Learning Chinese is not easy


‘Are Australians looking to learn Chinese exclusively interested in improving their business prospects?’ I almost wrote that rant-like question on Facebook, and then didn’t post it.

There is nothing wrong with looking to improve your business prospects. I think it’s actually a very healthy and valid pursuit. What I find wrong is the timing and expectations.

Learning a language takes at least a year – learning Chinese at least three, more likely five or six. The decision to start learning Chinese should be considered within this time-frame. And who knows where the business will be by then?

At a strictly personal level, the better calculation is always to take a law degree, a degree in finance, or an MBA. That’s going to be better for your business. 

Engaging with China has enormous potential, but it is going to take effort matching the rewards. The better question should be – do you want to be part of a new generation of Australians able to engage with China. 


There’s a lot of lies around Chinese language learning. The biggest lie of all is that it’s going to be simple and easy. It’s not. It’s hard. Yet another lie, a more dangerous one, is that, for that reason, learning Chinese is impossible. Not so. Hard is not impossible. Hard is just hard.

Confucius Institue advertises their four week intensive classes this way. ‘Register today to deepen your understanding of China and ensure you are equipped with the language skills to effectively communicate with Chinese partners, clients and colleagues.’ I’ve studied Chinese for six years, an hour a day on average, and I’m a trained linguist. I’m unsure that I’m fully equipped with the language skills to effectively communicate with Chinese partners, clients and colleagues even today. I doubt anybody could get there in four weeks.

And there is a danger in selling lies. You create fake expectations, trigger disappointment, and people give up.


Engaging with China is not about personal gains, at least not only. That’s a paradox. I’ve been given access and opportunities because I can speak it and others can’t – but ideally, we’d like more people to be more competent. Although I lose my competitive advantage.

At the moment, China is still very unknown, and therefore scary. Fear is not good for business. If more Australians spend more time in and with China, this will result in better intuitive understanding. Not the cutting edge deep original insight – but avoiding the massive, hard-to-correct cultural blunder.

Are you willing to put in the hard work, which may not benefit you personally rightaway, but will contribute to a cumulative effect and benefit the country and community in the long run? In other terms, are you willing to lead in engaging with China?

This is the question that should be put forward, this is the challenge that these institutions should propose. Surely, Australians are daring enough, community-minded enough, curious enough, to take it up – they are, I’ve been here awhile, I’ve observed them!

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