Kuora: The many reasons for learning Chinese - SupChina

Kuora: The many reasons for learning Chinese

Chinese is one of the more difficult languages for a non-native speaker to acquire. Why do so many people bother?

This week’s column comes from one of Kaiser’s answers originally posted to Quora on November 9, 2017:

Why do so many people try to learn Chinese?

When one sets out to learn a language, different considerations run through one’s head, and for just about all of those considerations, China ticks a box:

How many people in the world speak this language? Mandarin Chinese is spoken by more people in the world than any other language, so in terms of the sheer number of people, Mandarin is an obvious choice.

How important is the deeper understanding of the particular country or region that language proficiency will bolster? In the case of Chinese, almost irrespective of what your native country or language is, it would be easy to argue for the tremendous importance of understanding of China. It is, after all, soon to pass the U.S. as the world’s largest economy. It’s already the world’s largest trading nation. It is the first true multidimensional peer country that the world’s current leading superpower has ever faced.

How would learning this language impact my own employment prospects? Again, China’s economic footprint is so enormous that actual proficiency in Chinese is bound to open doors of opportunity for a language-learner, even if not engaging directly in business. There are countless other professions for which some proficiency in China would prove a valuable asset.

How aesthetically or intellectually interesting is this language? Chinese certainly ticks these boxes as well. Chinese is so radically different from any Indo-European language, its writing system so beautiful, its sounds — tonal, quite mellifluous, lacking harsh consonant finals, glottals, or guttural sounds — so euphonious, and its capacity for poetic expression so flat-out amazing that from an aesthetic point of view alone, it’s up there with French. And the intellectual challenge it presents could be construed as another reason for its attractiveness.

How hard is it? Of course, it is considered one of the more difficult languages for a non-native speaker to acquire, especially if you include the writing. That may attract as many as it discourages. While grammatically Chinese doesn’t pose all that many challenges — no verb tenses or conjugations, no noun declensions, simple noun-verb-object sentence structures — it does have many difficult idioms, and because of the limited number of phonemes one does face many homophones and has to master tones.

But other than that, there’s every reason for lots of people to be interested in learning Chinese.

Also see:

Kuora: Mastering Chinese tones with ‘the Dude System’

Kuora is a weekly column.

Kaiser Kuo

Kaiser Kuo is co-founder of the Sinica Podcast and editor-at-large of SupChina.


  1. Kevin Cox Reply

    I wanted to exercise my memory by learning a language. There were friendly Chinese at work who would help me so I chose Mandarin. As I developed close friendships with native speakers from the PRC and Taiwan I began to realize how poor and inaccurate my knowledge of modern Chinese history and the role of China in world history really is. I want to learn more and that’s what is now pushing my continuing, slow, acquisition of Mandarin.

  2. Ricardo Reply

    Only tangentially related to article above is the question of why people don’t learn chinese. One slightly surpring feature of expatriate life in China is how well people can do for themselves despite not speaking the language. One regularly meets foreigners who have lived here for over a decade and have flourishing professional and personal lives but who have barely enough chinese to order a meal in a restaurant and are essentially iliterate.

    I can’t imagine that something similar would be possible in a place like the US e.g. that a native Chinese could rise to the position of Overseas Manager there without speaking, reading or writing good English. I always wonder what this says about these two societies but have yet to encounter a satisfying explanation.

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