I’ve been thinking a lot about the pro’s and con’s of learning Chinese in middle school recently and I cannot make up my mind about whether it is actually worthwhile. I know all the arguments: economic, cross-cultural, neuro-science etc, and I am sure you do as well. But, just to play devil’s advocate, here are the con’s. Dr Jane Orton, who published a report last year at the University of Melbourne on the teaching of Mandarin in Australian schools, sums it up quite neatly: “The American Foreign Service Institute estimates it takes about 3.5 times longer to become proficient than say for us to become proficient in Spanish or Italian or German, and so it is quite a slog. And, at the same time, it’s not been terribly well researched and so to date it’s still not been terribly well taught.”

I grew up speaking Cantonese, a dialect of southern China which has been of no use to me as an economic citizen of a globalized world. None. In fact, I hated classroom learning of Chinese because I was alongside native speaking peers with two-parent Chinese households (I only had one Chinese parent in mine, and Chinese was a secondary language at home) and I felt constantly discouraged at my inability to get close to their level of written and spoken fluency. I follow a couple of Chinese people on Twitter just for the visceral pleasure of seeing some characters (half of which I can’t even read) on my Twitter feed. This is pure linguistic vanity and nothing more.

So, if our children are going to be shepherded into half-baked, inadequate Chinese learning programs which will fail to ignite a spark of passion for Chinese culture, then what is the point? Is even that marginal edge of extra information about an ancient culture populated by a highly competitive and educated workforce really worthwhile? Aren’t the Chinese going to speaking better English than most of us in 20 years time?

I think there needs to be a wider understanding of the fact that Chinese is not just a language, it is actually a whole other identity. In my experience, the Europeans who have been successful at learning the language have put incredible effort and energy into developing their Chinese persona. They have usually devoted the best part of a lifetime to their language skills, sometimes at the expense of other things such as the arts or sport or general culture. They then tend to devote their career to the pursuit of something which is more or less single-mindedly Sinophiliac.

Great for them, but is this really appropriate for everyone? Do our children really need to be press-ganged into yet another subject which has a good chance of making them feel like they are failing?

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