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jkhsu

Is Learning Chinese a Bubble?

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jkhsu

I feel that the recent interest in Chinese education outside of China is a bubble. I see immersion programs popping up everywhere and people saying how important Mandarin will be in the future. However, I believe that if you are not planning to move to China, knowing Mandarin is more of a hobby; It will teach you about Chinese culture, help you when you travel there or enable you to talk to relatives if you are a heritage Chinese or happen to marry a Chinese native.

However, many people seem to think that because of China's growth and economic power, that we should all be learning Chinese to have an advantage in the future workplace, life, etc.. I don't believe this is the case. Here are my thoughts (coming from someone living in the USA).

1. Chinese is hard to learn. To learn the amount of Chinese so that you can do business "because of your chinese", you'd have to spend many years learning. You might as well major in the language in college. I am not talking about just saying some nice words, I'm talking about using your Chinese skills to understand a particular Chinese market for a product/service. Isn't that what most US businesses want to do? Expand into China to take advantage of the huge population of consumers?

2. If you are a professional such as a doctor, lawyer, accountant, engineer, etc. in the USA, I can't see a scenario where you will need to know Chinese to do the basics of your job. If you happen to work with a Chinese company, you can just hire translators.

3. Although there is an increase of Chinese immigrants, pretty much all of them end up speaking English in the USA. I can go to any Chinatown or heavily populated Chinese area in LA, New York, San Francisco, etc. and buy groceries or order at a restaurant in English. In fact, if you speak Mandarin, you might be better off using Engish in a Cantonese restaurant sometimes. So communicating with people from China in the USA is not a problem.

4. Although there are some jobs such as a Chinese language teacher that require you to know Chinese, most jobs that require bilingual Chinese skills in the USA are not your top management jobs or jobs that as a kid you grow up dreaming about. For example, a waiter at a Chinese restaurant, etc.

5. So let's talk about those top jobs in China. You'll be mostly competing with these two types of people: (1) The Chinese native who went to high school in China and studied at a top US college (there are many many of them) and who has returned to China to work. (2) The US native who is in a top management position already and who is wanted for their business skills / abilities. The point is, if you are going to be paid because you know Chinese, you will need to compete with #1 and if you are going to be paid because of your position / abilities you will need to compete with #2. Learning Chinese for either of them won't cut it.

6. Finally, Chinese kids are all learning English now. They might not be that great at it but in 20 years, they will be able to communicate with you in English better than you with them in Chinese.

I can probably go on and on but I'll stop here. Basically, I don't see an advantage to knowing Chinese, vs any other language such as Spanish, Japanese, French, etc. when you don't plan on living in China.

I realize that most people in this forum have their personal reasons for learning Chinese and I do as well. That aside, do you really think Chinese will be that useful in the future and why?

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fritz

I agree with you on most points... I think the interest in learning Chinese will soften in the years ahead as the (very much investment-led) growth of the economy starts to falter. Longer term though, it is likely that China one day in our lifetimes will be a more important market than the US for many multinationals. If you you aim for the top positions in a large MNC, perhaps having worked in China may give you an edge... could be a long shot.

I am not sure about point 6 though, I find that a lot of young mainland Chinese outside of 北上广深 really prefer to speak Mandarin rather than English. And a lot of times, things get lost in translation (e.g. 15% gets translated to mid-teens etc)... it happens all the time for me. So if you live and work in China, speaking fluent mandarin will definitely help. Same for Japan and Korea, if I planned on living in these countries I would also try to learn Korean and Japanese...

It's quite a tough task for foreigners to learn a language like mandarin and then trying to compete with very talented 海龟 and mainland Chinese to climb the career ladder. Having a foreign face makes you stand out I think and would probably make it easier to get hired by a boss that is also a foreigner. But I doubt that a mainland Chinese would choose a foreigner with so-so mandarin over a mainlander even if their qualifications are the same. I also wonder how exactly you would find a qualified job, because almost all the people I know who scored a good job did so through contacts rather than headhunters, websites etc. So it is somewhat of a gamble.

