The Language of Business

Executives aiming to do business in Mandarin face a steep learning curve.

Learning Mandarin | BCBusiness
CEO Don Kayne (right) tries to master the Mandarin basics with instructor Yao Zhang.

Executives aiming to do business in Mandarin face a steep learning curve.

At 8 a.m. sharp on a Saturday morning, Canfor CEO Don Kayne walks downstairs from his office at the company’s Marpole headquarters and opens the door for his Chinese tutor. Yao Zhang follows Kayne back upstairs, past a lacquered green Chinese vase – a gift from a client – and a photograph of Kayne with Stephen Harper. Today the Vancouver offices of the $2.4-billion Canadian lumber company are dim and empty, and Kayne wears bright green sneakers and cuffs rolled up to the elbows.

Zhang produces a tape recorder and sets it on the polished boardroom table in the conference room adjoining Kayne’s office. He presses a button, and his own sibilant voice reads out a rapid string of numbers in Mandarin: “Jiu, yao, liu, ba, si, ba, wu . . . .”

Kayne takes notes as quickly as he can, but looks doubtful. “Again?” he asks.

Zhang runs Yao Mandarin School Vancouver, a training company for Vancouver business people learning conversational Mandarin. Zhang was one of the first in a growing market. In the two years after he founded his school in 2008, his main competitor, Key Language Training, opened its doors, followed by two other schools targeting business professionals. Five years ago, a course in Chinese business writing at UBC Continuing Studies could not fill its 25 seats. It now runs twice a year to meet demand. Zhang says that since opening Yao Mandarin School he has hired half a dozen part-time teachers and taught nearly 300 business people.

Zhang declines to specify how much his corporate clients pay, but Suzanne Zhu at Key Language Training charges $40 an hour for private lessons with one of her school’s 20 Mandarin teachers. International language school chains such as International House and International Language Schools of Canada charge $200 to $300 for an eight-week course.

Schools like Zhang’s have a simple appeal: Mandarin is the language of rapidly growing markets in Vancouver and overseas, and those who can communicate will profit. International House advertises with the slogan, “Mandarin opens doors.”

But as Canfor’s Don Kayne has discovered, Mandarin is a notoriously difficult language to learn. The grammar is alien, meaning shifts with subtle tonality and reading a newspaper requires recognizing thousands of characters. After two years of instruction from Zhang, Kayne still struggles with simple sentences.

“Our typical student is a 30- to 50-year-old corporate executive. They don’t speak any Chinese to start with and their objective is to learn some conversational Chinese,” Zhang says. Only a very small percentage of “non-heritage” Chinese speakers will ever attain fluency, he adds.

Those few non-heritage professionals in Vancouver who have learned Mandarin at a level applicable to business usually learned overseas, as did J.P. Mercieca and Jimmy Mitchell. “You’ve got to live over there,” says Mercieca, who hosts meetings and welcomes Chinese delegations for the Vancouver Economic Development Commission. “You have to be incredibly disciplined if you haven’t been in that environment for at least a couple of years.”

Mitchell, who promotes international investment in Vancouver with AdvantageBC, spent 20 years in China and Taiwan. He says that even after learning the language, the usefulness of fluent Chinese in business is largely a myth. “I find it a strategic tool, not just something you throw around,” he explains. “If it’s a piece of business that I want to get done, and the business is better done in English, I don’t even want to go there,” he adds.

Educated in theatre, Mitchell can even mimic the local accents of Beijing and Taiwan. He uses his skill in Chinese as an icebreaker, or to make clients feel more welcome. For important meetings, he still hires an interpreter. Expecting to attain fluency at a language school in Vancouver, he says, is “deluded.”

That doesn’t bother Zhang. He focuses on teaching his students just enough to have a simple conversation with a business partner or to chat with Chinese staff.

Kayne, for example, has taken a little Mandarin a long way. He might not be able to negotiate a deal in Mandarin, but he says that speaking a few words makes a difference. When American markets collapsed in 2008, he says, he had to convince Chinese customers that Canfor was dedicated to China and wouldn’t jump ship once American markets recovered.

“I think that the sincerity of what we’re trying to accomplish on the long term is really amplified by the demonstration that I’m learning the language,” Kayne says.

In two decades, the share of Canfor’s business conducted with China has risen from zero to 35 per cent. Mandarin lessons, Kayne says, deserve some of the credit.