Part 1 in a series on why people study languages.
Why do people study languages? For Money.
On learning I speak Chinese, many people in the US assume it leads to lucrative jobs and general wealth. It hasn’t so far. My interest in Chinese wasn’t economic, but personal. However, I do believe economic interest is a good reason to learn a language, if the language is English.
When I studied Japanese in the mid 90s, two things were happening: Japan’s economic malaise was setting in, and Americans were talking about how Japan was soon to supplant the US. At the time, many people where studying Japanese to help prepare them for a future when Japan would be the top economy in the world. While I was years away from deciding my future, I did feel learning Japanese would help me succeed in the future. Perhaps I even imagined myself as an assistant to our Japanese economic masters, ala Sean Connery in “Rising Sun“. Sadly, that future never came.
Right now, interest in China and in studying Chinese is rising across the globe. Much of this interest seems based on China’s current and future economic importance in the world. But Mandarin Chinese will never gain the prominence of English in the business world. Chinese requires too much time to master the reading and writing skills essential to do business. One would be better off getting a specialized degree or getting more experience in a specific field rather than solely studying any language in hopes of business success.
Unfortunately, my opinion is in the minority: in the US, more and more students are learning Chinese at all levels. In 2008, Chinese was being taught in 10 times as many elementary schools and 4 times as many middle/high schools (as compared to 1997). And many parents have committed lots of resources to raising a child who will be ready for the day when people who speak Chinese will be at an advantage to everyone else. That’s not a future I’d bet on.
Is trying to get a job a good reason to study a language?
- Rhodes, Nancy C., and Ingrid Pufahl. Foreign Language Teaching in U.S. Schools: Results of a National Survey. Washington, D.C.: Center for Applied Linguistics, 2010.