If you believe in the China story longer term like I do, I think it's better to start a business in China than in somewhat troubled countries like the US and the UK at the moment. The question is, if 张欣 would have started her company SOHO in Detroit rather than Beijing, would it have achieved the same success as it has today? Some industries like fast moving consumer goods, tourism, pharma etc should still have plenty of opportunities in China over the next few decades.

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realmayo

Well, a bubble is something that bursts and leaves people who invested in it sad. So I suppose one question is whether people who are learning Chinese now will be disappointed when (if) they reach a high standard of Chinese and start to look around for jobs. Are they studying on a false premise? Against that, I wouldn't have thought a graduate in Chinese language is any worse off than a graduate who's just completed a history or English degree or indeed, as you suggest, worse than someone who has learned say Portuguese. In my experience it's not the people learning Chinese who are guilty of thinking it's a guaranteed route to riches, but people who discover you can speak a bit and start making those assumptions. Anyhow, I think that if all the predictions of China being the next superpower are correct, then learning Chinese to a decent level is a super-smart thing for anyone to do. But, I don't thing those predictions of China being the next superpower are correct.

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imron
I feel that the recent interest in Chinese education outside of China is a bubble. I see immersion programs popping up everywhere and people saying how important Mandarin will be in the future.
How do you define recent? It's been going on at least as long as I've been learning Chinese (10+ years), and probably quite a bit before that as well (only I never really paid attention to it before then).

Luckily I'm not learning it because of the career prospects it will afford :P

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roddy

It's all a bit meaningless if you haven't got any numbers - it might be expanding rapidly, but from such a small base I'm not convinced we're actually talking about that many actual people yet.

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Shelley

Hi ya,

Your lengthy post makes me think you have given it a lot of thought. I am not sure if you feel it is a waste of time to learn chinese or that it just won't be as useful as the trends suggest. I am one of the ones learning for pleasure. I don't feel that learning anything needs a purpose. I was amused at your last statement of point 2. "you can just hire translators" if people don't learn chinse or english there will not be any translators :) In answer to your last question "will chinese be useful int the future?" my reply is: Does it matter? No I think not. It is enjoyable for those of us who enjoy it for a hobby and needed for those whose lives require it.

I have to ask, why are you learning chinese? Are you learning it because you have to and don't enjoy it. You sound a bit disallusioned with all language learning.

Shelley

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gato
Basically, I don't see an advantage to knowing Chinese, vs any other language such as Spanish, Japanese, French, etc. when you don't plan on living in China and even if you do, your Chinese would have to be superior if your job actually required it.

Advantage for what? English is pretty the only language that carries a definite career benefit when learned as second language. All other languages are better approached as a hobby if you are learning it as a foreign language. Is this hobby a bubble? Probably.

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roddy
Your lengthy post makes me think you have given it a lot of thought.

Makes me think someone's trying to avoid sitting down and doing some actual study . . .

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jkhsu

Thanks for all the replies, let me address some comments:

I find that a lot of young mainland Chinese outside of 北上广深 really prefer to speak Mandarin rather than English.

Yes, I agree. What I meant was if one was outside of China in the USA for example and encounters a Chinese native. Most likely the Chinese native would have better English skills. So they would most likely speak English.

So I suppose one question is whether people who are learning Chinese now will be disappointed when (if) they reach a high standard of Chinese and start to look around for jobs. Are they studying on a false premise?

Honestly, this would have been a better title than a "bubble". That's pretty much what I was asking.

How do you define recent? It's been going on at least as long as I've been learning Chinese (10+ years),

My bad on the confusion. When I said immersion programs, I was talking about US Government sponsored K-12 Chinese immersion programs. Many parents are lining up to get their kids in these programs. Some good links below for background.

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1938738,00.html

http://www.yinghuaacademy.org/about/mission-history

Your lengthy post makes me think you have given it a lot of thought. I am not sure if you feel it is a waste of time to learn chinese or that it just won't be as useful as the trends suggest....Are you learning it because you have to and don't enjoy it. You sound a bit disallusioned with all language learning.

