Chinese is often touted as one of the most useful and important languages to learn in today’s globalized world. With over 1.4 billion native speakers, China’s growing economic power, and the increasing influence of Chinese culture, there seems to be no doubt that Mandarin Chinese is a valuable language to study. However, as with any major commitment, it is wise to carefully weigh both the pros and cons before diving in. In this article, we’ll take an in-depth look at the key benefits and drawbacks of learning Chinese to help you decide if it’s truly worth the effort needed to gain fluency.
The Advantages of Learning Chinese
1. Access to New Career Opportunities
One of the most compelling reasons to study Chinese is the career boost it can provide, especially if you plan to work in business, technology, education, tourism or diplomacy. As China continues rising as a global superpower, Mandarin skills are becoming more and more in demand. Jobs requiring Chinese have grown over 35% in the past decade, and this trend is expected to accelerate. Speaking Chinese can set you apart from other candidates and open doors at multinational companies eager to tap into the Chinese market. Even basic conversational skills can give you an edge in fields like accounting, law, consulting and more.
2. Ability to Communicate with Over a Billion People
With 1.4 billion native speakers, Chinese is the most spoken language in the world. If you know Chinese, you can communicate with around 20% of the global population! Being able to speak directly to Chinese people in their own language can lead to meaningful connections and illuminating cultural exchange. It also allows you to travel comfortably throughout China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and other Chinese-speaking regions, without relying on English. The sense of connection and insight you gain into local cultures is invaluable.
3. Gain an Edge in Global Business
China has the largest economy in the world when measured by purchasing power parity. It runs massive trade surpluses with Western nations and does over $100 billion in trade with the U.S. alone each year. Chinese is essential for anyone doing business with China or Chinese companies. Understanding the language and culture improves prospects for securing deals, investments and partnerships. As China’s economic strength continues growing, these opportunities will only expand.
4. Exposure to Rich History and Culture
With over 5,000 years of recorded history, China has a cultural heritage that is unrivaled in depth and sophistication. The country gave birth to enduring philosophies like Confucianism and Daoism, along with groundbreaking inventions like paper, printing, gunpowder and the compass. Chinese literature, art, poetry and theater are also profoundly beautiful and insightful about the human experience. Learning the language opens the door to this incredible history and culture. It lets you access cultural treasures like the poetry of Li Bai or the classical novel Dream of the Red Chamber in their original form.
5. Cognitive Benefits of Learning a Difficult Language
Modern cognitive science confirms that bilingualism has many benefits for the brain, from improved multitasking to enhanced creativity. But not all languages confer the same advantages. As a highly complex, character-based language, Chinese is excellent brain exercise! Deciphering Hanzi characters, perfecting tones and navigating a very different grammar system trains your brain to be agile, focus for long periods, and develop problem-solving skills. These benefits improve memory, critical thinking, and ability to process information from diverse sources.
6. Changes How You Think
The Chinese language shapes those who learn it. Studies show that speakers of character-based languages like Chinese think more holistically and have a stronger intuitive sense compared to alphabet language speakers. Chinese grammar focuses on how parts relate to the whole, rather than step-by-step procedures. This fosters big picture thinking. Chinese also relies heavily on metaphor, analogy, and concepts from nature. This encourages creative and inter-connected thought. Learning Chinese truly gives you a whole new perspective!
The Disadvantages of Learning Chinese
1. Incredible Difficulty and Time Commitment
While the benefits may be outstanding, it’s important to note that Chinese is also one of the hardest languages for English speakers to learn. Mandarin has a completely different writing system, obscure tonal pronunciation, complex grammar, and few cognates with English. Simply learning the basics requires serious effort. Conversational fluency is estimated to take over 2,200 class hours for English speakers. That’s 3-4 times longer than a language like Spanish! You’ll need real perseverance and long-term planning to tackle Chinese.
