December 17, 2017

What’s happening at the Economist?

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!

Ken Carroll

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  1. Michael says:

    Wow, sometimes these kind of articles come sailing out of the blue at the Economist. They pride themselves on being iconoclastic and this is probably an article in that tradition.

    In fact, I actually agree with some of the things that the author hinted at in this article. To get really good at Chinese takes longer than other languages. To get good enough to function at a level equivalent to what many English speaking Chinese function at (in multinational companies) takes a lot of work.

    In general I would also agree, when you are 18 years old and and considering either to study law or Chinese then consider this: it takes a damn lot of time to get good at either one so you better go into it with your eyes wide open.

    Of course, English speakers facing this dilemma could just give up or they could do the next logical thing– start teaching children Chinese at an earlier age so that by the time they reach College it isn’t an either/or proposition.

    In fact, as much as I hate to say this, the world would be a bit better off if more Western lawyers were also accomplished Chinese speakers. We could do with a bit more of both and a little less either/or thinking.

  2. John B says:

    That is a shockingly bad article. Half of it seems to be an indictment of inept British university students — “British students can’t handle the workload that Chinese entails, but man those Chinese tackle English without batting an eye.” Please.

    Personally, I love stories like this. Yes, please, don’t learn Chinese. It’s too hard. Oh my, yes, much too hard. Characters… squiggly lines… TONES! Better stick to French.

    Less competition for me 🙂

  3. Barcroft says:

    The Economist has a nasty habit of doing this, being a solid journal overall that nonetheless, publishes extremely stupid articles on various topics at a regular rate. Seems like some of their reporters just run out of good topics to write on or are too lazy to research, hence these duds.

    As for learning Mandarin, I for one can testify that the rewards for picking up the language are enormous. Mandarin is already becoming an important technical language, and quite valuable for people in electronics to learn it.

    German is also critical for the sciences and technology and we have to know it in engineering, but today, even many German scientists and engineers are working with Chinese-speaking researchers and getting translations of Chinese journals. Mandarin is already arriving on the scene big-time.

    And I was in South Korea myself a few months ago, and in Thailand not too long before that. 10 years ago, Korean parents acted like crazed lemmings on the topic of learning English, they were even forcing this ridiculous surgery on their kids to snip off a tongue membrane to reduce their English accent, sending kids out at age 2 to learn English in the USA, and so on.

    Now, that’s totally changed, and the craze is for learning Mandarin Chinese. Waiting lists spill into the tens of thousands to get their kids into Chinese-medium schools early, Mandarin-speaking nannies are paid princely sums of Korean won to take care of the kids by wealthy families. Koreans will probably continue to study English and German (and Japanese to a lesser extent) with some interest, but the future of Koreans’ language focus is on Chinese, not English.

    For Americans, the languages to learn depends on what they’re doing. Spanish is useful throughout the USA but especially in SW states like Arizona, New Mexico and California, as well as Florida or Texas– you basically can’t get a job there w/o Spanish, due to these states’ histories emerging from Mexico War or similar conflicts.

    German is very important for technical fields even fo someone staying here. Also, since the German-led European Union is now becoming the dominant economic bloc, and the Euro (an evolution from the Deutsche Mark) the top global currency, German becomes very valuable not just in Germany but worldwide.

    But I suspect that Mandarin will become the main global language in a couple decades, and so critical for anyone doing business in Asia and even globally, at least in some industries. It is definitely going to be worth the investment.

    Overall, Americans just need to do a better job imparting languages to kids at an early age, when it’s essentially “free of charge.” Certainly in SW states or Florida, kids maybe should grow up with Spanish, pick it up in immersion classes, have many courses partially conducted in it (which is common). But Chinese and German are also very valuable, and once a child has learned the first new language, then something like e.g. German for science/tech students, and/or something like Chinese (for students in general), is easy to introduce later.

  4. Hank Horkoff says:

    The market has the last word on these things. Latest MLA report shows Chinese, next to Arabic from a lower base, is the fastest growing language to learn in the US.

    I agree with Ken. A publication like the Economist which supports the free market over bigotry/ignorance/etc should know better.

  5. Henning says:

    I have to admit that I secretly enjoy these kind of statements: Either to brag about my small achievements or to justify their continuing lack. 😉

    But, yes, I agree this is not a beacon of good journalism. I was expecially astounded to read about the supposedly high diffusion of English skills. Anecdotal evidence taught me otherwise.

