Mandarin Chinese for Business

photo of business card
Bring your business cards to China!

Is Mandarin Ability Necessary to do Business in China?

Last week’s post was about Mandarin Chinese for travel, this week’s topic is Mandarin for business. Just as knowing some of the language can enrich a trip to China or Taiwan, it can also help business interactions. There is nothing wrong with relying on a trusted translator to get around a business transaction in China. Knowing some of the language, however, can help deepen relationships between non-Chinese who wish to do business in China and their local counterparts. A little bit of language ability often goes a long way in China. Just be sure to get too far out of your depth!

Key Words to Know

你好 ni3hao3 (hello) is a phrase that will take you very far in China, especially if you pronounce it correctly. There are actually very few visitors to China that can pronounce 你好 with the correct tones. Locals really do notice when a foreign visitor gets them right. Often students of Chinese learn the phrase 认识呢很高兴 (nice to meet you), but in practice, most native speakers just say 你好 when they meet a new person.

名片 ming2pian4 (business card). In some ways China is much more high-tech than the US. People pay for the lunch, rent a bike, and pay their bills with their phones. They scan QR codes to do almost anything. For business however, the paper business card is still king. It is certainly helpful to know what someone is talking about when they ask for your “名片.”

Numbers. Anyone who travels to China or Taiwan for work will want to take some time off to go shopping. Knowing how to say the numbers in Mandarin Chinese will make this experience infinitely more pleasant and enjoyable. As a bonus, knowing the numbers will come in handy if you decide to take up a more serious study of the language.

If you are interested in learning Mandarin Chinese to prepare for a business trip to China, please use the contact page to get in touch.


Mandarin Chinese for Travel

photo of pagodas at Guilin
Knowing some Chinese can really enrich a trip to China or Taiwan

Can you Cram in a Mandarin Class Before your Trip?

Travel season is getting underway. Many adult students want to learn Mandarin Chinese because they want to travel to China or Taiwan. Normally, a class for a future traveller is the same as a class for anyone else. Students need lots of comprehensible input and repetition to learn Mandarin. If a student just wants to learn Mandarin Chinese for travel, however, they often do not have a lot of time to study. If that is the case, I do have some suggestions what students should study.

Invest your Time in Getting Pronunciation Right

A big source of misunderstanding in China comes from pronunciation. If you are traveling in China, learn the correct pronunciation of the places you will visit. Locals really do have a hard time understanding foreign tourists who cannot pronounce the place that they want to go. James Fallows has a series of blog posts about the pronunciation of “Beijing.” Remember, it is “jing” as in “jingle” not “zhing” as in something vaguely French-sounding.

While brushing up on the pronunciation of your destinations, work on your pinyin. If a travelers uses a phrasebook to get around, knowing how to pronounce the pinyin will only help. Similarly, the phrase book is less useful if no one can understand what you are saying. Normally, I suggest that students learn Mandarin Chinese pronunciation as part of a holistic process. If the student is just looking to use a phrase book better, then this is a good video to learn how to pronounce pinyin. Most common Chinese phrasebooks use pinyin.

Yes, You Should Learn Some Chinese Characters

Fortunately for the foreigner, most signs in China use pinyin. Signs in Taiwan also have Romanization. Thanks to the delightfully cantankerous blog I know that the type of Romanization used in Taiwan is somewhat inconsistent, but it does exist. Despite the fact that people who do not read Chinese characters can get around in China and Taiwan, it is still important to learn some characters.

If  you will travel in rural places in China, learn 女 (female) and 男 (male). These characters might be the only label on a bathroom and you will want to get that right! In the big cities, and the smaller ones too, menus often have pictures. But just in case, I recommend that travelers learn a few Chinese characters for different foods. This is especially useful if you have foods that you want to avoid. Learning the character for pork (猪肉) can help a traveler avoid foods with pork.

