I love the Economist, but it ran an incredibly weak article today – False Eastern promise whose sub-heading tells us that the ‘craze for teaching Chinese may be a misguided fad’. The craze for teaching Chinese may just be a fad? May be a fad?
Of course it’s possible that this is a fad, but what precisely is that saying? There’s a lot of things that may or may not happen out there, that may or may not be fads, no end of things we could speculate wildly upon without providing data. Why this particular issue? The premise is so vague, speculative, unsubstantiated, and out of the blue, that you have to wonder where the author suddenly got the idea from. It’s bizarre.
Then it gets worse. He states that there is worldwide growth in the study of the Chinese. That’s probably correct. Then he says that ‘Barring some kind of sea change in global language learning’ all these speakers of Mandarin will not be rewarded with better careers. Let me think about that for a second. He first says that there is a masive change in worldwide learning, then he says that these people will not find jobs unless there is a change in worldwide language learning. I’m not even going to try to uncork that one.
And anyone that knows anything about China should know that you don’t accept government statistics on face value anyway. Two years ago, the government claimed that there were 30 million people worldwide studying Mandarin, which is ludicrous. (The total number of people in Japan and Korea combined studying Mandarin is probably around 2-3 million. These are the countries with the highest density of Mandarin learners by far. The US has no more than a few hundred thousand. So, where are the other tens of millions of students?) The author simply accepts that number and goes on to unquestioningly accept the claim that it will reach 100 million by 2010. This is facile stuff in any publication, but in the Economist it’s staggering.
Then we’re told that the Chinese writing system is ‘horribly complicated’, which strikes me as entirely subjective, judgmental, and inappropriate for an article of this nature, as if to invoke ignorance as preferential to ’complicated’ things.
The author has now hit bottom, but he keeps digging: “The vast majority of Westerners who travel to China to study Mandarin give up, go home and forget what they have learned.” How does he know that? How do you measure that? How much do they forget? Does it happen instantly? What does it even mean? And while you’re still reeling at that one, he suggests that people would be better of studying law instead, because law is easier. Well then, that settles the matter. Let’s all study law – no let’s all just study easy things, not hard things.
But then he crowns the vacuity with a sentence I shudder to see in the Economist (and it is a beauty), “… anecdotal evidence suggests that there is little call for Britons with Mandarin”. Ah, yes, the anecdotal evidence. That seals the argument. If it’s one thing that the science of economics needs it’s vapid cliches to prove sweeping generalizations on the basis of what anecdotal evidence suggests.
Now look, I admit that I have a vested interest in promoting the study of Mandarin, but this is probably the worst article I’ve ever read in the Economist. The writer seems to have put this together so quickly and superficially you have to wonder if he did it purely to fill a column space on a bad morning. As I said, I read and love the Economist, but this is appalling. Tell me this was written by an intern with a bad hangover, please!