Thursday, December 11, 2008

Chinese and "the language of the future"

"CHINA will be the dominant power in the 21st century and the employment opportunities that speaking Mandarin will give are immense."

Anthony Seldon, headmaster of Wellington College, at a
conference in 2006 entitled "Why every school should offer Mandarin".

Chinese vs. English

2nd half (of the current century that is): China is rising! China is rising!

The economic factor, business opportunities and visions of world dominance

According to some optimistic economic predictions (Goldman Sachs) China might have a somewhat larger economy than the US in 2050.

Chinese speakers with good English skills are not a rare commodity. The Economist Nov 22nd 2007 article entitled "Reasons not to study Chinese" mentions that there are many Chinese speakers with reasonably good English skills and more importantly they are willing to work for a fraction of what most westerners would be willing to accept. Sorry, the article is subscription only. Some 30 million foreigners are studying Mandarin in the world today and Chinese authorities expect the number to rise to 100 million by 2010. For comparison purposes, some 120 million foreigners are studying French. This adds to the general prestige and image of the language but it also further depresses the market price for a skill, which, at least according to the Economist article, is not yet in terrible demand.

With time the numbers of foreigners fluent in Chinese will increase, but it is unlikely that the numbers will ever reach such a critical mass that functional knowledge of the language would be expected in the marketplace, as is now often the case with English. Half of the world's population are native speakers of Indo-European languages. The other half are heavily influenced by one or more European languages. Some 300 million Chinese are learning English and the numbers are rising. The majority of humanity will therefore find it far easier (and more useful) to learn English followed by another European language. The likelihood is that the rise of India and China will seal the success of English as an international language well into the 21st century.

Chinese will certainly increase in importance, it is a fascinating civilization but Chinese as a "goldmine" phenomenon is terribly overrated. The opportunity cost is too high:

Why Chinese is so damn hard

The article also indirectly exposes the problem of teaching Mandarin (and expecting resuts) in the West. Seriously, does anyone believe that a system that struggles to successfully teach Spanish and French has any hope of succeeding with a language that requires three times as many hours of study?

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