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Should You Learn Chinese?

Should You Learn Chinese?

By James H. Choi

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Korean version: 중국어를 배워야 하는가?

https://dl.dropbox.com/u/6378458/Column/Graphics/Shanghai.jpgPerhaps because I speak four languages and have lived in several countries, people often ask me for advice on languages.  In the 1980s, the question was, “Should I learn Japanese?”  And for a while there were some, “Should I learn Korean?” questions.  Lately the question has been, “Should I learn Chinese?” My answer is always the same: “It depends.”

More specifically, it depends on the reason for learning the language.  Of course there are many reasons to learn a language. Let’s count the ways.

First, this could be the language of your heritage — of your parents and ancestors.  In that case you don’t choose a language; the language chooses you. Go ahead and please your grand parents.

Second, you could learn a language because of your interest in a certain culture.  In that case, you know what culture interests you.  No need for my advice in this case.  Go ahead and open your mind’s window to the world.  There is no telling what might fly in.  Please note that most articles promoting “Americans should learn Chinese” are speaking at this level, for tourism and for exposure to another culture.  I am all for it, but learning a language at this level can only serve as a ice-breaker in business settings.

But the third case is what I want to explain in detail.  That’s when you want to learn a language for a calculated benefit — as an investment — with expectations of some later gain. In such cases, whether you should learn a language depends on whether it’s really going to pay off.  Here, I am talking about learning Chinese equivalent to the level where foreigners learn English to work with Americans.

Bluntly put, it’s always advantageous to speak the language of a country that’s richer than yours.  By “your country,” I mean the country that is currently feeding you, whether you were born there or not.  In this regard, English is unquestionably the most dominant language of the world.  The double-punch of the British empire and the decades of American economic supremacy add to the unquestionable place of the English language at the top.  English is indeed the closest to a lingua franca Earth has ever seen.  Most Americans know this and correctly don’t bother learning any foreign languages.  It is not that Americans are dumb.  It is that Americans don’t have to.  Anything worth reading eventually shows up in English.

American economic dominance has been questioned only twice in my memory.  Once was in 1980s by the Japanese.  Back then, the Japanese was perceived as a real threat, and Japanese classes in college campuses were overflowing.  Literally, introductory Japanese classes had standing room only.  The “Japanese threat” turned out to be transient.  Now we are having a déjà vu moment with China, which is on its way to become the highest-GDP nation on Earth.  These Chinese language classes are filling up.  And we hear the same ominous warning we heard in the 1980s all over again: “This time, it’s different.”

So should you learn Chinese with the expectation that you would gain something for your investment of learning the language?


Let me share with you an exchange I had with my cousin when I found out he was learning Japanese.  I offered him a piece of unsolicited advice.

“Cousin, although I am fluent in Japanese, I don’t find much use in it,” I said.  “Even when I am on business trips to Japan, I end up speaking in English with them without any detrimental effect.”

My cousin replied to me, “That’s because you’re coming from the United States. I’m coming from Korea.  I cannot speak to them in English even if they are fluent in it.  My situation is completely different from yours.”

In the business world of languages, there is a pecking order.  Thus whether you should speak Chinese depends on where your economy’s pecking order is relative to China’s economy.  If you are American, and you work in American economy, don’t learn Chinese.

It may seem odd I would advise against learning a language, considering that I speak four fluently, but I’m advising against it because I know something that most people don’t realize: the the cost of learning a language well.  Indeed, the question is not whether you should learn Chinese, or not.  The question is whether to master Chinese or become an MBA/MD/PhD/JD instead.  Yes, it takes that much work to master Chinese.  Chinese is no Spanish.  It will take English speakers five to ten times more effort to reach a comparable level.  Please see my note on Chinese characters at the bottom.

Even if you miraculously mastered Chinese while getting your MBA/MD/PhD/JD at the same time, (which means you paid the price in some other aspects because we all have 24 hours a day) the Chinese language may not be as useful to you because of the asymmetry of demands.

