Maybe you need the college credits, maybe you want to hit on that cute exchange student, or maybe you’ve hit a point in your career where some professional enrichment could land you a promotion. There are lots of reasons to start studying a new language, and with the rising prominence of China in every sector from politics to entertainment, brushing up on your Mandarin seems like a solid choice.
But before tying on a silk robe and practicing your chopstick skills, you might want to reconsider the practical value of learning to read, write and speak Chinese. Unlike art history degrees and philosophy majors, you might be surprised to find that Chinese fluency isn’t always a best-seller. Why? Well…
10. Limited Linguistic Geography
Chinese is by far the most popular spoken language in the world per capita. With nearly two billion speakers, more people speak Chinese than the next eight most popular world languages combined. Seems like a safe bet to study it, right?
Only if you plan on living in China.
Unlike, say, Spanish, which is predominant in 23 different countries, or French, which is dominant in 39 different countries, or even Portuguese, with a respectable 10 countries speaking it as a primary or secondary language (thanks a million, colonialism), Chinese is a primary language in four. Four countries speak Chinese, and they’re all clustered around, well, China. If you’re really generous and count Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau as separate countries (pro tip: the Chinese government definitely does not), the total goes up to eight, and they’re nearly all one border-crossing away from each other. So for real globe-trotting utility you should consider one of the romance languages or even Arabic, which spread beyond its home continent to enjoy use among 12 different African nations.
9. No Alphabet
There are innumerable dialects of Chinese, and some so distinct they’re virtually unintelligible to speakers just a few counties away. Imagine someone from London chatting about the weather with a Cajun from New Orleans and you start to get the idea. Amazingly, the huge gap between spoken dialects disappears in the written form. Unless you’re studying ancient archaeology, there’s just one standard, universally written Chinese language.
That’s because literacy was historically limited to the ruling dynasty, and the capital was the only place you could learn to write. Rather than promoting literacy and standardizing the written form through mass education, multiple Chinese dynasties waged active anti-literacy campaigns by forbidding the study of the written script outside the capital. They preserved a strict devotion to the language’s pictographic origins, preventing the advent of an alphabet.
That made the ruling class like a secret society, only instead of exchanging handshakes and passwords they were the gatekeepers of the only official script in the world’s most populous nation. And that exclusivity was not good for efficiency. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. That’s why Chinese script consists of over 80,000 unique characters. To achieve literacy, it’s estimated that a person must memorize about 2,000.
And yes, you really must simply memorize them, because the classic advice of “sound it out” doesn’t apply. There’s no phonetic principle behind Chinese characters. Instead, a Western phonetic approximation known as “Pinyin” has become the new norm. It’s used in education, to make dictionaries more than picture books, and to allow the Chinese to use computers… but more on that later.
8. Context is Critical
Chinese is one of the least literal languages in the world. There’s seldom a one-to-one translation for words and ideas from other languages, because all meaning comes from context. Coming from a different cultural background and trying to listen to native Chinese speakers is like going to your friend’s office party and trying to follow all the inside jokes. Except instead of spending eight hours a day together, the Chinese have 5,000 years of continuous history to provide their references.
Every culture develops unique fables that wend their way into proverbs and figures of speech. What makes this troublesome in Chinese is that, rather than just referencing a character by name or alluding to the events of a story, they have a whole host of four word aphorisms called “Chengyu.” If you don’t know how they go together to form a reference, they sound like the spontaneous outbursts of a stroke victim (“Melon field under plums!” “Kill chicken facing monkey!”), and you will struggle to understand them.
7. Pretty or Practical?
Chinese characters often appear in traditional paintings and other artwork, because their logographic nature blends into other art forms easily (and, frankly, they look awesome). Then of course there’s calligraphy, which is basically just painting words. Instead of a landscape or a beautiful woman, people will straight-up pay for fancy renderings of ancient catchphrases as presented by a master calligrapher. The beauty and elegance of its form compared to alphabetical languages lend it a unique poetic power where image and meaning are blurred.
Unfortunately, as means of precise, direct expression (the sort of thing you want when, say, negotiating a business deal, or checking ingredients to distinguish insecticide from antacid), flowery prose and ambiguous historical references don’t quite cut it. Blending meaning and appearance is great for interior decorating and love letters, but unless you’re a hobbyist you’re going to hit a wall when it comes to getting on the same page with someone using Chinese. The intricacy and order sensitivity of writing in Chinese creates all manner of penmanship headaches you never imagined in other languages.
