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LAST WORD: The Truth Behind the Mandarin Money Myth
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It really is astonishing how many people from all walks of life still come to China with dreams of becoming the go-to guy or gal when someone needs to bridge the language barrier for a big money business transaction. No matter how many other foreigners in any given city are chasing the same dream, these determined folks still plough on with grit and determination; many of them investing vast amounts of time, money and effort into achieving their ultimate goal of financial prosperity.

Although I feel strongly compelled to point out the stark realities surrounding this common misconception, I must first start by saying that studying languages is one of my own personal passions and I have a tremendous amount of respect for anybody who reaches a high level of proficiency in anything other than their mother tongue. Neither do I have any hang ups about learning languages in order to boost one’s earning power. I am merely a great believer that when it comes to learning a language for economic reasons, it is far better to think of your new skills as a useful tool rather than an exclusive VIP ticket to the best expat jobs in town. Sadly enough, it does seem to be the case that a few expatriates quite rigidly cling to the latter perception of reality.

First of all, let’s identify some of the most common manifestations of this myth and look at where its proverbial seeds tend be sewn. Perhaps the most frequently uttered rationale which comes from what I will cordially refer to as the ‘Mandarin Money Chasers’ is the idea that being fluent in Chinese will somewhat automatically lead to guanxi, which in turn ultimately translates into business opportunities and a string of endless success. Of course, if one is looking to set sail on a business venture of some sort it is certainly advantageous to have a good command of the local lingo; not just in China but anywhere in the world.

I can’t help but feel that the misconceptions which usually come about in this type of scenario are more to do with how guanxi and business deals work than the value placed on knowing the Chinese language. Namely, you may be the most capable, charming and charismatic Chinese speaking waiguoren in the entire country, but without the commercial or industry specific skills and knowledge up your sleeve you will more than likely end up with very little in the way of a big cash reward for your years of intense studying.

I would be willing to bet good money that just about every long term expat in China has had a family member or friend say something to them along the lines of “Oh China is the next big superpower… if you learn the language you are in the money big time”. The first part of the statement is highly contentious in itself, but we’ll save that topic for another day. The crucial point here is that many people in the western world, who often have never been to China or taken the time to learn much about international affairs, have jumped on board the ‘Mandarin = money’ band wagon.

There is definitely something to be said for China’s rise to economic stardom and the un-escapable fact that the country’s language will be more widely used around the world over the coming decades. The reality though is that even if (or perhaps when) China becomes the world’s biggest economy etc, it won’t necessarily equate to a global hegemony or significant rise in demand for speakers of its native language. Historically there have been many instances whereby countries have grown economically but their language and cultures have failed to extend beyond their own national borders on a mass scale. The rise of Japan in the latter half of the 20th century is a good example.

When you spend a fair amount of time meeting new people around China you will run into foreigners from time to time who claim to have been given a cushy, high-rolling corporate position purely as a result of being on the scene for a while and cultivating connections. It is certainly tempting to buy into the dream of being such a great Chinese speaker and such a bubbly socialite that one day a rich factory owner will give you a call and beg you to take a big money job, perhaps as the head of his company’s international procurement department. While this kind of scenario isn’t completely unheard of, it is certainly an extremely rare occurrence.

The truth is that even if you do manage to land a managerial role within a private enterprise, whether it’s in an English training centre or an international export agency, you will more than likely find yourself surrounded by Chinese people who would much rather practice their English with you than get into long, drawn-out Chinese conversations about the things you want to discuss. Not to accuse anybody of being poor conversationalists here, but there are a billion or so other people who speak their language natively and for most Chinese people you meet in companies which hire foreigners, it is probably more of a novelty for them to use even a few words of broken English with a foreigner than it is their mother tongue, fluent as you may be.

Looking at things from a supply-side perspective, there is also the overwhelming fact that the Chinese are spending unthinkable amounts of their hard earned money on English language education for themselves and their children. Even without factoring in the millions of school children who are learning English whilst you read this article, there is already an oversupply of English language graduates. Many of these people have a high enough level to compete in the job market as translators or some other sort of role which involves simultaneously using English and Chinese language skills.

In order to expand the overall picture even further, let’s suppose for a moment that somehow you could reach a high enough level of both spoken and written Chinese (which would probably even need to extend beyond HSK level 6) to be competitive against the vast number of English speaking Chinese people. Whether you are still living in China or back in your country of origin, you are still left with two very major questions to confront: can you offer more value for money than your Chinese counterparts, and will your Chinese level ever be comparable to a well educated bilingual Mandarin and English speaker- who was born and raised in the same nation as you? In the first instance, you may have more skills to bring to the table than a Chinese person of comparative ability in both languages. However, given that the average wage for graduates in this country rarely exceeds CNY 3,000 per month, you will have to be VERY special for employers to justify paying you a westerner-friendly salary for doing the same job that could be given to an eager young local.

To end this piece on a brighter note, despite the rather bleak picture that has been painted thus far, there are still some very compelling reasons to not give up on learning Chinese. Whilst the economic opportunities that arise solely from being able to translate are somewhat limited, it could give you the edge if you can combine it with other skills that are sought after in the marketplace. Quite obviously, an accountant, lawyer or teacher who is based in China and can speak Chinese fluently is usually a better candidate than one who can’t order a bowl of noodles and a pint of beer without the use of a translation device.

If you want to enhance your earning power whilst living here then you need to divide your time wisely between learning Chinese and also acquiring or building upon other abilities that you can use to demonstrate your worth to potential employers. You can be sure that even if knowing the language alone was ever enough to land you the job of your dreams, it almost certainly isn’t nowadays!

By Josh Cooper
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