I have given this topic a lot of thought. It's a topic I bring up with people all the time. Like I said, we all have our personal reasons for learning Chinese and people in this forum (including myself) are probably the most dedicated Chinese learners anywhere. I enjoy learning Chinese but have realized it's more of a hobby vs gaining any actual advantage in a business / work related context. I'm also definitely not disallusioned about language learning. I think language learning is one of the best ways for people to learn about other cultures. Like I said, this post is not about me but about this "fad" almost for Chinese learning that I have seen recently. I've just decided to take a side on this debate.

My purpose for this post was to talk about false expectations coming from a recent surge in Chinese education outside of China. Also, I'm not trying to attack immersion programs or anything like that. My question is "Why is learning Chinese outside of China any more important than any other foreign language?". I'm just not convinced by the answers that people give me.

English is pretty the only language that carries a definite career benefit when learned as second language. All other languages are better approached as a hobby if you are learning it as a foreign language.

I agree but many people are learning Chinese on the "false premise" (as realmayo said) that it will provide them with career advantages. But for them to gain real career advantages because of the Chinese they know, they would have spent a good part of their life learning it. They could have finished medical or law school by then.

Makes me think someone's trying to avoid sitting down and doing some actual study .

Yeah, when I am taking a break from learning Chinese, I'm thinking crazy thoughts and posting on this forum.

But seriously, this is a topic that I always bring up with people, especially those paying a lot of money for their kids to learn Chinese. The answer I keep on getting is something like "China is going to take over the world and we must prepare our kids to gain an advantage in the future workforce, etc. etc.". But, even if China takes over the world, I still don't get how Chinese can become that important if you live outside of China.

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anonymoose
I agree but many people are learning Chinese on the "false premise" (as realmayo said) that it will provide them with career advantages. But for them to gain real career advantages because of the Chinese they know, they would have spent a good part of their life learning it.

Well, Chinese may not be as promising as studying medicine or law in terms of career prospects, but think of all the other subjects that people invest huge quantities of time and money to study on the "false premise" that it will provide them with career advantages, when we hear endless stories from countries all over the world about university graduates finding it difficult to find a job. I don't think this is a situation unique to learning Chinese.

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xiaocai
English is pretty the only language that carries a definite career benefit when learned as second language.

I have friends work in export business and they do hire people who are fluent in Spanish and Arabic as sale representatives. Many applicants are fluent in English but much fewer are fluent in the other two, and I would think that knowing Spanish and Arabic could be considered as "definite career benefit" in this case...

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Meng Lelan
English is pretty the only language that carries a definite career benefit when learned as second language.

No it's not. You ever been to Texas? Vermont? If you've learned Spanish or French as a second language then you can have a definite career benefit working with those coming in from Mexico or those coming in from Quebec especially in services, for example hotels, business, education, travel, etc.

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Silent
I feel that the recent interest in Chinese education outside of China is a bubble.

I don't see any serious interest in learning Chinese around here.

1. Chinese is hard to learn.

Any language is hard to learn. The only languages that are 'easy' to learn are the languages that are closely related to the languages you already know. Most people just don't remember how much time and effort it took to learn their native language.

2. If you are a professional such as a doctor, lawyer, accountant, engineer, etc. in the USA, I can't see a scenario where you will need to know Chinese to do the basics of your job. If you happen to work with a Chinese company, you can just hire translators.

Did you ever really work with a translator? It really doesn't work that well. Even if language skills are limited, direct communication is often preferable above a translator. If you work in a specialist field it will be virtually impossible to find a proper translator. How many translator do you think you can find that can properly translate a discussion about gen-therapy or radar technology or even IT networking?

I can probably go on and on but I'll stop here. Basically, I don't see an advantage to knowing Chinese, vs any other language such as Spanish, Japanese, French, etc.

