“Should you still learn Chinese?”

“Should you still learn Chinese?” – American YouTuber and expert level Mandarin speaker LeLe Farley poses this question in one of his newest videos. His answer is long, personal and includes many political detours. My own answer hasn’t really changed, how about yours?

Chinese is not as popular as it was 15 years ago?

In an earlier post, I discussed the relations between politics and the motivation to learn Chinese, more in particular the impact of the mainly negative media coverage of China (e.g. Hongkong, Tibet, Xinjiang, Covid-19 etc.) has on us who are trying to learn Mandarin as a foreign language. It’s a sensitive topic, but I can’t see why it shouldn’t be discussed openly. It simply seems that Chinese is not as popular as it was 15 years ago. And the increasingly negative image of China and the political developments addressed by LeLe Farley in his video do play a role in this. At least in the eyes of many westerners.

Who is this YouTuber anyway?

The video in question: “Should you still learn Chinese?”

For those who aren’t familiar with LeLe Farley the first thing you have to know about him is that he spent 12 years perfecting his Chinese. He was one his way to become a laowai celebrity in China, but his personal ethics and political views got in the way, eventually leading to LeLe being banned from China.

Lele uploaded a video of him imitating He Who Must Not Be Named in a Winnie the Pooh costume. Less than a day after the sketch was uploaded to YouTube, LeLe’s name was blocked on the Chinese internet. He was completely erased 1984-style, just like he had never existed in China.

A taboo topic

We’re all learning Chinese, why don’t we speak openly about this? I can see two reasons:

  • People in the field of teaching Chinese as a foreign language usually don’t have any incentive to discuss sensitive political questions as it’s bad for business and “social harmony”. A publisher, for example, won’t risk raising issues like Hongkong or Xinjiang in learning materials, because this can have serious consequences.
  • International learning community naturally tend to block out information that damage their motivation to learn Chinese.

Should you still learn Chinese?

LeLe’s take on this question is highly political and arguably somewhat one-sided, but relevant nonetheless, after all he studied Chinese for more than a decade, had real opportunities in China, but eventually chose ethics over career (in China). The way he poses the question – Should you still learn Chinese? – suggests that something has changed fundamentally:

Should you still learn Chinese? This “still” is essential because 10 plus years ago learning Chinese was the fashionable thing to do. Yes, back then there were both pros and cons, but the pros typically outweighed the cons, because most people thought China was the next global powerhouse with a burgeoning middle class pushing the country towards democratization. Hell, even China’s premier Li Keqiang said so as recently as 2013. But now XJP has cancelled presidential term limits, centralized power, crushed dissent and stoked the flames of nationalism all in an attempt to divert attention from him and his party’s failures.

YouTube: XJP & China’s New Cultural Revolution: Should You STILL Learn Chinese? (23 Mar 2021)

Chinese (and China) not as “fashionable” as it used to be?

I’m not judging his assessment of the political situation in China, because this is a language blog. But his statement that learning Chinese is not as “hot” as it used to be, has some truth to it. The Google search data seems to indicate this as well for example. This decline of interest for the Chinese language probably relates to the increasingly negative views people have about China. If you look at these charts, you can see China’s popularity has dropped drastically in recent years:

Increasingly negative eveluations of China across advanced economies. This survey by the Pew Research Center suggests that China's international image has been suffering over the previous decade.
This survey by the Pew Research Center suggests that China’s international image has been suffering over the previous decade. Does this somehow correlate to people’s willingness to learn Chinese? If so, how big is the negative impact? PS. Keep in mind that they only used data from 14,276 adults in 14 different “advanced economies”, so this survey shows an overall trend in the respective countries at best.

The better your Chinese gets, the more you hate the CCP?

One of his main points in the video is that the better your Chinese gets, the better you understand China and the Chinese and the harder it becomes to ignore the negative impact of China’s political leadership. In his own words:

Trust me, from my personal experience, I can tell you if you want to become China-famous, learning Chinese will only hold you back. As is true with any language: the better you get, the more you’ll understand the culture. But Chinese fluency enables you to see the profoundly negative impact the CCP has on China and the Chinese people. You become a witness in the lost potential of what could be magnificent.

YouTube: Xi Jinping & China’s New Cultural Revolution: Should You STILL Learn Chinese? (23 Mar 2021)

Becoming “China-famous”

“If you want to become China-famous, learning Chinese will only hold you back.” This statement reflects LeLe’s own story, joining auditions for Chinese TV-shows, but failing due to “political incorrectness”. I don’t think many people take on the challenge of mastering the Chinese language hoping to achieve fame on Chinese television though.

