Should we all start learning Chinese?
“We should all start learning Mandarin because the Chinese are taking over the world.”
If I hear this sentence come out of someone’s mouth one more time, I am going to scream. I really am.
I am THISCLOSE to ranting in real life.
I have heard this every 3 months now, just because I have a toddler and I am surrounded by Type A parents who want their kids to be the best of the best of the best.
Every single time I hear it, I give an inward sigh and think: This again. THIS AGAIN.
It’s like people just blurt out crap they have no idea about just because they can and FEEL like they’re right.
Why don’t you do a little fact checking research first before opening your mouth?
(this is what I secretly want to say to them)
I am not saying it is impossible and not a good thing.
I am the #1 person to advocate that learning languages is a good thing, and if I could teach Baby Bun Mandarin and learn along the process with him, I WOULD.
The more the merrier.
Sure, China could “take over the world”, and maybe they already have in a way, but there are a few things we are missing in this picture of big fat assumptions backed up by zero research and fear mongering media.
Before we start cracking open books, let’s review these three major points:
1. CHINESE PEOPLE DO NOT SEE THEMSELVES IN THE SAME WAY
I went to China and chatted with various, random, super kind strangers.
Then I came back to Canada, and met recent immigrants from China who have moved to live here permanently (therefore, they are not ex-pats), and we’ve struck up conversations in daycares and at the playgrounds:
They all told me the same thing:
Chinese people do not see themselves the same way.
The country is 99% poor. 1% super rich.
Fuerdai are not the norm.
They’re the exception.
All the stats hold this up.
They don’t earn a lot of money as a whole, and the disparity in income is really shockingly wide (click on the FT Financial Times link).
2. THE LANGUAGE OF GLOBAL BUSINESS IS ENGLISH
I saw this firsthand in Hong Kong when I visited. Now granted, Hong Kong is more English than Mainland China itself, but it is a hub of business for China, and lots of Chinese people from all over work, live and do business there.
Chinese people who don’t speak the same dialect, use English to communicate.
I have also confirmed this with other travelers to Asia (frequent travelers) who tell me that they ALL SPEAK ENGLISH, or at least some semblance of it.
A lady who used to travel every week for her job before she retired, said that she thought at first it was out of politeness to you, but it is because she realized Chinese people don’t speak the same dialects either, and may or may not know Mandarin, so they use English to communicate.
That has been my observation as well.
Anywhere you go, chances are if you can speak English, you can communicate with the majority of people and/or they will use English on you.
(Although in my experience traveling for leisure in China and Japan (where I didn’t speak a single word of the language), I was able to communicate with only hand gestures and miming with the general populace, but I suppose in business traveling, I would have been able to speak English to them or at least had a translator present.)
I even see it in Quebec where I live, where if you ONLY speak French, you are at a disadvantage of being able to be promoted, move up, move out, or be hired at all.
I know French people who ONLY SPEAK FRENCH and it drives me insane trying to convince them to learn English for their own good.
They know how to speak it, they’re just shy, but it hamstrings their success, not to mention French-only speaking companies.
Happens every day.
Don’t believe me? Read this.
How did it come about?
I am thinking it is because the U.S. being the #1 country for quite a while now, is a uni-lingual country for the most part, and if you don’t speak English, you can’t do business with them.
Therefore… you learn English to make money with one of the most dynamic markets in the world today, that is a juggernaut for commerce — the United States.
Yes, Chinese is the #1 language spoken in the world right now but that’s because they have billions of inhabitants.
(Note: Chinese also has dialects. Mandarin is not Cantonese and is not Hokkien or Shanghainese, but are both grouped under the category as “Chinese”)
The language most commonly spoken by the most countries, is… you guessed it!
Look at how far out that is.
3. THEIR MONEY IS MADE VIA LOWER-SKILL INDUSTRIES
This is changing for sure, but stuff that is made in China, is stuff in dollar stores, or low-skill, low-technical products.
Cameras for instance, are made in Japan.
High precision, high quality, although this may change. Who knows?
Although I will note that I am starting to see that things like clothes or items are being made in Vietnam, Cambodia, all places that are in lower cost than China these days.
China is moving towards a higher-tech world now, and trying to become a country that can organically produce companies like Apple, Google, GE, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola.. you know. Worldwide, multibillion dollar companies.
It could happen, and maybe in the future we will all have to learn Mandarin in 50 years, but for now, I’ll stick to English.
Besides, it’s a damn hard language to learn with its lack of an alphabet, its tones, its singing and so on. If it is not easy to learn and there is no impetus to, people are simply not going to learn it.
Germany is a big strong country with lots of power & clout so why aren’t we all speaking German, I ask you?
