Professor Siah Hwee Ang says it is very important to know the Chinese language as China takes centre stage in the global economy

Professor Siah Hwee Ang says it is very important to know the Chinese language as China takes centre stage in the global economy

By Siah Hwee Ang*

English is the undoubted official language in international investment and trade.

Every business and organization conveys messages and construct forms in English. Or so we thought.

The rise of Asia and other emerging economies has led to a tilt in the balance of power in international investment and trade. These economies are now becoming the growth engines in the next decades, led by China, India and Southeast Asia.

This shift will naturally mean that foreign companies will have to come closer to their customers/consumers, and that may have to include speaking their language.

The Chinese language

Mandarin is the term used by linguists to represent the standard Chinese language. Mandarin is the official language of the People’s Republic of China, and is one of the six official languages of the United Nations.

Mandarin is usually referred to as 普通话(pǔtōnghuà)(as in “common speech”) in China, 国语(guóyǔ) (as in “national language”) in Taiwan, or 华语(huáyǔ) (as in “Chinese language) in Southeast Asia.

The number of native speakers of Mandarin comes up to about 1 billion.

International students in China

More international students are opting to stay in China, at a time when China continues to be the number one source for international students for many universities in the world.

Over 370,054 students from 203 countries enrolled in China’s 775 universities, research and education institutions across 31 provinces in 2014, a 5.77 percent increase over 2013.

While many of these international students in China are likely to be involved in programmes conducted in English, the chances of them picking up some Mandarin are high.

One key motivation for these international students is nonetheless trying to get some China experience under their belt for their future careers.

Increasing use of the Chinese language

As China takes centre stage in the world’s economic development, not only do we have to consider the importance of yuan as a currency, we also have to recognise the role that the Chinese language will play.

Clemson University in the USA has a bachelor degree in Language and International Trade, with the Chinese language as one of the options for intensive foreign language study.

Most recently, New South Wales Labour MP Chris Minns has called for the workforce to be equipped with Asian language, in particular the Chinese language, suggesting that this be mandated for young children.

Closer to home, in a recent survey by our own Asia New Zealand Foundation on New Zealanders’ perceptions of Asia and Asian people, the Chinese language was named by the most respondents as the foreign language that school children should learn. The main reasons relating to business interactions and career opportunities for New Zealanders, and for inbound tourism.

The Chinese language is known to be one if not the most complex language. Beyond the individual Chinese characters, the combination of any two or more characters results in different meanings from the individual characters as well.

The complexity is such that many of the words in Chinese cannot be easily be expressed using English words. As such, we have seen words like “oolong tea”, “dim sum”, “tofu”, “mahjong”, “feng shui” and “tai chi” (albeit some of these are Chinese dialects) being incorporated in the Oxford English Dictionary.

So understanding the Chinese language and learning Mandarin is by no means an easy task.

But getting around in most parts of China will continue to require the understanding and speaking of the language. Menus in restaurants in the West, Northeast, and some parts of Central and South China will continue to have only Chinese characters. So will road signs.

This would have been different if China had not been growing at a rate that makes it a key growth engine (the country has contributed over one-third of global GDP growth since the beginning of 2010).

For now, to engage with China and in China, learning the Chinese language has never been more important.


Professor Siah Hwee Ang holds the BNZ Chair in Business in Asia at Victoria University. He writes a regular column here focused on understanding the challenges and opportunities for New Zealand in our trade with China. You can contact him here.

We welcome your help to improve our coverage of this issue. Any examples or experiences to relate? Any links to other news, data or research to shed more light on this? Any insight or views on what might happen next or what should happen next? Any errors to correct?

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早上好 (zao shang hao) -- phrase of the day -- means good morning.

xie xie

ni hao

Xīwàng nǐmen dōudùguòle yīgè měihǎo de yītiān


Wǒ xīwàng dàjiā dōudùguòle yīgè měihǎo de yītiān

I think NZ is not doing a good job in the foreign language education.

My kid will speak 3 languages natively, but unfortunately I can't rely on the education system to achieve that so we are teaching it at home.

