For Club China, recruitment expert Floor Nobels is shedding light on some persistent misunderstandings about work in China and with the Chinese. This time, the owner of Worklife Recruitment in Shenzhen, discusses how Chinese are mastering the English language today. The big question in this first of four blog posts: ‘Yes or no speak English?’
“When Work Life Recruitment clients brief me about staffing their new Chinese office, one of the first issues that comes up is the level of mastering the English language that is expected of candidates. I cannot help thinking that to me, in a way, it still seems odd to ask the people of one of the largest nations in the world to speak English. There are so many Chinese in the world that they are likely to have a similar right to demand people from Europe and the US to speak Chinese. But since English is still the business language of the world and since recruitment for international businesses in China is what we do, we set off on our journey.
Possibly with the exception of smaller third tier cities, English is spoken everywhere in China. Some estimate that of 1.3 billion of Chinese, roughly 1 per cent have some knowledge of English. There have been great improvements in the quality of English language education in China. For decades, Chinese teachers taught English to Chinese, with ‘modest’ results, if I may be so bold. Then came a period in which any English-speaking person could play the role of teacher. Today, English teachers in China are required to meet certain standards. It is estimated that 250 to 350 million Chinese are learning the language in some way.
To many Chinese students, learning English is still a matter of learning words in large numbers, without actually learning to speak or to have a conversation. I sometimes come across candidates that have pretty good reading and writing skills, but fail in the conversation area. One of my own staff members in Shenzhen started off that way – I remember that in our first meetings it was more convenient to text each other in WeChat from across the table than actually having a conversation!
Able and comfortable
China’s millennials – 00后,young people in their teens and twenties – have a broader view on the world. They hear more English language in everyday life and on TV and the internet. They travel a lot more than their parents. This all adds up to Chinese millennials being more able and comfortable to converse in English than their parents have been for decades. Many upper class Chinese see value in mastering the language and send their kids to universities abroad. Other parents spend a fortune on good English lessons for their kids from specialized teachers and institutions. The generation gap sometimes clearly shows. I remember having to negotiate a deal for my business with a Chinese customer; he asked his 8 year old (!) kid at the table to help with translations. The parent’s level of proficiency in English just was not good enough to have a good discussion.
This brings me to an important insight: even if you do think that your Chinese counterpart’s English is good enough for in-depth discussions or negotiations, please have patience. Check that there is a true mutual understanding of what is on the table and try to ‘read’ the body language. When in doubt, bring someone to the table that speaks English well to prevent misunderstandings that are bound to occur – even when good will prevails at both sides of the table.
Raised and educated in Europe
Some of my clients have suggested a Chinese that was raised and educated in Europe or the US may be the ideal candidate to be employed at the new mainland China office. I was sorry to disappoint my client, as this is often not the ideal solution. Often, these candidates are not able to write Mandarin without mistakes. Another disadvantage is the culture. Candidates that were born and raised elsewhere often have no understanding of the way local Chinese work and think. The same goes – with all due respect – for Hong Kong Chinese, Taiwanese and Chinese from other parts of Asia. The difference between their world and that of mainland Chinese is difficult to bridge.
That leaves us with the candidates that do speak and write English very well. They often know their market value goes through the roof. I remember scouting for a Quality Manager for a Dutch chip manufacturer. The candidate we found, spoke and wrote English at a very high level. The manufacturer could not afford hiring him – his English was simply too good and the salary he expected was correspondingly high!
Demand and supply
Demand for English-speaking candidates is high and the supply is relatively low, resulting in higher prices. One word of advice: if you spend several months a year for business in China, it is definitely worth while to learn some Mandarin. Even the bare minimum – being able to count from one to hundred – will support your involvement in basic conversations. Contrary to common belief, it is possible to learn the language if you are prepared to put in study time.
If that is not your aim and you fail to find Chinese that speak English, technology may come to the rescue soon. Translating technology is getting better every day. WeChat offers some interesting translating features – just write in English and the app will translate into Mandarin. I would not be surprised if Skype would come up with the next feature of writing or speaking Mandarin in simultaneous translation…
Worklife Recruitment China中国, proud member of Club China, specializes in recruiting Chinese staff for Western multinationals and medium sized enterprises active in China. We recruit Chinese professionals who speak English at a decent business level. Our European/Chinese team is based in Shenzhen. With our online network, head hunting skills and social media marketing we cover Mainland China.
Photo credits: Worklife Recruitment