The actual worth of Chinese language proficiency

Society & Culture

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.