Getting along with China won't be easier if few people in other countries learn its language. Yet the trend in studying Chinese is clearly downward, at least in the democratic world.
Learning it was all the rage around 2010, but scattered statistics and anecdotes show that people are rapidly losing interest in it in Australia, the US, Europe and North Asia.
One reason must be that China is now increasingly disliked. And perhaps young people have sensed that the economic rewards of knowing its language are less than formerly expected.
Nonetheless, I still think people who are prepared to work hard and long at it should consider it as a potential career booster.
The Economist last week did a good job in publishing a few numbers on declining interest in studying Chinese, and I can add a little more. Enrolment in Chinese courses in the US peaked in 2013 and fell by 21 per cent between 2016 and 2020, the British magazine reports. You can bet that, with China closed off from the world for three years in the pandemic, the numbers have declined a lot further since then.
Enrolments in British universities Chinese courses fell 31 per cent between 2012 and 2021, while in Australia the number of courses on offer has dropped in response to weak demand. I see from statistics in South Korea that Chinese-language uni enrolments there declined by a third between 2018 and 2021.
Probably the main reason for people shunning the language has been China's worsening image. Were more likely to learn the languages of places which appeal to us and which we can imagine living in or at least visiting extensively.
The boom in Chinese-language studies must have got a lift from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but it was in that year that China began generating mostly bad news, starting with a wave of nasty internal oppression. For years before then, it had kept its image fairly positive.
Especially since 2017 in Australia and the US, and a little later in most other democracies, China has been seen as ugly and aggressive. South Koreans turned strongly against it in 2017, when Beijing punished their country in an attempt to dictate its defence policy. And in 2018 Canadians saw China seize two of their compatriots as hostages to force a favourable result in an extradition case.
So it's not surprising if fewer foreigners now see themselves living in China one day.
More than a decade after its economy began slowing, work opportunities associated with its language must seem fewer. In Australia, in particular, trade sanctions that China imposed in 2020 have dampened interest in exporting to it.
One other factor: the word has probably got around that learning Chinese is hard. Dropout rates are always sky high.
But were still talking about a country with 18 per cent of world's population and by far the largest economy on our side of the world. We need to have plenty of Australians who have the understanding of it that comes from speaking its language. A lot of them should be Australian-born, too, since immigrants typically don't have as much influence in society and government.
Several parts of the government particularly need people with strong Chinese language skills and a family background that doesn't raise security risks: the Foreign Affairs and Defence departments, armed services and intelligence agencies.
My advice to anyone considering learning Chinese is to be really determined to do it or not bother at all, and to think seriously about spending time in China or, preferably, Taiwan.
I was really determined when I began learning in 2004, and had to be. I was no spring chicken and had not seriously studied a foreign language before and this one was notoriously difficult for English speakers. Actually, some of my Chinese-speaking managers thought I just couldn't do it.
In fact, after about 10 months I had reached a high enough level to take a two-week holiday in China with a friend who had no English, and a year later I could awkwardly conduct a news interview in Mandarin.
That was a result of effort, not talent. I studied like a demon, sitting with one-on-one tutors for 24 hours a week until 2008 while also working full-time. Then I eased up, but not until 2012 was I satisfied enough to drop back to a maintenance level of study.
How envious I was to watch my 19-year-old nephew, whom I took to Beijing in 2010 to learn the language, easily speak it with a superb accent after only a year (though he didn't work hard enough on reading).
Our project was to give him a turbocharger for whatever career he would choose, and it worked. His ability in Chinese got him a good job and later helped him progress in it.
A final point on the word Mandarin: its not quite the same as Chinese language.
All over China, written Chinese is basically the same. But when people read aloud what is written, they can sound completely different and indeed may not understand each other.
Its all Chinese language, but only the standard way of speaking it is Mandarin.
For example, there's a Chinese character that refers to a drink made with leaves infused in boiling water. It's the same character throughout China. In Mandarin, its pronunciation is cha, but in parts of south-eastern China they say "teh" tea.
So we can say that someone speaks Mandarin, but not that something is written in Mandarin.
But maybe you're thinking, Well, it's all Chinese to me.
- Bradley Perrett was based in Beijing as a journalist from 2004 to 2020.