    Although of course everyone *learns* English and even gets degrees those are by no means all Jennys.

    I met some rightly successful people with highest academic degrees who I could not exchange more than a greeting with in English (one has to be aware: they all can *read* English!).

    Of course those who went to an English speaking country for a longer period of time learned to speak it. But the skills acquired in Chinese schools…

  6. John says:

    Your fisking was a delight to read, Ken. Good points. The “anecdotal evidence” part had me chuckling. 🙂

  7. Jay Cross says:

    Ken, great job of taking The Economist to task.

    I like this new blog. Some blogs are little more than pointers. They have their place. But your blog is more a series of essays, and we need more of that.

    All the best.


  8. John Guise says:

    I have to agree with you, it’s depressing to see an article like that coming from the Economist. I know there is a demand for native English speakers with Mandarin abilities as it can be difficult for foreigners to get jobs in China without some basic level of Chinese.

    Really enjoying the blog. Keep up the good work.

  9. Christine says:

    Thanks for sharing Ken,


    “… anecdotal evidence suggests that there is little call for Britons with Mandarin”.

    Someone needs to send the author the British documentary the Youtube link to “Brits Get Rich In China” — Had any 3 of those entrepreneurs profiled (all who are based in the UK and travel to China on business) been fluent in Mandarin, it would have saved them a lot of money, time and frustration.

    Just in case he drops by your blog Ken, here it is for him:

    Learning Chinese is NOT a fad. Unless the author over at the Economist also assumes that doing business in China is one too? LOL.

  10. William says:

    An interesting historical trend to study is the wave of Japanese language study that hit the US in the 80s. I would love to see the stats on how many studied Japanese, how many got hot jobs and how many forgot everything they learned? Perhaps an easier thing to do is track how many university students study a foreign language in the US period and the “market share” of various languages studied by US undergrads over time.

    Like the blog


  11. The Economist would have been better off just saying “The language is too hard to learn so don’t even bother. Just hang out in Sanlitun and Houhai in Beijing and meet the Chinese who want to practice their English with you.”

    The problem with NOT learning a language is that you have no way to judge the context in which something is said. All human languages are context-sensitive; this is especially true with Mandarin. Of course, learning the language and becoming very adept at it only gets you part of the way there.

    Unless you have actually SOLD something or brokered a deal with Chinese, how are you to know that a good time of eating, drinking and socializing are done without even the subject of business being brought up?
    This is a cultural, social and linguistic thing.

    Maybe I should just focus on my “Left-handed Mandarin Phrase Book”, with phrases like “If you take over my mortgage and credit card payments, you can have the house for nothing” and “No, I cannot sell you the Golden Gate Bridge, but I know of a really popular tourist island off North Beach which you might want to develop” and “I’m sorry, I don’t accept payment in dollars; only yuan please”

  12. Janet Clarey says:

    I’m glad my daughter has been accepted into the Mandarin Chinese class at her school…thanks for the counterpoint.

  13. Goulniky says:

    It’s interesting how all seem to agree with Ken here, whereas in the ChinesePod conversation thread on the same topic, views are way more balanced…

  14. Josh says:

    Looks like I’m posting a little late, and given the length of some of the above comments, I doubt anyone will make it down here.

    Granted that much of the original article is silly, what about the main point that in terms of economic efficiency for an individual, the opportunity cost makes learning Chinese a waste of time if measured by long-term income (which, while not the only test, if a critical one for many)?

  15. Scotty says:

    Since when did having studied or becoming fluent in a foreign language ever… ever… not look good on a CV?

  16. Florian Pihs says:

    I agree with Josh. While I agree that Chinese is an important skill, the question asked in the article is a valid one. Does it make (economic) sense for children in western countries to study Chinese?
    While I mostly agree with the Economists answer (probably not), it would be prudent to ask the same question for any other foreign language (and answer it the same way) but English. While English is a critical skill in global business today, it is a stretch to argue that Chinese will take the same role tomorrow.
    The economic argument aside, I strongly believe it that 2 foreign languages should be part of any education, chiefly to open the mind of the students to different cultures and history. From this perspective I would argue (basic) Chinese should certainly belong to these two.

  17. John Chan, Shanghai says:

    Having lived and worked in Hong Kong and now Shanghai for a total of 11 years I must say I totally agree with THE ECONOMIST. Ken Carrol, although making a valiant attempt to stand up for China does not seem to be much in tune with reality.
    Here is why:

    “The craze for teaching Chinese may just be a fad? May be a fad?”
    – China is going through possibly the largest economic boom in history. When the boom dies down, so will the chinese language students.