Keep Learning (Even After You Get Back)

There is no substitute for a long-term class for language learning. It is impossible to skip steps in true language acquisition. However, I hope that these tips help a future traveler to China if he or she only has a little bit of time to prepare.

If you would like to learn Mandarin Chinese for travel or any other reason, please contact us.

Did Science Just Tell Adult Language Learners to Give Up?

Massive Study from MIT About Second Language Acquisition Defines Critical Period

This study, from MIT has gotten a great deal of attention in the past week and a half. It suggests that there is a critical period for people to start learning a second language. Based on data from close to 700,000 English speakers, the study showed that people need to start leaning the language before age 10 to achieve native-like proficiency. This study spawned lots of articles across the web. Some of those articles took a optimistic approach to the results and some felt the study indicated that language learning is nearly impossible past a certain age.

The more optimistic headlines include these:

Ability to Learn Languages Stays Strong Until Late Teens, Study Finds (Education Week)

The Window for Learning a Language May Stay Open Surprisingly Long (

The more pessimistic headlines include these:

To Master a Language, Start it Early (The Economist)

Want to Learn a New Language Fluently? Start Before Age 10, Study Finds (The Telegraph)

Why it is Hard to Learn Another Language After Childhood (Time)

The Difference Between Fluent and Native-Like

While this study looked at the ability of people to learn English at different stages of life, there are implications for all language learning. Should students give up on learning Mandarin Chinese if they are older than age ten? Is there reason for this pessimism?

People can learn a second (or third) language at any age. A great response to the gloomier headlines is here. The author of this response, linguistics professor Monika Schmid, points out that the MIT study is about achieving native-like ability in a second language. The study never even mentions fluency. There are many, many people in the world who speak a second language fluently, but without a native-like ability. As I write this, I am sitting across the table from my husband. English is his second language. He teaches in English. He writes articles in English. Additionally, he uses English in meetings. No native English speaker, after having a conversation with his in English, would assume he grew up in America. And yet he has the high degree of fluency that is necessary for the life he leads in this country.

Adult Students Should Not Give Up on their Language Goals

The pessimistic headlines about language learning ability, and more importantly the articles, miss a key point. Native-like ability is not the same as fluency. So what if a person does not “pass” as a native-speaker? As long as a person achieves the fluency necessary to do what she wants to do, that is enough. Some students might want to learn Mandarin Chinese in order to travel. Some students may want to learn Mandarin Chinese for business. Still others may want to bond with family members. All of these students may require different levels of language ability (and literacy). They do not need to seem native-like. Their goals are absolutely achievable.

It is far from impossible to learn a second language past the age of ten. Anyone can do it. The MIT study did not cover language teaching methods at all. With the right input (from a teacher), any student can learn a new language. Students can also learn at any age. They might not achieve native-like ability, but who cares? The goal should be a desired level of fluency, not anything else.

If you are any age, and wish to learn Mandarin Chinese, use the contact form to get in touch.

photo of the word possible with im crossed out
You Can Learn Mandarin Chinese At Any Age

Learn Mandarin with Chinese Books

Reading to Speak

It is book fair season at the school where Lotus Chinese Learning has after school classes. It is great to see so many students excited about getting books! Today’s post is a roundup of Chinese books that are great options for students who are learning Mandarin Chinese. Reading is so important in language acquisition. There is a great deal of research out there to support the idea that reading in a second language helps students become better speakers.

How Does it Work?

In the early stages of language learning, students benefit from hearing stories. Stories are naturally interesting to students of all ages. Stories also help students pay attention to meaning. Paying attention to meaning is how students learn a new language. Learning grammar rules and studying lists of vocabulary is not a very effective way to learn! As students progress, they can read Chinese books on their own. Doing independent reading helps students acquire vocabulary. With this additional vocabulary, a student can read more and more complex books. Reading creates more reading.

