In the past few years, the rest of the world has become increasingly aware of China’s growing power and influence around the globe. China’s economic might is now second only to America’s, and economists predict that by 2030, China’s economy will eclipse the USA. More recently, the world has taken notice of China’s rapid advances in new technologies including artificial intelligence or AI and robotics.
Anybody who lives in China, as I do, is well aware of these advances. We now make daily use of things that once populated the pages of futuristic comic books, like high-speed trains, which I use to commute back and forth between Shanghai and Kunshan, as well as regular trips from Shanghai to Beijing. We are now completely used to the ease by which we can buy things with electronic payments using the app called WeChat which is truly a marvelous innovation. We now live in cities with enormous bike sharing operations. Who knows what other innovations and inventions are coming down the track, but with its massive size and hyper-connected population, China will surely be at the forefront of many of them.
China also appears to be taking the lead in many technologies that will lessen the impact of fossil fuels on global warming. During a train ride across the country between the city of Kunshan and Wuhan, I saw countless fields full of solar panels, and last time I was in Yunnan I marveled at the gigantic wind farms taking up the hills outside of Dali. We also read that the government of China has put great emphasis on bringing out fleets of electric vehicles (the cities of China are already full of electric-powered scooters, which are far better than those awful put-put gas powered scooters that plagued Asian cities like Bangkok and Taipei in the 1980s-1990s). And the list goes on.
So, with all of the economic might and technological power that China is assembling, not to mention its growing military presence in the region, and of course, the coup de grace of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, we hear more and more that Chinese language is soon to follow. “You’ll all be speaking Chinese soon,” seems to be the catch phrase of the day. At least you hear it in my circles. Is this really the case? Are we heading into a world in which learning Chinese as a second language will soon be as popular as learning English, and will people put as much time into learning Chinese as they do into learning to speak, read, and write English? Methinks not. On the other hand, I do think it’s a certainty that interest in basic Chinese language learning worldwide will continue to grow by leaps and bounds.
My own experience with learning Chinese language goes back to 1987, when I first took a course in intro Chinese with Professor Susan Blader at Dartmouth College. As I write in other blog posts, I took to the language “like a fish to water” or 如鱼得水 (ru yu de shui) as they say here in China. What originally fascinated me, well before I began learning the language, were the characters. Yet like every Chinese language learner, I found out very quickly that the language is deeply connected to history, to culture, to literature, philosophy, and society.
In other words, one cannot simply learn the language on its own. In order to become a proper Chinese language speaker, let alone a reader, one must immerse oneself in a massive ocean of knowledge that comes from the “5000 years of history” that China has experienced. This brings me to my main point: Learning the Chinese language is a major undertaking. It’s not just the 4,000 distinct characters and 50,000 vocabulary words you need to know to become a proper reader of basic Chinese texts (I’m throwing out some general numbers here). You also need to understand the references, many of which go back to ancient times. Ask any China scholar who didn’t start out Chinese to begin with, and they will tell you that this is a huge commitment of your time--a lifetime commitment in fact.
Okay, so what if you don’t need to learn how to read? Well, that makes you illiterate, or 文盲 (wenmang) as the Chinese say (literally: culture/literature blind). Yes, you will be able to get around in China, perhaps give basic instructions to a taxi driver, ask for directions, order some basic food or drinks (every expat in China knows the word for beer: 啤酒 pijiu). Some of my friends here from Europe or the USA can do much more than that with their spoken Chinese. But, mon ami, you will still be illiterate, and that means you will not have access to the basic building blocks of Chinese culture and society, at least not with a great deal of assistance from your Chinese 同事和朋友 (colleagues and friends).
What makes this condition of illiteracy survivable in China is that most educated Chinese people in this country know some English, so you can still be a 文盲 with a basic command of simple spoken Mandarin Chinese and get by. And you can let the Chinese who speak English do the heavy lifting when it comes to things like contracts or government documents or paying bills or buying tickets or really anything requiring the knowledge of the written word.
This brings me to another obvious point: the prevalence of English. Since the 1980s, as others around the world have for centuries now given the long and ambitious history of British and American colonial imperialism, Chinese people have put in enormous efforts into learning the English language. Luckily for them, there are many great tools and resources to do so, not just educational resources but also wonderful and highly engaging English-language movies, TV shows, songs, etc. that some in my field might well regard as a form of “cultural imperialism” or at least "soft power" or 软实力 (ruan shi li) in Chinese. Prior to the 1980s, the foreign language of choice in China was Russian, so if you meet people educated in the 1950s or 60s, chances are they speak some Russian. But since the 1980s, every school child has been given a heavy dose of English.
This was certainly true in Taipei Taiwan in the 1980s, when I was studying there and taught English to young adults in the local 补习班 (buxiban). In the 1990s, the English language trend took off in a big way in Mainland China and companies like 英孚 English First (my previous employer to be candid, since they have a very close relationship to the Hult Business School) that had made their fortunes in countries like Japan in an earlier era now trained their sights on conquering China. Today, most college-educated Chinese people can speak some English passably well or even remarkably well, depending on their exposure to the outside world, and certainly they can read English. And as we know, there are hundreds of thousands of Chinese students now making their way to English-speaking countries for their higher and even secondary educations (now it’s also primary education that draws them abroad, with Mom in tow). So this means that for every single literate and conversationally fluent Mandarin-Chinese speaking foreigner like myself, there is literally an army of English-reading and speaking Chinese people.
