The actual worth of Chinese language proficiency - SupChina

The actual worth of Chinese language proficiency

There’s an argument currently happening on Chinese social media about the value of learning English. The very same conversation can be had about foreigners learning Chinese.

Unfortunately, the answers aren’t the same.


Illustration by Frankie Huang


A debate over the necessity of English language skills has dominated the Chinese internet these last few days, sparked by a patriotic internet personality who proclaimed English to be a “trash skill” and a waste of time. Many have responded that while they are held hostage by educational and employment requirements for English proficiency, there is in fact substantial demand for Chinese workers fluent in English in the job market.

Demand for foreigners who speak Chinese, on the other hand, is a different story.

A few weeks ago, I inadvertently started a small feud in the China-watching corner of Twitter over the importance of Chinese proficiency for job acquisition and career advancement in China. My tweet that set it off was a bitter one: “No, being fluent in Chinese does not tend to make you a stronger job candidate even in fields where it makes sense, like marketing, finance or international trade. You’d think so, but no. Take it from someone who has to live with this and stop helpfully telling me otherwise.”

I got responses along the lines of, “Logically speaking, you would be a stronger candidate working in China as a Chinese speaker vs. a non-Chinese speaker,” the very logic I was challenging in my original tweet. The sentiment seems obvious — working in a country, you should know the language — but the reality is more complicated, and has tricked more than a few people into betting heavily on their Chinese mastery to secure future careers. Emily Cardinali, a student studying Mandarin at National Taiwan University, told me, “My business [major] classmates were really enthusiastic about everyone getting a job using the language in the future, so I also got excited.”

There was a mix of anecdotal replies, from those who cited their Chinese skills as indispensable to the state of their careers today, to those who joined my disgruntled chorus. More than one person pointed out that those whose careers were established 10 years ago simply don’t understand what millennial Chinese-language students are struggling against today.

To make more sense of the relationship between Chinese proficiency and careers in China, I decided to take this topic beyond the chaotic, ever-shifting landscape of Twitter to investigate what Chinese language brings and does not bring to the table for foreigners who work in China. There are of course certain positions in certain industries where Chinese language proficiency has a straightforward link to better performance, but there are arguably more instances where this is not the case.

Sunk costs of Chinese language acquisition

Why was I so bitter about this in the first place? The story behind it is deeply personal. When I was three years old, my parents moved to the U.S., and it was decided that I’d remain with my grandmother for a time so that I would become proficient in Chinese before I joined them abroad. Little did we know, the six-year period I lived apart from them would create deep fractures that have come to define our relationship in every way. Though we’ve never talked directly about this, my parents and I have come to regard my strong bilingual proficiency as the rare fruit obtained at an exorbitant price.

I became fixated on making significant use of my Chinese proficiency, to give the trauma some meaning. As behavioral economist Richard Thaler famously pointed out, everybody struggles with the “sunk cost fallacy,” in which people “continue a behavior or endeavor as a result of previously invested resources (time, money or effort).”

The “sunk cost fallacy” holds true particularly when the initial investment is very significant, which can apply to anyone who underwent the arduous efforts of attaining even basic mastery of Chinese language. In his book One Billion Voices, David Moser noted that in order to be literate in written and spoken Chinese, years spent on rote memorization of thousands of characters, which has no consistent phonetic standard, is unavoidable. “Learning Mandarin is an onerous process,” said Susan Hedglin, an Ole Miss Mandarin Language Flagship graduate working in the healthcare industry. “[It’s] a language where it may take two and a half years just to read a newspaper article.” This was what originally drove the liberal thinkers of the May Fourth Movement to call for the abolition of Chinese script entirely, so as to democratize Chinese literacy by eliminating the steep barrier of entry.

Hedglin remarked, “Intense Chinese study was tremendously impactful for me personally, but holds little impact on my professional trajectory.” However, even for those who enjoyed their time studying Chinese, personal enjoyment is not a sufficient return on investment for going through this ordeal.

The reality for Chinese-speaking juniors

I graduated university in 2009 to the worst American job market in decades with a decidedly impractical liberal arts degree. “It’s OK,” many people comforted me, “you’re fluent in both Chinese and English at a high level, few people are as good as you, this is your trump card.” It was what I wanted to hear, and at the time it made perfect sense in my head. In 2009, China’s economy was growing, the whole world was eyeing China’s massive market with drool on their lips. Surely, I thought wishfully, a bilingually and bi-culturally fluent young graduate would be an attractive hire. What I actually found was that my lack of relevant industry experience for many positions rendered my Chinese to be a little more than window dressing.

