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Learning Chinese: Will You Make More Money?

Last week we learned that China had officially overtaken Japan to become the world's second-biggest economy. Earlier this year, China surpassed Germany as the world's largest exporter, and it recently overtook the United States as the world's largest car market. While the Western world struggles through a halting recovery, China continues to grow in almost every sector, its current account surplus the largest the world has ever seen.

All of which should beg the question for anyone thinking about their career: Should you start learning Chinese?

It sure wouldn’t hurt. In a lousy domestic job market, going East — and to China in particular — means heading to where the jobs are. And having local language skills will give you a leg up on your competitors.

“If you’re in your early 30s and you’re thinking you want to spend time in China, or grow a business there, or work for a multinational doing business there, you would be at a disadvantage if you did not have Chinese language ability,” says Kenneth G. Lieberthal, a professor of business administration at the University of Michigan.

Bilingual Advantage

Even if you plan to stay in the U.S., with more and more companies doing business with and in China, being able to speak the language with a potential client or supplier can only help.’s 2010 hiring forecast showed that 39 percent of U.S. employers said they plan to hire bilingual candidates in 2010, and half said that if they had two equally qualified candidates, they would be more inclined to hire the bilingual one.

For all the potential benefits of Chinese language skills, however, it’s not as if Mandarin is about to become the lingua franca of the business world. Fears that American businessmen will all eventually need to speak Chinese to communicate with their corporate overlords are probably as overblown as 1980s concerns about the need to learn Japanese, back when Japan Inc. seemed ready to mount a hostile takeover of the world economy.

“Not every MBA graduate, even 10 years from now, should have to take the time to learn Chinese,” says Lieberthal. And while Chinese language skills can help you stand out in a tough job market, they are no guarantee of employment. As Chinese companies become ever more global in their reach, their business expertise is actually becoming more homegrown.

“The preference for almost all Chinese companies these days is for their senior executives to be from mainland China,” says Brian Renwick, a managing partner at executive recruiting firm Boyden China Ltd. He says cultural compatibility is becoming increasingly important to Chinese firms, more so than international experience. And in cases where native skills may be in short supply, Renwick says firms are more likely to hire executives from other Chinese communities, such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Singapore.

Demand Up 35 Percent

Still, there are lots of opportunities for Americans who speak Chinese. Chris van Someren, chief executive of London-based search firm Ascentator, says demand for executive positions by American and multinational companies in China has risen 35 percent from the previous year, echoing similar figures from other recruiting firms.

And while knowing Chinese is a distinct advantage for getting these jobs, what most companies, Chinese and otherwise, seem to be looking for are people with the proper cultural sensitivities.

Tom Adams, CEO of Rosetta Stone, which produces the popular language-learning CDs, recounts that when he worked as a commodity merchant in China in 1998, he didn’t need Mandarin at all to conduct business. In fact, the contracts were all written in English. But despite that, he still felt that learning Chinese enhanced his credibility.

“I learned taxi-driver Chinese, but still, it was tremendously empowering — and impressive to my colleagues,” Adams says. “There is some sense in the Chinese population that they were going to great efforts to learn about American culture, but they held this kind of grudge that others weren’t making the same effort to learn their culture.”

Adams says that Mandarin-language CDs are the fastest-growing in the Rosetta Stone’s lineup, and sales are especially concentrated among corporate buyers.

“Our customers are simply trying to learn to engage more informally and more warmly with the Chinese people,” Adams says. “They’re not trying to learn ‘discounted cash flow’ in Chinese. They’re just looking for a better way to understand their counterparts.”

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