    “all these speakers of Mandarin will not be rewarded with better careers.”
    – Expats in China on high salaries are here because of their professional skills which are very hard to come by in China. NOT because they speak Chinese. There are enough locals speaking Mandarin to fill that gap. Out of all the high earning expats i’ve met in China, only a fraction speak Chinese and many have been here for several years. On the contrary, locals who speak fluent ENGLISH stand a good chance of landing higher paying jobs here in China.

    “Chinese writing system is ‘horribly complicated”
    – I see nothing “ignorant” about that comment. It’s absolutely true. Anyone who doesn’t think so should try learning to read a chinese newspaper or let alone writing an ARTICLE in Chinese. This is not an attack against the people. Illiteracy in China furthermore runs at around 10%(estimate, no true official figure available). That’s a lot of people who can’t read…

    “The vast majority of Westerners who travel to China to study Mandarin give up, go home and forget what they have learned.”
    – thats my impression too after 11 years in China and Hong Kong.

    I don’t think for a second that this article was written by some intern. On the contrary it reflects reality. Like it or not

  18. Hi there, i am looking for info on online education but i am left wondering how is your post s happening at the Economist? related to that ? .

  19. I’m finding that mainstream media can be trusted less and less. To get the real scoop on international issues, you’re better off reading blogs and listening to podcasts. At least they’ll tell you when their opinions might be biased.

    Congrats on the new blog Ken!

  20. I agree with Barcroft’s remark about the sciences– aside from the advantages enjoyed by a Mandarin-speaking business person, there will be a huge need for Chinese-capable scientists/engineers.

    A lot of the most exciting developments in green energy, alternative fuels, sustainable agriculture (to say nothing of contagious diseases, etc.) etc are very localized. It seems like a scientist with Mandarin ability could tackle some of our worst problems at the grass-roots.

    My dream would be for a massive collaborative effort on developing practical alternative energy sources among the countries that need them most (of course this includes China). Can this be far off…?

  21. NE1 says:

    Unfortunately, no. “A lot of the most exciting developments” in anything these days take a lot of money, capital, and experience. There is nothing interesting going on in my field in China. On the other hand, if I were learning a language to widen my job prospects, I’d switch to Japanese.

    I have actually found the writing system becomes easier after about the first 500 characters. They aren’t kidding when they say that characters are often a mix of phonetic and definition cues.

    That said, is it wrong that I imagined Ken speaking this essay in my head, with Jenny “mmm”-ing at opportune times?

  22. CP says:

    It’s funny. Out of all the things that are taken to task in the article, nobody notices that the headline itself is flawed. Shouldn’t it be “The craze for LEARNING chinese…”? I mean, that’s what the main focus of the article is about right, on people learning mandarin and why it’s a waste (not that I agree).

    However I think one key point made is absolutely correct. Learning chinese strictly to find a job in the future is kind of foolish and misguided. Many chinese, especially those who have finished university or graduate school, understand English quite well. Whereas for westerners to get to the same level is almost impossible for most.

  23. Joe Rock says:

    while i didn’t read the article. i must agree that since Chinese is getting a great deal of attention and focus lately as a trendy and upcoming language…it is by defition: a fad!

    and like all fads there is a lot of irrational expectations feeding on themselves…

    Take for example, the internet-fad that led to the internet-bubble…..however, even the bubble bursting did not remove the need for or importance of the internet…inotherwords, there is something real to a fad that made everybody excited in the first place…and apart from lots of people left holding worthless penny stocks when the bubble burst, this did not demision the increasing importance of the internet as an information medium…the bubble bursting was for the most part a redefintion of what the internet really ment…cutting through the hype and rebalancing the expectations…

    so by analogy, there is going to be a wave of people learning chinese as part of a giant fad, many people are going to discover that their reason for learning chinese was based on the “fad ideas”, however, instead they will recieve something entirely different from learning chinese that they didn’t expect… its going to be useful…just not what they had thought would happen when they followed the fad!! then the rebalancing will take place and people and rational thought will return for a moment…but, only for a brief moment before the craziness shifts somewhere else for the next fad…

  24. I am looking for post on online eduaction and what i came across makes me doubt the value of such education , anyway i wish you success