Susan Hedglin had a similar experience: “Professors, mentors, and professionals I met kept telling me that there were so few Americans who spoke Chinese, they were sure there would be opportunities upon graduation. I thought that, whatever field I entered, my primary focus would be Asian markets, and my language skill would be the key that helped me get my foot in the door.” What Hedglin found was that she arrived in China during “what now feels like the tail end of the ‘golden years’ of U.S. business in China, before economic conditions tightened up.” She found herself edged out for more junior positions by Chinese returnees with foreign degrees, and wasn’t qualified for more senior positions.

“Ten years ago, foreigners dealt with a very different job-hunting landscape,” Brian Sun, a Shanghai-based former executive recruiter with 17 years of experience, told me. “What was a fish tank is now an ocean. Every year, 600,000 Chinese overseas returnees (nicknamed 海归 hǎiguī, a homonym for “sea turtles”) come back to China, many speaking flawless English. A foreigner with little experience won’t impress anyone with fluent Chinese, no matter how hard they worked for that.” As most students of Chinese language don’t begin their studies until university, even a very high level of proficiency would not measure up to the native-level fluency of a Chinese person.

I asked Sun how a foreign junior can compete with Chinese peers, and he said, “Though you have been learning Chinese to prepare for working in China, it is your foreign experiences in your home country that will set you apart. Chinese students often only get two to four years abroad, and won’t have the same diverse experience of, say, an American who can talk about interesting extracurriculars and show their unique thought process or interpersonal soft skills.”

Weighted advantage of Chinese language has lessened

In my professional experience, I found that when I interviewed for junior positions that were not of the Chinese-English translator ilk, Chinese fluency was required, but my above-average Chinese proficiency did not amplify my overall attractiveness as a candidate against other foreigner candidates whose Chinese was not as good as mine. Essentially, Chinese was treated as a standalone skill, like Microsoft Excel proficiency, rather than something that can enhance the quality of performance level across tasks.

Brian Sun confirmed that Chinese proficiency has become more of a requirement than a leg up for foreign workers. “These days juniors need to be fluent in Chinese just to be considered. In the past, Chinese level requirement was much more lax. If the older, more established foreigners were entering today’s job market at the beginning of their careers, it would be very difficult for them to get the same jobs they secured before.”

On the flip side, there are also situations where non-Chinese speakers without China experience are the preferred job candidates, rendering Chinese skills useless in an entirely different way. At a company I once worked for, I witnessed such a hire, who went on to struggle with working in China. Sun explained, “This unfortunately is not common when it comes to the hiring of senior executives. Frequently, this is when foreign Alpha Males handle the hiring, and they’d rather choose a candidate they have more in common with, who is sort of ‘untainted’ by China, rather than someone with the China experience and Chinese language skills to thrive on the ground.”

It turns out, as useful as it is to have strong Chinese proficiency when working in China, the advantage it currently presents for job hunting is insignificant next to relevant work experience, no matter how much it helps on the job.

Learn Chinese for the right reasons

Jonathan Frances, a risk analyst at Foreign Brief, lamented, “This and a few other threads recently have been somewhat disheartening for aspiring Chinese speakers. Are there any other fields outside, say, intelligence gathering, where fluency in Chinese would actually be professionally beneficial?”

The undeniable benefits of mastering a language as difficult (and as beautiful) as Chinese can sometimes get lost in the grim career logistics we must deal with. The fact remains that being fluent in Chinese isn’t a hindrance. While I am disappointed my command of the Chinese language and knowledge of the culture does not make me a hot commodity on the job market, my sole regret is how I harbored delusions about their effect on job prospects.

For those who have learned Chinese as a foreign language, the skills and discipline you’ve demonstrated in mastering such a difficult language should not go unmentioned, and the right employer would understand its value. What is important for current and prospective Chinese language students is to manage expectations, make plans, and set goals based on reality rather than assumptions of the worth of language proficiency in and of itself.

Frankie Huang

Frankie Huang is a writer and strategist who was born in Beijing and raised in New Jersey. She currently lives in Shanghai. Follow her on Twitter @ourobororoboruo


  1. Luiz Reply

    Interesting article, which accords with what I myself have observed. In first tier cities, not being proficient in Chinese has little impact on the career prospects and overall quality of life of those foreigners who don’t spend too much time outside of expat bubbles. In second tier and smaller cities, those expat bubbles tend to be smaller, and while their career prospects may not suffer, foreigners who can‘t communicate freely tend to be less happy than those who can.

    One thing the author failed to mention is the rise of translation apps and software which will continue to make Chinese language skills among foreigners even less important.

    1. jixiang Reply

      To be fair, even in Beijing not being able to speak Chinese is a big inconvenience. Try telling your didi driver where you are when they call you. Try going to the bank and getting something done, or communicating with a waiter. In the long run I think I would go crazy with frustration if I didn’t speak at least conversational Chinese.