So then, what would be the purpose of a foreigner spending so much time and effort learning to speak, read and write Mandarin Chinese or even learning classical Chinese, which like its Western counterpart Latin takes years just on its own to become proficient? The answer right now is: not much. Outside of a few very small professional domains such as being a professor of Chinese studies, there is not much of a market for such hard-earned skills. And in that regard, allow me to make another point: For every China studies scholar who spent years learning Mandarin Chinese as a second language, there are dozens of native Chinese speakers with whom that person is competing for a very small number of jobs in the China studies field, not to mention other fields and professions such as business or law. Most of these are people who grew up in China, Taiwan,, Hong Kong, Singapore, or Macau learning to read and write Chinese. At the same time, they were also learning English from a very young age, and they can now speak, read and write English with near-native fluency--or in many cases, they can read and write in English far better than most native English speakers. So, unless you have a deep passion for Chinese language, culture, and history, as I and my non-Chinese colleagues do, this is probably not a worthwhile investment of your time, money, and energy.
On the other hand, learning to speak basic Mandarin Chinese is not a huge investment of time and energy in and of itself. With a year or two of basic training, as long as someone has an ear for the tonal language, he or she can pick up foundational Mandarin Chinese. After studying Mandarin Chinese intensively for one year at Dartmouth (and by intensively I mean around 20 hours per week for a year), I found that upon arriving in Taipei in the summer of 1988, I was already able to communicate in a very basic way with people there. After a summer of intensive study at the language center in Taipei known as the Stanford Center (or the IUP program), I was able to have basic conversations with a wide range of people. A three-month stay in Taipei in the fall and a three-month journey through China that winter greatly enhanced my conversational abilities, and by that time I was able to read a wide range of texts as well (it wasn’t too difficult for me to recognize simplified characters 简体字 (jian ti zi) after learning the complex ones 繁体字 (fan ti zi), but I pity those who have to do it the other way). Basically, you can pick up around 80 percent of the characters and vocabulary you need for speaking and reading basic Chinese in the first two years or so of training. It’s that other 20 percent that is far more tricky and that involves a much greater expenditure of time and effort. And that’s just the basic stuff.
I should also point out that, in order to get to a level where you can write intelligently in Chinese, it takes tremendous effort. Most non-native Chinese speakers I know can barely read let alone write Chinese. The few I know who can read well are still not good writers. In fact, I can only count a tiny handful of people who have advanced to the level where they could write a decent essay in Chinese, as I am doing right now without too much effort in English. Despite over five years of very intensive training in spoken and written Mandarin between the ages of 17 and 23, I still find that my essay writing in Chinese is abysmal. I can write, but if I give the essay over to a Chinese friend for correcting, it will be chock full of red pencil marks. There is just a level of understanding of the proper idioms, metaphors, syntax and phrasing that is very difficult for even a long-time learner of Chinese such as myself to achieve. And immersing oneself completely in Chinese written language is simply impossible, as most of my professional work (and social life) requires heavy reading in English. That said, I could devote more time to reading and writing Mandarin, or even to watching Chinese films and TV shows, but honestly, it’s hard for me to see the value of this beyond the research and writing I do on China. And I have yet to find a Chinese TV show that can match English-language shows like The Wire or Breaking Bad! (Most of my educated Chinese colleagues and friends seem to feel the same way, although for the ladies, Korean soaps are popular here now).
Now, I am watching my own two daughters go through a Chinese educational experience of their own here in Shanghai. They have great advantages over me of course. Their mother is Chinese, and so are their grandparents and dozens of relatives and friends here in Shanghai. They started out in Chinese kindergartens and then went to Chinese grade schools. Basically, they are at native level-fluency when it comes to spoken Mandarin Chinese (their Shanghainese is not so good, though they can understand it without any difficulty). They are both in bilingual schools now, in fact these are considered the top two such schools in China according to the Hurun Report. My elder daughter is at YK Pao and my younger is at Shanghai High School International Division. They have been learning to read and write Chinese characters since day one, and my teenage daughter writes characters beautifully. Still, I’m told that her Chinese writing skills are not nearly as well developed as many of her Chinese peers (obviously having a Chinese dad makes a huge difference). It remains to be seen whether either of my daughters will achieve the level of true proficiency in written Mandarin, i.e. the level of a college-educated Chinese person. I hope that they will, but it is too soon to tell, and also dependent on where they go to high school and college. But more importantly, I hope they will achieve the level of a very well-educated English speaker, reader and writer, and in that respect they are certainly well-positioned for success.
As for the question I posed in the title of this essay, my own answer, which the reader may by now divine, is both yes and no. I think that it is certainly conceivable that in the future, a great many more people around the world will be learning Chinese as a second language. For the vast majority, this will involve studying Mandarin Chinese for a year or two at most, and then being able to speak and read at the most basic level—probably more of the former than the latter, given the challenges of learning Chinese characters. And there will be a growing number of people as well who will come to China for their higher education and who will learn to speak, read, and write Chinese at a much higher level still. Even so, they will find it extremely challenging if not impossible to achieve the level of proficiency in reading and writing of a native Chinese educated person. And that person most likely will have far better English skills than their own Chinese skills. There will be exceptions of course, but these will be “fewer than few” 少之又少 (shao zhi you shao) as the Chinese say, or in other words, quite miniscule compared with the vast armies of educated Chinese people who speak, read and write English. And I don’t see this situation changing in the foreseeable future. But then again, 谁知？