It is 3am – Do you know where your Chinese homework is?

So there’s no crisis in the White House but there might be a crisis in your plan to learn Chinese. What are you waiting for? There is international business and travel in your future. You will soon be enjoying long chats with the locals and doing business in Beijing. Yet you might be spending your time elsewhere. Don’t be the person who didn’t get the job 5 years from now. Don’t let the future you lie in bed at 3am, wishing that you’d studied more. Do the work today.

Keep It Simple

I listened to an excellent podcast today. This person was describing how to build a business and he had a simple point: get the basics right and then worry about the rest. What are the basics of studying Chinese?

Here is a simple recipe: mix 1 cup of vocabulary with 1 cup of grammar. Stir in long hours of memorizing. Mix in 4 cups of practice. Finally, bake the mixture in the oven for a few years and *poof* you have a fluent speaker. Just like that. It looks easy and in many respects it is.

Becoming Fluent is Hard Work

Learning Chinese is simple. Becoming fluent is hard work. You need to memorize words and how to use those words. After that, practice. Practice saying the words properly. Practice saying them in sentences. Practice asking questions. Practice answering questions. Practice some more. It sounds tedious and here is the secret no language school wants to tell you: it is tedious. If you master something, that implies it is now easy for you. When you do something easy over and over, it is tedious.

If you take the time and make the effort, you can master a language. Want proof? You already speak one language fluently. If you didn’t, you couldn’t read this blog post. The real questions you need to consider are: Is learning Chinese a priority? How will learning Chinese improve your life? Do you want to speak Chinese fluently?

Do You Really Want to Be Fluent?

Maybe not. In fact, probably not. It depends on your goals. Do you want to use your Chinese to negotiate business deals? In that case, I suggest that you apply for reincarnation in China (hopefully after a long, wonderful life). If you want to have extended conversations in Chinese and love the language, then fluency is worth it.

If you want to do business in China, you should study both Mandarin Chinese and Chinese business culture. You will benefit immensely from the ability to understand both what people are saying and how business is conducted. You probably should not become fluent in Chinese. You are probably doing worse than wasting your time. In fact, you may actually be making your life more difficult. The more fluent you are, the more people will expect you to have mastered the culture. Someone who speaks some basic Chinese can  make some big errors and get away with it. On the other hand, once you are really fluent, even the small cultural missteps can (and will) be used against you.

So What About 3am?

When you lie awake at 3am, do you dream of the future or regret the past? Sticking to it and learning Chinese could change your life for the better. It could lead to an exciting international career with interesting people. It might lead to a rich and fulfilling life, but if you don’t study, nothing will change. So where is your Chinese homework? I hope it is not 3am. You probably learn faster during the day.

How to Manage Face in China

Face is a complicated subject in China and one that is extremely important for you to understand when doing business in China. There are three types of face in China: personal esteem, your reputation and your honor. In the west, we only think of face in terms of saving face. In China, you can lose face, give face, gain face and save face. How you manage face will impact your personal and business relationships. Being too direct in the wrong way could easily damage your working relationship beyond repair.

Losing Face

It’s relatively easy to lose face in China. You lose face when you lose your temper. You also lose face when you make a mistake or do something that makes you look foolish in front of others. Chinese culture is generally risk averse and you can lose face through poor judgement as well. It is useful to be even-tempered and cautious when working with Chinese people.

When working in China, you may see supervisors or managers lose their temper and yell. This is counter to Chinese business culture. If you are unhappy with an employee or colleague,  express yourself without getting angry or shouting.

Giving Face

Giving face is simply making someone look good. You can do this through compliments. To be effective, the compliments must be realistic. You can’t over do the compliments or it will seem false and backfire. Your efforts will be more successful if you give these realistic compliments in front of someone else.

You can also give someone face by treating people with respect that is above their level in the hierarchy. Again, if you overdo this, it will seem suspicious and backfire.

Gaining Face

You can gain face through your behavior and actions. If you do something remarkable, you gain face. If you manage your relationships in a way that creates harmony, you will gain face and prestige. Other tactics are similar to the west. Getting a promotion, dress nicely or even buying a nice car are also ways to gain face.

Saving Face

This is a familiar term in the west and it works in much the same way it does in China. You minimize the impact of something you did wrong and thus save face. In China, the things you do to save face can be more extreme. It’s considered okay to lie to save face. This is also an opportunity for you to build a relationship. If someone makes a mistake and you help them save face, you have a start on building a strong relationship.

It can be confusing to navigate these important business relationships. If you want to work in China or with Chinese people, you will be much better off if you take the time to understand how to manage face.

How Has Face Impacted Your Work in China?

3 Things You Should Know Before Learning Chinese

There are a few things you should know before learning Chinese. In fact, if you don’t pay attention here, you might start something you can’t finish or not start something perfect for you. You need to think about the effort required, what your goals are and So let’s get started.

Learning Chinese is Easy

We say this all of the time and it is true. The grammar is really simple. Chinese doesn’t have any articles. The nouns are just there. The nouns don’t have a gender. No memorizing der, die and das. The grammar is simple. The basic pattern is subject, verb and then object. If you want to ask a question, pop ma (嗎 or 吗) on the end. Your sentence is now a question.

Learning Chinese is Harder Than You Think

So now it gets confusing. I just said that learning Chinese is easy and I believe that it is. It is also hard, because it means changing your life. It means daily study. It means not doing something else and studying Chinese instead. You need to be prepared to really make an effort or you are wasting time.

One of the more difficult parts of studying Chinese can be the tones. Chinese is a tonal language which means that the tone you use when saying the word changes the meaning of the word. In English, we use tones to add emphasis and emotions to what we are saying. If we want to convey that we’re unsure that we’re saying something correctly, we raise the tone making it a question. This changes the meaning of the last word in the sentence.

You Need Goals

A project like learning Chinese requires a bit of management. Walk in with some goals in mind. Do you want to become an interpreter or do you simply want to learn how to greet people and say thank you. Think about this in advance and take a course that fits your needs. You can always change your mind.

When developing goals, consider how important reading and writing are for you. If you plan on living in Beijing and Shanghai, you probably don’t need to learn characters to survive. If you will live in a small town, then you may want to memorize some basic characters.  On the other hand, if you plan on translating legal documents, you really need a solid plan to memorize several thousand characters.