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Mandarin? No, Thanks

By Jorge A. Araya

When I was in high school, my father never ceased to suggest to me that I should learn Mandarin. “The Chinese are going to dominate the world someday,” he would insist. “You should be ready.” Now, I’ve got nothing against foreign languages—I’m a native speaker of one—or Mandarin in particular, but I resisted fiercely. The language simply never appealed to me much.

My dad is hardly the only one to view Mandarin as the language of the future. In many ways, it is the language of the present. With some estimates placing the number of native speakers at 1.1 billion, it is certainly the world’s largest language in absolute terms. Not only that, but the Chinese economy is also expanding with frightening velocity. According to the International Monetary Fund, the real output of China will surpass that of the United States in under five years. With each passing day, the benefits of learning Mandarin increase. Business connections between China and the rest of the world will multiply over the coming years, and it does not seem unlikely that a flourish of Mandarin could help you close that stellar deal. The American educational system seems eager to keep up. From 1997 to 2007, the number of children studying Mandarin at the primary or secondary level grew tenfold, and it has surely increased even more since then. College-level Mandarin programs have seen a similar expansion. The language has been highly successful abroad, as well; in Singapore, for instance, a government program subsidizing classes in Mandarin has proven wildly popular.

Unfortunately, despite the possible benefits the language may offer, the recent boom in Mandarin teaching seems to be shortsighted and excessive. Simply put, Mandarin is not the language of the future. There are multiple reasons for this, but the main one is its complexity. Mandarin is notoriously hard to learn as a second language, and many may only have a rudimentary grasp over it after years of arduous learning. David Moser, a scholar at the University of Michigan, has outlined the reasons for this in an essay titled “Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard.” The writing system for Mandarin is arcane, and it consists of thousands of symbols rather than a simple alphabet. Even native speakers often show little mastery over the script. Mandarin, unlike English, is also a tonal language, which may prove baffling for would-be-learners. The words for “mathematics” and “blood transfusion,” to provide one example, consist of the same sounds pronounced with different stresses. Thus, relative to other languages, Mandarin is simply hard to master for the average English-speaker. The benefits may be there, but the costs—in terms of time and effort spent—are quite high.

English, in contrast, is mercifully easy for the foreign learner. This is one of the main reasons (along with a British knack for conquering) that it is the current global lingua franca. Unlike many other languages, English lacks gendered nouns, a trivial linguistic aspect that can be hard to master. There is no need for a person learning English to remember whether “sun” is male and “moon” female, or vice-versa, as in, for example, Spanish. Nouns aside, English also boasts a remarkably simple and flexible grammar system, a heritage of its Anglo-Saxon roots. In addition, English is a mutt of a language, a strange concoction of Germanic Old English, Viking Norse dialects, Norman French, and a bit of Greek thrown in for good measure. This not only means that English has an impressively rich vocabulary, but also that it is related to a large number of the world’s most common languages. It is comparatively simple for a native German or French speaker to gain some proficiency in English, which will seem familiar, to some degree. Mandarin does not have this advantage. It is related, in addition to numerous other Chinese dialects, to Tibetan and Sherpa.

Taking this into consideration, it seems much of the resources currently dedicated to teaching Mandarin as a foreign language are simply wasted. Seen from a purely objective economic viewpoint, it is more efficient to have a native Mandarin speaker learn English than vice-versa, or for someone who speaks neither language to learn the latter. Less overall effort is required, and correspondingly energy can then be redirected to more productive activities. The end result is the same, as long as both parties are able to communicate. To bolster economic competitiveness, governments would do much better to invest in science, technology, and engineering, as opposed to a language that makes virtually no distinction between the phrases “you flatter me” and “fruit paste.” On an individual level, feel free to learn Mandarin if you want, but don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ll reap the benefits anytime soon. You’re more likely to be in for a long, frustrating ordeal than a pleasant endeavor.

To be sure, all languages are equally valuable in their own way. English is not absolutely better than Mandarin, but it is certainly a better global language. In its own way, Mandarin is a valuable contributor to the world’s linguistic spectrum. But it’s not the language of the future.

Jorge A. Araya ’14, a Crimson associate editorial editor, is an economics concentrator in Dunster House.

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