Of all the many barriers to doing business in China – distance, customs, laws, and so on – none is as personally challenging as language. Not being able to understand or be understood makes it difficult to simply get through the day, let alone conduct business.

But do you have to learn Mandarin to do business in China? Is it really that hard? Like everything in China, to Americans, it’s always for the best to learn as much as you can. But it is also surprising how well you can get by with only a little bit of Mandarin in many situations.

The language

Chinese is not really a language, but a family of languages. They generally share the same written characters, called Hanzi, but these can be structured and pronounced very differently. About 70% of the nation speaks Mandarin, the language of the North. There are also two types of characters, Traditional (as used in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan) and Simplified (used everywhere else).

Business owners will rarely have to worry about the written language, but spoken Mandarin is important. Any effort to learn it is appreciated. It is a tonal language, with rising and falling pitches changing the meaning. Most westerners get this wrong at first, but it is always good to try.

All of this makes Mandarin Chinese very difficult. There are some, however, who claim it is not. There are many ways of learning online, too. It’s up to you to decide how much you want to immerse yourself into it and make a good impression.

Do they speak English?

Fluency in English is not particularly common, but China is learning fast. All schoolchildren learn English now as part of their regular studies. Younger people tend to speak at least some English.

Older people, however, may not. Even if they do, it is good to practice speaking slowly using simple words. Sticking to simple sentences, constructed with basic subject-verb construction, is always for the best.

As China learns English, the nation is more and more friendly to foreigners. Emergency services, for example, are soon going to be offered in English around the clock. They are certainly doing their part to be as open as possible.

What should you do?

Language is always a personal matter, since it is more difficult for some than others. In all cases, a little respect for the person you are talking to can go a long way. Some effort to make yourself understood plainly, regardless of the language, will help.

If you do want to learn Mandarin, there are many ways to start online. Be sure to take your practice into your daily life, however, and do it every day. If you are determined, you can probably learn at least some spoken Mandarin very quickly. It may not be perfect, but all of your efforts will be appreciated.