Should Americans Be Learning Chinese?

First of all, apologies for the recent lack of updates. It is possible this will continue. Your correspondent is currently rather sick, and also in the process of packing to move back to America while looking for jobs there teaching, if you can believe it, Chinese.

Yesterday Evan Osnos mentioned in a post of his that “only eleven per cent of Americans think it is very important to learn Chinese, while eighty-two per cent of Chinese think it is very important to learn English.” This is according to surveys on foriegn policy views by the Chicago Council. For comparison, 17% of Americans think it’s very important for America to promote democracy in other countries.

As Osnos points out, there are signs that things are changing. Even during this brutal recession, some schools are creating or expanding their Chinese programs, and other schools that can’t currently afford to do so admit that they are still facing increased demand for the language. 11% is a fairly depressing number, but we can probably rest assured that it’s rising.

Personally, I wonder if one of the main problems isn’t a stubbornly widespread perception that Chinese is somehow “impossible”, especially compared to other foreign languages. Granted, it perhaps looks and sounds more intimidating than, say, French, but I wonder if some Americans would change their minds if they knew that Chinese students don’t have to memorize long tables of verb conjugations like French students do, or puzzle over complex grammar manuals.

Anyone with experience traveling knows that English is the “world” language, the default language used when two people who don’t share a common language meet. It’s possible that will change, although a shift would take many years, but does that really excuse Americans (or other Westerners) from having to learn Chinese? What do you think?

0 thoughts on “Should Americans Be Learning Chinese?”

  1. Many of my coworkers learnt Spanish in school and never use them again at work place. Most of them forgot it as soon as they finished school. I think language is a practical tool. If you don’t use it, you loss it . I only met maybe total of 2-3 Chinese speaking customers who didn’t speaking English in my 15 years of work. We do have many Mexican customers but almost none of coworkers could speak spanish when we need them. So what the use if everyone starts to learn Chinese and no use at all. We can’t all go to China to find work to do since many of them coming this way . I think it is important to learn Chinese if you plan on someday to work in that area or in China. Just like I learnt English in order to have a better job in the US.


  2. Oh don’t worry. Many Chinese are willing to shoulder the burden of building cultural communications. No need to bother the Americans. Nobody should be forcing them to learn something they don’t want to. We can learn English, which is totally fun and is a good way to understand others civilizations and learn from them in order to make ours better. The Americans can just relax.


  3. This all depends. People in Europe make fun of Americans for only being able to speak one language. So, as a matter of practicality, should the average American who will probably have a domestic job learn Chinese? No. Should their kids? Maybe. Should their grandkids? Probably. (Again, assuming Chinese somehow manages to replace English as the lingua franca of the world. No easy feat considering it took over 1000 years for Latin to die and at that time, it wasn’t as if more than 90% of the internet was in Latin.)

    This, of course, is assuming they’re not like me or the thousands of other foreign English teachers who are living in China and don’t want to live an isolated, lonely existence.


  4. “only eleven per cent of Americans think it is very important to learn Chinese, while eighty-two per cent of Chinese think it is very important to learn English.”

    It would be interesting to know what percentage of native English speakers are learning Chinese. After all, America isn’t the only country that speaks English. ;p


  5. @ Josh. I don’t think 90% of the internet is in English anymore; and I would expect that figure to decrease rapidly anyway and Mainland China will soon have — or perhaps already has — more internet users than there are Americans. (Not American internet users, Americans.)

    Granted, Americans aren’t the only ones who use the internet in English, but Chinese people aren’t the only ones who use Chinese, either, and the number of Chinese internet users is probably going to keep growing. Give it ten or twenty years, I’d be pretty surprised if the number of Chinese websites didn’t vastly outnumber English ones.


  6. Well, it is still a lot more useful to learn English than Chinese, so the results of that survey seem reasonable. It might change in the future, and erhaps is already changing in Asian countries (Korea, Thailand, Vietnam).
    Also, for us non-English speakers, English will usually be the first choice for learning a foreign language. It’s most useful, and there are plenty of opportunities to speak it. For you, on the other hand, Chinese won’t necessarily be your first choice.


  7. As one that 11%, I think you should avoid apologizing any more for the rate at which you post… Do or do not, there is no try, right?



