Monthly Archives: October 2008

More on Chinese Food Safety

I’ve already written about Chinese food safety, explaining that Chinese manufacturing as a whole is going through growing pains that have a devastating effect on its victims.

Corporate China will eventually come around and do things right, but not before killing more people and losing much of its market for food products around the world.

This article gets it right. China’s business ethics environment needs to grow up, and fast. What many of those who are so keen to do business in China don’t realize is that, in many ways and in many parts of its vast territory, China is still the wild West.

There are many, many advantages to doing business with the Chinese, but if you don’t know what you’re doing, please get competent advice from someone you trust who does know what he/she is doing in greater China.

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Learning Chinese is Easier Than You Think? Afraid Not.

You can imagine what I was thinking when I got this link in a Google alert: Chinese easier to learn than students expect, languages lecturer says

From the article:


“…McClure said he wouldn’t trade teaching Chinese for anything, but also notes that there are also two major misconceptions about the Chinese language.

“Chinese is a fairly easy language. In Chinese, you’ll never have to conjugate a verb. It’s very straightforward.” McClure said.”
I agree with Mr. McClure, the lecturer quoted in the article, that there is no conjugation necessary in Chinese, and this does make life easier for people learning Chinese. What I cannot agree with is the statement that Chinese is an “easy language.” What about the four regularly used tones and the necessity of getting them right if one wants to be understood? What about the writing system, which has no alphabet and requires memorization of 3,000 characters and their often complicated stroke orders just to reach a first year high school student level of fluency? What about the fact that there are almost no vocabulary words in Chinese that sound anything like an English word? Chinese is decidedly not an “easy language.” More accurately, Chinese grammar is easy to understand. If you come from a romance language learning background, you’ll jump for joy on the day your Chinese teacher explains Chinese verb tense to you. There are essentially no plurals in Chinese, and prepositions are much easier than they are in English or Spanish.

I’m thinking that Mr. McClure is either trying to be encouraging to students and went a bit overboard, or he was misquoted.

The second misconception mentioned had to do with whether or not native English teachers can effectively teach Chinese. I fully support Mr. McClure’s assertion that a native English teacher can be a very effective teacher of Chinese. There are many reasons why I feel this way, all of them based on personal experience, but the details on why I believe this are fodder for a future blog post.

The middle of the article gets a bit closer to the truth…

“…there are thousands of characters to learn and not even a native Chinese speaker will know them all.

Although the average high school student in China will graduate knowing more than 3,000 characters, a Chinese student at this college will learn how to read and write 300 characters in one semester, and another 300 if they continue in the course.”

…before careening back into la-la land…

“Because each word in Chinese is made up of one, two or three characters, a student can become proficient in the language while here.”

(Proficient? In a few semesters of studying Chinese in America, you would be able to have very simple conversations in Chinese, but not in any depth, and certainly not with any grasp of detailed information.)

…and then moving back into the realm of reality again…

“Because it is a four-credit class, McClure also teaches the culture and history of China. Frequently, he uses movie clips to illustrate a lesson.

“It’s somewhat over their heads,” McClure said, “but they enjoy it when they can pick up phrases they know. Watching a movie with duct tape over the English subtitles is the closest you can get to immersion.” “

Kudos to Mr. McClure for adding history and culture components to his syllabus. It makes classes more interesting and gives students a cultural framework for their studies. Saying that movies in Chinese are “somewhat over their heads” after only a semester or two of study is another understatement.

Look, I don’t want to discourage anyone who wants to learn Chinese. If you are interested in doing business in greater China, working as a diplomat, getting into translation, or teaching English in greater China, learning Chinese is a very worthwhile pursuit. The fact that Chinese is so difficult to learn is what attracted me to the language in the first place (that, and growing up with a father who spoke fluent Cantonese). But let’s not do students the disservice of making Chinese sound easier than it is. You’re looking at a year or two of classes in the US, Canada, wherever, and then a good six months to a year of study abroad in China or Taiwan before you’ll be able to hold a conversation that goes into a bit of depth or actually be able to put the language to some kind of functional use. If you want to be able to read and write, you’re looking at an even longer period of time. It can be done, but you should go into it knowing what you’re up against.

