China – The Language Barrier

I know an American GM who managed an English speaking team in Beijing. He then moved to a second tier city where the main staff had some English, but not as much. He continued to have meetings in English just like he had in Beijing. No one wanted to admit that they did not understand very much. I mentioned this to the GM, but he did not want to think about it either.

I knew how much they were getting and could only wide eyed watch as the GM talked at length at the start of each meeting. Speak to your Chinese workers, and then ask them to repeat what they heard. Surprise may await you. Get a translator if you need it. It is not as big a loss of face as having people know you are talking to the wind. It is definitely not as big a waste of time as managers only getting 30% of what you say.

I know some companies want to have a global culture centered around English. I love the idea of having a global culture. Language will help, but do not forget the cost. I know one Research and Design Center in Shanghai where they employ a full time American English teacher. That is a good idea considering their requirement that top managers all speak English. However, it does mean that they are dramatically limiting their pool of workers. And high level R&D workers are not plentiful anyway. So they are more chronically short of workers. I personally would choose a global culture built around certain values as opposed to skills like English in most cases. But I think each company must carefully choose how many and which must haves they want to name.

Your translators are critical. You need a translator or translators that can do more than a word for word translation of what you are saying or writing. You need someone who can translate the heart of what you are saying in a culturally contextualized way. That is a lot to ask of a translator. We would vet and background check them at least as deep as we do senior managers.

This all leads toward another conversation related to culture.
Be on the watch for China – The Culture I

Anything to add about language? Certainly there are other stories out there.

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Posted in: China, Culture Development

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