Monday, December 17, 2012

And any other reason why (not)

Most of my posts in the Why I don't learn Chinese series have been about the peculiar difficulties of the language, or about the peculiar difficulties of learning it (what we might call the environmental obstacles we find in China today), or about my personal difficulties in language learning. I've also touched on a political dimension to my abstinence - that I am resistant to the Chinese government's attempt to promote the learning of Mandarin as a central element of its global 'soft power' offensive and as a domestic propaganda ploy to bolster the chauvinistic conviction that China is the best bloody country in the world. To be honest, though, my resistance to the language is probably provoked even more powerfully by the self-righteousness one so commonly encounters amongst foreigners who have put in the hard hours of study to become reasonably proficient in it (and presumably feel affronted, feel their self-image of their own wisdom and worthiness called into question, when the indolence of others such as myself demonstrates that it is perfectly possible to get by in Chinese without such laborious study - and indeed that it is increasingly easy in a city like Beijing today to get by without any Chinese at all). All of these points I have touched upon in the previous 20-odd posts in this series.

As I mentioned in this comment thread last year, I am somewhat regretful that I have made so little progress with Mandarin (I'm jesting when I occasionally say that I have been making a conscious attempt to unlearn it; although that is in fact a pretty fair description of the direction my Chinese ability has taken over the last 7 or 8 years!). One of my main interests in this series has been to cast around for possible solutions to the mental block that I suffer with the language, for possible inspirations that might motivate me to start studying in earnest. It may be worth repeating one of my comments from that thread in full:

The thing that gets my goat is that so many people get on a high horse about this, and tell you that you ought to learn Mandarin - even that you must. 
But they rarely offer any cogent reason for this. It's an unconsidered assumption. 
If they do start offering 'reasons', I usually find them non-compelling or not appropriate to my situation - if not completely bogus. 
So, this series is - at least partly - about examining those possible reasons to learn the language... and attempting to dismiss them.

For my final post in this series, I thought I'd run through some of the most oft-cited reasons for learning Mandarin, to underline why I have rejected them during the decade that I have lived in China.

It's necessary for 'survival'
No, it isn't - not in the major cities, anyway. And this is a dramatic transformation that I've witnessed during my time in China. When I first visited in the early '90s, very little English was spoken anywhere, even in the major cities. When I first moved to Beijing in the early '00s, fairly little English was spoken here, even in foreigner-targeted bars and restaurants. But now.... almost all staff in bars and restaurants - even those that don't particularly target foreigners - speak some English, often quite good English. Almost all reasonably well-educated white collar workers speak some English. Surprisingly large numbers of ordinary people - shopkeepers, taxi drivers, etc. - are starting to speak at least a little bit of English. China is rapidly moving towards the situation that prevails in most of Europe, where English is an almost universal second language - at least amongst the middle class (and almost everybody will be middle-class in another 50 years).

It will help you get a job in China
None of the jobs that I've had here, or even those I've considered applying for, have required any Chinese ability at all. Most of them have, unsurprisingly, relied primarily on my advanced skills in the English language. Of course, there are a few specialised jobs where some degree of Chinese will be necessary - but those are not the kind of jobs that would ever be of any interest to me. It is certainly helpful - though rarely essential - to develop a modest conversational ability in order to be able to relate socially to your Chinese co-workers; but that has never really applied to me, since I've never had an office-based job. (And the experience of many of my foreign friends and acquaintances here suggests that taking a job in a primarily Chinese-speaking workplace is the best way to learn the language - even if you start off with little or nothing.) Things may be changing now, as the overabundance of foreigners here - foreigners who've put in some time learning Mandarin, at that - is encouraging many employers to use Mandarin skills to differentiate between job applicants, even though these are not fundamentally necessary for the job. But back in the early Noughties when I came here, Mandarin skills had no relevance to your employability whatsoever.

It will help you get a job overseas
Again, I tend to think this is an exaggerated or misguided assumption. There are not that many opportunities for 'doing business with China'; and most of those that there are will - rightly - favour Chinese citizens with good foreign language skills... and/or recognise the imperative of utilizing good translators/interpreters to facilitate communication. Certainly, the experience of most of my friends who've returned overseas - after spending many years here, and developing good levels of Mandarin - has been that they've struggled to find any kind of China-related job at all, let alone one that required them to use their Mandarin. The only exception I can think of is a woman friend who has recently become a beginner's level Mandarin teacher. Anyway, when I leave here, I want to draw a line under my China experience - and never have anything to do with the country again.