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Filed under Language, The Learning Chinese Craze

Chinese Language Programs in Australia: 94% Drop-Out Rate

I wrote a post earlier this year about Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s goal of dramatically increasing the number of Australian students studying Chinese and other Asian languages.The specific goal, in terms of number of high school students studying Chinese at grade 12, was 8,000 students by the year 2020.

So far, it isn’t working out. Why?

Because learning Chinese is very, very difficult.

Regular readers know how much I harp on the illusions people have about learning Chinese. What’s happening in Australia is illustrative of some of the many difficulties involved in implementing a successful Chinese language program in an English speaking country.

First, many of the students in the class will already speak Chinese, because their parents are from somewhere in the Chinese diaspora. From the Age article I just linked to, “Demand for Asia study overhaul”:

“…a new report reveals that the study of Chinese in Australian high schools “is overwhelmingly a matter of Chinese teaching Chinese to Chinese.

…It (a study into the results of Chinese language programs in Australian high schools) finds that 94% of students who learn Chinese at some stage during their education drop out before year 12.

Of the 4% still studying the language at year 12, 94% are “first language” speakers — Chinese-born or of Chinese descent.”

How are kids who grew up speaking only English going to compete and feel motivated in such an environment? Classrooms will be sorely out of balance, with groups of complete novices taking the same class as groups of fluent speakers.

The other problem, of course, is that even if you fixed the imbalance in the classroom, very, very few people have the discipline and tolerance for frustration that it takes to learn fluent Mandarin. From the article:

“The report calls for action to stop the massive drop-out rate from Chinese language classes by students who can’t compete with classmates who are native speakers or of Chinese descent.

It casts doubt on Mr Rudd’s target of 8000 year 12 students studying Chinese by 2020, and proposes a revamped curriculum to accommodate different levels of language proficiency.”

My suggestion to those involved in planning and monitoring Chinese learning programs in Western countries: Get realistic about what can be accomplished in a high school classroom in Australia, England, Canada, the United States, etc. If you don’t have things like full immersion camps, study abroad programs, and all sorts of supports in place to keep the kids motivated, these programs are not going to be successful. Chinese is just too difficult for most students to learn well, if all they do is study it in a classroom.

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Doing Business with the Chinese: Communication Breakdown

Many people ask me what it’s like to do business in greater China. One of my favorite songs from the classic rock era, “Communication Breakdown” by Led Zeppelin, comes immediately to mind.

I speak, read, and write fluent Mandarin Chinese. I conduct the daily business of life, as I have done for the past twenty years, largely surrounded by Chinese people.

And still, I often have to probe, prod, and read between thousands of lines in order to figure out what the hell is going on. You see, in greater China, speaking directly is NOT a virtue as it is back home.

Consider a recent discussion I had with a contract manufacturer (OEM factory) in Taiwan. I was there on behalf of a client, a food manufacturer. When I called the factory, on the recommendation of a distributor, they assured me up and down that they take all sorts of OEM work from companies both domestic and overseas.

Here’s a condensed version of the conversation I had with the boss (he had an assistant at his side the whole time), translated from Mandarin into English:

Boss: (Examining my client’s product). “We can make this.”

Me: “Good. So you already have the necessary equipment in your factory?”

Boss: “We’ll need to study this a while before we can start producing it.”

Me: “Of course. So, you have the equipment and can do it then?”

Boss: (Munching on one of the samples I brought) “This doesn’t taste very good. Too hard. Try one of ours.” (Hands me a few samples of his product.)

Me: (Politely trying a few of his samples). “Yes, it tastes very good. Of course, my client will want you to recreate his product from a formula. He’ll want you to develop a product that is very similar in look, texture, and taste to the product his produces at his home factory.”

