For Mike Birkle, president of Pfaff Molds LP, learning Chinese was a matter of necessity. While traveling in Wuhu, China last spring, he discovered that no one in any of the nearby restaurants spoke English.
“I ended up taking my chances by simply pointing at three dishes on the all Mandarin menu,” says Birkle. “I figured some of it I would like. The food was great and so I took some pictures so I could show them what I wanted the next day.”
While he didn’t go hungry, the experience was enough to convince him he needed to take up Mandarin when he returned to Charlotte, home to Birkle and the North American subsidiary of German-owned Pfaff Molds.
Birkle is spending a lot of time in China these days because Pfaff Molds is opening a new facility in Kunshan, near Shanghai. He’s a 10-year veteran with the company, which manufactures injection molds for the automotive industry used to produce seals for car doors, car windows and convertibles.
Mastering new languages is something that Birkle’s gotten used to doing. Mandarin, which he started studying a month ago, is his fourth one.
A native German speaker, Birkle’s first foreign language was English, a required subject in German high schools. More than academics, it was his experience as a teenager babysitting for the kids of American soldiers that really sparked his interest in learning it.
“I liked watching movies in their original language and that really made me study,” says Birkle.
His third language was Spanish, which Birkle and others at Pfaff Molds started studying six years ago, in order to better communicate with their Mexican clients. Courses are held onsite and taught by instructors from The Language Academy of the Carolinas. Birkle notes that one of the best features of the program is its personalized approach to learning: “[The Language Academy’s] attention to detail and willingness to customize content and schedule for our Spanish classes is exceptional.
Birkle estimates that about 40% of Pfaff Molds’ employees speak two or more languages. German and English are the most widely-spoken in the company. Besides Spanish, other languages spoken at Pfaff Molds include Hungarian, Croatian and Farsi.
“[The Language Academy’s] attention to detail and willingness to customize content and schedule for our Spanish classes is exceptional.”
As for his fourth language, learning Mandarin has been a demanding but rewarding experience, according to Birkle. “The main challenge so far is the fact that pronunciation is very critical and hitting it is difficult for a non-native speaker,” he says. “I am glad to have a very patient teacher in Yingying Li.”
But he’s pleased with the progress he’s making and has already started enjoying the fruits of his labor: “During my trip last week I could already put my new skills to good use and enjoyed ordering food and my favorite beverage, beer, in Mandarin,” says Birkle.