Is it worth learning Chinese?

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People often ask me if it’s worth learning Chinese. Usually, the question is posed by those who have the option of taking it in high school or college and have been told that “it’s the language of the future,” so are considering whether it’ll be advantageous to learn.

The short answer, perhaps surprisingly, is probably not. It is extremely time intensive to learn Chinese to the point of usefulness, and equivalent effort and money into other languages or pursuits typically yield much more marketable results. In my longer explanations below, I address each of the common motivations for wanting to learn Chinese: to bolster a future career in business; because it might be politically important; out of a curiosity for the culture; and as a personal challenge.

The language of the future: business and politics

Mastering Chinese to the point where it actually becomes useful takes enormous amounts of time and dedication that could instead be spent learning a different skill with more immediate and impactful return on investment. A few years ago the Freakonomics podcast hosted Albert Saiz, an MIT economist who pointed out that “if you speak a second language…on average you can be expected to earn about 2 percent higher wages…think about your income or your wage being about $30,000, then you would expect to earn about $600 more per year.” He further specified that “We know that the lowest return is Spanish, where you get about 1.5 percent, and then French 2.7 percent, and then German 4 percent.” While the return for learning Chinese is likely higher than of any language in Siaz’s study, the conclusion nevertheless remains clear that languages are generally not a good way to improve future earning potential.

In any case, it is much rarer for a Westerner to speak Chinese well compared to the languages in Saiz’s study, and most people in the business world would certainly be impressed–– especially if they have Chinese clients or partners. However, the reality is that almost no one is hired for high-level jobs simply because they speak Chinese. Their most valuable asset is usually their main degree or work experience, with Chinese effectively serving as a side bonus on a resume.

Most professionals, lawyers, professors, etc. who live and work in China don’t speak Chinese, and are instead supported by dedicated translators for anything important. In other words, for most companies and employers, the most important thing is to meet their particular functional need. It is generally better for them to hire the ideal person for the job plus a native Chinese translator, than the slightly less ideal person who also happens to be fluent in Mandarin. Perhaps this might change if more Westerners become fluent in Mandarin, so it may not be the definitive state of things moving forward, but prospective students should be aware that it is the current state of affairs.

What this means is that anyone thinking of learning Chinese must realize that they need something else aside from speaking Mandarin to be competitive on the job market. Basically anyone learning Chinese must also have technical skills that differentiate them from the following two categories of people: first, Chinese graduate students with advanced technical skills who speak English passably well, and second, Asian-American graduate students with advanced technical skills who speak Chinese passably well. Each of those categories will tick a lot of boxes for a hiring manager, so they can be thought of as the main employment “competition” for someone who learned Chinese as a foreign language.

Chinese is almost never worth learning if the goal is to bolster a career in business or politics. It takes too much time and too much effort for something that may not pay off, and devoting the same amount of time to a more commercially-sought skill (coding, accounting, researching or compiling data, etc.) will yield better returns for most people.

Broadening horizons: culture and challenge

Despite not being a worthwhile financial investment, studying Chinese can be hugely rewarding in other ways to those who remain unfazed. Chinese culture is marvellously complex, and the language structure, grammar, and style are all fascinating to anyone even remotely interested in linguistics.

Because Chinese dynasties rose and fell in relative isolation compared to Western cultural centers, Chinese culture developed in a starkly distinct way. When someone asks me why I’m so interested in Chinese culture and history, I like to analogize and say that it’s as if we had just made first contact with an alien civilization and almost no one had explored its history and philosophy yet. It’s really cool to take the time to learn about a culture so different and make connections with people to the point where every conversation becomes an adventure.

Since most people don’t have a solid conception of what Chinese culture actually is, a brief way to think of it is that it’s just like any other, with themes such as what it means to be a good person, how people should behave toward nature, the value of life and truth, and pursuit of something greater than the self all present in the structure of society. This likely sounds familiar, because it is ultimately a civilization just like any other, that tried its best to survive and be human and thoughtful throughout history. The most interesting aspect is in the variation and differences that help highlight understanding not only of Chinese culture, but of ones’ own.

Delving into a culture firsthand is of course invaluable for dealing with Chinese colleagues, clients, counterparts, etc. It is possible for a Westerner to almost immediately bridge the gap if they speak passable Chinese and have an understanding of social dynamics. If that is reinforced with cultural knowledge, as well, it’s possible to instantly make friends with any Chinese person ever encountered, anywhere in the world (even in China). This of course could be useful for a wide variety of positions in business and politics. Even if speaking Chinese alone will not help land the job, it will definitely help bolster one’s ability to generate clientele and business.

My personal experiences as an American in China have been incredibly positive. The country itself has its ups and downs, but people there are beyond friendly, welcoming, curious, and pretty much everything many would not expect Chinese people to be, based on stereotypes. Also, Chinese food in and of itself is deeply complex and varied. For those learning Mandarin, or considering doing so, reach out to Chinese people in daily life! They often appear very reserved because their society doesn’t encourage interaction with others, but they might be really warm and sociable people, and worth establishing rapport with.

I’d like to end this post with a brief explanation of why Chinese is a difficult language to learn. Chinese has three difficult components: 1. Characters are hard to learn in the beginning (the brain eventually adapts and can pick them up really quickly later on); 2. The grammar system is contextual instead of specific so it’s necessary to learn how to avoid ambiguity while basically doing word-order puzzles; 3. Pronouncing and remembering tones takes a while to click. It is not unlike memorizing words’ genders in Romance languages, but for every single word instead of just nouns. Honestly, it’s the most fun language I’ve ever come across. For those at all interested in linguistics, Chinese is a treat to learn. But. It. Takes. So. Much. Work. I only know one person who’s fluent without having lived in China.

Conclusion

The CCP is one of the most misunderstood foreign governments in the world and no one is handling them properly because few really understand either the government or the culture. So it is likely accurate that the Chinese language will continue to be important for many years to come. Does this mean Chinese as a language is worth learning? Probably not, unless the person decides to devote themselves intensely and has a plan for how that would fit into their career. However, for the more casual learner, there are still benefits to learning Mandarin, and more people studying the language (and culture!) would undoubtedly help establish a stronger bond between the East and West.

Further reading:

Freakonomics Podcast, “Is Learning a Foreign Language Really Worth It? (Ep. 158): Full Transcript.” http://freakonomics.com/2014/03/05/is-learning-a-foreign-language-really-worth-it-full-transcript/

China Law Blog, “On Becoming a China Lawyer.” Provides general career advice for those seeking to devote themselves to a career related to China. https://www.chinalawblog.com/2017/04/on-becoming-a-china-lawyer.html

Ian Bremmer, “Why You Should Learn Cultures, Not Languages.” The Eurasia Group president explains why being able to understand other cultures is more important than understanding other languages. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/mind-skills-gap-why-you-should-learn-cultures-ian-bremmer/

Author Nicholas Andonie

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