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From whispers to a roar

By David Wilson

Getting the hang of Chinese languages will be crucial in the Asian Century, writes David Wilson.

Want to turbocharge your chances of making progress this century?

Learn Chinese. That is the message from the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency.

In its report, which addresses Australia's skills and workforce development needs to 2025, the agency also advises next-generation job seekers to gain skills in Asian culture and business in readiness for an Asian Century with a strong Chinese flavour.

Chinese languages are among the world's most spoken. Learning them is said to be hard because of their tonal nature. But it is easier than you think, says health-tech guru Alison Hardacre, who speaks five Asian languages, including Cantonese, and has used them throughout her eclectic career. She says that in contrast with European languages such as French, Chinese is free from "complicated verb conjugations or tenses that trip you up".

Once you get used to the tone of Chinese languages, which takes about three months of application, you can put together sentences and be understood, Hardacre says.

Then, to improve, you should speak Chinese as widely as possible. Speak with fellow students, Chinese international students, people at restaurants and more.

"When you speak with other people, you can learn more-complicated sentences and ideas and start to be yourself in Chinese, which is fun and very fulfilling," Hardacre says.

A grasp of Chinese can boost your career, whatever path you take, she says. What's more, learning it will reflect your commitment to an international career, which is always a positive, and expose you to a range of vocational possibilities.

Hardacre mentions another plus: learning a language pays broad cultural dividends, exposing you to new ways of thinking and expanding your horizons. "The more you learn the better," she says, adding that because Chinese people are proud of their language, any grasp of it will stand you in good stead in business.

Hardacre learnt Chinese by living with a Chinese family in Melbourne. A mix of formal classroom study and absorbing the language in your everyday life works best, she says. She advocates doing a home-stay with an Australia-based Chinese family or travelling around China. However you tackle the language, attaining reasonable fluency takes about three years, she says.

According to TAFE Sydney Institute, 1.3 billion people - one-fifth of the world's population - speak some form of Chinese as their native language. Mandarin Chinese is one of the United Nations' six official languages and is the standard literary and official lingo of China. Based on the Beijing dialect, Mandarin is spoken by about 800 million people.

Mandarin's counterpart, Cantonese, is comparatively niche - mainly limited to south-eastern China, including Macau and business beehive Hong Kong.

However, Hardacre says Mandarin's popularity is growing in Hong Kong. Because, generally, Mandarin dominates, it is more useful than Cantonese, she says.

Sydney-based Chinese-to-English translator Elle Wu agrees.

"Mandarin Chinese should always be the first choice," she says, noting that whereas Cantonese speakers normally understand Mandarin, the reverse does not apply, especially in mainland China.

Learn Mandarin by hiring a qualified tutor who speaks the standard version, Wu says. Or expose yourself to the environment where Mandarin is spoken. "Staying in China for a year or two would definitely be helpful."

The hardest part of adapting to Chinese business culture is getting to grips with its greater intimacy, Wu says. Many Chinese prefer to do business over dinner or a bottle of wine. She adds that Chinese people are not keen on routine. "Instead, they are always trying to think out of the box and to take short cuts."

For more information on Asian culture, see Asialink (

Published: 03 November 2012

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