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.
That said, I think for many people caught up in the “we must learn Chinese” mass movement it really is a time-wasting fad, because there is no love for the language and no deep-hearted commitment to it: Based on wildly exaggerated articles they’ve read about China being on the verge of becoming the next superpower, they think it’s a necessary business decision, that by the time their kids grow up all business will be conducted in Mandarin and those who can’t read a Chinese newspaper with perfect tones will be left in the cold. Which is a complete snow job.
Learning Chinese is great. It is hard for most people, but not at all impossible. Everyone who is interested in China and who wants to live here or who loves languages and wants to expand their horizons should give it a try. But if you’re jumping onto the bandwagon because you think Chinese is the way of the future, you’re in for a double surprise. 1. Chinese is not going to become the international business language anytime while we’re still alive (if ever); 2. If your heart isn’t really in it, little of the language will stick and you will give up frustrated and annoyed at yourself for wasting so much time you could have spent learning macrame or other more practical things.
I only have time nowadays for about two hours of Chinese lessons a week. At this rate, I’ll probably never be above an elementary level. But every day I spend at least an hour studying, and I have Chinese Pod and other lessons playing in my apartment rather constantly. Over the past year I learned a few hundred characters and doubled my vocabulary on my own. Because I love the language and feel that with each phrase I learn the more rich my experience here can be. I have no illusions that I will ever conduct business in Chinese or write proposals in hanzi. But I am still completely committed to it, and I spend the majority of my time when I’m not working studying Chinese.
So yes, there is a fad element to the learn-Chinese stampede. But it’s also a great undertaking and everyone who really wants to learn it should go for it. If, however, you think it’s going to make you rich, or if you think it’s a magic bullet for survival in the age of “China rising,” you’re going at it for the wrong reason and will most likely give it up and feeling kind of bitter about it.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.