  25. Ciaran Doyle says:

    Personally I argee with the sentiments made in the Economist. I previously studied Chinese for a year in Shanghai, and after being home for a year,yes you do forget vast amounts of the language. Currently I’m employed in Beijing, yes of course knowing some Chinese is going to make your life considerably easier that’s if you’re actually living in China, yes if you’re in the country you should make the effort, but on a day to day basis in my job when I deal with Chinese clients, Chinese co-workers never do I have to speak one word of Chinese, and my Chinese no matter how much study I do will be anyway near their English – simple fact.
    Go to internet recruitment websites like Monster type in Chinese see how many results you get, then type French/German you’ll notice there’s a massive contrast.
    If you want to learn any language for economic/career reasons learn German or French – far easier to learn and you’ll open up so many more doors for yourself.
    Now keep in mind Ken Carroll – although I think is a great website and I wish Ken all the best with it, btw Ken I’m the same country as you, so why do you speak with an AMerican accent??? Why do all South-Dubliners speak with an AMerican accent.
    Any views expressed by Ken are those that will be obviously pro-China + pro-Chinese, anyone who reads his blog also to will have a great interest in the language.
    But really when we all go back to the West, do you really think employers will be impressed with intermediate Chinese??
    Very few companies from my country actually deal with China, whatever about these crazy stats that China will overtake the US in 20years or whatever,
    Bottom line is the EU exports more to the tiny nation of Switzerland than it does to China.
    If you do find a company in your home nation that does business with China, why wouldnt they hire a Chinese grad from a Western uni who knows perfect Rnglish, Chinese, has the local market knowledge, and has an insight into Western culture, and mostly importantly work for a fraction of the wage you’ll demand.
    Would we all just be better off if we focused our energies on learning about banking, law, accountancy??
    China does provide great opportunities for entrepreneurs like Ken, but then again so does the West, more than China, and sure as hell a lot less risk.
    Biggest mistake I ever made was to learn Chinese, wasted my time and money.ANyone of ye reading tempted to study Chinese, all I’ll say is simply reconsider

  26. Hey Ken, big fan. Maybe studying Mandarin (or living in China) has just made us smarter. I keep reading things in the New York Times that I find appallingly vapid. We could blame falling standards in journalism. Or it could be that intelligence and the level of discourse in society as a whole has fallen and this is reflected in journalism. I’m saddened that one of the last safe-havens of quality – The Economist – is also susceptible to bad articles occasionally. But, maybe, just maybe things were always this poorly thought out and written, we just didn’t notice until learning a 4th or 5th language expanded our minds to the point that the Economist can’t employ an entire staff smarter than we are. Too bad, at a monthly you’d really want them to be able to put out something interesting. Well, it was interesting enough at least for you to write a rebuttal. I never complain about your quality because you put out content daily, so I don’t hold it to the same standard I do The Economist. BTW, I was turned down at Kai En. You ought to check out your H.R. girl there doing the interviews. Obviously she let the wrong guy slip through her fingers.

  27. Daniel says:

    I couldn’t understand some parts of this article s happening at the Economist?, but I guess I just need to check some more resources regarding this, because it sounds interesting.

  28. Rogier Creemers says:

    One thing which seems to be forgotten in this entire discussion is that in fact, it isn’t about Chinese. Being a Chinese language teacher myself, I can honestly say that vocab, grammar, and indeed those “horribly complicated” characters are only half of the job. Because even if a large number of Chinese learn English, they will still think, and act, Chinese. With learning a language comes also a deeper understanding about culture and habits of another nation. I will gladly admit that it is very hard for any of us to learn Chinese, but the benefits are not confined to language skills. In fact, many expats in China complain that a lot of problems arise from what I tend to call “apartment-office expats”. People who physically reside in China but speak nothing but English, never go out into the country, never meet China face to face. If we want integration of China into the world economy to succeed, we need to build a bridge starting on both ends of the culture gap.

  29. conycatcher says:

    I totally agree with the Economist article, because it focuses on it from an economic point of view. Sorry you guys are in denial. It’s quite clear that there are way more Chinese people who study English and they do a way better job. I have studied Chinese for twelve years so I think I know a thing or two. There may be a few good jobs for people that learn Chinese, but more and more can be filled by Chinese people, leaving a lot of jobs like being a teacher that are not nearly worth the effort. Try being a computer programmer or an engineer or something, like my wiser classmates. Chinese pays when supply fails to meet demand, in the past it didn’t. I think the rise of China is going to slow down, it’s an economic inevitability, personally, I think that Vietnamese is a good language to learn.