NZ and many other English speaking countries (with the exception of USA) is very unaware of the importance of being fluent in other languages. Asia and South America are closer than USA, Canada and Europe. That should give us a clue on what might be a wise approach.

While I wouldn't mind learning the Chinese language, I don't think it's necessary. English is and will continue to be the dominant language of business for decades to come, possibly centuries. The barrier to entry to learn the Chinese language is just too high to be practical.

And also the Internet works better on languages with graphemes (letters to be sounded)

I've given up hopes for the NZ govt to administrate a compulsory 2nd language education system.

Lots of excuses from all sorts of groups to delay any real actions on it.

If your household speaks a 2nd language (or more) and is willing to pass onto your kids. All I can say is that the kids are lucky.

For households only speaking English, I am sorry that the NZ Govt is not interested in investing in your kids' future to compete in this bi or tri or multi lingual world that is happening right now.

That second language ain't going to be China speak mate!

They already force second languages through the schooling system. Te Reo in primary and secondary, and Te Reo and choice depending on resources available (usually French. but sometimes German, Japanese, Spanish). In the primary school system it's usually dovetailed into history and cultural and social studies to maximise effectiveness and reduce used hours. There so much thrown at children and so little care given to how well they can assimilate or use what they're force fed.

frisbee. also a word that doesn't translate and entered English...since it's a proper noun.

"using English words. As such, we have seen words like “oolong tea”, “dim sum”, “tofu”, “mahjong”, “feng shui” and “tai chi” "

oolong <- name (proper noun)
feng shui <- wind water (perfectly translatable, but loses in the transfer)
tai chi <- body vitality (fine to translate but if you're looking for a brand name to push your Western customers to pay extra for there's nothing like a spicy Oriental name to bring it to life.) Bit like Al Fresco (aka "outside"), "A la carte" (off the menu), and a bunch of other marketing gimmickery.
mahjong <- sparrows twitter (translates but it's really a Proper Noun. Calling it "Rummy with tiles" won't sell well.

If Chinese come here they can learn english.

NZers would be better learning Latin, so they can at least have a better understanding of the origins of the english language.

Learning Chinese is as irrelevant to me, as it is for a builder to learn quantum mechanics.

Remember being told in the 80s we all needed to learn Japanese?? That'd have been a waste of time.

Better to learn French or Italian so at least you can enjoy a continental holiday...

Yes, learning Latin has many benefits. My opinion is either German or French as a second language. That way the readable internet suddenly doubles in size.

I like the new phone app that lets people take pictures of Asian ideograms and then scans an image database for translations. very handy. No more tattoos of menu items for the gullible.

Learn some Chinese.....makes communication with your landlord so much easier.

Ur Chinese landlord may speak better English than you do, baby.

Not likely, honey.

Surely Chinese, especially Chinese script would be a real backward step for the world to take. The beauty of English is that it allows itself to change with the times, has adopted words etc from other languages and is precise, eg you don't just have a boat, you have many, many different ways of describing a boat from dinghy to ocean liner and many of the the nouns used to describe boats come from other languages.
Because of the way it is written, every language in the world can be written in the script used in English.
If there is to be one world wide language, my vote is for English, but maybe we sort out things like though, through, cough, thought etc

Studying a language of a foreign culture gives insight into that culture.
the West's knowledge of the middle kingdom is still scant...and mandarin is beautiful. it's nicely sing song, and if you truly understand it, it reads like poetry.
There is a reason why the written language is pictogram based: it is a language which speaks in pictures, it's very visually focused.
I couldn't ever think of a good reason NOT to learn a 2nd language.
I'm fluent in 2, and have a basic understanding of 3 more.
Yes, Latin is a great base, and I think it would be a good idea to teach Latin, Greek, Mandarin and English - as a start.
Language is fascinating.

Well, the Greeks DO have the best swear words!

only to some.

American is probably a step forward to English, if only they would use modern measurement units.

David, any chance of an English dictionary for the websites language?

"The beauty of English is that it allows itself to change with the times..."

Heres a change to reflect the times -in the term JAFA the second A now stands for Asian.

