Britain Learning Mandarin False Eastern promise

Nov 22nd 2007

From The Economist print edition

The craze for teaching Chinese may be a misguided fad

¡§CHINA will be the dominant power in the 21st century and the employment
opportunities that speaking Mandarin will give are immense.¡¨ Thus Anthony
Seldon, headmaster of Wellington College, at a conference in 2006 entitled
¡§Why every school should offer Mandarin¡¨. Nearly two years later, the
spectacular growth of the language in British schools shows no sign of
slowing. More than 400 secondary schools now teach it, according to the
Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, which is lobbying to bring Mandarin
into the national curriculum. And Britain is not alone in its enthusiasm for
the language: some 30m foreigners are studying Mandarin today, and Chinese
authorities expect the number to rise to 100m by 2010.

In a few decades China may indeed overtake America as the world's top
economic power. Will Britons who make the effort to learn its language be
rewarded with better careers? Barring some kind of sea change in global
language learning, the answer will almost always be no.

With its tones and horribly complicated writing system, Mandarin is much
harder to learn than most European languages. The Foreign Office, for
example, gives its officers four times as long to get from beginner to
operational level in Mandarin as it does in Italian, French or Spanish¡Xand
only those with the greatest aptitude for languages are selected for it. The
vast majority of Westerners who travel to China to study Mandarin give up,
go home and forget what they have learned. Undergraduates at British
universities find it hard to adjust to a workload heavier than that for
other subjects, and many drop out.

For those determined to become fluent in Chinese, a good level to aim for is
a score of six in the national standard ¡§Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi¡¨ exam. This
is the qualification foreigners need to enroll alongside local
undergraduates at a Chinese university. A graduate in Chinese from a British
university should reach that grade (though many do not). So should someone
with good linguistic ability who studies Mandarin in China full-time for
three years.

But is learning moderately good Chinese worth the opportunity cost? After
all, in three or four years a British graduate could get most of the way to
qualifying as a lawyer, for example. According to the Association of
Graduate Recruiters, those who hire British graduates attach little
importance to language skills in general. So to justify the extra effort
needed, the demand for fluency in Mandarin would have to be way above demand
for, say, French.

Yet anecdotal evidence suggests that there is little call for Britons with
Mandarin. One reason is that many Chinese already speak reasonable English.
In China's bigger cities children often start learning English in reception
year. It is compulsory for all from the start of secondary school to the
second year of university. To study for a doctorate, even in fine art or the
poetry of the Tang dynasty, students need to show fluent literacy in
English. An academic career is closed to those who cannot do so.

Outside the classroom, too, there is widespread conviction that a child's
prospects will be limited if he does not learn English. Senior managers with
no capacity in the language are becoming a rarity. China's elite
professionals are often bilingual because most of them went to university in
America, Britain or Australia.

For this reason, Britons at home never need to use Mandarin in their
dealings with Chinese firms. Haier, a white-goods maker, for example,
reports that every Chinese employee posted to its 15 overseas industrial
parks, 22 trading companies, 30 plants and eight R&D centres outside China
speaks good English.

Within China companies can hire an expatriate who speaks Chinese. Or, more
often, they take their pick from an abundant supply of local graduates in
English who are happy to work for 2,000 yuan (¢G130) a month. ¡§I took an
80% pay cut to come here because I wanted to learn the language,¡¨ says Ken
Schulz, a software engineer from Silicon Valley who studied Chinese
full-time for four years at Beijing's University of Language and now works
in the capital at WorkSoft, an outsourcing firm. ¡§I'm the only foreigner in
an office of 1,200 people, and I hardly get any opportunity to use my

At Search Bank, a Beijing employment agency, Hai Yuen points out that,
whereas the value of compensation packages for expat executives has been
shrinking over the past ten years, the number of Chinese-speaking foreigners
she handles has been rising. Better language skills, she reckons, are a
product less of market demand than of a general enthusiasm for China. Reason
enough, perhaps, to learn the language