  30. Tim says:

    This is disheartenting indeed. Had the Economist told me sooner, I wouldn’t have wasted so much time getting to know the hundreds of Chinese I met in China. I mean, who could have known that the millions of Chinese who can’t speak English were so void of any worthwhile things to talk about? I’m just happy I don’t have to continue learning such a useless language!

  31. Shanghai Expat says:

    John and Ciaran, I am an expat in China, but have exactly the opposite opinion as do the two of you when it comes to the importance of Mandarin at work. Sure, you can get along without it and many expats never even make the attempt to learn the language. But it’s extremely short sighted to say that it wouldn’t be a big plus in many cases on your resume!

    I happen to speak fluent Chinese and the difference between myself and my more language limited foreign colleagues is like night and day. Simple fact, I build relations with my Chinese colleagues much more quickly than they do, get to hear all the stuff that they would not say to the laowai, and as a manager, I understand their issues much more quickly. As a lawyer by trade, I hear all the comments that judges and government officers have about laws and cases that leave non-Chinese speakers with blank stares.

    Most expats may be in China because of skills that can’t be found locally, but even competition for those jobs would favor a Chinese speaker. Furthermore, most expat positions only last a few years. If you want the option of staying and really leveraging the experience, better learn the language.

  32. Ciaran Doyle says:

    I disagree ShanghaiExpat. Firstly I make relationships too with the Chinese, through English! Believe me in 10,20 years China will have grown yes, but also will the quality of English-speaking Chinese. On average their vocab will widen, their accents more American, their grammar like our European counterparts. Examine the numbers of kids, teenagers in China studying English, those middle-class parents pay top-dollar for native ‘white’ teachers.
    Not only are many studying English, but look at the numbers going to Western colleges. Another thing to examine, look at the amount of these Western educated new grads working for Western companies in Shanghai and Beijing, still working at a fraction of our wage demands. I’ve recently completed a thesis on Expats in China, and one interesting thing I found was that yes companies are reducing benefits, wages, perks. Its simply another form of outsourcing – if you do speak Chinese and have Chinese work experience – yes like a worker at a car-manufacturer in the US, your job too will be under threat from low-cost economies.
    Really I might be wrong – and I hope I am – but after extensive research I simply dont think spending so much time, learning a language which linguists consider to be one of the world’s toughest to have any economic benefit at all.
    As the Economist article stated there is an opportunity cost involved with studying Chinese. If you want to become wealthy there’s more than one way to skin a cat, study mathematics,finance, accountancy – back in the the UK and Ireland they’re crying out for people in those areas, and will be compensated accordingly.
    Look up how many employers are looking for people with CHinese skills? Compare it with German, French, Italian, or the above mentioned subjects.
    And unfortunately ShanghaiExpat I don’t wish to remain here nor leverage my position. The only thing China offers us expats is a higher standard of living, if we had the same back in the West I feel the majority of us would be gone home in an instant

  33. Shanghai Expat says:

    Ciaran, what exactly is it that you disagree with? I never said that you can’t build relations in English, what I said is that everything being equal, Chinese speakers have an advantage building relations with native Chinese. I can’t believe that you would seriously dispute that.

    As far as the Chinese craze for speaking English, that’s nothing new. The same is true in Korea, Japan, and Taiwan and has been so for a long time, but it does not mean that ability to speak those languages won’t help. I work with lawyers from all those countries who have been educated in the U.S. and their English is good. But you should see what happens when I break out my Taiwanese. The same that happens when I speak Mandarin in China, everything becomes easier and more comfortable. In countries that relationships carry so much weight, it’s a huge advantage.

    Furthermore, despite the good English, do you not notice in your conference calls with the U.S. how many misunderstandings there are, how many cultural references are missed, how many jokes are missed, and how quite Asian people are? I find myself jumping in all the time to clear things up… second language will almost always be second language, except for the select few that lived extensively abroad. Even then, first generation Chinese immigrants in the U.S. often hang out with with people just like themselves.

    As for the business perspective, of course expats are on borrowed time. That’s the whole idea… every company wants to reduce costs and localize, but it’s not much different than in the U.S. where companies do layoffs all the time. As always, workers need to constantly need to build on their existing skills. In my case, Chinese language skills are allowing me to build strong relations with key local people that will make me more valuable at the end of my expat term than in the beginning. That’s something that a math degree can’t do.

