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.

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.

British Millennials and Generation Z want to work abroad, confirms British Council and Demos report

British Airways jet taking off

These are anxious times, especially for younger people. Not only is the world pulling in different directions, we now have missiles flying over Hokkaido.

In Britain, its Brexit looming over the country rather than a long-range missile, albeit hanging like smog. It’s toxic, we know it’s there, but we can’t make out its features and what to with it. Even the government is seemingly flummoxed.

A new report, Next Generation UK Survey, produced by think tank Demos for the British Council in September 2017 shows that young people in the UK are worried about Britain’s position in the world, and what it means for their future, revealing that:

  • 68% of young people believe international experience and a global outlook are essential for their personal goals
  • 57% are positive about the effects of globalisation on their own lives
  • 13% have worked abroad, but 56% are ambitious to do so
  • 10% have studied abroad

The report recommended protecting and securing opportunities for young adults travelling, working and studying abroad:

in order to enable all young adults to achieve their potential, opportunities for young adults to engage internationally need to be protected in the Brexit negotiations. Furthermore, due attention must be paid to increasing opportunities so that those who do not typically benefit can participate in them….

These objectives are given weight by evidence that interacting with other countries can be beneficial in a number of respects (though research is fairly limited to the higher education context). For example, research has shown that students who undertake a year abroad during their undergraduate degree are more likely to pursue postgraduate study, secure better paid jobs and have higher incomes; and are less likely to experience unemployment. In addition to making an individual more committed to their degree and enhancing their CV, studying abroad can have a marked impact on personal development, improving independence, confidence, communication skills and other intercultural skills – with often greater benefits ensuing when the cultural difference between the home country is wider. Young adults who study internationally often become more cosmopolitan, taking more of an interest in international affairs; they travel more and are more likely to live in another country later in life.

These are sound recommendations. Studying abroad worked for me: I was an Erasmus student in Madrid during more fortunate times, though I later headed East to Asia, rather than to continental Europe, to live.

The aspirations of young people also echoed words made by Sir Martin Sorrell, who encouraged young Brits to acquire work experience in China.

It’s clear that young people are concerned about what’s coming next,  but are nonetheless eager to explore new horizons. This should be given priority in Brexit discussions, rather than trivial considerations like the colour of the new British passport (which is beyond stupid).

The Next Generation UK Survey is part of the British Council’s Next Generation series, which focuses on the attitudes and aspirations of young people, and uses data gathered to inform policy.

The survey’s data came from almost 2,000 18-30 year olds polled by Ipsos Mori, focus groups with 80 young adults across the UK, analysis of young adults’ use of social  media, and a policy roundtable with stakeholders focused on youth engagement.

Selling to people in cashless China? There’s an app for that

Young Asian woman

Queueing at the Post Office for renminbi? You might want to pack a spare power bank instead. China is becoming a cashless society, thanks to the phenomenal rise of digital wallets Alipay and WeChat Pay linked to Chinese bank cards.

Hardly a week goes by without an account emerging somewhere online of a Chinese taxi driver / noodle vendor / street artist / landlord accepting payments through the phone. It’s ubiquitous. A Shanghai friend tells me no one carries cash in her city anymore, and even her granny is a convert. There’s also a “Cashless Day” on 8 August to perhaps convince remaining luddites, though quite what’s in store for that is anyone’s guess (bonfires of paper currency?). 

The numbers are eye-watering, as you might expect of the world’s most populous nation. WeChat Pay, the payment wallet inside the WeChat app, is used by 600 million people (equivalent to 10 United Kingdoms). Alipay is just behind with more than 450 million users.

Considering that many of us in 2017 are still scribbling in chequebooks, and digging out coins from the back of the sofa (although there are signs of change – no pun intended), China’s advances are impressive.

It also means that if you’re looking to visit China’s big cities, or selling goods and services to people, it’s best to keep in mind their preference for mobile.

In the UK, high-street shops have been catering for Chinese visitors for some time, with the likes of Selfridges, Holland & Barrett, The Body Shop and Harrods all accepting Alipay in their stores.

Tourism organisations are also getting in the act: in July, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo joined WeChat Pay as part of its goal to offer online ticketing for Chinese visitors, and later take the military showcase to China in 2020.

If you’re a running an online store, meanwhile, selling afternoon tea products (and why not – they’re in demand in China!), you might want to consider the online payments platform provided by Stripe.

The fintech startup recently announced a deal to help online retailers worldwide sell more easily to people in China. Users may reportedly now activate Alipay and WeChat Pay on their dashboard and accept payments from either system.

Amidst much talk about  the “Belt and Road” initiative – or a new Silk Road forged across land and sea – it seems as if the biggest trade routes between China and the rest of the world are being developed through mobile technology, something we can all relate to.

Paul Burrell in China as Downton Abbey effect continues

Chinese girl curtsying to Paul Burrell

One of the more interesting outcomes of the internet revolution in recent years has been China’s continued fascination with British culture.

Merlin, Silk, Hustle, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, Black Mirror, Dr Who, North and South, and The White Queen among others have all been lapped up by young Chinese viewers in their millions through digital platforms like Youku and Iqiyi. The popularity of British telly is such that Mr Bean was recently reprised for a Chinese production.

But one cultural export in particular has spawned a new trend among China’s new rich. Call it the Downton Abbey effect. Not only did the popular period drama help boost sales of afternoon tea products from the UK, it also led to increased demand for butlers.

Great Scott, Jeeves! You?

No butler has an arguably spiffier CV than Paul Burrell. Perhaps better known in UK households for appearing on Celebrity Big Brother, Paul served the British Royal Households for 21 years, becoming personal attendant to Her Majesty The Queen and later butler to the Prince and Princess of Wales.

It doesn’t get more Downton Abbeyesque than that, and Paul (or is it Mr Burrell, or even Mr Burrell, RVM?) was in China last month to share his Royal Etiquette expertise in different sessions with local audiences that included ladies, children and business people.

Paul Burrell and etiquette students in Guangzhou

The training, organised at the Ritz Carlton in Guangzhou by etiquette specialists Prestige Education Consultancy (PEC), focused on dress styling, manners and behaviour, skills gained at the very highest level by Paul Burrell and useful for mingling with the global elite.

Paul Burrell delivering etiquette training in Guangzhou

In an increasingly competitive and “globalised” world, China’s ambitious – as in any nation – will look for an edge beyond a solid grasp of English. A student in Danong today might well become a speaker in Davos tomorrow. Anyone thinking about teaching English in China ought to consider the cultural dimension on top of language tuition.

But of course, this is a two-way street. Anyone looking to make friends and influence people in China should do the sensible thing and learn from the Chinese.

That means not only taking a course in putonghua but also making an attempt to understand their culture, from guanxi to mianzi, baijiu and beyond. It’s a steep learning curve, but so is learning which spoon to use at the dinner table (I still can’t get it right).

We can and should learn from each other – that’s when the good stuff happens. Now, who is China’s equivalent of Paul Burrell?