Michael Skapinker at the Financial Times came up with an interesting question: what is the second most useful language? He directs that question to English speakers in particular since English the lingua franca of the world, they have a dilemna: what foreign language should they learn?
Now there is no obvious reply to that question but most would probably think Mandarin is the answer as China is the fastest growing economy, but there are obvious difficulties to that choice (bearing in mind that Mandarin isn’t the only language spoken in China). Here are a few considerations to keep in mind via American China expert David Moser’s essay “Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard”.
- It depends what language you are coming from “A French person can usually learn Italian faster than an American, and an average American could probably master German a lot faster than an average Japanese, and so on.(…) A Spanish person learning Portuguese is comparable to a violinist taking up the viola, whereas an American learning Chinese is more like a rock guitarist trying to learn to play an elaborate 30-stop three-manual pipe organ.
- Chinese is hard for Chinese too, the writing system in particular is very complex: it takes twice as long for Chinese children to acquire literacy as their European counterparts. (…)There is still the awe-inspiring fact that Chinese people manage to learn their own language very well. Perhaps they are like the gradeschool kids that Baroque performance groups recruit to sing Bach cantatas. The story goes that someone in the audience, amazed at hearing such youthful cherubs flawlessly singing Bach’s uncompromisingly difficult vocal music, asks the choir director, “But how are they able to perform such difficult music?””Shh — not so loud!” says the director, “If you don’t tell them it’s difficult, they never know.”
- Time required: An average American could probably become reasonably fluent in two Romance languages in the time it would take them to reach the same level in Chinese.
The bottom line is, if you only speak one language you should start consider studying a second one; context and and an affinity to the culture should then help determine your choice. The reason why Chinese is so hard to learn for a non-Asian person is because the Chinese and American culture have been isolated for so long, there aren’t many reference points, which makes it so worthwhile and yet so difficult. Another equivalent would be the Arabic language for many of the same reasons. So pick your challenges wisely. What language would you learn?