The Economist posted an article dubbed False Eastern promise about the advantages and disadvantages of learning Chinese. Most of their arguments are against Chinese. I think they are pretty wrong and I’ll show why. Dear Economist, have a look.
In the beginning of the article Economist presents some facts. They write: 30m foreigners are studying Mandarin today, and Chinese authorities expect the number to rise to 100m by 2010. This is correct.
The Economist predicts, that Chinas economy will overtake the US economy in the coming decades. Here they are right, however they then ask if Westerners will increase their career chances by learning Mandarin. Even before showing one single argument they answer this question with a No.
The next point in the article is about the difficulties of learning Chinese. They say that a person needs to invest about 4 times more time into studying Chinese compared to studying Italian, French or Spanish. While this is probably true, people who start Chinese are really interested in learning and understanding this language. Then time is not an real issue, if You manage it correctly. You can become fluent in almost 2 years. Add in 2 more years to learn characters and You are ready to go. While You are doing a Bachelor in say Economy or Computer Science at universit, You can study Chinese in Your spare time.
The article goes on, that a 3 year student of Chinese often cannot pass the HSK level6. I already stated You need 4 years. 2 years of focus on spoken Mandarin. 2 more years to get the characters down.
Then they claim You could become a lawyer in the same time. Let me get this one straight. No one should learn any language as a major. Study something else and add in a language study in Your free time.
Economist: One reason is that many Chinese already speak reasonable English.
The Economist claims, that many Chinese can already speak Chinese. Such an arguments makes them actually look stupid. Maybe there are some English speakers in Shanghai and Hongkong. But how about Chengdu, Chongqing, Nanjing, … ? Maybe one percent of these city’s population can actually speak English. Yes, most people in China nowadays learn English, but the English classes are rarely worth mentioning, because the teachers can’t speak English themselves.
Even less is the number of Chinese people who can speak English, have knowledge about the Western culture and already visited a Western country. If You need such a person have fun searching.
The Economist goes on, that only English speaking students are allowed to study at a Chinese university. I think there are alternatives. For example You donate some money to the right person. Or You know the right persons. Or You don’t attend a top notch university. You are free to study without English. When I was at Chengdu university there were enough people whose English was similar to my Chinese level. And I didn’t speak much Chinese at that time.
Finally they take on the money issue. Westerners earn less than at home. While this is true, they spend less and can eat better food. It’s just a question of preferences.
If the initial claim of the article in the Economist holds true and China is really going this superpower then the money issue will vanish by itself, because with economic growth come increasing wages and quality of living.
Finally I have to add, that while Westerners can communicate in English with the Chinese sooner or later, when it comes to big deals in China then You have to speak Chinese. These deals are not made in an office. The biggest deals are still closed in an expensive restaurant with lots of alcohol and there You absolutely do want to speak Chinese.
Dear Economist, You underestimate the value of learning Chinese dramatically. Maybe You rethink it.
update, 2008 May 25. :
Due to recent events my view on learning the Chinese language changed slightly. The arguments above are still valid, however a new reason came up that possibly lowers the value of learning Chinese. The visa policy changed and therefore someone might not enter China as easily as before. This has effects on the value of learning Chinese. This might be a short term change, but might be a long term change. I’ll keep You posted.