Western businesses have been trying to “get inside” the vast Chinese market since the days of Marco Polo – it’s one of the top prizes of global commerce, and one that continues to inspire a frenzy of maneuvering.
There is one powerful step, however, that many Westerners avoid taking: learning Mandarin Chinese. This is far easier than its image may suggest. One who proves it is none other than Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who started lessons in 2010. Within four years, he was conversing fluently with Chinese President Xi Jinping and giving long speeches with incredible complexity.
The economies in the U.S. and China are increasingly intertwined and they now might accurately be called the two true military superpowers of the globe. Chinese foreign direct investment in the U.S. is expected to exceed $10 billion this year and it remains our number-one trade partner. The governments have pledged collaboration on various global issues such as climate change, pollution, and international terrorism.
But suspicion persists and misunderstandings are certain. Some of this can be blamed on the linguistic divide, and the widespread practice of doing business through translators is not helpful. Yes, it is true that English is the lingua franca in the business world and many Chinese speak English skillfully. However, “if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head,” said Nelson Mandela. “If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
This idea has a long history in a society fixated on its own long history. Traditional Chinese society accepted foreigner traders in proportion to their respect for Chinese culture and observance of rituals. This means the ability to communicate – even imperfectly — in Mandarin Chinese is particularly instrumental to building trust and winning hearts, regardless of in a business, political, or street encounter.
Chinese sounds so strange, Westerners complain. It is true that the varying tones may confuse the listener. But just as the new piano student may struggle at first with scales and keys, the language begins to click nicely after the first sonic hurdles. The language is actually easier to acquire than romance tongues like Spanish or French because Mandarin Chinese shares a similar grammatical system with fewer commonly-used words. There is no conjugation in whatever form.
The widely-held view that tones are inscrutable to Westerner ears is a myth. English language has tones as well, just on the sentence level. Based on the intonation of a sentence, a listener can tell whether they hear a question, an exclamation, or a statement. Chinese compresses these kinds of subtleties into a single word. And mispronunciations are often “cleaned up” with contextual cues, just as they are in English. Even choppy speech can be understood. Chinese people often are extremely appreciative and tolerant when they see Westerners take efforts to speak Chinese, further easing the transition. There is a reason why nearly a quarter-million Americans are now actively learning the language which may speed the day when it becomes as mainstreamed into the public schools as Spanish or French.
Confucius has a lesser-known saying: “I am not bothered by the fact that I am not understood — I am bothered when I do not know others.” Competence in speaking will deepen the understanding between the two key civilizations of the 21st century, and friendship starts with language. So does competitive business advantage.
Nobody in America understands this better than Zuckerberg. It is foreseeable that, thanks to his lobbying efforts and bridge-building, the Chinese government will ease its restrictions on Facebook, bringing a bridge-building social network into a nation of 1.4 billion people who have much to say if we can only understand them.
(This article was published on Forbes by Li Jin).