Xiaomi's Lei Jun & Overrating English Language Skills

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 5/18/2015 01:30:00 AM
Xiaomi's Lei Jun: Zen and the art of smart phone launches in overseas markets.
One of the greatest conceits English-speaking Western nations have is that comprehension of the language is "developmental." In other words, if you can speak English, your chances of successfully integrating into global markets are increased since it is the language of business. Despite being a native English speaker--the Philippines has two official languages, English and Filipino--I have always doubted this idea. If English speaking gave countries such a leg up, why is it that the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans who have been the most successful in the region instead of, say, the Filipinos or the Indians? Fluency in English  may play a part in the development story, but it is neither a necessary or sufficient condition for development, obviously.

This idea was brought to mind by Xiaomi founder Lei Jun recently unveiling his company's new smart phone range in India--an obviously large market which considerable potential. This necessitated speaking in English, and to put it mildly, let's say his language skills were not quite as sharp as they could have been. Jokes were made on the Internet at his expense as he kept repeating "Are you OK?" when he meant "Are we doing alright?":
When the charismatic CEO of Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi took the stage in New Delhi to launch its first product for the international market, he stumbled over his few set lines in English. “Hello, how are you?” Lei Jun asked the Indian audience last Thursday, his first time using English in a product launch. “India Mi fans, I’m very happy to be in China,” he said, then corrected himself: “to be in India.”

The crowd of Indian Xiaomi fans laughed, but ultimately roared its welcome. Next, Mr. Lei announced a free Xiaomi smart wristband for each audience member. He sought to gauge the enthusiasm by shouting, with escalating volume, “Are you OK? Are you OK?” That “Are you OK?” has turned into an overnight meme on Chinese social media. It’s also set off a discussion in China about the hurdles Chinese executives face in the English-speaking global marketplace.
While some grammar snobs may have cringed, to me it seems utterly immaterial that the head of a Chinese firm trying to sell me cell phones has trouble expressing himself in English. Publicly speaking before a foreign audience is hard enough, but doing so in a language you don't use everyday is more so. Really, who cares if Lei Jun is not a master thespian in his English delivery? He seems enthusiastic enough, and the Indian crowd seemed to appreciate the effort he made in communicating with them. Most importantly in this case, the foreign language skills of Lei Jun have no bearing whatsoever on the functionality of Xiaomi phones. And, ultimately, I believe that's what consumers in India and elsewhere will have foremost in mind while evaluating smart phone purchases.

Following this line of reasoning, I would not even be in the least concerned if the company's head spoke no English whatsoever. Just as Apple's millions of Chinese customers don't know or care if Tim Cook speaks conversational Mandarin, I do not see why Xiaomi's overseas customers would care if Lei Jun speaks conversational English. There is a certain cultural expectation that makes the latter seem more "important" or "natural" when in fact Mandarin, not English, is the world's most widely-spoken language.

Xiaomi phones run mostly on Google Android, so there are no "localization" issues for models targeted at English-speaking markets. There are more important things to consider. Indeed, one could argue that a reason why many developing countries which have many English speakers have not done as well as they could is because they bought all this guff about English  comprehension being "developmental." As with Lei Jun, perhaps the reality is different: non-native English speakers succeed because they try harder to make up for a perceived lack of English language skills.

To me, though, speaking "straight" English ranks rather low on developmental priorities. Again, see the pecking order here in Asia.