Learning Mandarin and Arabic, languages of the future, is easier than ever

Doha in Qatar

Working in the Middle East last year, I met a Spaniard who spoke impeccable Arabic. It seemed perfect down to his earnest expressions, and I couldn’t help but feel a pang of jealously. Especially since he was also very tall, undeniably handsome, and sang Cat Stevens beautifully as if he was an understudy.

He probably had other secret abilities concealed up his neat sleeve somewhere; free-diving in the Arctic, perhaps, or designing space stations for fun.

There isn’t much I can do about raising my height (Tom Cruise shoes perhaps), and I’m probably a little old for serenading anyway, but a few lines in Arabic are likely to turn a head or two at some stage in life. (My looks are fine, I should add.)

The same applies to the other influential languages in the 21st century – Spanish, Chinese, German, Japanese, Russian,  French, Hindi and Portuguese.

Fortunately I was exposed to Mandarin while living in China. Regrettably I didn’t give it maximum attention, learning only the basics and resorting to mostly calling a friend and asking for help at times of need.

I’m not alone. Two years ago, concerns were raised in the UK that that there wasn’t enough language learning.

This is a pity, as China, Cat Stevens Tribute, and my experiences as a lifelong Spanish speaker have shown me that knowing another language is incredibly useful if you want to make friends and influence people.

This is particularly true in this changing world of ours: Arabic and Mandarin might both come in especially handy if working on Belt and Road, the new Silk Road through Central Asia and beyond.

But there are signs of change.

According to reports, Qatar is donating 400,000 pounds to a British Council programme that promotes Arabic teaching in British schools. While  slightly short of the 198 million the oil-rich state splashed out on Neymar, it’s not to be sniffed at.

The financial contribution, paid for through Qatar Foundation International (a name no doubt familiar to keen La Liga watchers), looks to rebrand Arabic so that it “captures the imagination” of  schools and parents. The British Council meanwhile aims to increase the number of learners and teachers of Arabic and build a better understanding of the Arab world in the UK.

Similarly, the UK government is aiming to have 400,000 people enrolled in Mandarin classes by 2020. Efforts appear to be working. An increasing number of people in the UK are learning Mandarin, according to the FT:

  • there are now 160,000 students registered through Confucius Institutes (think China’s soft power arm, like the Qatar Foundation) and Confucius Classrooms
  • 45 percent of the UK’s private schools have established a Mandarin education option
  • 6,237 British students signed up for HSK – the Chinese Standard Exam – by July 2017, 5 times the number of that signed up in 2011

Furthermore, new Kensington Wade is the UK’s first primary school to offer an immersive education in English and Mandarin for 3 to 11 year olds. (I’d be keen to know what Naughty Wall is in Chinese.)

While these are official facts and figures, there are probably many others learning through other means – digital especially. I myself have an Android app called ChineseSkill  offering an entertaining way of learning survival phrases such as “The two girls are eating watermelon” and what not.  Truly every little helps, and it’s not that difficult really.

And that’s probably the ultimate challenge.

How do we get more people like myself, who are either very busy or very lazy (I’ll let you decide), learn even a few words in Mandarin, Arabic, Russian, Portuguese, Spanish and other important languages? English can only get us so far.

Penang, Southeast Asia’s Silicon Valley, is a digital nomad dream

Little Children on a Bicycle mural in Penang

City and country slogans are often cringingly bad. Incredible this, amazing that. The “Pearl of the Orient” is one of the few exceptions that ring true.

Malaysia’s small but satisfyingly formed Penang Island shines like a gem, from its photogenic heritage town (now spruced up) to its jungle-clad hills. It’s impossible not to feel seduced by it.

Penang was my first Asian destination, way back in pre-smartphone 2002 when a camera roll of 36 exposures was a luxury, and I was entranced by its exotic smells, wildlife, cultural celebrations, heritage, and prawn mee with belacan. It looked like a sprawling film-set, and the “Asia” I’d imagined.

On my second visit, in 2009, a beautiful young Malaysian couple ahead of me in a street food queue started a conversation that ended with an invitation to their wedding the following month. I returned weeks later; a random, wide-eyed foreigner attending a traditional Chinese wedding. Oddly enough, I had to wear a pair of disposable underwear over my trousers – but that’s a story for another time, as they say.

That’s the kind of place Penang is – blessed by the (many) gods – and in the years since, I have been drawn back again and again.