  2. Mark S Reply

    The year 2009 is also about when enrollment in Mandarin classes in U.S. universities peaked, with the numbers starting to drop off a few years later when more people finally started realizing that learning Mandarin wasn’t an easy ticket to riches (or even a ticket to riches at all). But some people are still holding on to that idea, so articles like yours are still greatly needed — as is your reminder that mastering a language can still be a fulfilling exercise if one has reasonable goals and expectations.

  3. Sameer Gupta Reply

    The more fluent your Putonghua, the more easy to attract girls, especially in 2nd and 3rd tier cities in China.

  4. Ben Bryant Reply

    You’ve hit the point exactly. I wonder about how we give lip service to the self fulfilling and self evolving experience of proficiency in such a different language. But how does this actually pan out? Are there examples? It seems you can always go deeper in every cross cultural exchange explaining more and more context. This in itself is fun but is presumably just as fun at whatever level of proficiency you meet it. Actually I find language is the least effective way to cross the language barrier, while global things like playing soccer together and social dancing are so effective. These are actually shared vocabularies. I work with programmers where it’s often best just to show the code rather than talk about it due to subtle language barriers. The returns on years of language learning are tiny. I am fortunate to only learn Mandarin for fun, for those hoping great proficiency will yield returns of any practical kind I feel apprehensive.

  5. Richard Smith Reply

    Well, it’s useful if you want to move to America or Canada or Australia or New Zealand, and these days, it seems more and more Chinese want to do just that (the smog, the police state, the economy?) In my neighborhood, Chelsea in Manhattan, Mandarin is at least the third if not actually the second language one hears on the street. The city is filling up with Chinese émigrés.

  6. Maya Rogers Reply

    I completely agree. I’m Chinese American, and fluent in Mandarin. I have a bachelor’s in international business and Asian studies and spent a year of high school in China. Yet, it seems like I still lack the required experience for literally everything I’ve applied to and have only been able to use my abilities in retail sales.

  7. Josh Dorfman, PhD Reply

    The story is very different for foreign entrepreneurs in China. Language proficiency is helpful for founding a business (either JV or WFOE), but it is essential for managing Chinese staff and reducing the chances of getting ripped off.

  8. Elliot Billings, Intralink Group Reply

    I work for an organisation that has hired Chinese-speaking foreigners for market entry strategy and business development roles on behalf of tech firms in Shanghai since 2001, and for us professional-level Mandarin fluency has been absolutely essential in every case. Changing regulations on visas and work permits have made things more complicated in recent years, but when we manage to identify candidates with great language skills we generally move very quickly.

  9. Jack Porteous Reply

    I disagree slightly with the premise of why you learn a language – it isn’t simply a communication tool. I majored in Mandarin and my job in the UK is centred around China, however I rarely speak Chinese in my job. That said if I had not spent years and expended the sweat and tears of learning the language and living in the country (Chongqing and Tianjin) then I wouldn’t have the understanding of China, Chinese communication patterns, and Chinese thinking. All of that is invaluable to my job, and I’d be unable to adequately do it without that. Learning a language opens your mind to a new cultural experience and viewpoint of life and everything – which is key to building lasting relationships and truly understanding someone. What language you communicate in afterwards is secondary.

  10. Brett Reply

    This article is spot in with my experience. I also graduated in 2009 into the poor economy after spending many years studying engineering and Chinese. All along people repeated the same phrase, “you are going to be able to write your own ticket.” Like, literally that same phrase from people across many years and vast geography. I have been trying to edge into a position, or start a business, where I could leverage the Chinese experience, or at least enjoy the opportunity to continue to connect with Chinese culture ever since. I’m fully aware of the “sunk cost fallacy”, but also stubborn and optimistic so I keep going. This, even though my Chinese is certainly many, many steps behind folks like the authors since I started learning at 19. I believe I have witnessed all the contributing factors the author mentions and completely agree, with the 海归 hǎiguī possibly being the stiffest headwind.

  11. xin Reply

    I just decided this week my younger daughter should give up going to Chinese classes. I don’t want her to grow up and only remember me as a mum who force her to do Chinese homework. I will still tell and read her story book in Chinese. and she can use her time to practice something she really enjoyed and be happy.

  12. A Reply

    Spot on!

    Learning to speak professional level Chinese is a monumental challenge for any adult without prior Sinitic language experience.

    The opportunity cost in terms of time that could have been spent developing other skills is very large, and in 2019, it appears that young people should expect learning Chinese to have a fairly strong negative effect on future career prospects.

    Not because speaking Chinese is bad per se, but because it is perceived as having essentially zero value for junior level hires. Learning Chinese will leave much less time to do things and gain experience that employers consider of value.

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