China Business

Learning Mandarin As Waste Of Time?

International China lawyer

The Economist ran an article a few weeks ago on how learning Mandarin is highly overrated. A couple readers asked me what I thought of that article, but I actually never saw it until today via the Here Comes Everybody Blog, which, in a post entitled What’s Happening at the Economist? rightfully takes the Economist to task for pooh-poohing the learning of Mandarin as a “fad.”

Carroll certainly pulls no punches:

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!

Carroll’s best complaints with the article are as follows:

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.

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.

I cannot even imagine where the Economist gets off with this article. One of the article’s premises is that the Chinese are so much better at learning English than Westerners are at learning Chinese that there is no point in English speakers learning Chinese at all. This completely ignores the huge cultural differences between, for example, Americans and Chinese. I too love the Economist (I estimate it adds an average ten minutes to my stair climber time) and I am just going to consider this article an aberration.

UPDATE: A China lawyer friend of mine sent me an email referring to a somewhat similar post he had done previously on his (now dormant) blog. His post, entitled, Love The Language, But…., probably best expresses my views on this issue as well:

This is not to say that Chinese will not be highly useful in one’s career. But it must be paired with another skill. Knowledge of business, law, shipping, logistics, or just about anything else will benefit from knowledge of Chinese. Knowledge of Chinese is a great foundation. But professional training, education, and ability are the marketable skills one brings to the world’s biggest market, and will ultimately dictate success or failure.

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