Is it important for Americans and Westerners to learn Chinese?

I’m at a university in the U.S. and basically my entire department (math) is Chinese. All the names are Wang, Lee, or other Chinese names written on the office doors. In my recitation group of about 30 people, there were 5 “wang’s” on the roll call.
My partner for our last assignment was reading explanations for our math work in chinese characters because it was easier for him.

Not to mention the fact that Chinese people are EVERYWHERE (not surprising due to their sheer numbers). I have been in the middle of nowhere Wyoming, here in NJ, and in Germany and have heard people speaking chinese. I told my friend that I was currently studying Russian and he told me it was a waste of time and I need to be learning Mandarin. He said that speaking Mandarin was going to be the norm and might be the new lingua franca of trade and commerce.

it seems it would be really beneficial to learn mandarin to socialize and communicate better with people, as well as the fact that finding speakers would be easy. I wouldn’t mind the undertaking if it weren’t for the fact that chinese is really difficult and having to learn characters sounds like the opposite of fun for me. And the fact that I’m currently more interested in other languages.

What do you guys think about the necessity or value for Americans, Canadians, and Europeans to learn Mandarin?


I personally think it will be really difficult for mandarin to catch on in any widespread way unless they replace the characters to some sort of phonetic alphabet like Korea and Vietnam have.


Non-native speakers of English have, in a sense, wasted a lot of time learning the English language. I hope that some native speakers of English are willing to waste their precious time learning more than one foreign language, if they want to be sympathetic and fair to non-native speakers of English all over the world. As for which language to choose, economically speaking, scarcity as well as demand should be taken into account.

In Japan, Chinese classics are taught as 漢文 at junior-high and high schools. We read Chinese text in Japanese. I imagine that many of the young people in Mainland China cannot read the original Chinese text because it is not written in 簡体字(simplified letters), which I feel too simplified and very odd.

The following episode “矛盾” is extremely interesting.

My point of view on this is: if you are genuinely interested/attracted for a language, it’s going to be easier for you to understand and even enjoy that language. On the other hand if you “need” the language, it will feel like work, and that’s unpleasant, but if you are forced to, as is your case in the science department, you have to learn chinese anyway. By the way I work in science as well, but the only requirement for us in Mexico is English, and I think is gonna be like that for a long time.
Besides I’ve heard that story of chinese becoming the new lingua franca many times since like 10-15 years, but it seems not practical for the rest of the world. Do you think that’s gonna happen any time soon? I don´t.
Finally I want to add that I’m interested in learning japanese and chinese in the future, so I don´t have anything against these languages. Cheers.

Mandarin will be more valuable just because of business and trade. There are just so many people and its a growing economy. Also Mandarin is increasingly becoming a second language because of this. As a native English speaker you don’t “need” to learn a second language since so many people are learning yours, but it can be beneficial. Right now you are surrounded by people who speak Mandarin. Being able to speak in their native language can greatly increase your relationships with them and show respect.

Learning Mandarin I would say has a very steep learning curve, but the grammar is really easy. I don’t know for Russian, but for Mandarin there is a lot of beginner/intermediate material, but not a lot of advanced material.

Oh no, Yutaka-san, that is a very negative stance to take. ゆたか, ユタカ), I just tried to find your name in Japanese, I apologise if it is wrong. ゆたか, ユタカ), I am absolutely sure that you don’t believe that, I am sure that you are absolutely amazed by your own feat, and are truly happy that you speak English, not only that you speak English, but that you speak it so well. Not for one second do you believe, you’ve wasted your time.

For native English speakers the same applies, it is never a waste of time to learn other language. It is not a case of being sympathetic and fair, it’s a case of opening up your eyes and soaking up the new language which is virtually at your feet.

I can see a huge difference in scientific presentations at conferences in the last twenty years. English is the language of science, if you want your research to be read by a wide audience, you’ve got to publish in English.

Twenty years ago, it was a painful experience to listen to scientific presentations by Japanese, Chinese, French or Italian researchers amongst others, simply because one couldn’t understand what they were saying. Often however, they would read from their slides making the experience somewhat more intelligible as the audience could do likewise.

Twenty years later, I am overwhelmed by the sheer abundance of non native speakers with a brilliant command of English. I am equally delighted to see the wide range of languages, with correspondingly native-like accents, that some native English speakers have. Attending scientific conferences today is a much more enjoyable experience, it is very positive to see so many people with a truly good command of English.

Language learning is never a waste of time, it’s an embellishing experience. Bilingual Chinese or Japanese speakers are the living proof that it is possible. The sheer investment of time for native English speakers to do likewise and learn such languages is enormous. It is a huge step to take. Native English speakers might balk at the time involved and go for a language more similar to their own, such as the Romance or Germanic languages, simply because they can get further, faster.

If you look at things more positively, you’ll find that often “It’s a waste of time” can be interpreted as “I don’t think I can do it.” which might indicate a lack of confidence, or simply “It will take too much out of me.”

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I agree with Octavio_Olvera, people really interested in the language can learn pretty easily, no matter is Chinese, Russian or anything else.

