To Learn Mandarin or Not To Learn Mandarin

20 May

Mandarin is harder to learn than most languages. It is just therefore that we should try to learn it. The benefits of proficiency are enormous in comparison to easier languages just because so much fewer people are fluent Mandarin speakers.

Why should we learn Mandarin? It is more difficult for a European or North American person to learn Chinese than it is to learn another Germanic or Latin language. The answer is of course that we should learn Mandarin just because it is much harder, and so much less people are bilingual in English, or their own mother tongue, and in Mandarin. Lets look at some rational economics, some statistics on proficiency and on what we conclude from these figures and facts.

It is nice to be special. In the social science of Economics there is a law that tells us why. The famous law of diminishing returns says that the first marginal increase in any resource is most important. It is most important because it contributes a great deal more leverage than the last one added. Like most economics, it is derived from common sense. It makes sense that the first ice cream tastes a lot better than the fifth. It makes sense that the first person that is put to work with a shovel to dig a hole gets more done the second person, which would be competing for the shovel. It is called a law because it applied to almost everything, from consumption of ice cream, to production of holes with one shovel and to the proportion of a population proficient in a given language.

The reason that you probably don’t even want to eat that fifth ice cream is that you are full. The reason that the benefits of more communicative potential is subject to diminishing returns to marginal increases in people being able to speak both language, is the precisely the same. The potential of other things in society (such as the singular shovel, or the size of your stomach) is exhausted after a certain point. There are only so many Chinese people that need to trade with your home country. The first known European person to reach The Middle Kingdom, Marco Polo, was awarded a whole city by the Qin emperor.

Mr. Polo brought a great deal of new information to China that had never been there before; this gave him a great deal of potential leverage in other facets of society. Just by being in China, lots of other facets of society, that he had no direct influence on was enhanced. The same thing happened when the Shenzhen economic development zone was opened by Deng Xiaoping as a model for further economic de regularization elsewhere. There is a certain gun powder potential in everything that will lead to an explosion when it comes in touch with something else – as two things continue to meet the explosions will be smaller.

For English and for example Swedish this explosive nature is all but exhausted. Almost everyone in my generation of Swedish people speak English. Business is per usual – there are very few magically explosive connections to be made between Sweden and the English Speaking world. The same is true for other European languages. Close to 50% of Europe speak English. Close to 25% speak German and French. 12.5% speak Italian and Spanish. When the people that are in their twenties now reach retirement age you can bet that the pervasive nature of English proficiency will really have taken root. I would not at all be surprised if close to a 100% of European people speak fluent English at that point.

So then, what about Mandarin? I have looked everywhere online and I can’t even find statistics for Mandarin – the reason probably being that the Pascal distribution that is used for such matters as this requires a proportion to be sufficiently large for it to show up in a meaningful way. Depending on how keen they are when gathering a sample group to ask, this means that the proportion of Europe that speak Mandarin is not even a fraction of a percentage point. What does this tell us about learning Mandarin? Probably that there are some pretty good explosive benefits waiting on the other side of proficiency…

Rui Ming works for a Mandarin language Academy in Beijing that is a great option for those that want to learn mandarin in China. If you are interested in more information about the Academy’s program, please the course page: learn mandarin in China.

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