Looking beyond the here and now of politics

Thankfully, LeLe Farley is able to look beyond politics and all the negative distractions:

So if this is all true, then why why do I continue to learn Chinese? Simply put, because Chinese is fucking dope! Sharing nothing in common with Indo-European languages, Chinese builds you a completely unique frame of thinking through which to perceive the world. Characters represent ideas more than concrete words, giving rise to centuries of brilliant poetry, 20 character Tang-dynasty poems require pages of English translation and even then you still feel like something’s missing. And as your ears begin to discern between the tones of Mandarin you can enjoy the melodic cadence professional orators work years to perfect. You can feel the relaxed nature of a Chengdu accent, exude from the local speech. You can embrace the irreverent boldness of a Beijing accent getting drunk on rice wine with a bunch of old men, while chilling in the labyrinth of ancient alleyways. You can befriend enthusiastic locals that don’t speak a word of English yet remain tremendously curious about you and the outside world. You can even channel your frustrations with the communist party through satire. Try to reach out to those trapped within the great firewall and tell them you are not alone. You can try and be a force for the change that you want to see in the world. So if you’re looking to experience a wild roller coaster ride of a life, then hell yeah you should learn Chinese.

YouTube: Xi Jinping & China’s New Cultural Revolution: Should You STILL Learn Chinese? (23 Mar 2021)

Conclusion: “Should you still learn Chinese?”

It’s your decision

My personal answer is definitely yes, but most important of all: it’s your choice. We are all free to have your own motivations and ideas, as well as likes and dislikes. At the end of the day, it’s your call, nobody can decide for you. Not even a 100 percent fluent Mandarin speaker like LeLe Farley, let alone a simple blogger like me.

I personally value LeLe Farley’s courage and energy, but ultimately, this video provides his subjective account and (naturally) reflects his own experiences. In fact, I think that most people don’t care that much about the political stuff. I’m also not that sure a higher knowledge level of Chinese inevitably leads to an anti-CCP point of view (I’m not saying that the better you get, the more you’re going to fall in love with the party either). A more nuanced, multi-faceted point of view maybe. I do agree with LeLe that China (and the rest of the world) looked different 10, 15 years ago. I’m not without hope that things still can change for the better.

There are so many reasons to learn Chinese!

However, all this has very little to do with why most people develop an interest for the Chinese language. There are plenty of reasons to start learning Mandarin and most of them have nothing to do with politics. Just ask people in online learning communities what their motivations to learn Chinese are and you’ll see a wide variety of reasons:

  • “I like their literature and want to read them in Chinese one day.”
  • “Because I think Chinese will be as important as English”
  • “To communicate well with Chinese company for smooth business development”
  • “Because I like Chinese dramas”
  • “I want to further my studies in China”
  • “Because of my in-laws”
  • “Cause never stopped to put challenges in my life”
  • “We have a saying in our native language that translates to “one who thinks in different tongues (languages), thinks more rationally”.”

People have all kind of motivations to learn Chinese. They don’t need to be serious or thought through the end. This is a very personal matter – just like LeLe’s own story shows.

Learning Chinese is a long-term endeavor

I’ve written before that the world of politics is a day-to-day, month-to-month thing, where as learning Chinese is a long-term endeavor. Serious learners will acknowledge that you have to invest a huge amount of time and energy, so – if possible – your learning success shouldn’t be depending on any of that. Although I have to admit that this is easier said than done. I think the present Covid-situation illustrates that external factors can sometimes “explode in your face”.

Bottom line: The study of languages should be located above politics. And that doesn’t mean you don’t care or lack interest. There will always be value in mastering the Chinese language. We create that value ourselves. We decide what is meaningful. At any rate, if LeLe’s assessment of the situation is true and we’re in a new Cold War, then we’ll need people with a deep understanding of the Chinsese language, history and culture more than ever. In the meanwhile, LeLe Farley’s story should be told and his voice should be heard. You can support him on Patreon.

That’s it from my side. “Should you still learn Chinese?” Feel free to let me know what you think about this question. Does politics influence your motivation to learn Chinese in any way, positive or negatively?

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Learning Chinese becoming less popular?

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Not so very long ago, probably around January this year, I was working on an article with the cheap yet upbeat title “10 reasons to learn Chinese in 2020”. Then 2020 came along, bulldozed my plan and the article died an early death. What bothered me the most though: I simply couldn’t think of any convincing reasons why 2020 should be the year to study Mandarin!

Was it just me? Or maybe studying Mandarin is just not as popular as it was before? I had to find out and looked at some data from trends.google.com that I want to share with you in this post. This website plots the popularity of any given search term on Google over time. The results were shocking.