As an American, no matter what country’s language you study, you will find your counterpart in that country whose English almost rivals yours and his native language infinitely superior.  That’s why, no matter how much you studied the country’s language, you will end up using English in any high-powered, high-level business or academic meeting because their English is far better than your command of their language.  All you will get to say is some ice-breaking greetings, which can be learned in one afternoon.  And, at the end of the day, whether you broke ice or not will make little difference.  What will matter is how expertly you conducted your meeting (in English) with a firm competence in the area of discussion.  At that point, you will wonder what all those years of studying was for, as I have felt in many meetings in Japan, Brazil and Korea.  In those countries, I did use/mix local languages to conduct business meetings, and I received an instant honorary-insider status which entitled me to hear endless anecdotes about culturally-insensitive fat-ugly-Americans who were clueless to anything local, including the language.  But I could have accomplished the same work using English, minus the chance to hear those stories.  In China, I only used English because I never learned Chinese beyond ice-breaking pleasantries.  Even though I was not considered good enough to be told “ugly American” stories, I accomplished my mission there nonetheless, all the while fighting a nagging suspicion that I am not told any stories because I am one of those “ugly American” this time.

Now look around you.  Did you consider your competition within: the Chinese-Americans friends who are already bilingual, on top of being math/science wizards?   What are your chances of out-Chinese-ing them?

Lastly, consider this scene I witness routinely.  In any math competitions in the United States, the winners seem to be overwhelmingly students of Chinese heritage.  In International-scale competitions such as HMMT or IRML, where teams from China also compete, the question is not:

“Who will be the winners?”

but rather:

“Will the winners be Chinese students, or Chinese-American students?”

It almost seems being somehow hyphenated to “Chinese” is what it takes to win.  But in that Chinese-dominated scene, I want to bring your attention to the people who are not there: countless Chinese and Chinese-American students who didn’t even make it onto the teams, missing their first crucial step in moving up their career ladder.  Why were they left out?

They weren’t lacking in Chinese-speaking skills — they were lacking in math.

In summary, learn Chinese if it is free.  But, while at it, don’t forget to pick up a few MBA/PhD/MD degrees for the same price.  You will find the latter more valuable.


I have no regrets for having learned languages, and I have no intention of trading them for an MBA degree even if I could.  That’s because I didn’t study them as an investment.  I learned them either because I had to, or because I wanted to: never because I expected to have any financial gain.  At this stage in my life, I have no desire to learn another language.  It would only result in a dilettante dabbling that will provoke some patient smiles from polite people at best.  Instead, I enjoy discovering more depth and beauty in languages that I already know, which does not even bring polite smiles from patient people because I do it on my own.

And that’s how I want to keep it.

Footnote: how difficult is it to learn Chinese characters?

The Chinese script is the most inefficient writing system there is.  Essentially, each word is its own separate drawing.  I have learned to write 1000~2000 Chinese as a learner of Korean and Japanese, and I tell you it is hard.  Every time you learn a new Chinese word, it’s not an assembly of phonemes, such as alphabet letters.  It is a drawing.   Knowing the sound of the word doesn’t help you any, because you have to remember 10 or 20 or 30 strokes that are involved in painting it.  Of course these drawings contain many clues for deciphering their meanings, such as pronunciation keys that help you infer the meaning from similarities of one drawing with those of another whose meaning you do know.  But even reading a word based on the similarities of its shape with that of another word, you can never conclude the word’s full meaning by way of this inductive reasoning.

Learning the Chinese writing system is so hard that the Korean education system dropped it.  This is significant because 40 percent of Korean words come from the Chinese language.   Just as we speak in English many words containing Latin roots, many Korean words root themselves in Chinese.  In fact, all Korean last names, and nearly every Korean first name is written in Chinese characters (but they are read in Korean pronunciation).  Entire pre-modern era Korean history such as Jo Seon Shil Rok is written in pure Chinese as well.  Despite this deep cultural connections, the Chinese characters were nonetheless dropped from the Korean education system because it was too much work to learn.


Categories: Global Perspective
  1. Vin
    November 27, 2012 at 10:48 pm

    Dr. James, always to the point and insightful this was a pleasure to read.

    • November 28, 2012 at 12:17 am

      Thank you for taking time to share your thoughts.

  1. November 18, 2012 at 4:27 pm

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