I always advise people who are doing business in China to learn some Chinese before they go over there. The reasons are two:
1.) It will make their experience in China more enjoyable. Why is this important? Quite simply the more they enjoy China the easier it will be for them to spend time there. And the more time they spend in China the better their relationship with their vendor and the more likely they will be able to deliver better product to their customers back home.
2.) It will gain them the respect of their China vendors. Needless to say, respect is crucial in any kind of partnership, business or otherwise.
The big problem however is that most people are too busy to sit down and begin time consuming study of a very difficult language for which they may have very little motivation to begin with. Of all the people I have worked with over the past few years, I don’t think there were but two individuals who seemed genuinely interested in China. China for most small business owners is simply a country with cheap labor and good infrastructure where they can have their product made for a cost that will allow them to build their business back home. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this but it does pose a problem if you have to spend time in the country in order to teach your suppliers about your product and standards. And make no mistake about it, spending time in China is essential if you are sourcing there and want to grow your business.
I was fortunate that I started to learn Chinese when I was in graduate school. The blockbuster movie that summer was the Last Emperor and there was a China craze in the US which drew my curiosity as well. I had plenty of time to study Chinese since I was in graduate school, not all that interested in my studies and considering other things I might want to do. I got to know some Chinese students, including famed Chinese composer Tan Dun, in the dept where I worked at Columbia University and had the opportunity to spend a summer in China. I then had an a chance a few years later to go live in China where I honed my Chinese skills over seven years. And that is how I learned. And I am still learning.
But of course most small business owners do not have this time or opportunity. So what can they do ?
I think there are four things you must consider if you want to learn Chinese:
I think the key is limiting expectations about what you can expect to achieve. Learning Chinese while you are trying to run a business is very challenging. Therefore your goal should not be to learn Chinese. It should be to learn some Chinese. In other words focus on some basic words, greetings, phrases, and then maybe some terms that are specific in your industry. Be able to hold short conversations in Chinese, about weather, food etc etc.
There are a lot of bad Chinese textbooks so the selection of a text should be done with care. You should avoid texts that avoid the written Chinese language because part of learning Chinese is learning the written language. Unfortunately there are many books that just provide only Romanization of the Chinese language. For many learners this makes learning Chinese less intimidating and these texts are popular. But you are not really learning Chinese. If you can master how to write and recognize few words, and show appreciation for the Chinese written language, you will score far more points with your vendor, than if you are just able to parrot a few phrases.
Is it realistic to expect to sit down and study Chinese for an hour every day when you run a small business and have a family to take care of ? No. But it is nevertheless important to study everyday, even if only for 30 minutes, maybe during your lunch hour. The point is that learning Chinese is difficult so you have to get into a habit of studying every day, even if only for a limited time. It takes a lot of discipline. But you will not learn without discipline.
I think it is very useful to have a private tutor. Tutors will help you with pronunciation, one of the most difficult things about Chinese. Wherever I have lived I have usually employed a tutor or conversation partner. You should be able to find one through your local college or university. In short, tutors are indispensible.
But whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of going to China and not being able to speak some Chinese. If you do that you are going to have a difficult time there. Sure it may seem easy at first. People are all smiles and want your orders. But at some point you are going to have a problem and your inability to communicate will be a major obstacle when you try to solve that problem.