Chinese is quickly becoming one of the most popular languages for English speakers to learn. With over 1.4 billion native speakers, Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world. As China continues to grow in economic and political power on the global stage, more and more people are considering learning Chinese to broaden their career opportunities, experience a rich culture, and travel more easily.
But is studying Chinese truly worth the effort required to gain proficiency? There are good arguments on both sides of this debate. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll analyze the key factors you should consider when deciding if learning Chinese is right for your goals.
The Pros of Learning Chinese
Here are some of the main advantages that come with studying Mandarin Chinese:
1. Broaden Your Career Prospects
China has the second largest economy in the world, and Chinese companies are increasingly looking for foreigners who speak their language. Whether you want to work for a multinational company doing business in China, a Chinese firm expanding abroad, the tourism industry, or the diplomatic service, knowledge of Chinese can give your resume an edge.
As China continues to grow into an economic superpower, demand for Chinese speakers will only increase. In fact, China is now Australia’s largest two-way trading partner, with total trade worth A$252 billion in 2021. The ability to communicate in Chinese and understand Chinese business culture could be a huge boost to your career, especially if you plan to work in fields like international business, law, engineering, consulting or journalism.
2. Open Up Travel Opportunities
China is home to some of the world’s most impressive tourism sites, from the Great Wall to the Terracotta Warriors to the natural landscapes of Yunnan. While it’s possible to visit China without knowing the language, your experience will be much richer if you can interact with local people, read signs and menus, and navigate independently.
Beyond just China, Chinese is widely spoken in Asian immigrant communities around the world. From Chinatowns in the US, Australia, and beyond, to Singapore, Malaysia and other destinations, knowing some Chinese will help you get around and connect better in your travels.
3. Gain Insight into Chinese Culture
With over 5,000 years of recorded history, China has one of the oldest civilizations on earth. Learning the language opens a window onto this rich cultural legacy.
You’ll be able to understand Chinese poems, literature and philosophy in the original language. Watch classic Chinese operas, TV shows and films without missing the nuances. Talk to local people and hear folk stories and idioms that just don’t translate well into English.
Understanding the Chinese language can provide insight into the traditions, values and mindset of Chinese society. You’ll learn about concepts like guanxi (social network/connections), mianzi (prestige/reputation) and chiku nailao (enduring bitter hardships). This cultural knowledge can help you succeed in either business or personal interactions in China.
4. Meet New People and Make Friends
Knowing Chinese will allow you to connect with the huge, worldwide Chinese diaspora on a deeper level. You may be able to speak with grandparents who don’t know English, make friends your age who’ve recently immigrated, or chat with international students from China on your campus.
Within China too, although many young urbanites can hold basic conversations in English, truly befriending locals is easier if you speak each other’s languages. Shared language ability brings people together.
5. Stand Out from the Crowd
While interest in learning Chinese has exploded in recent years, it’s still not as commonly studied as European languages like French or Spanish. In most Western countries, less than 1% of the population speaks any Chinese.
This means that by learning Chinese, you show the determination to study something more challenging and gain skills that set you apart. Chinese is seen as an impressive language to have on your resume or CV. It demonstrates intellectual curiosity, perseverance, and a cosmopolitan mindset.
6. Experience Personal Growth
Learning Chinese pushes you intellectually in ways that can spillover into broader personal growth. It enhances skills like:
- Mental acuity – the Chinese writing system in particular requires strong visualization skills and memory.
- Patience and persistence – mastering Chinese tones and characters takes a lot of practice over time.
- Cultural empathy – learning a language leads to greater openness and ability to see from other cultural perspectives.
- Confidence – gaining proficiency in such a notoriously difficult language builds self-assurance.
So even beyond the tangible career and travel benefits, studying Chinese can facilitate inner growth.
7. Prep Your Kids for the Future
Research shows that children who learn a second language from early childhood experience cognitive benefits. Even if you don’t plan to move to China, starting your kids on Chinese early can pay dividends.
Knowing Chinese will give the next generation a head start in an increasingly globalized world. Elementary schools and universities alike are ramping up their Chinese programs to prepare students. Give your child the gift of Chinese.
The Cons of Learning Chinese
However, it’s not all upside when it comes to studying Chinese. There are also some real drawbacks and difficulties to consider:
1. Significant Time Commitment
The Foreign Service Institute estimates that for native English speakers, acquiring conversational fluency in Mandarin Chinese takes approximately 2,200 class hours. That’s twice as long as required for European languages like French or Spanish.
Expect that becoming proficient will take years of consistent study and practice. You need to be prepared to put in 15-20 hours of work per week on learning, speaking, writing and listening to get tangible results. While any complex skill takes time, Chinese is more challenging.
