I started learning Mandarin two years ago. I had moved to this beautiful, yet understated country called Taiwan, and not learning to read and speak the local language would have been an opportunity lost.
Learning any alien language well into our adulthood can be challenging. It is a never-ending roller-coaster of joy and frustration. My personal journey of learning Mandarin taught me more than just the language; it helped me draw parallels with key management insights that I have gathered over the years.
The same could be said of learning any new language, but the enigma and expanse of Mandarin makes the journey all the more special.
1. Understand the crux, tune out the rest
When it comes to the layers of a language, Mandarin is in another league of complexity. It has four tones, multiple grammatical patterns, thousands of characters, and a traditional Chinese script that looks utterly incomprehensible at the best of times.
When you start learning the language, the road ahead looks so daunting that you want to give up immediately, simply because you don't know where to start and you don't know how long it will take you to make any meaningful headway. This also rings true of our work life while managing diverse teams with fragile egos, ambiguous business objectives, and a yawning gap between vision and ground reality.
The only way to make sense of it is to keep it simple. Understand the two or three issues critical to your business and focus on these while blocking off the rest. You will have time to come back to it later when things are more under control.
The same holds true for the language, if you focus on the patterns, the tones, the script, and the vocabulary all at one go; you will find it very difficult to make progress. Prioritising and not getting overwhelmed by the rest is crucial to taking an early lead.
2. Find/create your story
Traditional Chinese script has a rich repertoire of words that have pictographic origins. For example, the elements fire, water, earth and wind are all depicted through interesting drawings that tell us stories of their origins. The more one delves deep and understands the history of these strokes, the easier it is to memorise the characters. It is the same with our professional lives. If we take some time to reflect, introspect, and seek meaningful feedback, we are able to write our personal story that has shaped us professionally, as well as personally. We can then better understand our motivations, factors that drive us, and the road ahead slowly becomes clearer.
3. Most situations have a context, you simply need to find it
To me, the most challenging, and often, the most frustrating aspect of Mandarin are the tones used in the language. There are four main tones that can completely change the meaning of a sentence if spoken the wrong way. To the untrained ear, they sound the same. You can spend endless hours learning the correct tones that can be viciously deceptive and painfully laborious.
So what does a person do? Once you learn to let the tones be and emphasise upon the context in which they are being used, you can make yourself easily understood. After all, any language is more than just words and tones. You have to weave together a dialogue in order to communicate. Similarly, in our work life, putting a context to why people act the way they do or why certain decisions are taken, helps us bring more empathy to our management style and helps us respond effectively to challenging situations.
4. Immerse, communicate, connect
This is perhaps true of all languages or skills one seeks to master. Take risks, don't be afraid, there is no embarrassment in speaking the language poorly, but there is frustration in not trying. Finding Mandarin everywhere, in tea kiosks, eavesdropping on small talk on the streets and railway stations, trying to make sense of innocuous road signs, and finding familiar characters in forgotten Chinese art, helped me grasp it better.
The same thing can be applied at our work place. The faster we step out of our own pre-conceived mindsets and inhibitions, and immerse ourselves by drawing on the collective energies of the people we work with, the easier it is to thrive.
5. There will be unexpected setbacks, keep moving
There are moments of self-doubt, where you feel that despite your best efforts, you are making little headway. The path to fluency is still elusive and you wonder whether it is indeed worth all the effort. This is the time when most amateur adult learners give up. After all, what's the point of learning a complicated language when all you need is Google translate to make yourself understood. If you are able to anticipate these 'downers' and march along regardless, you will eventually find the journey interesting.
Even in our long careers, there are endless moments of self-doubts and failures; we can choose to get so wrapped up in them that we stop enjoying our work, or we can accept them as part of our roller-coaster journey and move on. The choice is ours.
(Shruti Bajpai is an international media consultant and former head of HBO South Asia)