,000 English-language teaching companies in the country. Internationally-minded companies regard English as important. Lenovo, the Chinese computer company, has made it its official language.

Throughout Europe, English is now essential for anyone wanting to reach a senior corporate position. It is a given, a background skill like knowing how to create a PowerPoint presentation or find your way to the office.

That will be the case in China too. Foreign Mandarin speakers may establish better contacts and win business. But if China follows the European pattern, its future young executives will listen as their anglophone counterparts struggle a while in their school-learnt Mandarin and they will then switch to English because it wastes less time.

The problem, when international business discussions take place in English, is that many English speakers are not much better at using it than they are at foreign languages. Many don't know how to adjust their English for an international audience.

Here are a few phrases I heard a UK manager use in a speech to some Brazilians: "it's level pegging"; "the second myth I'd like to debunk"; "we have a stopgap with that". Some of the Brazilians had chosen to listen to a Portuguese translation through headphones; those who had thought their English was good enough to manage without looked as if they were regretting their choice.

For an English speaker, mastering foreign languages is excellent; being able to speak the international business tongue so that you can be understood is just as important.

When I suggested a while back that English speakers avoid figurative language and phrasal verbs such as "put out", some readers took issue with me. "Most idioms are intuitive and you can guess . . . from the context, for example "pin hopes on" or "shrug off" are pretty easy . . . I actually enjoy learning a new colourful phrase from a Brit and being able to deduce its meaning," one reader wrote. Indeed, at a conference in Brussels recently, I heard non-native English speakers nonchalantly using phrasal verbs and idioms such as "he touched upon that", "we've laid down detailed rules" and "our ideas in a nutshell".

These largely came from speakers of Germanic languages, which have their own phrasal verbs, but it also became clear that they were highly competent English speakers and I had to adjust my English accordingly. Patronising your audience is as bad as losing them through being too colloquial.

How can English speakers find the appropriate way to speak their language to non-native speakers? Learning a foreign language, any language, is useful in helping you understand what it is like to work in your non-native tongue. But so is understanding the structure and idiosyncrasies of your own language so you can adjust your use of it to the situation.

Yes, English-speaking children should learn Mandarin. But they need a more sophisticated command of English too.

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