Google data: popularity of learning Mandarin is in decline

Search term “learn Chinese”

Google data: popularity of learning Mandarin is in decline. Global search volume for "learn Chinese" on Google.
Global search volume for “learn Chinese” on Google ( 2004 – 2020) (Source: Google Trends)

I simply entered “learn Chinese”. What we see on the whole is a more or less steady decline, starting from 2005 (!), with a little peak at the beginning 2020 due to the Covid-19-pandemic. But could it really be that in 2005 studying Mandarin was more popular than say 2015? I had to have another try with a less vague search term.

Search term “learn Chinese for beginners”

Google data: popularity of learning Mandarin is in decline. Global search volume for "learn Chinese for beginners" on Google ( 2004 - 2020)
Global search volume for “learn Chinese for beginners” on Google ( 2004 – 2020) (Source: Google Trends)

What I got was more or less the same picture, the line dropping with ups and downs until 2013, then climbing up a little and then almost stabilizing on a low level. To get a more complete impression, I consulted the data for YouTube as well.

Popularity of learning Chinese on YouTube

Google data: popularity of learning Mandarin is in decline. Global search volume for "learn Mandarin" on YouTube (2008 - 2020)
Global search volume for “learn Mandarin” on YouTube (2008 – 2020) (Source: Google Trends)

As everybody knows YouTube has developed into an important platform for language learning, Mandarin Chinese being no exception. The YouTube data surprisingly shows a different picture. Between 2009 and 2017, the number of people looking for content to learn Chinese fluctuates on a relatively high level. Then the frequency of the search term suddenly drops in July 2017 with no sign of recovery. The exact same thing we get for the search term “learn Chinese”:

Google data: popularity of learning Mandarin is in decline. Search volume for "learn Chinese" on YouTube (2008 - 2020)
Search volume for “learn Chinese” on YouTube (2008 – 2020) (Source: Google Trends)

Just to double check, I entered the search term “living in China”, only to discover the same “crash” in July 2017:

Google data: popularity of learning Mandarin is in decline. Search volume for "Living in China" on YouTube (2008 - 2020)
Search volume for “Living in China” on YouTube (2008 – 2020) (Source: Google Trends)

What happened in 2017?

The YouTube data clearly indicates a downward trend that sets in from July 2017 and continues until this day. What happened in 2017 that had such on impact? My best guess is that Trump and the Sino-American Trade War happened, leading to much insecurity.

What about individual countries?

I chose to examine Google’s “global data” using English search terms. How about individual countries though?

To my surprise, the general trend in these six countries is very similar. All charts indicate that the popularity of Mandarin is in decline.

Validity of data from Google Trends

I’m still not completely sure if the data give an accurate picture of the situation. It could for example well be that people’s search behavior on Google has become more sophisticated over time, which would (partly) explain the decreasing popularity of a search term “learn Chinese”. The YouTube data is probably more significant, but we still require more indicators to satisfyingly answer the question. HSK statistics revealing how many people have been taking the standard Mainland Chinese test over the last decade could be insightful for example. Let’s have a quick look.

HSK exam growing in popularity

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any up-to-date numbers, but the overall trend points towards growing popularity of the HSK exam:

HSK test takers statistics: how many people took the HSK test from 2009 to 2012.

This China Daily article even mentions 6.8 million test takers in 2018:

The HSK exams, a test of Chinese language proficiency organized by the Confucius Institute Headquarters, or Hanban, were taken 6.8 million times in 2018, up 4.6 percent from a year earlier, the Ministry of Education said on Friday.

China Daily (31.05.2019)

These HSK statistics obviously contradict the data I found and are somewhat reassuring, since it’s only logical that the language of a growing superpower has increasing significance in the world. And even though the interest in Mandarin may be waning in some parts of the world, this doesn’t necessarily mean that this a global trend. Take a look at African countries like Zambia for example where starting from 2020, Mandarin Chinese will form part of the Zambian high school curriculum.

Learning Mandarin becoming less popular – so what?

To end on a positive note here: even if it is true that fewer people are interested in studying Mandarin, why should we care? After all, when Mandarin skills and Chinese cultural competence are becoming more rare, people who do possess them become even more valuable. We need people who are proficient in the language and understand China’s culture and history. We have lots of challenges still ahead.

Is studying Mandarin becoming less popular? What do you think? Please feel free to leave a comment below.

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Sixteen China podcasts to listen during lockdown

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Tired of listening to endless corona-updates and Covid-discussions? Here’s some China-focused listening material for you sorted by topic.

The general idea here: When learning a language, having some topics that really interest you, can be very motivating to keep pursuing your goals.

One of my personal favorites is definitely The China Africa Project Podcast. If you are into politics and want to broaden your views about China’s engagement in Africa, you will love the show. Another favorite of mine is China Tech Talk for insights into the Chinese tech-start-up scene.

