Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Importance of Learning Mandarin in Singapore: An Economic Perspective

When I was younger, I did rather poorly in my Mandarin classes in school. I got a D7 for my Chinese at AO-level in my first year in junior college. In the second year, I gave up trying to pass the subject and dropped it. I just could not see the relevance of putting effort into learning a language which I did not use at home, in my other subjects, or in any practical way other than in Mandarin language class. In short, I was studying Mandarin in a vacuum.

Nowadays, I know that some students in Singapore schools face a similar difficulty and lack of motivation towards putting their hearts into learning the language. For many years the education system has been constructed primarily around getting grades rather than learning for learning's sake. It is thus understandable that students might be unmotivated when learning the subject; it is extremely difficult to study Chinese just for the sake of passing exams.

The thing about learning a language is that a language never exists in a vacuum. It is a medium of communication, a tool used by people to exchange ideas, to record thoughts and knowledge, and to express oneself. It is thus natural that without an environment within which to regularly use the language, or without a purpose which includes learning Mandarin as a part, students are naturally unmotivated to study the language at school.

Personally, I have since moved on from those times when I was unmotivated to learn the language. My experience studying in Australia and my deepening understanding of global economics and business have given me a personal impetus to improve my Mandarin.

Here are examples of the things I have seen:

A. China's economy is large (3rd largest) and is the fastest growing of any of the major economies in the world. In time to come, it will exert an global economic influence that businesses, politicans and employees cannot ignore. Indeed, the global economic center of gravity has begun to shift across the Pacific Ocean away from the USA. Those with a grasp of the Chinese language will be in an advantageous position to benefit from the ascension of the Chinese economy.

As a case in point, let us take the economy of Australia. Australia is one of the most resilient economies in the world. It has shown positive or flat economic growth for the last 15 consecutive years. In most of those 15 years, Australia's economy experienced expansion, and it is still going strong. This is unprecedented for a developed economy. A deeper examination into the roots of Australia's economic growth will reveal that it has been driven by the global natural resources boom of which China has been the engine. As a country rich in natural resources, Australia has seen a surge in natural resource exports to China, and this has had a persistent multiplier effect throughout the Aussie economy. Needless to say, the Australians who have some sort of understanding of Mandarin have been able to capitalise on the business opportunities presented by China's insatiable thirst for natural resources.

B. Not too long ago, a certain individual was passed over for the top job at Goldman Sachs China because his mandarin was not good enough:

"Goldman's Ong misses China CEO job on language hitch (Bloomberg)
Updated: 2007-07-12 16:33

Goldman Sachs Group Inc, the world's most profitable investment bank, couldn't name the co-head of investment banking in Asia as chief executive officer of its Beijing joint venture because his knowledge of Chinese was too weak, three bankers at the firm said.

Richard Ong, an ethnic Chinese born in Malaysia, didn't write Chinese well enough to take a mandatory test for senior managers, said the bankers, declining to be identified as the matter is private. New York-based Goldman instead promoted Zha Xiangyang, deputy CEO of its China joint venture, Goldman Sachs Gao Hua Securities Co, in May."
See here for the entire article.

Indeed, it is no trivial matter that a senior banker at one of the world's top banks was unable to land the top job in the world's fastest growing securities market. A firm grasp of the Chinese language is so critical to doing business in the country that even those with less experience and ability may be promoted to top positions over those who are technically more capable but linguistically less so.

C. For many years, Las Vegas has taken pride in being the gaming and entertainment capital of the world. Yet since the liberalisation of the gaming market in Macau not too long ago, Las Vegas has already been supplanted from its perch by the former portuguese economy. Macau in 2006 over took Las Vegas in gaming revenues; in time to come it will far and away outstrip Las Vegas and make it look like a small fish. All the big players in the gaming market, including Americans, Australians and Europeans have been rushing to get a foothold in Macau market.

Read this to get a sense of the scale of the Chinese market.

D. In the world of entertainment, we are seeing a conscious decision on the parts of movie executives to try to penetrate the Chinese market. Pirates of the Caribbean 3, for instance, starred Chow Yun Fatt and a few other Chinese actors. Oceans 13, for the first time, included a Chinese actor in its cast, who only spoke Mandarin throughout the movie. In short, Hollywood is beginning to realise that the Chinese market is just too large to ignore.

E. Closer to home in Singapore, the government has made a push to expand industries such as the integrated resorts, private banking, and digital media. I have absolutely no doubt that the Chinese market will be a major contributing factor to the growth of these industries in Singapore. Those seeking for jobs in these areas will definitely have an advantage over their peers if they are fluent in Mandarin.


As we can see, China will exert its influence far and wide on the global economy in almost every field of business and in every part of the world, particularly in Asia. These examples that I have listed are only the tip of the iceberg, a simple enquiry into the Chinese influence on the global economy will make its importance apparent. Ethnic Singaporean Chinese who ignore the Chinese language only do so to their personal disadvantage.

As for me, the difficulties of finding motivations to improve my Mandarin are long gone. I now try to watch Mandarin movies, interact with Chinese people, and put myself in situations where I can be exposed to the language. I hope that in time I will be able to have a fluent grasp of the language.

How about you?


Anonymous said...

thanx for the info...i heard that mandarin is hard language to master. do u have any tips to learn it and use in communications? i'm interested to take the mandarin language in my third semester but afraid if its too hard n may drag my grades down. please give your opinion. thnx ^___^

Guus said...

When I came to Singapore in 2006, the first thing I did was taking an intensive course in Mandarin. Knowing just a bit of a new language has already opened up a new world for me. I agree about the growing importance of the Chinese language and have recently founded Yago Singapore which offers Singapore-based Chinese classes.