  8. As a passionate student of the Chinese language for 8+ years, I am obviously a huge advocate of waiguoren at least making an effort to learn for many reasons. However, I don’t think that Chinese will take over as the international language for a long, long time, if ever. Although I do think there are very good reasons for a country to increase its stock of Chinese-speaking citizens, I certainly don’t think this is it. The problem is that Chinese is too complex which can create many problems . It is a fact that it takes longer to learn than English. I agree that it is not an impossible language and that it is very worth investing time to learn, but our reasons for learning, besides simply the pleasure of learning about an interesting country with very rich, closely tied culture and language, should be that China has a big place in the future. It is an enormous indication of respect to learn another country’s language, especially one that is so difficult. We are at a point in history that, in my opinion, will have a huge influence on what problems the generations to come will be dealing with… Global warming and nuclear proliferation are two such issues that, if mishandled, can have dire consequences for our future. China seems prepared to be a (powerful) ally in fighting these issues, and I think it is terribly important, for Americans especially, to show goodwill, respect, and a desire to cooperate on equal terms. If we invest our time and resources in learning what is a language of the future, we’ll see great returns from our diplomatic efforts, economic activities, and environmental initiatives.


  9. I don’t think “it is a fact” that Chinese takes “longer to learn” than English. To be perfectly frank, learning ANY second language is a lifelong process, not something you finish, but I reject the notion that Chinese takes fundamentally longer to learn than English. In point of fact, I know many foreigners in China whose Chinese is better than the English of Chinese people who have been studying for two, three, or even four times as long. In the end, it comes down to motivation.

    But is Chinese fundamentally more difficult or “complex” than English? I really don’t think so.

    @ G: True. Still, despite my best efforts from ages 9-14 or so, I’ve never been much of a Jedi.


  10. First of all, the absolute lenght of time is irrelevant as you need to compare the intensity with which they have studied. Of course someone studying Chinese in China, surrounded by the appropriate environment will have better English than someone who has lived all their life in China and trying to study English. I just reviewed my source for saying that Chinese is fundamentally harder to learn than English, and it only says that Chinese is one of the top two (along with Arabic) hardest languages for Americans to learn, nothing about the reverse. So you may be correct in that, however, I’m disappointed that that’s what you chose to respond to out of my entire comment. In my mind, it certainly wasn’t the most important point.


  11. Something that seems pretty obvious to me is the reason why so few Americans think that studying Chinese (specifically) is important is because there are a lot of other languages out there that it is just as important to know. Sure, Chinese is going to be getting more and more prominent internationally in the future, but plenty of people will find learning Spanish, Arabic, Japanese, or other languages just as useful.


  12. I was at the conference where Evan Osnos learned those stats (and gave a great presentation of his own). 11% of Americans valuing the learning of Chinese is a discouraging number, but not a surprising one. The more discouraging fact to me is the very tiny number of Americans who achieve any sort of proficiency in any foreign languages. While we weren’t given statistics on other languages, I’m doubtful many, other than Spanish, would rank very high in general America’s opinion.

    As for the difficulty of learning Chinese, if you eliminate the challenge of literacy, it probably is comparable in difficulty to learning a language like Spanish or French. The reasons for ranking it more difficult (for Americans) comes from the experience of the US government in training people for foreign service. In the very intense language program the US runs, it generally takes about two years to obtain basic professional proficiency in Chinese. That’s almost four times as long as it takes to achieve similar proficiency in Spanish (a bit more than 6 months). It seems that most of that difficulty comes from Chinese characters, and perhaps also the lack of a shared cultural heritage (when compared with languages like Spanish, French, etc.). Other languages that are similarly difficult for Americans are Korean, Japanese and Arabic. In each case there is a large cultural distance from America and a very different written system.

    Look forward to having you join the ranks of Chinese teachers in the US. Good luck on the job hunt.


  13. Characters.

    Two HUGE hurdles for most English speakers. If Chinese was phonetic and toneless, it would surely rival any other language for ease of learning – it has one of the least complex grammar systems of any language on Earth.

    If you compare number of hours spent to memorize characters versus time to learn an alphabet, it is no contest – any phonetic language easily beats memorizing hanzi. This is especially true as less than 60% of hanzi contain any clue as to their pronuciation in the hanzi itself – forcing one to memorize the hanzi and the pronunciation for it, effectively doubling the work.

    Most young students in China spend a good part of the first 6 years of their schooling copying each hanzi hundreds of times in a row to memorize them.


  14. I agree that tones are an issue for English speakers. My own teacher used to say that Chinese has four tones but I only have two. More recently, my American students asked a Chinese student how to promounce a Chinese name that came up in class. He said the name, they repeated it, and then he said “no,…” and repeated the name. They had not even heard the tones.
    I would underscore the cultural understanding to be gained from studying a language. If American students suddenly began studying Chinese in large numbers, it is true many of them would not have much occasion to use (my own is mostly gone), but they would gain some understanding of Chinese culture and heritage along the way. Things Chinese would be less “foreign” to them, and that surely would be to their advantage.