In more recent years, Penang has undergone a renaissance of sorts.  First, Unesco World Heritage status put it firmly on the international map, resulting in a flurry of boutique hotel and hipster coffee shop openings, giant murals painted on buildings, and steel rod caricatures (some with a tacky feel) labelling key streets. The town bubbles with cultural events like the annual George Town Festival.

And people have noticed. The accolades keep coming. Last year, Lonely Planet named George Town fourth in the Top 10 Cities list for Best in Travel 2016. Conde Nast Traveller named Penang among the best places in the world for retirement.

Second, with its past a major asset that pulls in the tourists (some might say too many), George Town is now looking to its future. There is a crackle in the air, and possibly even a cheeky wink at its bigger and more conservative cousin Kuala Lumpur.

George Town is fizzing with startup energy. Mostly famous for brilliant startup Piktochart (the go to website for infographics), new projects are popping up like mushrooms after a tropical downpour.

The town’s startup culture has been aided by the recent opening of a grand coworking space near the waterfront, @CAT.

Set within a hundred-year colonial heritage building that had laid abandoned for 40 years, Wisma Yeap Chor Ee, @CAT is an ideal location for creative inspiration (film buffs might also recognise it as a filming location for Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution). Of course I had to check it out on my first visit to Penang in more than a year.

I was kindly shown around @CAT by Community & Operations COO & Partnerships Director Zoey Teoh, who explained that the co-working space was supported by the Penang State Government (hence the amazing location) and that its ultimate purpose was to appeal to foreign investors.

@CAT coworking space in Penang
Where Googlers come to talk at @CAT

Penang was ideally suited to tech startups, Zoey added, saying that both it and Silicon Valley shared an electronics industry heritage. (They’re also on the west coast and have long-ish bridges, and that’s probably where the similarities end.) There’s also a bit of Silicon Valley at @CAT, with people from Google and what not coming over for events.

The @CAT community is made up mostly of freelance coders and digital marketers, several of whom are digital nomads who come and go (Zoey said that they were always pleased to see familiar faces return). But there were corporate faces too – two big companies (unnamed) had sent staff over to scope out the Penang scene.

Alongside a board naming startups there was a wish list. Top of the list was coffee (and why not – it tops my to do list every day), which was somewhat of a surprise as there was a huge cafe downstairs.

The Penang Science Cafe was impressive enough in its own right, replete with interesting books that didn’t include the usual tatty airport novels left behind by backpackers. There was even a 3D printed model of Penang Bridge to gaze at.

Penang Science Cafe
Penang Science Cafe

But here’s the really fun part: in an adjoining room there were things to tinker with that included a Raspberry Pi and – how else to write this – an aircraft. So in theory, you could wander over with a flat white and stare at a Cessna.

Cessna aircraft at Penang Science Cafe
Plane bonkers

If that wasn’t exciting enough, you could probably build your own Sky Hawk II minutes later. Across an outside courtyard with potted plants there was a Makerspace and Garage with enough gizmos to make Q from the 007 movies blush. It was an electronics, woodworking and metalworking playground where you could probably just about make anything, apart from Mars exploration rovers.

I could have lingered for hours at the Wisma Yeap Chor Ee building. For young creative Penangites, it’s the stuff of fantasy. For digital nomads and entrepreneurs, it’s an affordable place to work and mingle.

Conveniently, it’s also a few Andaman island hops from Thailand’s Koh Lanta, the scene of coworking community KoHub, which would make a fun trip – something to think about if you’re stuck in a beige office on a grey November day.

Aerial picture of George Town, Penang, from Komtar
@CAT is in there somewhere…

Estonia considers launching a currency for e-Residency digital nomads

Tallinn skyline

It was only a matter of time.  Having launched a successful e-Residency programme, allowing anyone anywhere in the world to start a location-independent company,  trailblazing Estonia is looking at offering a digital currency to go with it. As expected for easily the most digitally ambitious state in the world, the tiny Baltic republic is inviting feedback on Medium.

The Medium post explains that the success of the e-Residency programme is such that more than 22,000 citizens have signed up from 138 countries. With the weekly application rate presently higher than the country’s weekly birth rate, Estonia’s digital nation could surpass the national population in size. Possibly.