But people “forced” to learn it, cauz it’s the “lingua franca”, “the new-pop-sentation”, “because my boss want me to know” or any other “not-so-meaningful” reason, won’t really learn the language and probably give up in the middle of the process.

I don’t believe English became so famous solely because was the main language of US/England (which were great potency, main economy or super-power countries), but also because English is kinda of an easy-intermediate language for what concerns “difficulty”.

Spelling, Grammar, Speaking, Vocabulary, isn’t fully easy, but isn’t fully hard either. Besides, English has its huge vocabulary because it could absorb quite a lot of other languages’ vocabularies over time. So, in many other languages you can find very similar words from English, not to mention that English, and almost every single language from Europe and most languages from West-Asia came from the same single ancestor (proto-indoeuropean language), so there’s quite a lot of things that can be recalled or that can be kinda similar … in other words, is not an ordeal to learn English, even for the most lazy ones…

Chinese in the other hand have some extremes in terms of difficulty … even tho its grammar it’s one of the simplest ones you can find … speaking, reading, writing and vocabulary (for most westerns) there’s no much correlation with anything else and it can be pretty hard to learn if you don’t really want to or if you don’t have any “strong” motivation to do it … which can be a very real obstacle for people willing to make that language as “main one”.

I don’t think creating a “pseudo-alphabet” for the language would be a good thing … in the scenario of turning Chinese into a most-spoke language (as English is today) people wouldn’t bother to learn characters and would ignore them completely … characters are not only part of that language, but part of the culture too.

Now, my personal opinion about the question of the title … yes, I do think is important, but not only because China is rising as a new-potency or because many western countries have big communities of Chinese people … but also (and mainly) because you can enrich yourself, enrich your knowledge, enrich your experiences learning about such amazing culture. Learn how other totally different people think and see the world make us a better person, it can open opportunities not only professionally but also in life … in fact any other language you learn besides your own, can give you all of that.

So don’t bother about people saying stupid things about you learning Russian, if you enjoy, if you want to learn, go for it, it surely worth

It’s a long slog to learn a language, even more so the further away it is from your own. Learning Russian is a huge step, and a step you’ve already taken. Congratulations for taking this step. Learning Mandarin is an even greater step. Could you cope with maths and taking up both languages? If the strain isn’t too much, and you have a lot of willing friends, maybe now’s the golden opportunity to take up Mandarin. You are in the right environment to soak up the language. Maybe doing it with friends will make it fun and you’ll end up enjoying it immensely.

If it’s not fun, why bother? Your progress will be slower, and you’ll need to make a decision as to whether you feel it is worth it. Not enjoying it will make the long slog even longer. If you feel disinclined, it is probably better not to. Your progress will be so slow, you’ll feel defeated before you reach your milestones.

You need to be realistic. Learning Russian will take a lot out of you, learning Mandarin even more. If it feels fun, you’ll learn without realising, that’s presumably where you are with Russian. If it’s a question of either or, are you willing to give up Russian for Mandarin? Are you learning the language to dabble with it as a hobby or to reach a level where you can communicate easily with others?

In the end usablefiber, the choice is yours. The possibilities are endless, the choice is entirely yours.

Most mainland Chinese have no trouble reading traditional characters. They have trouble writing them though.

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Imo, whether a person is more motivated by usefulness or interest is very much dependent on that individual’s situation, so I don’t recommend posting that interest automatically trumps usefulness. It’s not a foregone conclusion.

I’m exasperated with the demagoguery regarding Anglophones and second language acquisition.

There is a lot of ignorance in these loaded statements, and I find a lot of suspect language being used on language learning forums - particularly towards Anglophones.

Sympathetic and Fair? You’re learning English because you see clear benefits for you for doing so. It just so happens that, when flipped around, Anglophones simply do not see it that way. Additionally, we have people from all backgrounds learning English. This means that we can communicate with people from all manner of cultural backgrounds, nations, continents, etc. Your learning English doesn’t only facilitate your communication with Anglophones who are monolingual, but also with people from all corners of the world who have also learned English.

Of course you know this, which is likely why English is one of your strongest non-native languages…

However, that benefit is lost when we learn an L2 because it fractures that base and you end up having to use English to communicate with a majority of the world anyways, while having a very limited pool of people with which to use your L2. The L2 is practically redundant for us, to a large extent.

This is a big issue for people in the US, many (MANY) of which are not well traveled due to the logistics and expenses required. This isn’t the UK. French (Parisian) isn’t just across the English Channel, and Berlin isn’t merely a $3-400 ticket and > 3 hour flight away.

We had the choice of French and Spanish in HS. Why would I take 2-3 years of French and then start from scratch in Mandarin? For what benefit? I can at least use French in the US. I’ll have to search for people to speak Chinese with, as I know [literally] none…

Which brings me to the OP:

  1. He’s ignoring the fact that if not for their proficiency in English, he wouldn’t have those Chinese coworkers, and

  2. He’s making broad, useless suggestions based on anecdotes from his personal life… “I know a lot of Chinese people, does that mean we should learn Mandarin?” “I’ve been to a lot of places and seen Chinese people all over… Does that mean we should learn Mandarin?”

