Wellington Mayoral candidate Jack Yan on why multilingualism matters

In this article, Jack Yan talks about growing up in Wellington, and how being multilingual has helped him with living life to the fullest. Jack is a renowned businessman from Hong Kong/Wellington, and publisher of fashion magazine Lucire. He has been very successful at building a global brand, and now delving into politics. If Jack has his way, Wellington City will get free wifi, one car-less Sunday a year, perhaps even solar-powered council buildings.

Jack has a good chance of becoming the next Mayor of Wellington City. If you google “Wellington mayor”, you will see Jack’s campaign site displayed prominently on page 1 (after the official Wellington site and Wikipedia), further demonstration of Jack’s internet marketing prowess. Jack is impressive not just because of his amazing business credentials. I remember chatting with him a few years ago and discovering he is one of very few Kiwis who can speak both French and Cantonese – and putting his language skills to good use in business.

I hope Jack’s story will inspire you to learn another language, perhaps to finally work on the new year resolution that keeps reappearing on your list every January.

In the 1970s, New Zealand was a far more monocultural place. When I was four, two of my cousins, who were slightly older, were attending primary school and started speaking English at home, instead of our native Cantonese. I asked my parents if I could do the same.

My parents were usually pretty good at rationalizing things to me. Mum explained, ‘No, because it’s important that you speak Cantonese at home, and leave English for outside. Wouldn’t it be better to speak two languages well rather than one?’

That sold me.

A similar argument came at age six, when my parents asked if I would like to learn an extra language.

The choices offered in 1978 at St Mark’s Church School, Wellington, were French and Japanese.

‘Wouldn’t you like to learn Japanese?’ asked Mum. ‘The Japanese have some characters that are the same as ours, and you can learn to write your own language.’

While none of my Japanese friends would like to hear this, the thought that went through my mind at that age was, ‘I’m not learning a form of Chinese with the wrong pronunciations.’ Hey, I was six.

However, I never regretted that decision.

Of all my travels, I only have visited Japan once. Few business opportunities ever availed themselves in that country. However, I have visited France over half a dozen times, with most of those times for work.

It’s especially handy given I own a fashion magazine, Lucire, and Paris is very much the centre of that industry in so many respects. Even things as simple as filling in a form present no challenges.

At the Medinge Group, a think-tank where I am a director, we hand out Brands with a Conscience every year. We do so from Paris, rather than our usual Swedish location.

Even back in Wellington, French is very useful when chatting to expatriates or dealing with the diplomatic corps.

It’s been a good foundation for other countries. For example, I was able to travel through Italy and understand the locals. The languages are dissimilar, but there are enough common roots that you can get pick out key words and get about the place.

I would hate to think where I would be without these languages. Certainly in business, I would have lost plenty of opportunities dealing with French designers, photographers, and make-up artists. I would not have been able to develop business in Hong Kong, my home town, where Cantonese is the norm. I would have been pretty lost in various American Chinatowns, unable to get proper medicine if I was sick, if I did not have any Taishanese.

I also have a limited grasp of Swedish, which has helped my work at Medinge and some of the work I do in Sweden.

While 90 per cent of Swedes speak English, Swedish is still the language in which they conduct most of their lives, so being able to read and write some of it, even if my comprehension has some way to go, has been incredibly useful.

With understanding a language comes understanding a culture, often the biggest barrier in international business.

The extra language is an extra means to get inside the other side’s mindsets, and attempt to find that common ground where you can do business or form a friendship.

As a mayoral candidate, I have discovered that the skills you acquire in learning languages come into play in politics.

Over the 18 months, in preparation for my mayoral run, I have attended more diplomatic events, in part to pave the way for better relations with other countries should I be elected.

You can’t just go and demand sister-city relationships with others if you don’t lay the groundwork first. To do that, you must have some accord.

In all these conversations, you are acutely aware that you are an ambassador for Wellington and New Zealand, and you are finding a way to promote us in a way our foreign visitors understand.

They respect you in return because you know your own language and heritage, those of the country which you

have adopted as your home for 34 years, and you have extended your goodwill by embracing theirs.

Beyond business, arts, cultural exchanges and politics, multilingualism gives a person one extra thing.

It shows that you are complete, and you have a sense of self. That equates best to the Māori concept of mana. It is the greatest advantage one has over others in so many facets of life.

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About The Author

Kenneth is Director of Euroasia. He is passionate about languages and cultures.

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