Corporate China Speaks ‘Business’

Peter Burman, President of EF Corporate Solutions

It’s a modern-day maxim that nations with the strongest desire to build competitive economies are the ones that aggressively invest in up-skilling their labour force. As China's entrepreneurial streak races ahead, corporate executives from Shanghai to Shenzhen are recognising the importance of agility in meeting the demands of a perpetually changing global marketplace. Mastering English as the international language of business provides this agility, allowing executives to instantly respond to new opportunities in otherwise impenetrable markets.

Following what appears to be a highly effective top-down approach for many Chinese businesses, CEOs are the first to ramp up their English language skills.

In China, most C-suite executives are highly qualified in computer science and engineering, subjects traditionally valued for its ‘employability’.  While English is taught extensively in schools, Chinese pupils largely learn by rote, and may find their classroom English insufficient when speaking on the world stage. Our research (link to EPI-c) has revealed a large gap between current usage and the desired level of proficiency in English in China, highlighting the nation’s increasingly outward-facing business outlook. Ambitious for global capital fund-raising, as well as business expansion to sell more made-in-China tech products to global consumers require top Chinese executives to speak English. There’s a clear desire in China to learn English on a corporate level for business competitiveness, and on an individual level, vying for higher profile employment opportunities.

A few decades ago, the business community projected that Mandarin would be the new language of business, but this hasn't been the case. English is the de facto language of trade, commerce and international politics for its association with cultural neutrality.  Culturally and linguistically different countries, like China and India for example, naturally lean on English to communicate with each other. English is a neutral third language that levels the playing field and allows for diplomacy. 

Asian CEOs are not hiding behind faceless brands anymore, and are increasingly entering the spotlight along with their interest in overseas expansion. Engaging with global customers is a necessity for top executives, and the leaders who speak fluent English often attract more recognition and exposure in the international media than some of their perhaps more personable peers.

Alibaba's chairman, Jack Ma, espouses the brand value speaking English has on shaping the world’s view of Chinese CEOs, companies, and the country at large. Widely recognised as a great public speaker on the world stage, Jack Ma’s love affair with English began in his childhood, when he’d cycle for miles to various hotels in his hometown of Hangzhou to practice his English with tourists while giving them free guided tours. He became an English teacher solely because of his belief in the language as a global lingua franca decades ahead of his contemporaries.

And while Alibaba is the world’s largest ecommerce platform for small businesses, to date, Jack Ma confesses to have never actually written a line of code nor made one sale to a customer. His strong bilingual skills, confidence, and business vision have catapulted him in line with global private sector leaders like Bill Gates and Tim Cook.

Other examples of charismatic Chinese CEOs stepping into the global spotlight with their English skills include Sohu’s Charles Zhang Chaoyang and Baidu’s Robin Li Yanhong. These two American educated executives are frequently in the American media, commenting on the industry and on their earnings.

Hot on their trail, Lei Jun, the charismatic founder and CEO of Chinese smartphone company, took the stage in Delhi to launch its first product for the international market. New to the English language, Lei Jun did stumble over his few rehearsed lines in English, but was still met with applause from Indian Xiaomi fans. After announcing free Mi Band fitness trackers to everyone in the crowd, Lei Jun tried to engage with his audience by shouting, “Are you OK? Are you OK?” which became a viral sensation overnight.

This has Lei Jun and Xiaomi into the global limelight, more for his confidence on stage regardless of his broken English. Lei Jun’s presentation may have led to some gentle mocking in China, but his Indian audience clearly appreciated his attempt to speak in their language of business, and even if what he said wasn’t perfect, they knew what he meant.

Speaking the local language while visiting a country where the business is looking to grow can humanise and endear executives to their local staff and consumers, much like how Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg was warmly praised by native speakers for speaking Mandarin in a Q&A held at the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing. Despite this, Zuckerberg’s foray into Putonghua was derided by foreign observers with a stronger grasp of Mandarin. The fact is that native speakers are naturally more forgiving, and more appreciative of the intention behind the effort.

The key take-away from Lei Jun's grammatical gaff is that mistakes are how you learn languages, and even corporate leaders are allowed a few slip-ups along the way. Immersive learning is the only way to retain knowledge, as it provides countless opportunities for interactions and helps put theory into practice. This can't be accomplished if executives isolate themselves in a classroom behind a wall of cue cards.

About Peter Burman

Peter Burman is a business professional with 18 years of international experience gained from a variety of cross-functional, leadership roles in private education companies such as EF Education First and My Academy. His career and education has taken him to many parts of the world, including Chile, the USA, South Africa, Spain, and Sweden; a journey that has helped form a passion and belief in international learning and the importance of educating the new ‘global citizen’.

Peter Burman started his career with the dream of becoming a professional golfer and joined the Scandinavian (Telia) Golf Tour. However in 1996 he started what he terms his first ‘proper job’ as Product Specialist for Neurosurgical products at Johnson & Johnson. In 1999, he joined EF Education First in Sweden to develop travel abroad language programs, and after just a year was promoted to run part of the business in South America, based in Chile, and subsequently Boston, USA. In 2004 he was appointed worldwide President for EF’s B2B division, supplying language training for companies, governments, schools and Universities. He was awarded a Bachelor of Science, Major in Business Administration at the University of Uppsala.