In 2015, former US President Barack Obama interviewed Alibaba co-founder and executive chairman, Jack Ma, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation CEO Summit in Manila, the Philippines.
Against the Harvard-educated Obama – who is also reputedly the best orator the US has seen in modern times – Ma certainly held his own. During the panel on government-business ties, Ma spoke about how governments and established businesses could help young entrepreneurs, even throwing in a few jokes to an audience made up of world leaders, CEOs and industry pioneers.
The video of this interview would go down in his history for one of the rare moments a US president broke protocol to interview a businessman.
It also serves as living proof of the valuable benefits of learning the English language.
While Ma is today the most successful businessman in Asia and valued at a whopping US$46.6 billion, his beginnings were once humble.
Growing up in communist China, his family didn’t have much money and his country was isolated from most of the world. His academic credentials aren’t any better, twice failing his university entrance exams for the lesser-ranked Hangzhou Teachers Institute. He was even rejected for a job at KFC.
At the height of the Cultural Revolution, studying English at school was nearly impossible, though this restriction was relaxed a decade on. Ma only learned English by conversing with tourists in his hometown of Hangzhou.
Despite these shortcomings, his mastery of English is, as former senior editor of Time and editor-in-chief of the Harvard Business Review noted, “really good”.
Beyond mastery of the language, it bears to note that Ma’s inspiring story also holds other valuable lessons for those learning English today:
Ma didn’t just practice among a smattering of tourists. According to Inc, the 12-year-old Ma rode his bicycle for 40 minutes every day to a hotel near the city of Hangzhou’s West Lake district, keen to practice English with the foreign tourists there. He did this for eight years come rain or snow, meeting foreign tourists who had chosen to visit China as the country was first opening up.
Practice makes perfect may be the most overused cliché in the world but Ma’s fluency today is living proof that it works when learning English.
Seeing English beyond just another exam to pass
Ma did all these things for eight years of his teenage life and it was all entirely for free. Many international students see English as a means to a limited end, motivated to do only what they need to pass the TOEFL or to check off a requirement for entry to a Western university.
But Ma relished the opportunity he had to practice English, despite there only being the rare few who could speak English throughout this period.
When pen pals returned his letters with corrections and suggestions, Ma wasn’t disheartened and was in fact further encouraged to continue learning the language.
A more globalised outlook
Knowing a foreign language not only helped Ma interact with tourists but also instilled within him a more globalised outlook of the world.
At a time when China was isolated from the rest of the world, Ma said: “What I learned from my teachers and books was different from what the foreign visitors told us.
“English helps me a lot. Makes me understand the world better, help me to meet the best CEOs and leaders in the world and makes me understand the distance between China and the world” — Jack Ma.
Opens many doors
It also won him an invite to Australia from a tourist family he befriended, an event that he said “fundamentally changed” him:
“I went in July, and those 31 days changed my life. Before I left China, I was educated that China was the richest, happiest country in the world. So when I arrived in Australia, I thought, oh, my God, everything is different from what I was told. Since then, I started to think differently.”
His expertise in English later landed him the coveted post as an English lecturer in ‘English and International trade’ at Hangzhou Institute of Electronic Engineering, while most of his fellow students were teaching English at middle school-level.
Later, it got him a stint helping the local government which resulted in a month-long trip to the US; an opportunity that first exposed him to the internet, another event that changed his life forever.
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