  34. Ciaran says:

    Imagine one goes in for a job interview:
    Interviewer: So what special skills do you have?
    Interviewee: Well I can make friends with Chinese people! I’m sooo talented!
    Give me a break ShanghaiExpat,
    Really do you think studying Chinese for all those years, spending all that money (not to mention the opportunity cost) is still worth it?
    Love your last comment about a maths degree – believe or not if you specialise in that discipline, the world is your oyster. Investment Banks, sales and trading, employers in general will come knocking at your door.
    Research the issue why dont ya, check out the amount of employers who look for people with numerate degrees.
    I still don’t find your argument compelling.
    So tell me besides your law job, can you inform me of any other professions where it will be of benefit? You’re really clutching at straws
    What is your argument anyway – we should spend 4 years studying Hanyu so we can spot those few small ‘cultural differences’ that our company might experience in conference calls.

    Kids don’t study Chinese, do something useful with your time.

  35. Shanghai Expat says:

    Ciaran, you’re continually making the wrong argument. I never said that a math degree wasn’t useful, I’m an engineer originally so I studied my fair share. I just stated the obvious, that it doesn’t help you communicate in Chinese. I never said anything about substituting 4 years studying a language in place of a math degree, the two are not exclusive and even if so, would merit serious discussion about what was more useful depending on the intended career.

    As for your mock interview, if the job was for anything to do with China, all other things being equal with another candidate, the interviewer would respond with an offer letter.

    As for other examples, there are plenty, including the very ones that you mentioned… what you don’t think they do banking, selling and trading in China? The market is on fire here… anyone with banking and Chinese language skills is incredibly marketable. I know at least 20 such individuals who are doing deals, trading, sourcing manufacturers, M&A, recruiting, etc. where their Chinese abilities either make them uniquely qualified or put them ahead of the pack.

    Frankly, I find your position remarkably naive and narrow minded, if you believe that “making friends” with people, Chinese or not is not enormously useful. This ability is what separates leaders from everyone else, especially at a time when virtually every MNC is dying to get into the China market and build stronger relations with the Chinese government. whether you’re acquiring a Chinese company, or selling software to a Chinese company, or trying to open an R&D lab in China, or sourcing a shoe manufacturer in China, there’s no doubt that Chinese helps and is often necessary.

    Are those enough examples for you? As for spotting “cultural differences”, such misunderstandings have started wars in the past…

  36. Ryan says:

    I agree that this article from the Economist was very bad indeed. Blank statements and unqualified generalizations have no place in good journalism. All of Ken’s rebuttals are valid.

    It appears that an argument has begun in this comments section and I’d like to add my two cents. It’s true that competency in a foreign language, in and of itself, will rarely get anyone a good job. I believe that it is also true that certain people can live full and happy lives, as an expat or otherwise, knowing only their native language.

    That said, one must also ask oneself: can illiterate people live happy and full lives? Can one be happy and successful if one has never learned to drive a car? Can one die of old age content without the ability to swim? Can people do well in business without the use of a computer? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding yes, however, why would anyone intentionally choose such ridiculous limitations? Being a competent bilingual personal, or better yet a polyglot, is very rewarding on a personal and economic level. If you don’t believe me, ask ANYONE who has a high level (and many who have a low or intermediate level) of fluency in a foreign language.

    Don’t learn the clarinet, the saxophone is more fun. Don’t bother with cricket, football is much more popular. Don’t get a doctorate in philosophy, an MBA makes more money. These statements are all as asinine as saying, “Don’t learn Mandarin; learn French or German instead.” It is small-minded and obtuse to discourage others from learning Mandarin because one person was too lacking in resources, motivation or talent to learn it well him or herself.

    I doubt that China will surpass the USA in the next twenty years but it will definitely play a more leading role on the world stage. Counting on their ability to know English and be experts in western culture is just a bad idea. Does this mean that EVERYONE should learn Chinese? I don’t think so but it surely wouldn’t be a waste of time if everyone did.

  37. Bertrand Russell is supposed to have said that the time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time. I apply this to the economic argument advanced against learning Mandarin (or Scottish Gaelic, or, heaven forfend, Latin): not all language learning is related to economics.

    Maybe it is for you, in which case you’ll choose not to squander your assets. Despite the best wishes of economists and Ayn Rand, though, human beings don’t make choices based on sheer logic.