It helps you learn about the culture
Yes, there are certain aspects of Chinese history and culture that can be revealed through the idioms and so on of the national language, but... you can discover many of these by reading about the language, without actually having to develop the ability to use it. I worry that there's a huge opportunity cost in studying the language to a high level, that it actually detracts from your ability to engage with the culture in other ways - ways that to me seem more important and useful. As I said in this comment, there are many more ways to learn about the life and culture of a people - observation, reading, interaction with other observers, interaction with locals in other languages - which may in fact be inhibited by an overriding emphasis on trying to interact with people in their own language.

It's a sign of respect
Yes, it is often taken that way by the Chinese. But I feel that the essence of 'respect' is sincerity of feeling, rather than the outward forms that attempt to express that feeling; and moreover that 'respect' must be given freely - as soon as the Chinese start expecting or demanding that you learn their language to demonstrate respect for their culture, they are disempowering the gesture, rendering it no longer a genuine expression of respect but a token act of obeisance, the contemporary version of a kow-tow. In any case, this notion that you need to develop significant Mandarin skills in order to show an appropriate level of respect comes mainly from government propaganda (and/or those foreign 'language nazis' who have managed to achieve such skills and want to consider themselves to be somehow morally superior to those of us who haven't); most ordinary Chinese do not expect that you will be able to speak their language at all, and are tremendously impressed and flattered if you can manage a few basic conversational courtesies like 'Please' and 'Thank you' and 'Delighted to meet you'. Choosing to learn another people's language may be an indication of your respect for them, but it is not the sole nor an indispensable means of doing so. Choosing not to learn the language should not be seen as innately disrespectful. You should try to learn a language because it is intrinsically satisfying or useful to you, not merely because it is in some nebulous way 'expected' of you.

So, all the of the reasons commonly touted as making the learning of Mandarin imperative I have found to be unsatisfactory, unconvincing. As I concluded that comment I quoted above.... Yes, [this series] is wilfully contrarian, and more than a little bit tongue-in-cheek. People shouldn't suppose that I haven't learned any Mandarin, or that I am ardently advocating against others doing so.

But I do feel that if you are going to, you ought to be very clear about your reasons for doing so

And I'm not simply justifying an eccentric personal choice, but considering the global context - attempting to resist this tide of 'moral pressure' and CCP-backed propaganda that everyone ought to learn Mandarin.


You know whom! said...

It's necessary for 'survival'

Depends on how you define survival. If survival includes not having to restrict your social interactions to fluent English speakers in China, then it is essential. If you are happy to restrict, then it is not necessary.

It will help you get a job in China

Yes, obviously it helps a lot to speak Chinese to get a job in China. If one chooses to only apply to jobs that do not need Chinese for it, then as a logical necessity this will not be the case. However, for the VAST majority of jobs that expats or foreigners in China would be interested in Chinese language skills are somewhere in between absolutely necessary to hugely beneficial.

It will help you get a job overseas

Well, yes it will, but for the moment that is mainly just because your CV looks more sexy. For practical reasons, there are very few jobs abroad that need Chinese (just as there are very few jobs in China that do not need Chinese).

It helps you learn about the culture

It doesn't help you to learn about the culture. It is an basic essential tool to get any kind of a basic idea about the culture. There is no arguing with me on that one. As another bonus the English language literature, talk, blogs etc. about Chinese culture are largely repetitions of what another non-Chinese speaking expat, heard from another non-Chinese speaking expat, after reading it on the blog of an expat that speaks Chinese or in the best case a native Chinese who speaks English. Which means that there is no first hand access to the 99% of China's population who do not speak Chinese.

It's a sign of respect
Yes it is. No further comment necessary.

You know whom! said...

Which means that there is no first hand access to the 99% of China's population who do not speak Chinese.

I meant of course.

Which means that there is no first hand access to the 99% of China's population who do not speak English.