  15. I usually dislike articles that start off with a number teased from a poll, and then extrapolate on that number to get all sorts of opinions about societal trends. So I question this 11%. I am trying – in vain – to have a look at the poll itself now, damned PDFs! We’ve got the technology for face transplants and cloning but we’re still stuck with slow, bovine PDF… what happened to the theory that our best minds were going to work in the software industry? Meh~~~

    I am in the publishing industry, specifically textbook/reference book publishing, and I manage a company that focuses solely on Chinese. Also, I am a native Chicagoan, educated in it’s public schools, so I have a deep personal interest in this particular post. First, I can say that the demand for Chinese is definitely increasing. Exponentially? Maybe not quite to that degree, but our publishing niche is definitely a bright horizon… now, (PDF still hasn’t opened, dammit) however they arrived at 11%, the demand is infinitely higher than a decade ago, and healthily higher than even 5 years ago. Heck, Chicago MAY have had 5 public schools – out of dozens of public high schools and who knows how many elem/jr. highs – that offered Chinese 8 years ago, but obviously the growth has been such that the nations 3rd largest PS district now has the most schools teaching Chinese. Mayor Daley has declared several times that he wants Chicago to intently focus on Chinese. Another example – the University of Southern California just dropped their German language departments and will bolster their Asian Languages Department. Chinese is obviously a centerpiece (if not the centerpiece) of this department. Then there are all the schools that are scrambling to add Chinese…I expect other universities, like U of Miami, which focuses significantly on Spanish and almost not at all on Chinese, to begin to get heavily involved in Chinese. The CLTA (Chinese Language Teachers Association) website is actually full of job postings, especially at the university level, where students are the most vocal (and have the most say) in electives and majors they want to pursue. It also used to be that only a few schools – Berkeley, Middlebury – offered the intensive summer Chinese immersion programs. Now, you can find them at lots more places, I’ve heard that the Claremont Colleges will offer them, for example. Junior colleges are pushing Chinese hard as well, and I can think of half a dozen major to mid-major Chinese universities that have partnered with American, British, and Australian universities to offer study abroad programs. People I meet invariably tell me about either their interest in Chinese or how some niece, neighbor, etc, who wants their school to offer Chinese.

    One very-unscientific way I keep abreast of language trends is by monitoring the reference section in the largest chain bookstores. Spanish has always been a big one, of course, but what has been interesting to me is how the Chinese offerings have grown more numerous, and how the quality level has improved. There are the heavyweight publishing companies, whose offerings are now often in full-color and more varied, and there are more and more little-medium sized fish. I see the biggest growth at the children’s level; it’s really cool to see how many people want to have their kids get started from day 1 with Chinese.
    Then too, the number of companies offering online instruction (Chinese person in China, American housewife/student/businessman in Fresno) seems to outstrip all the other languages, but I could be wrong about this point.

    I could go on – especially since it’s raining outside and there is nothing on the tube – but yeah, I think scholastic interest in Chinese is growing nicely, despite all the cutbacks in school funding and the focus on standardized testing prepartion, both of which usually tend to hurt the budgets for “non-essential” things, like second languages.

    As an aside, when people discuss the New Yorker, I think they cut it way too much slack. The reporting/writing can be more introspective and much more witty and articulate than most other magazines, but they do a mediocre – or worse – job much of the time, I have found. Just like lots of news in this day and age, I suppose. That Chicago Council, their polls are pretty heavy-handed – at least their polls about foreign policy – and seem to be poorly worded and leading, to say the least. I wouldn’t rely on them as a reasonable measure of much.



  16. Oh, and I would like to take serious issue with the dreary group of roboids who trot out the tiresome line that “Europeans laugh at Americans for only speaking one language”. Other than some of the wealthier countries in western Europe, proficiency in a second language is not that common. Being able to putter around? Yes. For Switzerland and Austria there are Greece, Lithuanias, Bularias, etc… and even in Italy and Spain it is common to find people who only have a command of their mother tongue.

    Why do people purposely ignore the HUGE population of second and third generation Latinos – particularly Mexicans and Puerto Ricans – who are really good at speaking Spanish, despite having only (increasingly distant) family ties?
    Heritage speakers make up a huge percentage of those studying Spanish, Chinese, Korean, at American Universities.

    And @wooddoo – stop patting yourself on the back. Any discussion of monolingual nations must include China. Do you really propose that Chinese learn English so that they can better understand foreign cultures? Not because it often means a higher salary and another notch on the resume in a competitive market?

