Mandarin learning – a fad?

Is the current craze for learning Mandarin Chinese a misguided fad? An article in The Economist I found today suggests that it might be.

Mandarin is now taught at over 400 secondary schools in the UK, and the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust would like to see it made part of the national curriculum. Around the world there are some 30 million people studying Mandarin at the moment, and the Chinese government expects that number to rise to 100 million by 2010.

The article argues that for most people, a knowledge of Mandarin is unlikely to result in a better career. A number of factors are put forward to support this statement: the difficultly of learning Mandarin when compared to most other languages, especially European languages, which means that very few who study Mandarin attain a high level of competence in the language. The lack of regard among British employers for languages skills is another factor. Finally the fact that the Chinese are busy learning English means that British people doing business with China are unlikely to need a knowledge of Mandarin.

The article concludes with a comment from a representative of a Beijing employment agency, who says that:

whereas the value of compensation packages for expat executives has been shrinking over the past ten years, the number of Chinese-speaking foreigners she handles has been rising. Better language skills, she reckons, are a product less of market demand than of a general enthusiasm for China. Reason enough, perhaps, to learn the language.

By the way, I don’t agree with the article myself. Learning any language is a worthwhile endeavour, even if you only acquire the basics. While a knowledge of Mandarin might not automatically lead to a job, learning it certainly isn’t a waste of your time and effort.

This entry was posted in Chinese, Language, Language learning.

18 Responses to Mandarin learning – a fad?

  1. Sue says:

    I’m learning Mandarin at and I enjoy it very much! Besides gaining a new skill, I’m making friends all over the world. So even if it doesn’t have a financial payoff, I’m still ahead. The site is free so I’m not out any money and I can always switch to a more ‘profitable language’ on their site if I become motivated by my bank account!!

  2. Joe says:

    I do think a lot of the current craze around Mandarin is similar to that which surrounded Japanese during the 1980s, where Japanese was considered ‘the’ language to learn due to Japan’s booming economy and their increasing presence in foreign markets.

    With the Japanese economic downturn, a lot of the hype around Japanese fizzled. Were China to suddenly experience an economic downturn, political instability, or any other unforseen circumstance which would derail China’s current rapid global acceleration, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the same thing happen. Although there are really no indicators of this happening anytime soon.

    As the Economist article mentions (and interesting btw that I never got this article in my print edition… I think the Britain section is bigger for UK subscribers just as we in the US get a large United States section), Chinese is simply never going to become a global language. The fact that Chinese, like Japanese, is spoken only in one country (more or less, I mean not including the Chinese diaspora throughout Asia and the rest of the world, who usually speak their own dialects like Hokkien), plus its incredibly complex writing system will never place it in the running to be a global lingua franca. The Chinese know this, and that’s why they’re learning English.

    That being said, however, China and Mandarin Chinese are definitely due increased attention. As we see with the dearth of Arabic speakers among Westerners, it’s to a country’s disadvantage when someone knows your language but you don’t know theirs, whether for purposes of national security or yes, even business. But I’d have to agree, the people who suddenly think that speaking Chinese will make them a significant premium in the job market might be disappointed. I think knowledge of Mandarin is likely to be more in demand in the intelligence and national security sectors as opposed to the business sector, but that’s still significant.

  3. BG says:

    I am learning Mandarin in high school and although people are always talking about it being an important language to learn, I doubt it will help me financially as I have no inclinition to go into business. It could be useful for traveling in China, if I reach a high enough proficiency (actually even if don’t it would still help), and of course there is the remote possibility that China will take over the world. Still, I don’t see how learning any other language is better than Mandarin, assuming you can reach the same proficiency, except one spoken as a minority language in the area you live, which is Spanish for me in California.

  4. Becky says:

    That article has little sentiment deeper than what my classmates always express once they encounter material that they have to work at. The idea that people in China overwhelmingly speak English is false. Even in Mexico, where it is presumed that many employees working with English tourists speak English, their English is often catered to specific vocabularies that they need to get by for their jobs. Assuming that other countries are going to learn English before we can bother to learn their languages is a reflection of the English world’s ethnocentrism. While Chinese characters are hard to memorize, English has a much more abstract and complex grammar that has rules derived from several rather than one other language family and although its is not as difficult to read as ideographic writing, English spelling often uses combinations of letters that appear phonetic but are better understood symbolically (i.e. by understanding them as an image rather than a logical combination) such as the word “laugh.” Reading and speaking English rivals the difficulty of learning Chinese characters.

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  6. Lyydie says:

    I believe Chinese will be very necessary in the future. Does Japan look as formidable as China that has a pop. of billions? This should be enough to say we don’t need to learn Chinese, but quite the opposite.

    Language doesn’t have to do with just communication. It has to do with culture and the way that culture thinks. If you can’t get into their heads, then you can have a serious prob.

    Just believe that.

  7. doviende says:

    I’ve been learning chinese for the past year and a half and i constantly get asked by people what kind of job i hope to get. Doesn’t anyone do anything not related to financial advancement? Personally, i think if i had been learning it for the promise of more money, i wouldn’t have been able to keep up the motivation for so long.

    I really just want to learn the major languages spoken in my home city (vancouver, canada). I think there are a lot of monolingual english speakers around who just don’t see the value in learning any other language for any reason, so they assume i must be doing it for big money. Here’s an interesting quote from Robert Phillipson’s “Linguistic Imperialism”, which he got from “Pattanayak 1986b”:

    From a predominantly monolingual point of view, many languages are a nuisance, as their acquisition is considered a burden. They are uneconomic and politically untenable. Even translation services are computed to be more economical than use of an additional language. In the case of monolingual countries, the reverse is the case. For them restrictions in the choice of languages are a nuisance, and one language is not only uneconomic, but it is politically untenable and socially absurd.

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  9. Susan says:


    Hope you don’t mind I post here. A nice song by Richie Ren that I would like to present to you on ECpod (can learn some mandarin from this song too): Richie Ren’s Song Animation Video is a free website to learn English and Chinese (Mandarin, Cantonese and etc) using videos. These videos are produced by our members and you are welcome to contribute as well. You can make friends too within our community and find online students to teach.

    Sorry if you find the site slow now – it will be resolved in 2 weeks time after we sort out our overseas bandwidth issues. Thanks.

    Rgds, Susan

  10. Merchant of Cool says:

    I’m an economics major planning on applying for an internship with the CIA (who for whatever reason loves economics degrees), and fully expect my Chinese language skills to net me more money should that pan out (not that anybody works for the CIA for the excellent pay…)

    Money of course is not my major motivator for trying to become proficient in Mandarin, my desire stems from an interest in the culture, and quite simply the difficulty in learning the language (I like a challenge!).

    That all said, I’ve had executives from both Phillip Morris and GE who I know through friends/family tell me that their companies are always looking for people who can speak the language fluently. Maybe they didn’t know what they were talking about, or the two companies are just oddities, but I still suspect that being a westerner fluent in the language of a country where your company is increasingly doing business can’t help but have SOME financial benefit for you, even if just because you’re more likely to be sent to do work in that country, and employees who travel frequently to oversee, uh, oversea operations get paid a bit more.

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