I’ve known a lot of Asian people, quite well… What I noticed is they spoke a variety of Asiatic languages: Mandarin, Cambodian, Thai, Vietnamese, Lao.

To the specific fragment “waste their precious time learning more than one foreign language,” I’m sorry you have those issues, but I have much more important things to do with my life than be a polyglot just because a random on the internet think’s it’s the fair and sympathetic thing to do.

Enjoy your perpetual foray into endless language learning. That is not the life I choose for myself. I totally support your decision, though!

I’m learning French because it’s the co-official language in my state and I want to be a part of resurrecting it further. Also, it’s part of my heritage, my Grandparents spoke it better than English, even though they were born and died in America (and never visited another country, ever).

That’s a reason to learn a Foreign language, and it’s a lot more valid than being a polyglot because it’s apparently the fashionable thing. And I’d rather go to 1-2 hour conversation meet ups down the street or in the next city 5-6 days a week than waste tons of money or time on crap like FSI language courses or iTalkie lessons.

I tired very quickly of being woken up in the middle of the night by people form Europe calling me on Skype to “practice their English,” and quickly regretted offering to help.

This B.S. about fairness any sympathy is rhetoric and it’s not useful. It’s also fundamentally unfair and lacking in sympathy because you obviously cannot even began to comprehend what it’s like to be a language learner from the perspective of an Anglophone native, particularly one here who is far removed from most European and Asiatic languages (geographically).

Absolutely. I agree that Chinese would be really valuable just for the cultural experiences and connections to the communities which are vast, even i the states. I absolutely think China would be a fascinating and exciting place to visit someday, and It would be great to be able to talk to classmates and make friends in chinese here in the states because there are so many of them.

I just assumed that tones wouldn’t be a problem because I am a musicians with a well trained ear, very competent in hearing and reproducing pitch in music so I thought it would be a breeze.

But after putting my toe in the water with some beginner material, I realize that is going to take much longer to learn than german or Russian… It’s not the grammar is “difficult” per se, but they way they express themselves, how they get things across, certain particles, and most different of all, is the cultural divide. Nothing is expressed the same way.

The hardest thing though, is that there are so many words that look or sound exactly the same only different by their characters or combinations. It feels oddly simplistic with its mono syllable structure and it’s just going to take a long time to get used to, just have to get used to remembering tones and such. It will take a long time.

I didn’t say I saw asian people everywhere. I said I have heard people speaking mandarin. In some cases having asked them about which language they are speaking. Also, when I use the word “should”, I should have said something like “is it beneficial to” more so as an inquiry to the upside of learning Chinese.

I do agree that this sympathy stuff is unmerited. I don’t see how learning english was a waste of time. Being able to watch hollywood movies and listen to western music without subtitles seems reason enough to merit the effort. I always have respect for those who put in the time and effort to learn english.

No. But then i think it’s important for Europeans (don’t care about Americans) to be interested in our own culture. It’s almost a taboo nowadays.

I have no interest in non-European languages and i always imagine how boring people who learn languages for ‘economic’ reasons are. Extremely, i would guess. The sorts of people who get a buzz off doing their tax return.

It has taken too much out of me because it is addictive. I remember Herbert Spencer had a negative view to leaning a foreign language, which, of course, I did not completely embrace.

I agree.

I am interested in Chinese characters and the grammatical order of them in a sentence, but I feel that pronunciations are very difficult. I think that the German language is easier to learn because its pronunciation is not so complicated.

What motivates you to learn the language? I am interested in Chinese classics, but not in political documents and what you might call business Chinese. I prefer Karl Marx to Mao Zedong. If Geoge Orwell and W. Somerset Maugham had been Chinese, I would have studied their language. Perhaps, I would read Chinese classics by means of kanbun kundoku(“漢文訓読” in kanji), which is character-by-character translation in a specific style of Japanese.

The following is an example of kanbun kundoku. We read the original text by changing the order of the Chinese characters and adding kana letters.

—> 楚人盾矛與鬻者有(楚人に盾と矛とを鬻ぐ者有り)


“However, that benefit is lost when we learn an L2 because it fractures that base and you end up having to use English to communicate with a majority of the world anyways, while having a very limited pool of people with which to use your L2. The L2 is practically redundant for us, to a large extent.”

This comment is interesting. I can understand what you mean. It might be the opposite situation described in the phrase “Every cloud has a silver lining.”

It’s a shame you’re not a full member. This is the best comment i’ve ever seen on these forums.

That sympathy and fairness “stuff” is half true and half false. I was a little bit joking, but I have to confess that I have an ambivalent feeling to learning the English language. I sometimes wonder how many hours we have spent as the so-called opportunity cost on learning English. What would we have accomplished, if we had not had to spend a lot of time studying the foreign language?

By the way, watching Hollywood movies without subtitles is not included in my list on priority, although I sometimes enjoy them with subtitles. Some of them are interesting, but many of them are not worth watching. Nothing can be likened to reading novels and writing comments on the LingQ forums.

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