Newsweek Article on Learning Mandarin

Newsweek recently posted an article entitled “The Mandarin Scam: So you want to learn Chinese? Your best bet is to say at home.

The author takes issue with the quality of Mandarin language instruction, and the teaching methods used, in China. He concludes that a student of Mandarin Chinese would be better off using online options or staying home and learning.

While I don’t doubt that there are problems with the way Mandarin is taught in China (students who study Mandarin in Taiwan have their fair share of complaints), there is one thing I am sure of: It is ABSOLUTELY IMPOSSIBLE to learn to speak Mandarin fluently if you never live in China or Taiwan.

I suppose there might be a rare exception–someone who moves to an enclave of Chinese speakers abroad and learns to speak Mandarin that way, but for most, they will never achieve fluency until they live abroad in Taiwan or China and speak Mandarin all day, every day, for six months to a year.

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Cultural Differences, Part One: Relationships East and West

Over the next few months, I’ll post a series of articles on the many cultural differences between Chinese speaking and English speaking people.

Eastern and Western cultural differences is a topic I deal with frequently in my training work. I just delivered a seminar entitled “Cultural Differences in Communication” to a group of Citibank managers last week, and will deliver a somewhat similar talk at the European Chamber of Commerce in a few weeks.

Today’s post deals with some of the differences in how relationships are formed and managed in greater China and the West. We’ll start with a question:

What is the primary basis of a deep friendship?

(a) Shared values and interests, i.e. “You and I think alike on several subjects, and we’re interested in the same things.”

(b) Mutual trust and loyalty, i.e. “I know you’ve got my back.”

(c) Shared identity, i.e. “We both work for X company” or “We’re in the same classes.”

(d) The potential for mutual benefit, i.e. “We can help each other out”or “We can take care of each other.”

If you answered (a), you probably grew up in a Western country such as the United States. You choose your friends based primarily on a shared set of values, on your ability to communicate with and relate to someone, and on shared interests in things like sports, movies, and music. Trust and loyalty (choice b) are important later in the relationship, if it progresses far enough to be considered a deep friendship.

People who answered (c) or (d) probably grew up in an East Asian country such as Taiwan.

Personal relationships in many East Asian countries are often formed for very pragmatic reasons. It is very common for people to work together to achieve a goal and help each other out as friends based primarily on the benefits they can provide to each other. Certainly, trust and loyalty are important dynamics in these relationships, just as they are in the West.

This does NOT mean that people in this part of the world won’t enter into friendships with another person because they like that person. It also does NOT mean that everyone is looking for an angle. It simply means that relationships here are often based on a sense mutual benefit or shared identity, far more than they are in the West. Some people have hundreds or even thousands of “friends” in their phone lists. These friends are often mentally categorized by what they are able to do for person who considers them friends, and by what the person who considers them friends is obligated to do for them.

In greater China, local people are often shocked to learn that foreigners who live here aren’t immediately friendly with other foreigners. “Aren’t you all foreigners?” they ask. It is unfathomable that such a shared identity doesn’t generate feelings of friendship.

A few more features of relationships in the East:

-Duty often trumps love. A Chinese person will be polite to an irascible uncle not because he likes him, but because it is his filial duty to put up with whatever the old curmudgeon dishes out. A person will help out a younger classmate or a junior member of her company because she has a responsibility to do so based on her higher status in the group.

-Friends may be called upon to help in ways that are quite inconvenient to them, and they are expected to offer assistance when it is asked for. Saying no is not really an option if you are a true friend. However, if your friend adheres to his own cultural mores, you will be richly rewarded for the effort you have made to help your friend. An organic accounting of favors granted is kept, and it is necessary to repay the giver of the favors with a reward that may surpass the value of the favor granted.

These two dynamics (duty and reciprocity) do come into play in Western countries, but not the extent that they do in the East. For example, in the United States, people are likely NOT to speak to a hypercritical, grumpy old uncle, and while people will try to grant their friends’ requests, they do not feel obligated to go far out of their way to deliver a favor.

Next Article: Communication Styles East and West

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Mandarin in the UK: Insight from Tesco’s Chairman

This article details some of  Tesco Chairman David Reid’s recent comments on the state of Chinese learning programs in the UK.

Echoing the recent comments of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Mr. Reid made the following statement about the importance of teaching Chinese in UK classrooms: “…The unprecedented speed and scale of changes in China means the UK cannot afford a slow transformation, as that will deny British young people the support they need to best prepare them for a future in which China will play a big role.”

I haven’t seen much in the way of industry leaders encouraging people to learn Chinese. I appreciate Mr. Reid’s comments. More business leaders should speak out in favor of learning Chinese (with appropriate respect given to some of the difficulties of learning the language).

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John DeFrancis

If you’re a student of Chinese and you don’t know who John DeFrancis is, you’re missing out. Dr. DeFrancis passed away a few weeks ago. An oustanding eulogy is here, at The China Beat.

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On Learning the Standard Tones of Mandarin

Hard-core students of Mandarin Chinese will be interested in this article on the subject of teaching and learning the pronunciation of the four standard tones of Mandarin, posted on the excellent Chinese learning site Sinosplice.

Toward Better Tones in Natural Speech

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Funerals in Taiwan

Check out this article in the Taiwan Journal for an interesting look at how the funeral business in Taiwan is changing, and how that is reflective of the changing beliefs in Taiwan society.

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A Welcome to Chinese (And Non-Chinese) Readers

I get reports on how people come to this blog, and recently we’ve had quite a few visitors from mainland China.

I just want to send out a warm welcome and invite them, or any Chinese speaker, to post a comment or a question any time. You can write it in English or Chinese, and if you write it in Chinese, I can read both simplified and traditional characters.

And please, everyone who reads, understand something: I am an unabashed Sinophile.  I love the history, culture, art, and language of China and Taiwan. Heck, I even enjoy visiting overseas Chinese communities. When I write about cultural differences in communication, I try to be objective, but I also don’t hold back my real thoughts. If that is offensive to some, please accept my apology. It is not intentional. I have been in the trenches of business, consulting, corporate training, and education in greater China for 20 years now, and I enjoy providing a little insight into cross-cultural issues (including learning Chinese) to my readers. I welcome anyone who wants to learn more about how Westerners and Chinese people bridge the communication gap to join in the discussion here anytime.

As for my next post, I’m working on a few ideas, but am unfortunately so limited in my free time (think eight substantial projects, frequent travel, a book deadline, and a hundred details) lately that I haven’t been able to get anything finished. I’ll post something interesting soon.

Cheers,

True

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