    Don’t be so easily spoon-fed these tired stereotypes. I am sure that there are wide swathes of America where they fit, but I am just as certain that polyglot multilingual individuals are common in DC, LA, New York, south Florida…


  17. Ok, I’m probably going to get raked over the coals for this, however, I’d like to share my opinion.

    Though I would never claim to be a linguistic expert, I do know my way around languages (being either fluent or semi-fluent in English, Korean, Japanese, French, Chinese and have some language skills in Spanish and German).

    I think that Chinese will never really become an “international” language. Chinese in comparison to the other languages I know, is somewhat unique. Grammatically, it seems somewhat inferior to many other languages. Those of you who have studied Chinese may know what I am talking about. It definitely makes it easier to learn but when there is little or no conjugation of verbs, to me, it seems to water down things a lot. English for example has several different tenses (around 12). French and the other romance languages has much more. Korean has possibly hundreds. Each tense has ways to differentiate your meaning or your conditions, or both in a simple sentence.

    Chinese on the other had has 2 tenses. Present and past and then a hack way to get to the future tense.

    Another topic is the writing and the tones found in Chinese. First of all, I get a kick out of how some people try to state that the way of writing is so great, blah blah blah. Yeah, it is to a point. If you really think about it, almost every culture or race or whatever if you go back far enough used to use pictograms to write. However, Chinese is one of the only (maybe the only?) language to have not evolved into an alphabet system. Their system makes it not only difficult for the Chinese and foreigners alike, but it also takes a bit more time to type. If you have watched even avid Chinese typists, you will see them type and then search for the character they want. Admittedly the stroke system is better, but there are very few young people that use that and most prefer to use pinyin on computers (which is you type in the pinyin and then you are presented with a list. If the character you are looking for isn’t in the first 6-9 in the list, you gotta scroll, scroll, scroll, scroll down). As some pinyin can have hundreds of possible characters, this can take a lot of time.

    Finally, we get to the subject of tones. There are 4 tones and a no-tone in Mandarin. In Cantonese there are 9. Now the reason why the Chinese are stuck with their pictogram writing method is because of the tones. Sure you can write pinyin and then write a tone marker on it, but as there are still many many possible meanings to that syllable (character), in many cases the reader would have many problems reading what the meaning is. Thus it is essential that they continue to use Chinese characters. Even Koreans and Japanese which have adopted some Chinese words, still use Chinese characters at some point to convey the exact meaning.

    Additionally, the tones found in the Chinese language are a pain for the Chinese as well. Having lived in several cities in China, I am always amused by watching other Chinese people speak to Chinese people. As you may know, there are regional dialects in China and then there is the national language. In my opinion, there are very few people that are really fluent in the national language. That is, it is more of a learned dialect in school than a common language used by everyone. As there are still tons of uneducated people in China that are not very well educated (especially the poor and elderly in the rural areas), that means not many people have really studied mandarin much. Sure they can understand it, but when they speak it, their tones are all wrong. Also, they typically tend to pronounce things in a mixture between true mandarin and their native dialect. Some of my Chinese friends have other friends from different areas and they can only understand about 50% of what the other people are talking about. This is not uncommon at all. I see people everyday talking to other people and there is always a ton of confusion over certain words (in spoken Chinese even the same sound, same tone can have many different meanings).

    Furthermore, good mandarin seems to be such a well sought out ability that there are even tests for it in China. Some university students typically study mandarin (tones and characters) in order to get a better job or to become a teacher. Thus they spend years and years to study the correct tones and corresponding characters.

    One of my employees is one such person. He studies and studies Mandarin (he is from Beijing) so that he can pass the next level of proficiency. According to him, very few people have his level of Mandarin but even he admits that his level of proficiency is still mid-range. He told me several times that most chinese speak Chinese terribly. Even the majority of people that claim to be fluent in Mandarin use the wrong tones frequently.

    Now, does this happen in other languages? Possibly, but to my knowledge, not to this extent.

    Some of you may not know, but the Koreans used to write entirely in Chinese and speak Korean (so basically they used two different languages; one for writing and one for speaking). However, one of their kings got fed up with it and he and his scientists genetically engineered an alphabet style writing system to replace Chinese characters. Thus Korean is the only scientifically engineered written language in usage today (well there is Esperanto but that movement died off).

    So to summarize this long incoherent rant, I think that Chinese will not become an international language due to the following factors.

    1. primitive written language
    2. lack of precise grammar
    3. difficulty of comprehension due to the nature of the mono-syllabic tone defined nature of the spoken language.

    If anyone needs me to elaborate, please feel free to ask questions. I just threw out this blurb while doing some other work, so it may be incoherent.


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