Because it is a HARD LANGUAGE TO LEARN. Sure, it’s handy to speak it if you know it (so is knowing Swahili in Kenya for instance), but if you speak English and you want to do business, then they’ll switch to English.
Germans use English to communicate with other countries, and so on.
Want to do business?
Learn ENGLISH first and foremost, then whatever languages you can pick up along the way.
No matter how many you speak, this is always true:
If you don’t practice or use the language, it is essentially USELESS to you and it’ll use up your free little grey cells for no reason.
I know a little boy whose parents are teaching him Mandarin with a tutor once a week because they want him to learn the “future language” as they say, but if they speak English and French at home, he is going to speak more EN/FR than he is Mandarin. Ever.
Three hours a week won’t do anything, it’s just a hobby. To really learn it, you need to move there, live there and be immersed in it full-time with no hope of using your native langauge. This is true of all languages.
I even know kids who live in China who don’t speak, read or write a single word of Chinese because the Chinese won’t let them into their schooling system (they’re white, not Chinese so they go to ex-pat school.)
ARE YOU GOING TO BE LEARNING MANDARIN SOON?
I’ve studied French and Spanish and love those languages. Honestly I think that alarmists forget that the languages they should be learning are the ones that are being used in their actual city/town. In my town, Spanish is the second most frequently used language. I could speak Spanish every single day. Fortunately, I really like Spanish.
Almost any language is useful if you plan to use it!
This rush by the wealthy, then the merely wealthy to teach their kids Chinese ( I think well-known investor Jim Rogers had some influence on this) is a bit over the top.
I also think that if a company based in an English speaking country wants to do business in China, better to hire a chinese that learned English well overseas than to hire a homegrown who learned Chinese (IMO a majority of the time). Therefore, I hope the kids are learning for enjoyment, cultural enrichment and perhaps the ability to have flexibility to work overseas.
Also having two little ones that are learning a second language, I think the best time to teach a language when it doesn’t feel forced is pre age 5. It’s just natural to them and they don’t think of learning that second language the way that adults do.
Back when I was in high school, everyone was saying the exact same thing about Japanese. Then Japan’s economy fell apart and people weren’t so keen on learning Japanese anymore.
I know 2 out of 3 base languages. So far, no real advantage.
Learning a language because out of fear for the future is stupid. There have been civilizations who have been conquered and learned at their own pace the language of the conquerors. Example: When Ancient Greece was part of the Roman Empire: eventually EVERYONE learned Latin.
In the tech field, the #1 language most requested is ENGLISH because it is NECESSARY to understand a programmer’s comments that need to go with lines of code. These comments NEED TO BE COHERENT. There is nothing worse than trying to read code and then trying to figure out what the hell the comments meant. You could be the next Alan Turing, but if you can’t speak or write in English then your chances of getting hired are diminished.
I actually started learning Mandarin as a hobby, as an adult.
You are right, it’s a hard language to learn, but then, so is learning to play guitar, or learning to knit, yet still people do it. To be honest, I’ve lapsed my studies but I can still say thank you to the lady in the Chinese take-out place that I go to, and once I had a 3 language talk (Chinese, Spanish and English) with a lovely couple who had a restaurant in Barcelona. It was a very funny talk.
Every kid in my Country learns 2 foreign languages. English by default and mostly German or French. Of course you can use English everywhere these days, but by learning a language you’re also learning about a different coulture. You get to know about mooncakes and the Chinese horoscope, about Le Louvre and Centre Pompidou, about croissants for breakfast and 5 o’clock afternoon teas. It’s easier to interact with a person if you know something about their customs and their likes and dislikes. For example, without my Chinese language studies, I would have had no idea about Chinese people disliking the number 4 and the brides switching from red wedding dresses to white or about the fact that they’re the world’s biggest market for pork or about their dinasties and their penchant for destructing themselves (the dinasties, not the Chinese).
It’s not just the language, it’s learning to better understand each other. And for better or for worse, because China has had a huge economic improvement in the last 20 years, they will have a bigger slice of the world economic pie in the years to come. We’re all more interconnected now, we have to make time to learn about one another.
i agree, thanks for the clarification! needed it for some debate..
Living in Belgium, I’ve encountered quite some people from French-speaking Wallonia who are not comfortable speaking English (or Dutch…). People who know both languages, or even those that are trilingual, have a big advantage in the Brussels region. Your customers can be either French- or Dutch-speaking or one of the many English-speaking expats. Or you might work in an international company where the working language is English but local employees speak mostly French or Dutch.
I consider myself bilingual (Dutch/English), but I can’t really work in French — which makes me feel a little behind sometimes haha