Should Investors Learn Chinese?


Perhaps the most intellectually honest manner of starting this article would be highlighting the personal choice of the author. And in my case, yes, I have indeed decided to learn Chinese despite the fact that I have made a name for myself as an economist on the Anglo-Saxon scene. My books are selling quite well in jurisdictions such as the United States or United Kingdom and, indeed, my latest one hit the Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestseller lists… you’ve guessed it, in the United States. The same way, my One Minute Economics educational videos are being used by universities from all over the world but, once again, the Anglo-Saxon space is the clear winner (with even major names such as Oxford in the United Kingdom and MIT over in the US).

As such, there has been no short-term need whatsoever to embark on a journey as difficult as learning Chinese. With “difficult” being the operative word in light of the fact that as someone who writes books in English and speaks a Latin language at home (the language with the most similarities to Latin, actually), it would have been multiple orders of magnitude easier to learn a language such as Spanish than Chinese, with its many challenges, including:

  1. The Chinese alphabet, a game-changer for speakers of Western languages, with Pinyin fortunately being a relatively good “bridge” between the two extremes
  2. Mandarin Chinese (my choice) being the world’s most widely-spoken TONAL language, with an emphasis on “tonal” and the many issues this brings about
  3. Having to train your brain to embrace a new language despite not being exposed to all that many situations in which using it is vital. I am (in)famous for not being much of a traveler and this includes China, unlike my business partners, especially Graham (you can read more about us in the About Us section of Therefore, there just aren’t all that many scenarios in which the use of Mandarin Chinese is vital, unlike English which has been crucial to all dimensions of my career and even German, another foreign language I’ve used rather extensively in the past

… needless to say, learning Chinese can be a Herculean task, especially for someone as active/busy as myself. This begs the question: why do it in the first place? And the answer, in my case at least, is fairly straightforward. Unlike many other economists who only focus on the short-term dimensions of their careers (their next paper, their next book, their next partnership), I’ve always enjoyed playing the long game.

Or, to put it differently, one of the main reasons why I’ve continuously achieved better results than other economists is represented by the fact that I’m willing to think many steps ahead. To invest valuable time today so as to work on something which will generate results not years but downright decades from now. And China most definitely qualifies because no matter what you choose to do, there is just no escaping it.

I couldn’t help but notice that, for many years, most of my most profitable projects ended up having a (stronger and stronger) Chinese element. Even saying that China is the elephant in the room seems like a severe understatement in light of how economically dominant China is and (especially) is poised to be. There is literally no escaping it and most economists are well aware of this fact. However, as is the case with many other mega-trends, a lot of individuals are aware of them but the overwhelming majority are not willing to do anything about it.

I’ve made a name for myself by not being such a person.

Have I decided to learn Chinese because the immediate benefits would be overwhelming? No.

Have I decided to learn Chinese because I was somehow forced to? Once again, no.

Have I decided to learn Chinese because I have too much free time on my hands? Most definitely not, as anyone who takes a glimpse at my schedule can confirm.

… then why?

Simply put, I’ve decided to do it because I want to be better than my peers when it comes to all things China-related and having a firm grasp on the language will provide an edge which can and will make the difference. Yes, I can read the translated version of any Chinese book I desire. Even when it comes to more “obscure” reading material, I can find ways to ultimately have a translated version in front of me.

Yet I choose not to.

I prefer going the extra mile so as to read the Chinese version because there is more value in the subtle nuances that get lost in translation than most economists care to admit. Laziness has a price tag that I am not willing to cover. Perhaps “intellectual curiosity” represents the #1 answer to the “then why?” question because at the end of the day, I’ve decided to learn Chinese because I WANT to dig deeper. Not because anyone forced me, nor because there are immediate benefits to be reaped. I love what I do, I want to be the best at what I do and digging deep is a must.

The same principle is valid when it comes to those who are interested in China as investors. Learning Chinese is most definitely not a requirement but can you be among the best of the best without doing just that? Most likely not. No matter how many angles you choose to see the situation from, you need that extra edge if you want to be among the infamous 1% in a meritocratic manner. The average investor is anything but willing to do just that, which explains why that person remains… well, average.

However, it does make perfect sense to acknowledge that no matter how intellectually curious they may be, some investors just cannot afford the investment of time it takes to learn Chinese properly and if that is the situation as far as you are concerned, working with consultants such as those on the team who are willing and able to go that (much-needed) extra mile is the rational thing to do and, needless to say, we are at your disposal.