If you are looking for a podcast about learning Chinese, check out the you can learn Chinese podcast. You find some great discussions and inspiring interviews here by the makers of the Mandarin Companion.

Current affairs

The ChinaPower Podcast covers critical issues underpinning China’s emergence as a global power and brings together the leading experts on China and international politics. Host Bonnie S. Glaser offers her listeners critical insights into the challenges and opportunities presented by China’s rise.

Carnegie-Tsinghua Podcast discusses China’s relations with the rest of the world and is hosted by Paul Haenle, Director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center based in Beijing, China.

The Little Red Podcast offers interviews and chat celebrating China beyond the Beijing beltway. Hosted by Graeme Smith, China studies academic at the Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs and Louisa Lim, former China correspondent for the BBC and NPR, now with the Centre for Advancing Journalism at Melbourne University.

  • Host: Graeme Smith
  • Frequency: Monthly
  • Duration: 40-50 min.
  • Since: 2016
  • For more information click here

The MERICS podcast discusses and analyzes developments and current affairs in China: What is behind the Belt and Road Initiative? What kind of leader is Xi Jinping? How should we assess China’s climate change policies? How does the Chinese government use social media to its own ends? In addition to MERICS’s own staff, other experts on China and guest speakers at MERICS also take part in the interviews.

The China Africa Project Podcast was launched in 2010 and focuses on China’s engagement in Africa.

  • Host: Eric Olander, Cobus van Staden
  • Frequency: Weekly
  • Duration: 45 min.
  • Since: 2010
  • Organization: The China Africa Project

History

China History podcast covers 5000 years of Chinese history and is hosted by Laszlo Montgomery. Topics include PRC history and leaders like Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, US-Chinese history, but also the Chinese dynasties, history of tea and even Chinese philosophy.

  • Host: Laszlo Montgomery
  • Frequency: irregular
  • Duration: 40-60              
  • Since: 2010
  • Organization: Teacup Media 2017

Investing in China

CHINA MONEY NETWORK Podcast covers all the news headlines in the China venture and tech sector on a weekly basis live from Hongkong.

  • Host: Eudora Wang       
  • Frequency: Weekly        
  • Duration: 10 min.
  • Organization: CHINA MONEY NETWORK

The Harbinger China Podcast is a monthly Q&A with China’s top venture investors and tech company founders.

  • Host: Tim Chen
  • Frequency: Monthly
  • Duration: 40 min.
  • Since: 2017
  • Organization: The harbinger China

Tech

Techbuzz China is a bi-weekly technology podcast about China’s Innovation and (tech-related) cultural trends.

  • Host: Ying-Ying Lu, Rui Ma
  • Frequency: Bi-weekly
  • Duration: 30 min.
  • Since: 2018
  • Organization: Techbuzz China is a part of Pandaily.com and powered by the Sinica Podcast network

Digitally China is a bi-weekly podcast from RADII hosted by Tom Xiong and Eva Xiao, and produced by Jacob Loven. On each episode, the team will tackle a different timely tech-related topic, providing key insights on all you need to know about the fast-changing nature of innovation in China.

  • Host: Tom Xiong and Eva Xiao
  • Frequency: Bi-weekly
  • Duration: 30 min.           
  • Since: 2018
  • Organization: RADII

China Tech Talk is an almost weekly discussion of the most important issues in China’s tech. From IPOs to fake data, from the role of WeChat to Apple’s waning influence, hosts John Artman and Matthew Brennan interview experts and discuss the trends shaping China’s tech industry.

  • Host: John Artman, Matthew Brennan                 
  • Frequency: Weekly
  • Duration: 60 min.
  • Since: 2016
  • Organization: Technode

Culture and people

Wǒ Men Podcast is produced and hosted by Yajun Zhang and Jingjing Zhang, who discuss a variety of topics and share a diversity of voices from on the ground inside contemporary China.

  • Host: Yajun Zhang and Jingjing Zhang
  • Frequency: Bi-weekly
  • Duration: 40-50 min.
  • Since: 2017
  • Organization: RADII

Bottled in China brings you into Asia’s food and drink scene through conversations with the some of the most happening personalities. Hosted by Emilie Steckenborn, the show is your one spot for all things food, beer, wine and spirits from across the world.

Middle Earth Podcast brings you first-hand insights into China’s cultural industry and hosts guests who work in China’s marketing, gaming, movie and virtual reality industries.

Ta for Ta is a new biweekly podcast, which captures the narratives of women from Greater China at the top of their professional game. “Ta for Ta” is a play on the Chinese spoken language that demonstrates equality between the sexes. Tā 他 is the word for “he”; tā 她 is also the word for “she.”

  • Host: Juliana Batista
  • Frequency: Bi-Weekly
  • Duration: 60 min.
  • Since: 2017
  • Organization: SupChina