Froog said...

Ah, LB, you're mostly just re-asserting the points I questioned, rather than adding anything new.

It's fairly obvious what is generally meant by 'survival', and it's about day-to-day functioning, not social interactions. 20, or even 10 years ago, it was absolutely necessary to speak some Chinese in order to be able to live here. Now, at least in the major cities, there's no such necessity.

The number of jobs for which a high level of Chinese ability is an essential requirement is very low. The largest single category of jobs for foreigners continues to be English teaching, for which no Chinese is required at all. However, the vast majority of professional, middle management type jobs generally specify no more than that 'some Mandarin is desired, but not essential' - and this is a requirement that is readily waived. Most foreigners coming here to work are appointed before they arrive in the country, and without having any Chinese speaking ability; most choose to try to learn some, but more for social reasons than because it is an essential component of the job.

I'm not convinced that many people really think Chinese looks 'sexy' on a CV - nor should they! It might have done a few years ago, when it was still very uncommon; but it is now rapidly becoming devalued by the huge numbers of people studying the language. There are far, far more people learning Chinese than will ever find jobs where they will make use of it.

"99% of Chinese don't speak Chinese"? I suspect that was a typo! I have written elsewhere of the fact that not even all Chinese speak standard Mandarin. (I've seen some estimates which suggest that at least 35-40% speak only a nominal amount of Mandarin, or none at all, and do not use it as their first language in daily life. A probably rather greater number speak with such eccentric accents/dialects that your average foreign learner of putonghua is not going to have a hope in hell of understanding them.

On the respect issue, my point is that respect cannot be demanded - and is rendered valueless if it is. If you choose to cultivate a high level of ability in Chinese, that does demonstrate a respect for the language, culture and people. But that is incidental; it can't be the reason for your studying in the first place (in the absence of any other utility).

Froog said...

As to the social interactions point, most foreigners here are - like us - well-educated middle-class people, and so we tend to mostly meet and make friends with other well-educated, middle-class people. And almost all educated middle-class Chinese speak English these days. (And if they don't, after years of compulsory English study in school and university, and - usually - significant ongoing exposure in adult life through their work and/or social environment, and through entertainment media, then they're probably a bit thick. There has been an enormous change in this area in the time we've been in China: far more people are studying English, and attaining a decent level of fluency in it now than just a few years ago. 20 or so years ago, there were only a few hundred native speaker English teachers in the country; now there are tens of thousands - it's having an enormous impact.)

Aside from some wives/girlfriends (or boyfriends), the majority of our Chinese friends speak excellent English. And our social interactions with Chinese people tend to be a bit limited anyway, regardless of our ability in their language. I find that the foreigners I know who have the best Chinese level - professional translators and so on - still tend to socialise primarily with other foreigners.

There are only two people I've met who've led me to regret not being able to speak much Chinese: the artist Wu Yuren and Mongolian bar owner Alus. But even there, I enjoyed piecing together fumbling conversations with the handful of words we had of each other's language (and Wu's English has improved a lot in the years since I first met him).

Having access to conversation with the uneducated peasantry is a worthy goal for the dedicated enthusiast of language learning, but it's not a serious motivation for many people.

Froog said...

My antagonist here was a mate who runs a Mandarin school (one of the few foreigners to do so here). He is naturally a rather excessive enthusiast for studying the language, since he has a commercial interest in the current vogue for doing so.

He happened to have said to me in a bar the previous week that he thought anyone (anywhere in the entire world!) who didn't study Mandarin these days must be MAD, and I couldn't let that pass without revisiting this series, and inviting him to have a look at it.

Despite its enormous economic and geopolitical clout these days, China still has to interact with the rest of the world in English, and it always will do. Thus, I maintain, the purported usefulness - let alone necessity - of learning Chinese to exploit the potential of this rising market are HUGELY exaggerated.

And, as I've said elsewhere in this series, the fact that Chinese is only spoken within China (and is pretty much impossible for a foreigner to acquire a high-level reading ability in; and has damn-all worthwile contemporary literature anyway) makes it a far less attractive prospect for someone like me to learn than French or Spanish or Arabic or Russian... or one of the Indian languages.