Books for Young Learners

Chinese books that are appropriate for young learners have either lots or repetition, or a familiar story or both! The book  大卫不可以 (No, David!) is great book for young Mandarin learners. It has both lots of repetition (the phrase not okay). It is also very popular in America, so the kids probably already know the story. Similarly, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do You See works well. It repeats the same couple phrases over and over and it is also an extremely popular children’s book in the US. Hats for Sale (卖帽子) also fits the bill as a popular children’s book. It is also great for children to practice counting.

pages from No David!
Photo from inside pages of Chinese-language version of No David!

Books for Upper Elementary

There is a big jump between listening to a teacher read a story and reading independently. Especially if students only have class once a week, it might take several years before they can read books on their own. Nevertheless, reading is a key part of language learning. It is up to the teacher to make sure that the students read books that are the right level. Students should feel that reading is fun, not frustrating. 

Upper elementary language learners need books that are written for them. Just like young learners, they need lots of repetition. They also need books that don’t require lots of background information that they don’t have. This means that the story of the monkey king might not be a good choice. American students usually do not know that story. I like the book Susan You Mafan for upper elementary students a lot. Part of the reason I like it is because it is about an American girl. The students can more easily identify with the main character. More books like this one are available here.

Cover of Susan You Mafan
Cover of Susan You Mafan

Books for Adults

Are you an adult looking for a book to read to improve your Mandarin Chinese? Use the contact form to get in touch. I will send you a Chinese novella, free of charge!

More posts on reading and Chinese:

Mandarin Companion Graded Readers

The Curse of Knowledge and Mandarin Learning

What is the curse of knowledge?

Teachers have “the curse of knowledge.” We tend to assume that our students know much more than they actually do. For Mandarin teachers, this means that we assume that our students can understand much more than they really do. The curse of knowledge leads to bad outcomes for the students because teachers do not give them the comprehensible input that they need. Students do best when they understand 100% of the words that their teachers use. The challenge for teachers in a good Mandarin Chinese class is not to have fun games, cool crafts or any other activity to keep students engaged. It is for teachers to speak Mandarin in a way that the students understand.

The Curse of Knowledge and Class Content

I wrote about story listening earlier here and here. Story listening is a language teaching method developed by Professor Beniko Mason, a English professor in Tokyo. In story listening, a teacher tells her students a story using pictures, gestures, and definitions to make sure that students “get it.” Where does the curse of knowledge come in? It means that teachers have to question all of their assumptions about what the students know. For example, when telling the story of Mulan, it is safe to assume that students know the basic plot. It is also safe to assume that students know the name Mulan. When teaching the story of “Butterfly Lovers,” however, teacher should assume that kids do not know the plot. It does not have its own Disney movie :). Telling a story to language learners is not the same as telling it to native speakers. The storyteller must speak more slowly, use shorter sentences, and use only known vocabulary.

Trade the Authentic Materials for Comprehensible Materials

The curse of knowledge makes teachers think that something is easier than it really is. Teachers have to constantly check themselves to make sure they are using language that the students can understand. Even a slight variation can confuse students. Some educators think it is important to “challenge” the students. Many teachers believe that using authentic materials (meant for native speakers) will keep students engaged. In fact, the opposite is true. Authentic materials often use low-frequency words and are simply too difficult for beginners. Students don’t pay attention if they can’t understand. Authentic materials can often make students lose interest.

The curse of knowledge makes teachers think that a children’s book in the target language will be easy for students. They think, “Oh this is for kids. I think it is very easy, so it must be appropriate for kids.” In fact, beginner students need material that is specific for them. The best materials use high-frequency words that the students know, or can easily pick up from a gesture or a drawing. In the beginning, a story for novice students is going to be very different than one for native speakers. If teachers do not highly modify their the story (or reading), it will easily be too hard for the students. If the students are not engaged, they will learn very little.

photo of excerpt from Monkey king book
This book is for language learners. It has a limited vocabulary. It is appropriate for intermediate students.
excerpt from Geronimo Stilton in Chinese
This is a page from Geronimo Stilton in Chinese. It is for native speakers, so will be too difficult for beginner or intermediate students.