6. Where’s the Innovation?
Being the factory of the world means making whatever someone else asks for. From the highest office to the lowliest factory worker, Chinese is a culture of efficiency proudly based on strict obedience. But there’s nothing efficient about asking questions and thinking critically, so if the innovators of the world stop outsourcing to China, the factories might well stop chugging out new widgets. There have already been moves away from the outsourcing model, as economic concerns and new manufacturing technology make it impractical. China itself has been heavily investing in African nations like Ethiopia to offset the rising cost of labor and declining foreign interest in its factories.
Not that the nation is completely without innovation—hackers have been hard at work trying to pilfer trade secrets and new ideas to jump-start the Chinese development game. Bottom line: if you’re looking for a foot in the door to the Next Big Thing, Chinese is not the leg you want to stand on.
5. Your English Is More of an Asset
Any self-respecting language learner knows that a visit to a country of native speakers is a requisite to achieving fluency. Well, in the People’s Republic, English study is required from primary school through high school, and most of its colleges include English language proficiency as an entry requirement. Whether you plan on visiting, studying, or working there, you’ll be much more popular if you just speak English, because everyone will want to practice it with you.
English speakers are the “street-walkers” of China, especially if you happen to be white (because, you know, all Americans are white). You’ll literally be propositioned by recruiters, anxious parents and exuberant students of all ages to teach English. You can be a good sport and stutter through your best approximation of Mandarin for “No, thank you, I hate children,” but your new best friends will most likely nod, chuckle, condescendingly compliment you for trying to learn Chinese, then ask to be language partners, with an emphasis* on English (*read: you will exclusively speak English together). If this sounds like a party, go for it, but there’s no need to brush up on Chinese ahead of your trip.
4. Business is Done in English
The language of worldwide business is English, and that isn’t changing no matter what happens to the U.S. dollar. This is especially true in the information age, when there’s a frequent need for the creation of new words (ready for a “selfie,” anyone? Or perhaps you’d like to “Google” some porn?), which is pretty easy in English, and pretty tough in Chinese. The trouble goes well beyond the business world — chemistry, technology… pretty much all the scientific industries are harder to grapple with in Chinese than English. Chinese has a long, laudable history, but its survival is not a reflection of its adaptability and utility, especially as science, culture and communication merge and accelerate around the world.
3. Chasing the Money
Quick, see if you can figure out what the following have in common: dot coms, housing, soap suds and tech start ups. If you said, “They were all bubbles that burst!” then you are a beacon of wisdom in a dark, dark world. But there may very well be another item that belongs in that lineup, which we’ll broadly describe as “China’s growth model.”
The rush of Western nations to open negotiations and start doing business with China was one of a long line of get rich quick schemes that, for a time and for a lot of people, worked. But like every overnight success story it wasn’t made to last, and deep-seeded, systemic problems — including familiar suspects like the housing market, unrealistic expectations and corruption — are all pointing at the bubble like a slow moving needle.
You could be forgiven for wanting to jump on the China bandwagon, but keep in mind that learning thousands of characters through rote memorization without any linguistic overlap with virtually any other world language is kind of a long-term investment. You wouldn’t want to spend six months in Shanghai only to find that you have to sell a kidney to buy a ticket home. That’s a one-off.
2. It’s Not the Real Door Opener
About one-sixth of the world grows up speaking Chinese, with about half living at or below the global poverty line. Chinese speakers aren’t as rare as your enthusiastic friends in business, politics and every other conceivable industry make it out to be. Simply showing a resume with some Mandarin courses isn’t going to make you the belle of the ball without a lot of investment in developing other skills and professional networks.
This may not be a reason to give it up entirely, but recognize that you’re better served double-majoring in another field than just gaining fluency in Mandarin. Translators are cheap to hire and outsource. Unless being bilingual is your side-gig for beer money, your killer speaking skills aren’t going to cut it as a career maker.
1. The Internet
Remember when we talked about how written Chinese is an archaic, symbol-based art form preserved by the ruling class to keep peasants illiterate and obedient? That whole system was working just great until a little thing called the Internet showed up and ruined the party. So, how do you build a keyboard that incorporates tens of thousands of distinct characters?
It turns out that before they can download cat videos on their black market iPads or go on a sexting spree, Chinese citizens have to at least learn the English alphabet. That way they can translate every word into Pinyin (because Chinese has no phonetic system), type it out on a good old QWERTY keyboard, then select the character they really wanted from a menu. If you thought autocorrect was good for a laugh in English, then you’re in for a real barrel of monkeys when you try texting your friends in Chinese. Without learning English to surf the web, the government would hardly even need The Great Firewall of China to keep its citizens from committing thought crimes. They couldn’t even look up “What is ‘voting’?” without an alphabet, so don’t plan on needing Chinese to access your own cat videos and sexts in the future.