    Ken’s comments about anecdotal evidence are on target. As Ann Pincus said, the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.”

  38. oblomov says:

    As a British expat who has lived in Greater China since 1989 and began learning Mandarin Chinese in 1992 I have to disagree with those of you who claim that learning Chinese is time wasted and will not help one get a better job. I can also say that it doesn’t take that long to learn to speak Mandarin with a fair degree of fluency if you put yourself in the right environment. I spent a year at uni in China and then a year working for a local trading company in Taiwan and could speak fluently by the end of that time. My written Chinese was only intermediate but I could type basic letters and read all that was required on a daily basis. When I went back to Hong Kong I got a job within a week and was paid 25% more than my non Chinese speaking colleagues. At that time Hong Kong was a British colony so we were all locally employed. Throughout my career I was always paid more than someone with similar experience and education who could not speak Chinese. I no longer work as I have decided to stay at home and raise my children but I try hard to get them to learn Chinese. Unfortunately they seem to take the view, picked up at their international school, that they do not need to learn Chinese and are somewhat resistent. In terms purely of future earning power, it is probably true to say that a law degree or an accountancy qualification will be more flexible and bring greater financial rewards than the study of Chinese. However if you only had all 3………I think it is wrong to say that caucasian people cannot learn Chinese as well as a Chinese person can learn English. It is also wrong to say that a caucasian person cannot become bicultural. This takes time as it does for a Chinese person. The only competitive advantage the Chinese person who goes overseas to sudy and returns here to work has over the caucasian person is that they might be cheaper because they might be willing to send their kids to a local school and might be willing to live in a smaller house. I say might because if they themselves have had the advantage of an international education it is likely that they will want the same for their kids and it is this component that makes the real difference to the cost of living here and therefore the salary sought. That and the fact that foreigners can have more children so need more living space. However even as a non working spouse because I am fluent in Mandarin I have choices that some of my expat friends do not have and certainly an easier life. I learned French for 9 years at school and German for 3 and although I use German as I married a German, all that time learning French could be said to have been a complete waste of time (for me). When I was at school Latin, French plus one other language was compulsory. We had a choice of German or Spanish. Now that same school I went to offers Mandarin. My children learn Mandarin as a first foreign language and Spanish as the second. Since language learning is an academic exercise when kids are at school they may as well learn these languages as no-one really knows where they or their future spouse will choose to live and work. I certainly had no idea I would spend more than half my life to date in China when I sat there staring out of the window of my French classroom at a gloomy Scottish afternoon!

  39. Brian King says:

    Good for you, Ken! I agree. There’s no much crap written about learning Mandarin these days. And it’s really sad when it’s written by columnists for prestigious newspapers who should know better.

    Remember, Mandarin, with it’s 373 tones and 60,000 characters, is the world’s hardest language!

  40. oohkuchi says:

    I haven’t read the offending article but from Ken’s huffy point-by-point dismissal of it, I can see that the Economist was probably right. There is no money in Chinese outside China, and not much even in China/Taiwan. You should only get into this language if you have a deep, enduring interest in the country and culture. Knowing Mandarin unquestionably opens cultural doors and personal relationships. But it is a massive effort. I speak half a dozen languages and have worked with and in Chinese for twenty years. Believe me, this is an extremely difficult language, and you will not get fluent in it unless you spend five to ten years in a Chinese environment. Reading fluently takes at least a decade of daily practice. Writing is a life sentence. I don’t believe people who claim fluency in two years. To freely discuss politics, negotiate business, even tell someone your feelings about them–it takes years of vocabulary acquisition and practice. It is nothing like learning Italian or French, which can be done at night school with a bit of effort. And it is also sadly true that you forget Chinese like no other language. It requires constant refreshing.

  41. Alex MacIntire says:

    No, the article was right on. Chinese is a waste of time for most mere mortals. Why do the Chinese need westerners to speak Chinese? There are millions of Chinese who speak English and perfect Mandarin. Chinese is not a language to pick up later in life. You have to learn it very young in order to master the tones. People, like Ken, don’t know much about language learning and don’t understand the complexity. This is a classic language fad and a large waste of time and effort. Even if you do succeed in speaking Mandarin fairly well, Chinese people will make fun of your accent, etc. This is not a culture that wants to help outsiders learn their language. I would suggest trying German or Czech, and seeing how that goes first before trying Mandarin. You get back to me after you master a much easier language like German, ha ha.


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