2. Tones Are Tough
One of the biggest headaches for new Chinese learners is mastering the four lexical tones (as well as the neutral tone). Mandarin is a tonal language, which means tones differentiate between vocabulary words. The same sounds with different tones have entirely unrelated meanings.
For example mā means “mother,” while mǎ means “horse.” This makes pronunciation incredibly difficult at first. Training your ear to distinguish the high, rising, falling and falling-rising tones takes concentration and repetition. Tones remain tricky even for advanced speakers.
3. Forget the Alphabet
To read and write Chinese, you’ll need to memorize thousands of unique characters. There is no alphabet or common word-building rules like in Romance languages.
While simplified characters were introduced in the 1950s to streamline the writing system, mastery still requires an enormous amount of rote memorization. The only way to learn is repeated practice writing characters by hand, over and over.
4. Speaking Takes Courage
Due to the tonal pronunciation, complex characters, and very different grammar, speaking Chinese requires the courage to make lots of mistakes. You have to be comfortable with the awkward beginner phase of any language learning.
Making tones wrong can entirely change the meaning of what you’re trying to say. It takes time to develop the muscle memory and confidence to comfortably chat with native speakers. Speaking Chinese outside the classroom requires some boldness.
5. Local Dialects Are Diverse
Although Mandarin is the national language, China actually has many regional dialects that can be mutually unintelligible. Southern dialects like Cantonese or Hokkien are entirely different from the Beijing dialect that foreigners mostly study.
So while you may achieve mastery of Mandarin, you still may not be able to communicate with peasants speaking a rural dialect. Diversity of local languages is an additional complication.
6. Understanding Cultural Nuances
Language ability alone does not guarantee you will really understand Chinese culture or think like a native. No matter how fluent you get, cultural mindsets and habits remain ingrained from childhood. Casual social cues can be misinterpreted across cultures.
To gain deeper cultural insight requires years of immersion and close local friends. Only a small percentage of foreigners achieve near-native comprehension of cultural subtleties, despite Chinese language skill.
7. Character Recognition Lags
Even very advanced non-native learners cannot match the reading speed and character recognition abilities of locals. Extensive childhood education in characters creates highly instinctual reading abilities.
As an adult learner, you need to expend great mental effort to parse unfamiliar characters and their components. Reading speed and character recognition ceilings prevent foreigners from ever fully catching up with native literary competence.
8. Yangjing Bang (“Foreigner Accent”)
No matter how good your tones and pronunciation, as a non-native speaker you will always retain at least a slight accent, or yangjing bang in Chinese. This is true even for foreigners who have lived in China for decades.
While a slight accent is charming, having highly noticeable foreigner pronunciation can hinder your ability to fully integrate socially and be taken seriously in professional contexts. Some accented interference is unavoidable.
Is Learning Chinese Worth It? Key Questions to Consider
We’ve outlined both the major advantages of learning Chinese and the difficulties you’ll encounter. Only you can weigh these pros and cons against your own goals and decide if it’s the right investment.
Here are some key questions to reflect on:
- Does China’s growing place in the world motivate you? The future seems increasingly China-centric, from technology to manufacturing to consumer markets. Do you want to take part in this global shift?
- How interested are you in China’s culture and society? Just learning conversational Chinese is less worthwhile without parallel interest in Chinese culture, history, society, etc. Is this motivation present?
- Are you planning to use Chinese for certain career goals? Do you see Chinese as directly beneficial for your chosen profession, whether in business, law, tourism or another field?
- Are you ready to put in 15+ hours of study per week? Reaching proficiency requires major weekly time commitment. Is this a priority compared to other demands?
- How comfortable are you being a beginner? Speaking Chinese as a novice requires being willing to use very basic vocabulary and make constant mistakes. Can your ego handle this?
- Do you have someone to practice speaking with? Whether a language partner or Chinese-speaking friend, regular verbal practice is essential. Do you have this resource available?
- Can you commit long-term? Achieving a payoff in career or personal growth terms realistically takes 3-5+ years of ongoing study. Can you accept the long timeline?
If your answers indicate that Chinese aligns closely with your personal and professional ambitions, and you are ready to fully commit to the difficult learning curve ahead, then without a doubt it is worth it to pursue.
Conclusion: A Worthwhile Challenge
Chinese is certainly one of the most formidable languages for an English speaker to learn. The commitment required is massive. However, the potential benefits also make it one of the most rewarding languages to master.
For those willing to pour consistent time and effort into learning Chinese, a world of travel adventures, friendship, professional opportunities and personal growth awaits. The cultural insight and career boost provided by Chinese language skills are unmatched.
In our increasingly China-centric world, there has never been a better time to engage with the most widely spoken language on earth. While certainly a challenge requiring great perseverance, learning Chinese is a worthwhile endeavor that can transform your life and open your mind.