The Brood: Learning Mandarin Chinese is notoriously difficult for native English speakers. As I’ve recently come to realize, however, its not just difficult because of its differences with English. The logistical, financial and emotional obstacles are also high.
It seems like everyone is learning Chinese. Mark Zuckerberg. President Trump’s granddaughter Arabella Kushner. John goddamn Cena. In fact the numbers of people learning Mandarin Chinese are indeed rising, but the actually numbers of people learning are, well, low:
So what’s the deal? Why are there proportionately so few Mandarin learners in the US? There’s a narrative in the US that Mandarin is the hardest language to learn. The Foreign Service Institute ranks languages on the amount of time it takes to become proficient in a language for a native English speaker. For Chinese, it’s 88 weeks and 2200 hours.
For those of us pursuing proficiency or fluency in Chinese, part of the very appeal of Chinese is that it poses a challenge. Like all great masochists, we secretly loved spending hours with flashcards trying to memorize the relationships between words, their tones, their characters, their cultural contexts, etc. When we could read our first passage in Chinese there was a tremendous sense of accomplishment.
Much of this changes when you actually arrive in China — my Princeton co-fellow wrote about her experience with this recently. Knowing how to read or understand what is said is very different from knowing how to speak, and how Mandarin is spoken colloquially. To know that, you actually have to go to China, or at the very least attend some sort of immersive program.
I’ve been undergoing my own efforts to learn the language while teaching English in Wuhan, China. Going into the year I had expectations of a “Great Leap Forward” in my Chinese abilities. But that hasn’t happened, for a few reasons. I’m teaching English day-to-day, meaning that 90% of my day I’m not speaking Chinese in any substantial way. Improving the language requires discipline and planning on my part much more so than anticipated.
There’s also a morale component. Aside from adjusting in a foreign culture and experiencing some culture shock, there’s also a very real aspect of envy. Envy of co-fellows who are Chinese-American, and grew up with the language and culture in their household. Envy of other Americans who have been studying Chinese since middle school, an option that was not open to me. Following the “difficulty narrative”, its hard not to pin the skills gap to a corresponding gap in ability. The “I’m bad at languages” feeling.
But it’s the wrong narrative. Learning Chinese as a non-heritage student is an incredible privilege, and simply inaccessible for most such people. The reason my Chinese is at the level is where its at is because I have a certain level of privilege. Though certainly not as much as Mark Zuckerberg, or Arabella Kusher or John goddamn Cena.
It’s not surprising that my school did not offer Mandarin in middle or high school, considering only .4% of American students study it. That’s probably because most public schools don’t provide Mandarin as an option, and even if they want to, its hard to find bilingual Chinese teachers who want to teach in the US, a nation infamous for its low-salaried education workers. The logical conclusion is that only wealthier people, or those with international connections, can really make learning Chinese work. The Kushners, for example, pay $75,000 a year for immersion learning.
This is by no means me complaining about the privileges and opportunities I’ve been afforded already. I’ve been lucky enough to have parents help me afford a university that had a great Chinese program, and since then have been lucky to get a scholarship from the US State Department to improve, and a Princeton Fellowship to bring me back to China once more.
The point is this: I’ve been working at learning Chinese for 5 years — and still feel there’s a long way to go. I used to blame my own deficiencies, but as my lifelong journey to learn Chinese continues, I understand more and more that Chinese is the language of tomorrow’s American elite. Today’s American elites are able to pass that skill down to their children. From foreign policy, national security, economic, diplomatic, trade and moral perspectives, that’s not good enough. America needs a more public oriented and concerted effort encouraging its students to learn Chinese.