2. Limited Use Outside China
Despite having the most native speakers globally, Chinese isn’t as widely spoken as languages like English, French or Arabic. Apart from mainland China, it’s only officially used in Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia. While Chinese is gaining traction as an influential international language, for now it has limited usefulness outside of China or ethnic Chinese communities. Focusing on Chinese may mean neglecting more widely useful languages like Spanish or French.
3. Difficulty Maintaining and Improving Skills
Like any language, Chinese skills decay rapidly without constant practice and exposure. But Chinese presents some unique challenges. Reading ability requires ongoing recognition of thousands of complex Hanzi characters. The special phonetics of tones and pinyin pronunciation also fade quickly if you don’t use them. And mastering Chinese cultural habits around formality, greetings and etiquette demands living immersion. It’s notoriously tricky maintaining Chinese at a high level after leaving intensive study.
4. Less Utility Than English in China
Ironically, while China’s rise increases the appeal of learning Chinese worldwide, English is becoming more and more prevalent within China itself. Over 400 million Chinese are now studying English – far more than the number of foreigners studying Chinese. From businesspeople to intellectuals to students, Chinese see English as crucial for succeeding in the modern world. English is also required in China’s education system. So while your Chinese may help you engage with locals, advanced English will almost always be more useful.
5. Significant Financial Investment
Pursuing Chinese fluency demands a major financial commitment. Formal language courses cost thousands of dollars, especially for small group or private classes. Self-study materials like apps and textbooks add up quickly too. If possible, studying abroad in China or Taiwan for immersion is ideal, but involves huge expenses for travel, lodging and lost income. While costs vary based on your goals, reaching true fluency in Chinese requires 5-figure investments at minimum, putting it out of reach for many.
6. Potential Lack of Motivation
When tackling a monumental language like Chinese, staying self-motivated is crucial – but far from easy. After the initial enthusiasm fades, you may struggle to maintain intense study. And unlike languages related to your own, Chinese provides few short-term wins to keep you going. You’ll need unusually strong willpower and an internal passion for Chinese itself to sustain motivation long-term. Without it, even dedicated learners often burn out and give up somewhere on the path towards fluency.
Tips for Learning Chinese More Effectively
If you’re up for the challenge, here are some tips to help you tackle Mandarin Chinese more efficiently:
- Start with pinyin and tones: Dive into writing Hanzi too quickly and you’ll get overwhelmed. Focus first on pinyin phonetic spelling and tone pronunciation – this builds the foundations for characters.
- Use SRS flashcards: Spaced repetition flashcard apps like Anki are perfect for memorizing characters efficiently. But make sure to practice writing Hanzi manually too!
- Learn common words and phrases: Rather than isolated characters, focus your vocabulary on high-frequency words and practical conversational phrases. This delivers results fast.
- Find native speaking partners: Interacting with native speakers is the best way to improve verbal skills. Language partner apps like Tandem let you easily find practice partners.
- Listen a lot: Immerse yourself in Chinese podcasts, TV shows, music and radio to develop stronger listening comprehension. Children’s shows work well for beginners.
- Use graded readers: Chinese literature can be intimidating, but graded readers provide simplified stories arranged by level – great for building literacy.
- Practice every day: Daily practice is essential for progress. Set small goals and try to study consistently for 20-30 minutes daily.
- Be patient: Remember that fluency takes years of diligent work. Accept that you’ll make slow progress at times. Perseverance pays off.
Conclusion: Chinese is Worthwhile if You Have the Commitment
So in summary, is studying Chinese truly worthwhile? There are absolutely compelling arguments on both sides. For those with an affinity for China, or international careers that leverage Mandarin, the benefits clearly outweigh the challenges. But casual language learners may want to carefully evaluate if they can commit the enormous time and dedication required. The decision ultimately depends on your specific goals and passion for the Chinese language and culture. While certainly not easy, taking up Chinese is one of the most intellectually rewarding journeys you can embark upon if you have the drive to see it through.