Top Tips for Learning Chinese for Business

China’s post-pandemic economy—currently the second largest in the world—continues to grow and is set to pass up the US economy by 2028. To take advantage of this opportunity, entrepreneurs and corporate executives have been learning Chinese for business to work with Chinese business partners and get ahead of their competitors. You yourself might already be studying Chinese or thinking about the benefits of learning Chinese.

In order to get the most out of the valuable time you put into learning business Chinese, you should ensure that you’re actually studying with sound practices that are appropriate for your level. In this article, we’ll take a look at the importance of understanding the basics of Chinese as well as the importance of growing and maintaining your vocabulary.

Master the Basics of the Chinese Language

If you want to learn Chinese for business, it’s important to be able to speak conversational Chinese before you dive into more advanced content like business Chinese. It might be tempting to tackle Chinese business language as soon as possible, but solidifying your knowledge of general Chinese is an important step that will set you up for future success.

With that in mind, try to avoid making these common mistakes:

Specializing in Business Vocabulary Too Early

If your goal is to do business in Chinese, you probably want to learn the relevant vocabulary as quickly as possible without getting bogged down in extra Chinese lessons that have little to do with your business. While ambitious, trying to learn business vocabulary before getting comfortable with the basics is jumping the gun.

Even if you do manage to retain your knowledge of Chinese business vocabulary, without general skills in Chinese, your business vocabulary won’t be very useful. You want your Chinese-speaking business partners to feel confident that you speak Chinese well enough to do business with them. In order to convince them of your skills, you have to be able to quickly string together sentences to meaningfully contribute to the conversation. These are general conversational skills you should pick up before studying business Chinese. 

Paying for Expensive Business Chinese Courses before You’re Ready

Business Chinese courses can be a great tool to accelerate and structure your learning of Chinese business language. A teacher or tutor can provide you with insightful advice and feedback while curating lesson content for your specific needs. If you’re lucky, they might even have experience working in your industry.

If you choose to go this route, you want to be certain that you’re actually benefiting from these courses, especially since they can be quite expensive. Business Chinese courses often charge students more than other Chinese courses based on the assumption that their students can afford it.

Some students enroll in these courses before they’re ready. If the course is too advanced for you, you might end up feeling frustrated that you’re not able to communicate in Chinese as well as you want to, and the lessons might fly over your head. Make sure that you’re at an appropriate level of Chinese proficiency before you put your time and money into a business Chinese course.

Expand Your Chinese Vocabulary

Spending ample time on vocabulary acquisition is a worthwhile endeavor for Chinese learners of all skill levels. Even students of Chinese who have been studying the language for many years may find that though their knowledge of grammar is thorough, they lack the breadth of vocabulary to actually communicate with and understand others in real-world situations. When you learn Chinese vocabulary, you enable all your other language skills—writing, reading, speaking, and listening—and empower the grammatical knowledge you already possess.

Here are some tips for studying vocabulary for learners of business Chinese:

Target the Specific Business Vocabulary You Need

Once you’ve mastered the basics of conversational Chinese and are ready to specialize your studies for Chinese for business, you might start by learning general business vocabulary. After all your efforts, you might feel impatient to get out into the field and finally put your Chinese skills to work.

While knowledge of a “general business Chinese” might be useful in certain situations, the appropriate business Chinese vocabulary you need depends on the industry you work in. For example, if you work in the mobile gaming industry, you might have specialized your studies enough to know general vocabulary related to video games, but not enough to know specialized vocabulary specific to mobile gaming apps in your genre. In this case, you might be able to participate in general conversations, but when it comes time to discuss your specific interests, you struggle.

To keep yourself prepared, you should first focus on vocabulary that targets your business’s niche. You can then branch out into other fields of business Chinese as you need.

Study Vocabulary on Your Own

It can be difficult to motivate yourself to study on your own, and you might not feel confident that you’re doing it right. Compared to studying with a teacher or tutor, independent study might not make you feel like you’re benefiting as dramatically from your efforts. You might not even know where to start.

Self-study doesn’t provide you with the same benefits of motivation and expertise that directed study does, but if you’re able to keep yourself disciplined and commit to your studies, there is plenty of material that you can learn by yourself on your own time. 

In particular, if you want to learn Chinese vocabulary, you can study effectively and efficiently on your own. You don’t need a tutor to build up your storage of vocabulary words and to review what you’ve already learned. When possible, you should try to study vocabulary by yourself every day.

Take Advantage of Spaced Repetition

To bolster your vocabulary and learn Chinese words more efficiently, consider using the power of spaced repetition techniques.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the concept, spaced repetition is a method for learning and retaining information. Typically used with information presented as flash cards, spaced repetition aims to make your learning more efficient by altering the frequencies at which you review information based upon how easy or difficult it is for you to recall.

Let’s say you’re learning a set of pairs of words that include: “apple–苹果,” “orange–橙子,” and “banana–香蕉.” You are able to remember “apple–苹果” and “orange–橙子” just fine, but you have difficulties remembering “banana–香蕉.”

Without spaced repetition, you would review all three pairs every day even though you consistently remember two of them correctly and don’t need the extra practice. This is time you can spend learning new word pairs or doing other activities. If you’re managing hundreds or even thousands of words and concepts, this time really starts to add up. 

With spaced repetition, you still review “banana–香蕉” every day until you have it memorized, but you don’t waste time reviewing “apple–苹果” and “orange–橙子” every day when you’ve already demonstrated that you know them. Every time you do remember them correctly, you wait a longer period of time before you review these words again. This ensures that your memories remain fresh, but you don’t commit too much time to them.

Spaced repetition is a great tool for learning and retaining vocabulary, and if you’d like to incorporate it into your studies, there are many apps that make it easy to use. The algorithms used to determine the spacing between reviews are typically pretty advanced, and many are designed with language learning in mind.

Keep These Tips in Mind When Pursuing Chinese for Business

If you want to effectively study Chinese for business, you should master the basics of Chinese—perhaps by following the HSK curriculum—before moving on to business Chinese. Once you do start learning Chinese for business, you should specialize your business vocabulary according to your own specific goals and needs. Throughout your studies, you should take your vocabulary studies seriously and think about using spaced repetition for your independent studies. Following these tips should help you make the most of your time and efforts as you work towards doing business in Chinese.



Daniel Nalesnik, Founder of Hack Chinese

Daniel Nalesnik is the founder of Hack Chinese, a smart platform for learning Chinese vocabulary. Daniel moved to China in 2009 for a year of full-time Mandarin immersion at Peking University (in Beijing) and Fudan University (in Shanghai). In the years since he has worked with teachers throughout China to discover what learning methods are most impactful for Mandarin Chinese learners. This experience inspired Daniel to found Hack Chinese, a spaced-repetition platform for learning Mandarin Chinese.