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Will learning Chinese improve your employment prospects?

by on February 18, 2010

The short answer is…probably not.

I have encountered a number of people in law and finance who relocated to Hong Kong, having based at least a small part of that decision on the fact that China seems to poised to be the next great economic power so learning the language ought to make them rather more marketable upon returning to their home country.  This is somewhat of a misconception.  I am in fact learning Chinese, but more with an eye toward simply engaging more deeply with the culture and if I happen to get a boost to my resume a couple years down the line, then I’ll consider it an added bonus.

I am of course not discouraging anyone from learning Chinese, but I have come across some great articles and blogs that address what many believe to be a false assumption held by thousands of expats living in China.  I think the issue is summed up rather well at Ben Ross’s blog.  Here’s a quick except that summarizes his take on the issue:

“Although Chinese may in fact be in high demand, what’s equally important is to factor in is the supply of Chinese speakers. According to the US census, in 2006 there were 2.5 million** people in the United States who speak Chinese at home. That’s more than any language other than English and Spanish. What this means is that not even counting the hundreds of thousands of American currently studying Chinese as a second language, there are already over two million Americans, who by virtue of growing up speaking Chinese, speak the language better than you ever will, regardless of how much you study. From international traders to insurance salesmen to delivery boys at the local chop suey joint, most of the “China jobs” in the US are filled by Chinese Americans.

On the other side of the ocean, English proficiency in the Middle Kingdom is spreading like SARS in a Chinese train station during Spring Festival. Every year Chinese universities are churning out millions (literally) of graduating English majors, a large percentage of whom don’t find jobs with their bilingualness either. Those that do, tend to start out in the 1000 RMB per month range, about 170 USD. In short, there is no bottleneck in communication between China and the United States. And in a capitalist world governed by the laws of supply and demand, there is little justification for hiring an American and paying him an American wage solely because he can speak Chinese.”

It’s unfortunate, but true, that even if you spend 3 or 4 years mastering Chinese, there are scores of Chinese lawyers who speak English as well as you and speak Chinese better than you ever will.  But, as Ross mentions, learning the language could certainly give you a boost if you return home.  Just don’t come to China expecting to lay claim to a valuable new skill set.  Instead, focus on doing what you do well, add value to your firm with your current skill set and consider time spent learning Chinese as a small feather in your cap.  And something to impress your friends with at cocktail parties.

Should you decide to learn Chinese for your own benefit, there is an excellent article in the International Herald Tribune that gives some insight in online tools to assist you.  Read more here…


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One Comment
  1. Ado permalink

    This is a very interesting post, though with respects to law, the situation seems a bit more complex.* But the general conclusion is that Chinese proficiency is very useful. There seems to be two important variables at work in your marketability and employment: firstly, your China proficiency/expertise, and secondly, your legal expertise. From most accounts**, one’s legal expertise, or perceived expertise, develops much faster in the United States than in China, but in China you gain China legal expertise. Thus, expats headed over to China don’t look as good to US employers if they want to come back because they don’t have that US experience. They have little US-based expertise, which diminishes their value as legal professionals

    On the other hand, a universal phenomenon I observe among US-based attorneys who can speak Chinese is that they have numerous Chinese clients, so their proficiency is helping out a lot. I’ve also seen people with good Chinese skills go from positions as partners in American firms straight to top-level China firms, or general counsel positions of top companies. These include native speakers, but also people who developed their language skills while in the US.

    The bottom line, therefore, seems to be not to sacrifice your US based legal opportunities for a chance to work in China to develop your Chinese skills.

    *I am basing this on discussions with a few corporate lawyers, GC, blog posts I’ve read, and an insider view on a $10bn China transnational merger.
    ** The contradictory account is from a Skadden associate saying HK work he gets is more sophisticated than he’d get in the US office.

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