Speaking the language – As the Capital Region strengthens its ties to China, demand for employees fluent in the language and culture is on the rise.

China is Louisiana’s biggest customer outside the United States.

In the first quarter of this year alone, the state exported $2.3 billion in goods to the Asian nation, according to the North American Industry Classification System and World Trade Center of New Orleans.

In 2010, after Mayor Kip Holden traveled to Beijing on a trade mission, two Chinese firms soon after announced plans to build manufacturing plants here—one for LED lighting, another for cancer treatment equipment.

So it isn’t surprising there is growing interest in the Capital Region in learning the language and ways of the Chinese people.

Mandarin, the official tongue in China, is considered the top language worldwide for business other than English, according to Bloomberg Rankings. The language is spoken by 845 million people. Even so, Spanish, French and German remain the most commonly studied foreign languages in U.S. college classrooms, with Mandarin ranking seventh, according to a 2010 report by the Modern Language Association.

A handful of local schools now offer Chinese language studies to students. Baton Rouge International School students can study Chinese alongside English, French and Spanish beginning in preschool. The campus also offers a summer camp in Chinese to children as young as 2.

Episcopal High School this spring launched a pilot program in Mandarin Chinese to determine whether it should consider adding Chinese as an elective as early as this fall.

And the Chinese Language School of Baton Rouge—established in 1996—offers classes in Chinese language and culture on weekends at the South Baton Rouge Church of Christ. Taught by volunteers who are LSU professors and professionals in the local business community, the courses are aimed at developing comprehensive skills in reading, listening, speaking and writing.

At the university level, the E.J. Ourso College of Business launched its Modern Chinese Business and Culture Initiative in 2007. The program, now part of its Emerging Markets Initiative, offers a Discover Tour that includes visits to Beijing, Xian, Chonquing and Shanghai, as well as other points of interest, like multinational corporations. Another aspect of the program is a three-week Chinese language institute at Fudan University in Shanghai, where students earn LSU credit hours studying introductory Mandarin language and Chinese culture.

The university’s Emerging Markets Initiative offers undergraduate and Flores MBA Program students the opportunity to complete courses on campus and experience emerging markets through language immersion, study at universities in emerging markets, and work experiences with international companies.

The LSU Department of Foreign Languages also now offers a minor in Chinese, with classes in language, Asian literature, history and art. And the university has been working to strengthen economic relations and connections between the two countries through business incubators and other efforts.

Yo-She Chen, director of the Emerging Markets Initiative at LSU, says interest is understandably growing in Chinese companies coming to Louisiana, and Louisiana companies going to China. Chinese firms are now going global.

“When the widening of the Panama Canal is finished in 2014, the biggest ships can go through the Panama Canal and eventually come to Louisiana, to the Mississippi River,” Chen says. “Companies in China that have been doing business, they realize that if they go through the Mississippi River to ship the goods instead of going to the California port, the savings will be tremendous. We are at a most important time for Louisiana to engage with China.”

Michael Cheng is an entrepreneur who founded Mando Mandarin, the online Chinese language and culture school being used at Episcopal High School and 40 other schools in 20 states. American students are brought face to face with teachers in China via Webcams.

“There certainly is a large demand in the schools now,” Cheng says. “A lot of them are trying to add a Mandarin program. The number of students learning Chinese in America is really growing.”

Cheng says the growing economic relationship between the United States and China is driving the interest. China is now the No. 2 economy in the world. “Most people agree that sometime in the near future, China will surpass the United States as the world’s leading economy,” he says. “They are positioned to become the world’s largest consumer market.”

Even so, learning Mandarin isn’t necessarily a requirement for doing business in China. For one thing, English remains the primary language of business around the world. For another, China Daily reported in 2011 that more than 300 million Chinese are now learning English. That’s roughly a quarter of the population.

Within the next four years, all state workers under the age of 40 will be required to master a minimum of 1,000 English phrases, and children will begin learning the English language in kindergarten.

However, knowing just a little Mandarin can give a company the edge in doing business with China. Cheng says speaking Mandarin indicates respect for Chinese culture and helps to build personal relationships, which is central to doing business with them.

“There’s a lot of money coming over here from there. They’re looking to invest abroad,” he says. “Being able to speak some Mandarin can break the ice and impress them. It gives you a competitive edge over others who might be trying to win them over.”

Chen agrees that understanding the culture and the context of the language can be invaluable to companies doing business in China.

“Think about people from other countries coming to the United States,” he says. “If they understand Louisiana culture, Louisiana food, the French connection, that kind of stuff, don’t you think that would impress you more than others who really had no idea about Louisiana? They are more sincere.”

The professor of management information system is originally from Taiwan but has been in the United States for 32 years and at the university for 27 years. He says it isn’t much of a stretch for Louisianans to understand Taiwanese culture, given that both are family oriented and both are entrepreneurial.

“If you want to engage with people in Taiwan or Louisiana, and you enjoy their food and you appreciate their family values, you are in,” Chen says. “That’s how it works.”

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