time to study

July 15th, 2010

Following a link, as one does on lazy mornings when the internet is a series of unrelated tangents and the occasional rabbit hole, I came across this interesting little article. At the bottom is a small note attributing the original text to Skykiwi, but with no obvious link, so give me a minute to see if I can find the original…. Ah, after struggling with their super-slow loading and not overly cooperative search function, here it is.

Two minor linguistic points:

It did take me a while to figure out “约翰基” was John Key, New Zealand’s prime minister. Yes, I feel silly.

The Chinese rendering of “New Zealand” as “纽西兰”, apparently common in Hong Kong and Taiwan, has always bugged me for some reason. Totally irrational, I know, and it is closer to the sound of “New Zealand” than is “新西兰”, but pet peeves are never rational. I suppose it’s because all my Chinese has been learned on the mainland, and so “新西兰” just sounds “correct”, while “纽西兰” just doesn’t.

Anyways, the article states John Key is encouraging young New Zealanders to learn Chinese. His reasoning is that it would make doing business in China easier. He’s right, of course, and I have heard complaints that New Zealand’s business community pays far too little attention to language and culture when they attempt to do business here, meaning they’re much less successful than they could or should be. I would add there are many other reasons to learn Chinese, but hey, John Key’s a businessman, and on this point he’s absolutely right. And on the subject of teaching Chinese, he points out one serious problem:

他说,纽西兰现有的 2500个学校中只有89个开设中文课程,这实在有些少了。

He said that of New Zealand’s 2500 schools, only 89 had opened Chinese classes, which is really far too few.

And on the subject of New Zealand’s traditional bad attitude to the study of foreign languages:

纽西兰商人已经在中国经商20多年。他一再强调,纽西兰人的确应该换换思路了。以前因语言相通,纽西兰人非常愿意和澳洲、英国人做生意,但现在必须明 白,纽西兰的未来在中国,在亚洲。

New Zealand’s business people have been doing business in China for 20 years. He continually emphasised that New Zealand really should change its thinking. Before, because of the common language, New Zealanders really wanted to do business with Australia, the UK and the USA, but now they must understand, New Zealand’s future is in China, in Asia.

I would say there’s a slight overstatement there in that I don’t think New Zealand’s entire future lies in China, or even in Asia. There’s plenty of possibility on the other side of the Pacific, in Latin America, too, and no reason why Africa should be ignored, and plenty of reasons to continue to trade with our traditional trading partners and the Pacific. But yes, New Zealand desperately needs a major change in its thinking, a thought transplant, perhaps, towards the study of foreign languages. We do need more people studying Chinese, and other Asian languages, and other global languages, and we do need our business leaders to start valuing linguistic and cultural skills much more highly than they traditionally have. Otherwise we might as well become Australia’s newest and weakest state, and give Tasmania somebody to look down on.

But it’s not all bad news: He goes on to point out that last year the number of people studying Chinese surpassed the number studying Latin for the first time. I should bloody well hope so! I see nothing wrong, and indeed much value in studying Latin, but I do think more people should be studying living languages than dead languages. We need a nation with good international communication skills, not a nation of linguists and classicists. I would also add that when I started my university studies, only two high schools in the entire country taught Russian. 89 schools teaching Chinese is far too few, but the trend seems to be heading in the right direction.

The article ends with EuroAsia director Kenneth Leong:

他认为,在中国早已经兴起了英语热,中国的商界精英很多都熟谙英文,但纽西兰人中懂中文的非常非常少,这明显会将Kiwi放在不 利的地位上。因此,无论从哪个角度出发,都是时候好好学学中文了。

He thinks the English craze broke out very early in China, and many of China’s business elite are good at English, but very, very few New Zealanders understand Chinese, which will clearly put Kiwis in a disadvantageous position. Therefore, regardless of which angle you start from, it’s time to start seriously studying Chinese.

Actually, in that last sentence, I’m not really sure how to work the “好好” or the repitition of the verb “学” into English. Any better suggestions than what I wrote? Anyways, many people will read that and say, “If they’re all learning English, why should we learn Chinese?” I guess the most obvious answer is that if you’re monolingual, you are completely at the mercy of your business partners and translators, you have no way of knowing what is being said or written in Chinese, you have no way of judging the quality or accuracy of the translations, you are totally denying yourself any chance to read all those little cultural subtleties you can read in your own people and therefore denying yourself a major chance for intelligence gathering (I mean, legitimate gathering of information for purposes of legitimate business, of course), you are opening yourself up to being cheated, exploited, and thoroughly ripped off. Whereas if you do learn Chinese, you are, as John Key stated, giving yourself a huge leg-up in understanding the market and the people you are doing business with, and also in safeguarding your own interests, and the more you learn, the bigger the advantage you give yourself.

I’ve certainly found that learning Chinese has made my job much easier, and the more I learn, the easier it gets.

2 Responses to “time to study”

  1. Richard Says:

    Couldn’t agree more – NZ in general has a shockingly bad infrastructure for learning foreign languages. We seem to have inherited that Anglo-Saxon delusion that “Well, everyone speaks English anyway.” This (both the infrastructure and the attitude) need to change.

    In my experience in France, you can’t get anywhere in business without local language and culture. Business and trade here is VERY relational: discussions are long and circuitous, and the Anglo-Saxon concept of having a meeting agenda and actions is alien to many French businesspeople. I simply can’t imagine how monolingual anglophones get anything done in this country.

    And without local language, even with the best translators in the world, you’re going to miss details and subtleties in the marketplace – things that could give you a competitive advantage.

  2. wangbo Says:

    It’s more the attitude than the infrastructure that frustrates me. Infrastructure is relatively easy to fix. Attitude takes a lot more time and effort.

    And your description of France is pretty much what I’d expect of any country, including New Zealand. How often have you heard New Zealanders complaining about immigrants coming to our country and refusing to learn our language (despite the complete lack of evidence to back up their claims)? And how many expat Kiwis have you met who’ve spent years in non-English speaking countries and yet are still rigidly, stubbornly monolingual? I hope it’s different for you in France,although your statement “I simply can’t imagine how monolingual anglophones get anything done in this country” suggests otherwise, but it can be downright depressing sometimes here in China, the sheer number of our fellow Kiwis I’ve met who’ve spent years in China without bothering to learn even the slightest shred of the language or culture.

    But I’m preaching to the choir, I know. Let’s hope John Key helps us kick off a movement to study foreign languages and cultures in New Zealand.