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The importance of language in the workplace when working in Shanghai

Marlon Mai - 19/08/2016
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The first thing that may come to mind when you are considering a career abroad is your language skill set. You need to question whether it is sufficient to effectively communicate with those inside and outside the workplace. It can be considered a barrier that blocks individuals from succeeding in the foreign workplace. Here are some things you should keep in mind before making that decision:

Native language 

Let’s start with your native language. Assuming you know only one language, can you confidently say that you are an articulate communicator? Are you able to efficiently communicate? It begins with the mastery of your own language, and more importantly the English language. If you are looking to work for an international company, you’ll most likely be hired due to your native tongue, to support the company in skills it is lacking. For this reason, the company will place faith in your language skills to deal with those that the company is unable to.

Chances are that you’ll need to be able to understand and communicate with someone whose first language is not Chinese, so you’ll need to be able to understand them and interpret. This is why mastery of your native tongue is crucial in order to avoid any miscommunications, as the company relies on you.

Modern beliefs

We are living in a world that is more connected than ever before, thanks to globalisation and the advancements of technology. Because of this, there is an increased need to speak to others in more than just one language. From a business perspective, it is definitely beneficial for employees to know more than one language due to the potential market reach. The demand for multi-lingual employees has increased significantly; you can see this as you scroll through a range of job ads with specific requirements - “Fluent in … is beneficial/compulsory”. You are definitely one step ahead if you know more than one language.

A survey was distributed to employees in the Morgan McKinley Shanghai office, questioning the importance of language in the workplace. Unsurprisingly (regardless of role/seniority), respondents all equally agreed that it is important to know both English and Mandarin when working in Shanghai in order to deal with a range of clients. If an employee did not know both languages, it may disadvantage them in succeeding in the company in the future. Although this is a sample taken from Morgan McKinley, it is evident that this sample can be applied to other companies that are similar across Shanghai. Respondents in the survey termed it as - “common” to be able to converse in both English and Chinese in order to conduct business no matter what circumstance.

The psychology of language – Psycholinguistics

"If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart." - Nelson Mandela

Language is a tool used to connect ourselves with others. It is a psychological and social phenomenon; it has the power to make us feel more comfortable and connected with those that are able to speak the same tongue. We feel a sense of belonging. There won’t be barriers blocking you from fully understanding another person. From a business perspective, it is important to understand your client and what type of person they are, in order to further enhance the relationship.

The impact of language is definitely innate; we don’t notice the effect it has on the workplace. It has the power to not only reduce the stress of an employee, but it can create a positive work environment that benefits the company in many ways. In this sense, the power of language sets the foundation of the work/social experience they will feel.

To succeed or not to succeed - that is the question! 

Although i am emphasising the importance of being able to speak both English and Chinese, it really depends on the type of role that you are applying for, and the requirements that are needed for that job (so don’t worry if you are not bilingual!). If you enjoy being comfortable and staying in the same position, this is a great opportunity for you. However, if you choose to follow that path be wary of the consequences that may follow. But the moral of the story is that – if you are willing to succeed and rise through the ranks in shanghai, most companies, if not all, will require you to be bilingual.

Marlon Mai's picture
Operations Director | Finance & Accounting, IT, Sales & Marketing Recruitment
+86 21 2287 3160
mmai@morganmckinley.com