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A passion for Mandarin that led to a career into publishing

Mandarin Aspirations

Whilst studying for a BTEC in journalism, Nathan Krout discovered a passion for Chinese language and culture that changed the course of his life. Having never previously considered going to university, he was accepted to study Chinese at the University of Leeds and now uses his language skills in his role at publishing company DK. 

We spoke to Nathan about coming to Chinese from a non-academic background, making enduring friendships both at university and in China, and finding a job that allows him to use his Mandarin.  

An unconventional route onto a Chinese degree  

16-year-old Nathan was fascinated at the sight of his friend’s older brother speaking Mandarin on Skype with a friend from Hong Kong.  

He developed an interest in Asian pop culture, engrossing himself in Korean films and music. Delving deeper into Chinese, he downloaded WeChat and spent time using the old ‘shake’ feature that would randomly choose someone for you to speak to. Sending voice notes to these virtual pen pals and asking questions about Chinese culture deepened Nathan’s interest in China and boosted his enthusiasm for Chinese. 

BTECs are more practical and vocational than academic, and Nathan hadn’t considered applying for university until his friend’s brother suggested it. Nathan’s passion for Chinese was growing and the prospect of going on a year abroad in his second year drew him in. Undeterred by apprehension from his college, he wrote a passionate personal statement and applied.  

Making friends and taking up opportunities  

When Nathan was accepted to the BA Chinese programme at the University of Leeds, his excitement overrode any nerves he may have had. As soon as he arrived he signed up to the language partner programme, made use of the Language Centre and attended Business Confucius Institute events, which enabled him to meet a wide range of Chinese students.  

His genuine interest in their culture allowed him to form friendships, and he found that doing normal social activities such as having dinner and going to KTV together improved his language much more than sitting down and reading from a textbook. 

The advantages of building a social network early in your degree 

Diving in and making friends in first year helped Nathan to gain an understanding of cultural and social norms, which prepared him for his year abroad in his second year.

Many Chinese students are on one-year postgraduate courses, so his friends from first year had gone back to China and he was able to travel around and visit them. They reciprocated the friendliness he had extended to them when they were away from home, showing him around China in the same way that he had shown them Leeds.

Spending this time in with Chinese speakers that he had already built a friendship with gave Nathan more confidence in his ability to have conversations solely in Mandarin. 

Putting language into practice in China  

Learn as much vocabulary as possible because you don’t know when the most random things are going to help you!

Nathan was forced to put his language skills into action when he became unwell after embarking on a solo trip to Harbin for the Ice Festival. 

A sentence about taking medicine three times a day, which Nathan had always struggled to get his head around in class, suddenly clicked when he found himself talking to a pharmacist and using the language in context. He then went to the train station and successfully changed his train tickets to the following day using vocabulary from his first-year textbook.  

Being able to apply his knowledge from class into real life situations made Nathan feel like everything had come together and gave him a lot of confidence to practice speaking more.   

After graduating Nathan was determined to go back to Asia and continue using his language skills. He applied for a scholarship to study in Taiwan for 9 months, where he stayed with a family and was completely immersed in the language and culture. Returning to East Asia allowed him to put into practice everything he had learned since the year abroad, consolidate his language skills and enjoy being able to communicate at a higher level. 

Searching for a job that used his Chinese skills

Back in the UK and without a specific career in mind, Nathan started looking for roles using Chinese. This turned out to be difficult and a simple search for ‘jobs Chinese’ would yield few results. 

Through using different platforms and broadening his career search, Nathan was surprised with the range of job possibilities available for Mandarin speakers. From gaining interest in pursuing work in the education sector, to getting to final stages of an interview for a Premier League football club looking for a Mandarin-speaking media professional, Nathan found that through perseverance, open mindedness and patience, there are many different jobs out there for Chinese graduates. 

He was successful in finding a China-related job, and has now been with the publishing company Dorling Kindersley for two years. As International Sales Executive for China Nathan's role involves working closely with the Beijing office. 

How Nathan uses Chinese in his career   

An important part of Chinese business culture is the relationship between client and customer. Nathan’s friendships at university prepared him for this aspect of his working life, and he is able to form meaningful working relationships with Chinese clients. They are impressed by his knowledge of colloquial phrases and buzzwords that not many non-native speakers would recognise. 

I used to go for hot pot with my friends and now I go for hot pot with my clients.

Whilst on his year abroad, Nathan worked as an English tutor alongside his studies. Originally an exciting opportunity to have a part-time job whilst studying in Shanghai, this experience has also helped his current work as he has first-hand knowledge about the Chinese consumers who buy English educational books.

Studying Mandarin and living in China helped Nathan develop a deeper understanding of business, culture and society, making him well-prepared for working in a global organisation like Penguin Random House. 

He would like to continue to use his degree in a productive way and hopes to travel to China again in the future. 

The Mandarin Aspirations Project

We aim to encourage and celebrate the learning of Chinese by sharing the motivations (why study Chinese), study experiences (challenges and rewards) and study outcomes (employability, confidence and intercultural skills) of Chinese language learners. We hope that these Mandarin Aspirations stories will encourage those of you already studying Chinese, and inspire new learners to join a growing and supportive community of Chinese language enthusiasts in the UK.