February 24, 2009

Language barriers

The craze to learn Chinese is ill-founded and will provide no benefits in job market.

Next quarter, according to the time schedules, the University of Chicago will offer at least 16 undergraduate and graduate classes in the Chinese language. Ten years ago, it offered seven. That’s an increase of more than 100 percent over 10 years. (Certainly beats the Dow Jones Industrial Average.) What accounts for this astonishing rise? More students? Clearly not; there are no more Japanese classes offered now than there were 10 years ago. No; by any measure, Chinese is growing explosively.

The reasons are obvious. Chinese is experiencing a boom because China is experiencing a boom. An article about the rise of Chinese language programs in middle and high schools ran in The Washington Post in 2006. It discussed the desire of concerned parents—always the concerned parents—to keep their children “competitive for the best jobs.” China’s economic prowess has apparently convinced many people that Chinese will be the world’s new language and that China will be the world’s new country.

This is pretty ridiculous. Barring a tremendous wave of Chinese immigrants into this country, the idea that Chinese will help you get a job rests on a false supposition. First, it quite incredibly assumes that we’re all going to be world-traveling, high-flying corporate executives who do international business for which knowledge of Chinese is necessary. Second, and even more implausibly, it assumes that we’ll be speaking Chinese better than they’ll be speaking English. But China is just one country! Our new global corps of international, diversely multilingual businesspeople of which every citizen is a member (as I said, pretty ridiculous) will have the choice of doing business with fluent English speakers in Europe, Australia, Japan, and South America; they won’t have a strong incentive to be highly proficient in Chinese. The Chinese, by contrast, have to learn English because that’s the language of business everywhere else in the world. The likelihood of their needing to conform to us is infinitely greater than the likelihood of our needing to conform to them.

Then there’s the language itself. The Chinese writing system (and, consequently, the entire language) is by far the most difficult in the entire world. There is little phonetic correspondence between the written language and the spoken language—to be literate in Chinese, you have to memorize each word by itself. Think of the Chinese script as an alphabet, but instead of 26 letters, it has thousands, and instead of sounds, the letters convey characters. One complicated set of squiggles, one semantic unit. It is a beautiful script, but it’s hard to learn well. David Moser of the University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies relates a “contest [that] involved pulling a book at random from the shelves of the Chinese section of the Asia Library and then seeing who could be the first to figure out what the book was about. Anyone who has spent time working in an East Asia collection can verify that this can indeed be a difficult enough task—never mind reading the book in question.” And for William Milne, a missionary of the early 1800s, Chinese was “[a] work for men with bodies of brass, lungs of steel, heads of oak, hands of spring-steel, eyes of eagles, hearts of apostles, memories of angels, lives of Methuselah.” Chinese will never overtake English as the world’s new global language—it is simply too hard.

The language has been tremendously hyped. There’s a Chinese bubble going on right now, and like the Japanese, Russian, and Spanish bubbles that preceded it, it will pop when people finally realize that the Chinese have more reasons for and fewer difficulties with learning English than we have for and with learning Chinese. It’s a question of necessity. And as soon as China’s economic boom subsides (and it will—the only question is when), people will start learning some other language that’s completely overlooked now. Heard of Malay/Indonesian? It’s the language that no one knows exists of countries that no one cares about. But that’ll change—it’s spoken by some 300 million people in a poor region of the world ripe for economic growth. Where do you think the cheap labor will come from when China becomes too rich?

People say, “You’re taking Chinese, eh? Why? You think China’s going to take over the world, right?” I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard this or how much it irritates me. No, China’s not going to take over the world, nor will Chinese become the new world language. I study Chinese because it opens up an incredibly vast and ancient body of literature and culture to its students. But I don’t expect it to get me a job.

Arieh Smith is a first-year in the College.