Mastering the official language of China is no easy feat. Tones, stroke order, pronunciation, and a seemingly endless supply of characters together pose a linguistic nightmare! Learning Chinese is especially difficult for full-time professionals due to the arduous time commitment involved in learning the language. Those with established proficiency are also prone to slipping into language complacency after they commence full-time work (unless working for a Chinese company).
However, there is no doubting the exceptional benefits Chinese language skills provide – especially in the workplace. Those who study Chinese full-time before transitioning into full-time work are also ideally placed to benefit from their investment in learning the language.
This scenario also poses a question for those looking to break into the Chinese job market; given the difficult and time consuming nature of learning Mandarin, what is the minimum level of fluency for finding work in China? This question is based on the premise that while fluency would be ideal for all expat workers, not all job roles in China necessary require full language proficiency. General managers of transnational companies rarely conduct business meetings in Chinese and nor are English teachers expected to translate Chinese documents into English as part of their job description.
Taking into account a number of job descriptions for expat workers and the first-hand experiences of foreigners working in China, Asia Options has listed a rough guide on what’s an adequate level of Chinese proficiency for maximising your job options in China.
Senior managers at transnational companies, language teachers, as well as skilled professionals sitting on an expat package rarely require any Chinese language skills to meet their job requirements. Despite their lack of language proficiency, this elite cross-section of expatriate workers tend to sit in the upper income bracket as they offer a distinct set of skills the local market simply cannot replicate.
While survival language skills are unlikely to feature on a job description, they would certainly make life working in China easier. Survival Chinese includes the ability to order food, communicate with taxi drivers and understand that 那个 is not as racially offensive as it initially sounds. From an employers point-of-view, making the effort to at least learn basic Chinese would also reflect better on your ability to integrate into Chinese society and to build rapport with Chinese stakeholders and colleagues.
Achieving a basic level of proficiency does not take long; studying two hours a day for 1-2 months or revising and practicing one hour a day over 3-6 months would be ample.
The next step up for budding linguists is intermediate proficiency and the capacity to hold a basic conversation or to discuss more advanced topics in broken Chinese. This level of proficiency is ideal for those working with international companies and building relationships with local Chinese stakeholders. Although business does not necessarily need to be conducted entirely in Mandarin, intermediate fluency projects a strong first impression and builds rapport. Most jobs with international companies list Chinese language proficiency as a desired skill, and an intermediate command will usually satisfy this criteria point.
To knock off intermediate fluency will take approximately 9-12 months studying full-time in China or 18 months studying part-time in your home country.
Intermediate fluency and advanced reading
Intermediate speakers looking to take shortcuts to expand their job horizons should concentrate on reading comprehension skills. Advanced reading skills is one of the biggest hurdles for foreign job applicants as numerous jobs, including research positions with China Policy, PR companies such as North Head, legal firms, government roles etc, require research analysts to read Chinese media sources or reports and then translate or summarise into English. Advanced reading skills will therefore elevate you into a selected pool of talent and significantly improve your job opportunities. This is especially so for those with limited professional experience.
The path to advanced reading will typically take 12-18 months of full-time study in China but the learning curve is fast for those focusing on a select number of industries. Mastering common vocabulary for a particular industry, ie defence or agriculture, will fast-track your language standing and shave off time consulting the dictionary. Regular reading is also an obvious must!
Advanced fluency entails the ability to conduct business in Chinese with an emphasis on reading and speaking. Advanced fluency in many ways is the ideal level of proficiency for those working for an international company and especially business development managers. This will allow you to liaise effectively with Chinese suppliers, manufacturers, clients or manage a team of Chinese employees. Advanced proficiency will also set you up for working with a Chinese company in a total Chinese language environment. Young professionals with advanced fluency won’t find it hard to find a job in China and will certainly be popular among Chinese colleagues! Advanced proficiency is also highly suitable for those working in the real estate industry, journalism and sales related jobs.
Advanced proficiency requires a lengthy commitment of approximately 2-3 years, including 12-18 months of full-time study and 6-12 months of regular practice.
Fluency equates to completing your job duties to the same degree as you would in an English speaking environment. This entails the ability to negotiate and write reports in Chinese, as well as translating and interpreting skills.
Fluent speakers will often stand out against the competition but Chinese language fluency can also be a two edge sword. While there is very little in the way of job restrictions, positions advertising for fluent speakers are typically aimed at native speakers and compensated accordingly. For example, jobs at embassies requiring fluent language skills are generally paid less than locally engaged positions with lower Chinese language requirements.
The road to attaining fluency is difficult to estimate and few expats break into this selective club. Attaining interpretation and translation skills also takes a significant amount of practice and focused study to gain accreditation. There is also the opportunity cost of allocating a significant amount of time and effort to up-skilling in other areas including an MBA, CFA accreditation, attending networking events or volunteering as a corporate/NGO board director.
One final key point to note is that Chinese language skills are usually viewed by the job market as an auxiliary or isolated skill. Language skills should be reinforced by other important attributes such as technical expertise in a particular field or strong professional traits including flexibility, organisational skills, work ethic and communication skills. Achieving the right level of Chinese for the job will then be your key to meeting the job criteria and getting ahead of the competition!
Check out this article for tips on finding non-teaching jobs in China.
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