There isn't any real advantage from a career perspective. There are many Chinese speakers, so demand will be high and so will be the competition. But I wouldn't recommend to learn some obscure language either. You may be very well of with an obscure language, but there's also a good chance you'll have no use for it at all. To me language is meant for communication, then it's more usefull to learn a language that is spoken by a billion people than a language that is (about to go) extinct. But numbers are not the only consideration. Also (expected) use is important.

That aside, do you really think Chinese will be that useful in the future and why?

For career no, I'm too old to learn Chinese to a decent level in order to sell it as a real language skill. But it will be usefull to be able to communicate to more people. Maybe it's not the best language to learn and would I get more use out of improving my Spanisch or french, or in learning Arab, Japanese or Swahili. I don't know.

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xiaotao
this is a topic that I always bring up with people, especially those paying a lot of money for their kids to learn Chinese. The answer I keep on getting is something like "China is going to take over the world and we must prepare our kids to gain an advantage in the future workforce, etc. etc."

People send their kids to Chinese private immersion schools because they simply can afford it. Why not? it's icing on the cake when the school already has a good English and Math program. They are not concerned about their kids chinese level. They just want to give them the basic foundation so they can persue it later if they wished to. Some of the parents have lived in Asia without knowing any Chinese. Monlinguals can be nuts about their kids knowing more than 2 languages, enrolling them in 2 foreign languages classes when they are young. They are rarely successful.

From what I've seen, people are relaxed about their kids learning Chinese. They hope that their kid knowing Chinese would come in handy but they don't really have any real expectation. They just want to give their kid the opportunity. The parents of heritage learners have a much greater expectation but anybody who is Chinese knows that their kid will never be fluent as a native Chinese.

I am pleased about the American interest in learning Chinese and I'm even more impressed to find so many adult Chinese learners here.

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jkhsu

If you've learned Spanish or French as a second language then you can have a career working with those coming in from Mexico or those coming in from Quebec especially in services

I learned Spanish as my foreign language requirement while growing up in the USA (up to the AP test level). I've used it recently when I took a cruise to Mexico and it was great. I also live in California so there are quite a bit of Spanish speakers here. However, I don't see how I would need it in the USA with regards to advancing in a career. For one, most people I've met who can speak Spanish can also speak English. If one wanted a career where they dealt with people who only spoke Spanish and not English in the USA, then the career choices (I think) are rather limited. If you are talking about doing business with Spanish speakers from Mexico, Latin America or Spain, then again, your Spanish is going to have be pretty good, which means you might have to do this as your college major. Then it's a question of opportunity costs. Same thing with learning Chinese.

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Silent
Advantage for what? English is pretty the only language that carries a definite career benefit when learned as second language.

I strongly disagree. This is absolute nonsense for many people and from many points of view. I think most minority people are better off learning the local lingua franca than English. For many people learning another local language can be far more beneficial than learning English. And how about all those location/region/language specific jobs from translator and teacher, to the journalist, art dealer and tourist guide?

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jkhsu

How many translator do you think you can find that can properly translate a discussion about gen-therapy or radar technology or even IT networking?

I think my question is what is the likelyhood for someone who has spent a good amount of their education and career in particular field to pick up Chinese at the level where they can communicate topics in that field? Learning Chinese just to chat is hard enough. If I were a bio-chemist and I had to give a lecture or presentation in Beijing, I'd do it in my native language and have a professional translate it for me. I wouldn't go and learn enough Chinese so I could actually give that presentation in Chinese, that would be a hard thing to do.

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xiaotao
I don't see how I would need it in the USA with regards to advancing in a career. For one, most people I've met who can speak Spanish can also speak English.

One does not need to leave California to use their Chinese or Spanish skills. The medical and legal field always need bilingual speakers. Any job that deals with the public directly needs foreign languages. Take a look at the Chinese or Spanish yellow pages.

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Meng Lelan
most people I've met who can speak Spanish can also speak English.

Maybe that's what you see, but I'm here in Texas working in special education and I can't agree that most parents, family members, new students, etc who speak Spanish are speaking English.

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