Among those signing up for e-Residency are blockchain-based entrepreneurs and enthusiasts. This interest, and the fact that other countries are looking at cryptocurrencies, has led Estonia to consider the introduction of its own currency, supported by its advanced digital infrastructure: the “Estcoin”.

In theory, this will be made available to anyone in the world through the e-Residency programme and launched through an Initial Coin Offering (ICO). While initially allowing e-Residents to invest in a country for the first time, future Estcoin opportunities look limitless:

estcoins could also be accepted as payment for both public and private services and eventually function as a viable currency used globally. By using our APIs, companies and even other countries could accept these same tokens as payment. It will also be possible to build more functions on top of the estcoins and use them for more purposes, such as smart contracts and notary services.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the Estcoin, you can sign up for email updates here.

So that’s the citizenship and currency sorted. What else?  Of course, overseas citizens need embassies, so that they can appeal for help when they lose their digital passport while on a digital night out. Accordingly, Estonia will be opening a “data embassy” in Luxembourg (with the latter’s agreement of course), offering the same protection and immunity as traditional embassies.

Estonia’s vision – to create a new global digital nation powered by the Republic of Estonia – is remarkable. Go Est, young man and woman: this is the future!

Hong Kong aiming to woo post-Brexit businesses

Hong Kong Island skyline

It’s been a symbolic year for Hong Kong with the territory marking 20 years since the end of British rule. Much has happened in the two decades since the handover, a time when the likes of Hanson and Oasis dominated chart music and phones were dumb, with Asia – and China especially – now on the up.

With now clearly a good time to cash in on China, especially with whatever is happening with Brexit, Hong Kong is keen not to be overlooked by reminding people that it’s traditionally a way in.

Supported by more than 60 UK organisations, “Think Asia, Think Hong Kong” will be a trade event held in London on 21 September with the aim of attracting companies to use Hong Kong as the starting point for expansion to Asia.

Speakers will include political heavyweights Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and Trade Secretary Liam Fox, among other bigwigs, and the main topics will include the things that have been buzzing in Asia in recent months, from Belt and Road to FinTech, as their press release  explains in more detail:

  • Doing Business in China and throughout Asia – the startup scene in Asia and the support available including fundraising;  middle-class consumers in Asia; the development of online shopping and cross-border ecommerce; and the new approach of marketing, branding and customer engagement using tech and new media
  • Hong Kong: Gateway to Belt and Road Opportunities – Infrastructure financing experts in this panel will share their insights on the Belt and Road Initiative means and how Hong Kong can help UK businesses connect with opportunities arising from this
  • FinTech –  Why global FinTech companies are attracted to Hong Kong, as well as sharing their vision for the future of Hong Kong

Registration is now closed for the main event (I know, I know, you’ve read this far), but you can register onsite for the seminars, apparently.

Iberian nations dominate InterNations Quality of Life 2017 index

Portugal

With kids now going back to school across Europe, many parents will perhaps be reminiscing on their summer holiday in the Mediterranean and how nice everything was. They might even think about living there (that’s the dangerous thing about holidays – they tend to force a what if rethink in people’s minds).

Southern Europe wouldn’t be a bad choice, either: the latest InterNations Quality of Life Index shows that Portugal and Spain have the best standard of living rated by expats in the world, divided only by 2016 winner Taiwan (which is also a wonderful destination, albeit for different reasons).

On that point, it’s interesting to see blocs in the index – Denmark, Sweden and Finland are bunched together, as are Germany and Luxembourg. It does feel a little like a Eurovision Song Contest of living standards.

The top 20 is as follows:

1. Portugal
2. Taiwan
3. Spain
4. Singapore
5. Czech Republic
6. Japan
7. Australia
8. Switzerland
9. Costa Rica
10. Germany
11. Luxembourg
12. Denmark
13. Canada
14. Sweden
15. New Zealand
16. Finland
17. Netherlands
18. UAE
19. Malta
20. South Korea

Portugal’s success, coming a year after the nation won football’s European Championships, shows the country on the ascendancy. Perhaps. It might not be a surprise to the organisers of the amazing coworking retreat Offsite Immersive in Guia, offering a pool and a nearby beach.

Overall Quality of Life aside, the Quality of Life Index grouped countries under five categories: Leisure Options, Personal Happiness, Travel & Transport, Health & Wellbeing, and Safety & Security.

InterNations polled 12,500 expats of 166 nationalities based in 188 territories and asked them to rate 43 aspects of life overseas.