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Learn Chinese Now BECAUSE You Have to Talk the Talk Fluency Print

Original Text Special to Bloombery News 

At 8 p.m. on a Tuesday, Michael Image, a currency expert, sits in a small room near the bustling bar district of Hong Kong, gnawing on a pen and discussing financial terms - in Chinese.

"Say 'tong ji,' " says his language teacher, Elena Jiang, crisply pronouncing the term for "statistics" as she draws two characters on a white board: one shaped like a winged pagoda atop a tree, the other an embellished Christian cross.

"Tong ji," repeats Image, inadvertently altering the tones to mean "fugitive" and drawing a correction from Jiang.  

The parry-and-blow is part of an hour-long class that Image has been taking every week since 2004, six months after Standard Chartered, which is based in London, transferred him to Hong Kong to advise clients on ways to reduce their foreign-exchange risk.  

In China, the era when overseas executives could rely on translators is ending. The Chinese government now requires top executives at securities firms to pass written and oral exams in Mandarin, the national tongue, and Chinese managers expect meetings to be conducted in their own language.  

"An executive can probably get by without speaking Mandarin, but the one who does will have a much better chance of succeeding," says Helen Cheung, a director at Executive Mandarin, the language school where Image studies. "It makes you seem more intelligent, more involved than the foreigner who just sits there and smiles."  

Goldman Sachs Group is learning that lesson. The company's plan to appoint Richard Ong, a Malaysian-born Chinese, to head its venture in China was derailed by concerns that he would not be able to pass the test, required of all "senior managers, directors and supervisors" since November. Instead, Goldman promoted Zha Xiangyang, a native Chinese, in May.    

A Goldman spokesman declined to comment on how the bank was responding to the test. Ong, who holds an MBA from the University of Chicago, also declined to comment.

"If the boss of a securities company in China doesn't know the language, how could we expect him to communicate effectively with the staff, the government and investors?" says Xu Weijuan, who heads the department that prepares bankers for the test at the Securities Association of China. "He wouldn't even understand the notices we post on policy changes."  

Goldman and UBS are the only global investment banks that have management control of ventures allowed to underwrite share sales in China, and so they are most affected by the exam requirement.

Companies including Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase are seeking to create similar ventures after the benchmark Chinese stock index rose fivefold in the past two years.  

Philip Partnow, a managing director at UBS's Beijing venture, is the only Western banker who has passed. He declined to comment for this story.  

Most overseas managers are learning Chinese voluntarily.

Image, who studied psychology at Oxford University and heads Standard Chartered's currency product team, says that his language skills helped him break the ice at a recent meeting where Chinese executives spoke to each other in their own language.  

When Image introduced himself in Mandarin, they were stunned.  

"Just knowing what's going on during meetings, being able to nod at the right time and interject makes a big difference," Image says. "They're more open and willing to deal with me."  

At Executive Mandarin, the number of investment bankers studying Chinese has risen 30 percent in the past year, Cheung says.  

Chinese is one of the toughest languages to learn, says Qing Zhang, a professor of linguistics at the University of Texas.

First, the meaning of each sound depends on tone. Four different tones applied to the syllable "yi" give four very different meanings: "one," "aunt," "chair," and "100 million."  

Worse, students must memorize thousands of picture-like characters, instead of the 26 letters that make up English words.  

For instance, the character for "moon" resembles a crescent, that for "man" looks like a figure on two legs, and "follow" stacks one "man" on the back of another.  

The simplest Chinese word is the character for "one" which is a single horizontal line; the most complex requires 56 strokes.  

"The toughest part is retaining the vocabulary," Image says. "The characters don't look like anything in European languages."

Cheung of Executive Mandarin estimates a non-native would have to study Mandarin full time for five years to pass the securities exam.

Since the test began in 2005, fewer than 10 foreigners have passed, according to a list of successful candidates posted on the Securities Association's Web site.

China's approach is unusual. Neither Japan nor Hong Kong tests top managers at securities companies. In both places, specialists like analysts and fund salesmen must pass job-specific tests that can be taken in English.

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