One of the biggest challenges for westerners looking to engage with China is of course the language issue. In an ideal world, Chinese businesses would have staff who could speak good English — or another European language — but many do not.
The usual solution is to use interpreters but that in itself is fraught with pitfalls — see this ImageThief story for more on using interpreters in China.
So, wouldn't it be great if foreign businesses had western-educated employees on their payroll who had at least a basic grasp of Chinese?
EngagingChina was thus heartened to read this Detroit Free Press story about an ambitious initiative by Michigan's Oakland County, to become the first county in the US to offer Mandarin in all its its schools.
Five months ago, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, issued a challenge to Oakland County school leaders to become the first in the US to teach Mandarin and Chinese culture in all 28 school districts, which together have 230,000 students. He said:
This is about the future of business in Oakland County and frankly the entire state. China — with its 1.3bn consumers — is critical to all of us in Michigan now and in the future. By being able to offer Mandarin and Chinese culture in all of our schools it will give us a distinct advantage to businesses in China that may be looking at the US market.”
Michigan is the traditional home of the US car industry but officials know that they need to explore new opportunities because of the chronic problems facing the automotive sector.
Oakland County hopes to find new markets for Oakland businesses in China but it is also looking to attract Chinese businesses to set up in Oakland. Having a workforce with a basic familiarity with Chinese language and culture should prove to be a big advantage and the country has wasted little time in establishing links with the Beijing office of Richard Ellis, which offers relocation services for Chinese businesses.
This is just the sort of go-getting initiative that is going to put Oakland on the map as far as Chinese businesses are concerned, and while it will be many years before Oakland's Mandarin language skills are noticed in the workplace, it's the thought that counts.
This fall, at least 15 of the county's 28 districts will have Mandarin classes with the remainder offering classes in Chinese culture.
Wayne County, a neighouring county to Oakland, is also making a big effort to attract Chinese companies, principally in the automotive sector. See this EngagingChina story for more.
You can listen to Oakland's Patterson talking about China and his proposal to teach Mandarin in this podcast.
Elsewhere on the language front:
Mandarin teaching is booming in British schools. Although the absolute numbers of pupils involved remain small, 729 sat the GCSE in Mandarin exam this year a rise of 27% on the previous year. There are now about 400 state schools in the country where some Chinese is taught. For the first time, under reforms about to be implemented to the secondary curriculum, schools will be allowed to choose a non-European tongue, such as Mandarin, as the compulsory language taught to pupils when they arrive from primary school. More in this Independent story.