Boss: “Your product doesn’t taste very good. Consumers in Taiwan and China won’t like it.”

Me: “Thank you for your kind advice. So, are you interested in producing this product? Will you work up a quotation for me on X kg?”

Boss:“It would take a long time to get this right before we could start producing it.”

Me: “I know. I have experience with making other food products. We’ll go for as close a match as we can get. If it takes a few weeks or even a few months, that’s okay. So, are you interested in producing this product?”

Boss: “Can you just put our products into your packaging? That would be easier.”

Me: “I’m afraid not. The client wants to sell his product, not someone else’s product. Mr. X, forgive me, I’m an American and we tend to speak directly. Will you tell me if you are interested in working with my client?”

Boss: “I don’t know. Making your product wouldn’t be very convenient.”

Me: “Thank you for your time.”

This really happened. It has happened many times in my years in greater China. Do you see the vast differences in the way a Westerner might communicate and the way a Chinese person communicates? In China, a boss won’t say “no,” even if his life depends on it. He trains his people to tell all prospects that his factory can make anything and everything, on the off chance that either he can make it, or his friend/brother/old high school classmate can make it and he gets his cut of the deal. He won’t answer questions directly unless pressed, and even then, he won’t like it. He also very often won’t understand that you want him to do some work for you in the way you want it done, not the way he wants it done. He’ll tell you “yes” at the beginning of the conversation and then, two hours later, you’ll learn that it’s actually a “no.” And here’s the kicker–behaving and communicating this way is not only acceptable, but proper, a virtue even. Chalk it up to cultural differences, my friends.

I’ve gotten pretty good at figuring out the truth in a relatively short period of time, but I haven’t ever figured out a way to get a factory owner to speak plainly and directly. It just isn’t done here. So I continue to probe and read between the lines, and accept that this is the way it is done with 98% of the people I do business with in greater China.

Now, can you imagine dealing with a situation like this without knowing anything about Chinese culture?

The Bottom Line: You won’t get very far, operating in greater China, unless you are personally prepared to deal with communication challenges like these, or you are able to hire someone who knows local culture to deal with them for you. China and the West are a universe apart, culturally. That isn’t a gap that is easily bridged. (But it is an endless source of fascination for a few of us nutjobs!)

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Learning Chinese: Delusions of Ease and Convenience

I’ve written often and in great depth about the challenges involved in learning Mandarin well. It isn’t something that can be accomplished quickly, yet so much is written in the media and on blogs about learning Mandarin that makes it seem as if people believe that learning Mandarin is akin to learning Spanish or Italian.

Uh, folks, learning to speak and read fluent Mandarin is more like learning to design, build, and fly your own rocket ship. As my old friend Lou used to say, “It’s butt hard.”

It would seem that anyone who takes only a cursory look at the differences between Mandarin and Engish would quickly come to the above conclusion, and make an educated decision about whether or not it makes sense to spend the time and effort involved in learning Mandarin well. But no, most of what I see out there is along the lines of the following Q&A on an HR website in the UK:  HR tip: Learning Chinese.

I think the answer to the question from an HR perspective, was a sage one. But from a language learning perspective, both the asker and the answerer are somewhat naive about the difficult of learning Mandarin.

How would I answer the question? Like this.

“Unless this employee is planning on spending a lifetime, or at least several years, working, living, and traveling throughout greater China or a community of overseas Chinese somewhere, taking a three or four month course in Chinese is an exercise in time-wasting and futility. Neither the company nor the employee will get any short-term benefit out of such a course, none whatsoever. The employee will not be able to communicate at even the most basic level after only three or four months. If he/she is going to take a foundation course and then live in greater China for a few years, practicing his/her Chinese every day, then it might be worth it, but he/she won’t learn a think via podcast. Get the employee into a classroom with a qualified instructor.”

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