A good chunk of our population havn't bothered to read and write English properly, let alone trying to get their heads around written pictographs. I would have to guess that learning Maori would come before learning Chinese if a second language became compulsory in this country.

It would be nice to see more people undertaking to learn Te Reo. A language is a cultural identity coat hanger. Without a language, the distinct cultural identity dies out.
A separate language enables a different way of thinking. There are words and concepts in Te Reo that are not directly translatable into English.
Never underestimate the importance of a language.

Agree, two birds with one stone, have that second language flexibility and ensure the survival of something unique to NZ

Actually Mandarin with a Beijing dialect.

last time it was Japan, before that German, before that Latin? whatever.

"The complexity is such that many of the words in Chinese cannot be easily be expressed using English words"……is this some joke?
….anyone thats spent any length of time in China has experienced how "basic" Mandarin and Cantonese languages are, to the extent the younger generation cannot suitably express what they need to say in business and social contexts, etc, without frequent insertion of English words and phrases. There's almost as much English in daily Mandarin and Cantonese speak as there is native vocab. This is the reality!!

...does anyone actually not believe that an iphone will soon do the real time/fast enough to hold a conversation? that would be fantastic if that option was available......

can't be far off. I think they have dedicated phonetics handheld computers that can do it but they do have to be cautious with linguistic idioms.

A classic example on "Neighbours" or was it "Home and Away". One Australian businessman was learning Japanese and insisted on using it with a visiting Japanese businessman. The Japanese businessman was going to bring his wife to have dinner with the Australian couple. The Australian was trying to say "Japanese women are very attractive" but there is no phrase for that in older Japanese language, as one does not comment on anothers' wife in such a manner. The closest phrase is very rude. He kept repeating it, not realising what he was actually stating until the Japanese businessman would have nothing to do with him for being such a rude person.

For an alternative view on china,

"To believe that China is going to survive another decade, let alone rise to world domination, you must ignore the following stories, all published in the past few weeks:

China is running out of water. Its own environment ministry classifies 60% of its underground water and one third of its surface water as so polluted it is “unfit for human contact.” That does not mean “Don’t drink it.” It means “Don’t touch it.”
Air pollution in China kills half a million people a year. 90% of China’s 161 major cities failed to meet the national standard for clean air in 2014. Just breathing, in most major cities, is equivalent to smoking three packs of cigarettes a day. Lung cancer fatalities have quintupled in 30 years.
China’s population is increasingly old and sick. Half the population is estimated to be pre-diabetic. 115 million people have diabetes, 225 million suffer from mental illness, 160 million have high blood pressure. By 2040, China is expected to have more people suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease than the rest of the world combined. The costs of these afflictions to the Chinese economy is already astronomical, and growing fast.
China is running short of productive land. Pollution of soil from factory smokestacks, and from excessive fertilizer and pesticide application, is endangering China’s ability to feed itself.
China’s faltering economy is constraining government budgets and fostering instability. Now, talking about war is a time-honored way of getting your restive people to settle down and salute the flag. But actually going to war, when you’re short of money, your people are brandishing pitchforks at you, and you’re dependent on the rest of the world for coal and food? Not recommended.

What is it that Chairman Mao said of the West, all those years ago? “In appearance it is very powerful but in reality it is nothing to be afraid of; it is a paper tiger. Outwardly a tiger, it is made of paper, unable to withstand the wind and the rain.”"

Kiaora Tena koe Ka haere mai nga hinamana kei konei ki roto toku whenua ko Aotearoa

Ka tuhituhi whakamatautau he tinihangahia nga pepa Ingarihi ia ratou

Ehara ahau kei te pirangi ki te ako mai te reo o nga hinamana

Greetings to you. We have numerous Chinese people who have migrated to the Land of the Long White Cloud, Aotearoa also known as New Zealand.

Many Chinese and those from other asian ethnicities only pass our English examinations by cheating and also by paying no doubt large sums of money to ghost writers.

I am not in the least bit interested in learning mandarin nor having a business relationship with China.

President Xi is quite welcome to come and drag his corrupt people out of my whenua and take them back to the Republic of China.