Chinese and English are the most commonly spoken languages in the world with approximately 1.2 billion speakers each. Children in China speak Mandarin and sometimes a local Chinese dialect at home. They then learn English at primary school but parents often pay for English classes at a younger age outside of school. Currently, English is considered the language of business with international companies from every country in China. So to be able to speak and write in English provides a path to financial success for people in China these days. Less than 300 million people in China can speak English which is only 25% of the population. It’s still very useful to learn some Chinese when visiting or living in China.
English wasn’t always the most popular foreign language to study in China. The history of foreign language study is very closely tied to national politics and the economy. In the 1950s and 1960s, when the Chinese communist government was established, there was a lot of communication and collaboration with Russia so Russian was the foreign language of choice. Today, in Northern China near the border of Russia, many children still learn Russian in school.
Over the last 40 years, Japanese and Korean have also been popular languages for people to study in China because of the economic opportunity both domestically and abroad with Japanese and Korean companies. Additionally, these two languages are relatively easy for native Chinese speakers to learn since Japanese shares 2,000 written characters with Chinese.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, there were many merchants and traders from different countries living in the port cities of China (Macau, Hong Kong, Shanghai). In order to do business with these foreigners, some Chinese people learned French, Portuguese, and English. There are still quite a few Chinese people who study French and German but these languages are not nearly as common as English, Japanese, and Korean. Recently, there has been an increase in the number of people studying Spanish and Portuguese in China, especially as China does more business with South American companies.