Over the last few years, professionals living and working in China have borne witness to an ongoing debate – whether or not foreign expatriates need to learn the Chinese language in order to not just work effectively in China, but to also understand the country, people, and culture.

To a certain extent, it’s quite reasonable for expatriates to ask whether or not they need to learn the Chinese language. While learning Chinese will undoubtedly aid in communication throughout one’s life and career in China, it certainly doesn’t come easy.

It’s also worth noting that in addition to the difficulties of the language, especially when transitioning from other languages such as English, there is also a significant time commitment involved.

When it comes to the basics, which can include difficult tones and rote character memorization, progress can be slow when it comes to developing a solid foundation. So, in the midst of all these potential difficulties, why would expatriates want to sink so much of their time into the Chinese language?

One key reason is that the China we know today is vastly different from the China that existed at the turn of the century. There are fewer expatriate positions available due to the ongoing development of the Chinese economy, which has resulted in an increase in the number of Chinese talent with experience in international markets and the ability to communicate fluently in other languages, especially English.  

Based on my own experience, foreign expatriates wanting to work in China can no longer expect to pick and choose their assignments. Instead, they must be willing to compete for a decreasing number of potential positions, which may also being them into competition with local Chinese talent. This then increases the need for expatriates to adapt and improve their communication skills.

I recently discussed this issue in my latest vlog on China, specifically what I’ve learned from my own experience working in China and with Chinese companies for over ten years. While I don’t feel it is any way a mandatory requirement to learn Chinese in order to work in China, I feel that would-be-expatriates will be making key sacrifices by not being able to communicate in Chinese, namely control, efficiency, and career development. Take a look at the below video to find out more.

All in all, there are many reasons why a foreign expatriate might consider studying the Chinese language. In addition to supporting one’s own work and career, the language can open new doors of possibilities to understanding China, its culture, and its people.

In the end, in an era where the competition, as well as team members, are speaking multiple languages and sporting comparable skills and experiences, not speaking Chinese, not to mention reading and writing, makes one stand out, and not in a good way.

I won’t pretend that the growing need to learn Chinese will effect all fields and professionals equally, but it seems likely that the Chinese language will become an increasingly important consideration for expatriates looking to make or continue their careers and lives in China.

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