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Jo Coughlan: Language week builds bridges to China

By: Jo Coughlan

16 Oct 2017

• Jo Coughlan is co-chair New Zealand Chinese Language week and managing director of public relations company Silvereye.

The popular Lantern Festivals are one way we strengthen our growing cultural ties with China. This week we celebrate New Zealand's third Chinese Language Week. Established to underpin the growing relationship between China and New Zealand, the language week provides a focus across New Zealand schools, tertiary institutions, businesses, local and central government and media on the need for greater understanding of culture and language between our two countries.

A range of initiatives are underway all around New Zealand, from dumpling making to Mandarin tours, to school cultural days. A new "five days five phrases challenge" is intended to encourage all of us to try and say five simple things in Mandarin. We reason that if New Zealanders can say hello, thank you, and goodbye in Chinese, it is a step in the right direction. Listen out on radio and TV for some of our media presenters trying the challenge for themselves. Or if you're flying internationally check out the Chinese-themed quiz on Air New Zealand planes.

As one of the founding co-chairs of the week, I am pleased to see increasing interest and support. As a business owner who has been working with Chinese companies - based in both New Zealand and China - for nearly five years, I am aware of the opportunities, challenges and complexities of the China market.

Statistics New Zealand figures show trade with China has more than tripled in the past 10 years from $8.2 billion for the year ended June 2007 to $23b in the June 2016 year.

China is our second-biggest export market - and third-largest for imports. Nearly 20 per cent of our exports now go to China, compared with 6 per cent 10 years ago; we import 16 per cent of goods and services from China compared with 10 per cent in 2007.

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the relationship is growing faster than with any of our other trading partners.

Top exports have been milk powder, logs and red meat but as the relationship grows and diversifies we are seeing an increase in product range and services.

Tourism has grown exponentially. More than 400,000 visitors from China travelled to New Zealand last year, and an increasing number are classed as free independent travellers - meaning more opportunities for local operators.

High-level delegations have flooded into New Zealand and local government has used sister city relationships to send mayoral-led business delegations to China.

Working with Chinese businesses and travelling extensively to China on business trips including the Prime Minister's delegation in 2013, hosting business delegations for clients and even a ministerial-level adviser visit have led to a number of exciting opportunities for my own business, Silvereye.

Recently, to demonstrate to our children how the compass has shifted towards China, our family visited seven Chinese cities in nine days. Only one of our children had learned some Chinese and it was not lost on the others how she was better equipped to communicate than the rest of us.

At Silvereye we have worked hard to embrace the opportunities presented to our business - but it can be challenging understanding the nuances of a different culture and language.

While Silvereye has developed strong and crucial relationships with a range of business people, organisations and Chinese and New Zealand officials, communication has not always been straightforward.

While I would like to become fluent in Chinese, with a business to run, other professional roles and a very busy family life, fully immersing myself in learning such a different language hasn't yet been possible.

It became evident last year that if Silvereye was to continue to focus on the Chinese market we would need to diversify our team.

Taking a pragmatic approach, we have established a China Desk to address any language barriers for us and our clients.

When we advertised for a Mandarin-speaking graduate the pool was very small. However, we were fortunate to employ one of many Chinese students who chose New Zealand as a place to study.

Casey has welcomed the opportunity to work at Silvereye because it has given her experience in a New Zealand company - meaning she could develop her English language skills as well as put her business degree with a major in marketing to excellent use.

Chinese social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat are hugely influential and a necessary platform for New Zealand companies wanting to sell in China.

I couldn't imagine doing business now with Chinese companies without excellent in-house mandarin speaking capability. Is it something your business could benefit from?

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