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Why Indians Have No Choice but to Learn Chinese

sunil menon | E+ | Getty Images

It was a "botched" business deal in 2011 that prompted Mumbai-based entrepreneur Navin Thantry to learn mandarin.

Thantry had ordered 20 million rupees ($360,000) worth of polished gems like moonstones and turquoise from a Fengshui goods dealer in China with the help of an interpreter. When the consignment arrived in Mumbai, it consisted of large, rough stones instead.

The harried businessman spent the next 3-4 months getting the stones cut and polished locally that cost him almost 20 percent of the consignment value.

To make sure there was no loss in translation going forward, Thantry - who imports crystals and gemstones for his "mystic healing" business from China - decided to learn Mandarin himself. He has already spent more than 120 hours learning conversational Mandarin at Career Crafters, an institute for foreign languages in Mumbai, and has also managed to convince two of his employees to enroll for the course.

(See: Asia's Richest Entrepreneurs)

"I am targeting a turnover of $20 million in the next 3 years. An investment of $2,000 in Mandarin speaking is a small price to pay. I don't see any country matching China's labor or cost efficiencies," he told CNBC.

As the world's two most populous nations China and India work towards increasing bilateral trade, entrepreneurs like Thantry are building their future leveraging on China's price competitiveness and manufacturing muscle.

"You name anything from electronics to footwear, textiles and even idols of Hindu deities are being imported by Indian retailers and wholesalers from China," points out Madhav Sharma, China chief representative at Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). At the recently concluded Canton Fair, China's largest export and import fair, Indians were the third largest buyers of China-made goods.

Trade between the two countries has grown from as low as $2.92 billion in 2000 to a record $73.9 billion in 2011 and is targeted to reach $100 billion by 2015, according to India's Commerce Ministry. Indian businesses don't want to lose out on this opportunity and learning Mandarin is the first step.

(Read More: Opportunistic Indians Ride China's Economic Boom)

"When you speak the language of the person you want to do business with you give a signal that you are serious, you build trust and you build relationships ground-up," says Harpreet Singh Puri who set up business advisory firm Business Links in Shanghai in 1999 to advise Indian companies on China strategy and cross-border investments.

Puri speaks Mandarin and advises his clients to pick up the skills if they are long on China. "A new axis of China-India trade and commercial collaboration is emerging…we have a common, shared history, which gives us more in common than either of us with the West. If we can also speak in the same language, we can be unstoppable," he says.

According to Justdial.com, an online directory of business services, there are more than 25 centers teaching Mandarin in Mumbai and a whopping 120 such institutes in New Delhi and its suburbs.

"For the past several decades, China has systematically engineered its economy to be the factory of the world. Today no company from Apple to a kite-maker in Mumbai can resist the low production and sourcing costs in China. That explains why Mandarin classes are becoming so popular. You want to speak the language of the people who dominate your business landscape," points out KC Mathur who teaches mandarin at Delhi University's Department of East Asian Studies.

(Read More: Making a Clean Sweep of a 'Dirty' Business in India)

In the last few years demand for Mandarin courses has exploded with more than 300 students enrolled at various colleges affiliated to Delhi University, up from a mere 30-40 less than a decade ago. "Our only constraint is lack of teachers. We have introduced an aptitude test to restrict the intake of students," Mathur told CNBC.

In 2005 Purnima and Akshay Garg returned from China, where Akshay worked for a consulting firm, to start the Chinese Language Institute in New Delhi to tap into this pent up demand. "While trade between India and China is improving, there are just not enough Indians speaking Mandarin or Chinese speaking English. Language interpreters are therefore in huge demand," says Purnima.

(Read More:Did China Just Go Through a 'Lost Decade'?)

Nitin Rao, director of Career Crafters in Mumbai adds, "About 75 percent of our students are importers and traders who are doing business with China." Since he set up shop in 2008 inquiries for Mandarin classes have quadrupled.

Between 2005 and 2010, there was a 116 percent increase in the number of business visas issued by the China Embassy in Delhi to Indians, according to an Economic Times report.

"There is a direct correlation between a country's ascendance and its language. Now with China poised to rule the world, Mandarin is well on its way to be a world language," says Puri.

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