If you’re anything like me, you probably spent a few semesters learning Mandarin in college. Like me, you may have done well in those classes and decided that you wanted to put those newly acquired Mandarin skills to use post-graduation. It probably came as a surprise, therefore, when you realized (as I did) that your Mandarin wasn’t nearly as polished as it needed to be to operate in a Chinese language business environment.
Below are some practical tips based on my own successes – and failures – in making the transformation from an eager Mandarin student to an actual Mandarin speaker able to comfortably interact and communicate with confidence in a business environment.
The most important thing to keep in mind when trying to make the switch from Mandarin student to Mandarin speaker is that your ultimate goal is no longer to ace midterms and finals, but to communicate clearly and effectively with native speakers. So, the way in which you prepared for written exams - primarily writing characters over and over again and memorizing grammar patterns – is of little use when it comes to having an actual conversation with a colleague or following what’s going on in a meeting.
Here’s how to do that:
Put down the textbook, open up the newspaper: In order to understand the kinds of substantive things that will be discussed in an office context, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the requisite vocabulary. You should be reading whatever your Chinese colleagues are reading – business-oriented publications like (财经) http://www.caijing.com.cn/ or the Economic Observer (经济观察) http://www.eeo.com.cn/. You’ll not only learn critical business vocabulary – and how to use those words the way actual Chinese people use them – but you’ll also learn what’s happening in China from a Chinese perspective rather than getting all your China business news from English-language publications.
You should also check out the CCTV 2 program “Dialogue” (对话) which is a great way to improve both your listening comprehension and learn how Chinese people discuss business and economics in a more conversational manner rather than a more formal, written way.
Commit to 1-on-1 lessons: The only way to improve your spoken Chinese is by doing just that – speaking Chinese – and the best way to get that critical speaking practice is to schedule regular, 1-on-1 sessions with a professional Mandarin instructor. In full disclosure, I founded and run an online Chinese language school that does just that – offers personalized Mandarin classes online. Let me also say, however, that it wasn’t until I started meeting regularly with the teachers who are now my employees that my Mandarin started to make noticeably dramatic improvements. 1-on-1 classes are a surprisingly affordable way to make tangible progress quickly.
In a 1-on-1 setting, all the attention is on you – improving your tones and pronunciation, answering your specific questions, and developing a personalized curriculum that only incorporates vocabulary that is immediately applicable to your profession and related to your interests. Your teacher can (and should) use ‘real world’ materials – articles from publications and TV programs like the ones I referenced above so that you can learn how to discuss the topics the way a Chinese person would. The beauty of working 1-on-1 with a qualified Mandarin teacher is that she will correct your mistakes right away and let you know how a Chinese person would express whatever thought it is you’re trying to convey. The next time you enter into a same discussion with a Chinese colleague, you’ll do so with confidence, having already had a similar conversation with your Chinese instructor!
Additionally, if you’re looking to practice an upcoming work presentation in Mandarin, your teacher can work with you (and the materials you’ll be using during said presentation) to practice what you’ll say and how you should say it.
Go out on a Wednesday night: While socializing mid-week with friends might not have been the best way to boost your Chinese grade in college, going out with colleagues after work is one of the best ways to improve your Mandarin. You’ll get valuable speaking and listening practice in a friendly, relaxed environment while strengthening relationships with your co-workers. Contrary to what anyone says about building ‘guanxi,’ strong business partnerships do not arise from just one night of heavy drinking, but rather regular interactions in which your Chinese counterparts get to know – and trust – you over time. By socializing with Chinese colleagues you’ll also learn valuable dining and cultural etiquette – how to make a toast, what to do with your chopsticks when you’re not using them, and, most importantly, how to fight over who gets to pay the bill – Chinese style!
For those of you who are committed to taking your Mandarin to the next level – best of luck! I hope my advice proves useful. Feel free to get in touch with any questions and your own best practices for learning Mandarin!
Corinne Dillon is the founder and President of Discover Mandarin, a Chinese language school that offers personalized, 1-on-1 classes online.