Ni shuo Hanyu ma?

“English is what saved us,” an Irish workmate told me recently of his economically troubled homeland. “Our young people can go abroad and work because of English, if it wasn’t for that there would be riots on the streets of Dublin.”

Speaking English is of massive benefit when looking for a job, travelling and communicating all over the world. Despite the troubled global economy there is a huge demand for English teachers from Seville to X’ian and businesses from Stockholm to Shanghai communicate in the global language. My job in China is largely thanks to my mother tongue.

But what if you only speak English?

In a speech to the Queensland Tourism Industry Council this week, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd urged Australians to learn Mandarin. “It seems the times are upon us,” he warned.

Rudd suggested the Australian Broadcasting Corporation needed to turn their focus to Asia (couldn’t agree more – Australian media is hopelessly Euro focused), and tourism operators need to learn Mandarin and start writing signs in Chinese. It’s pretty minor stuff, but it’s a start.

But talk (ha!) is one thing, actually teaching Australians to speak a foreign language is another. Australia’s geography and economy would seem to suggest learning an Asian language would be a given, but the number of students learning to introduce themselmes with “Wo jiao Shazza”, is dropping. In 2012, excluding those who speak Chinese at home, just 300 Australian year 12 students are studying Mandarin.

In Beijing, US students are as ubiquitous as posh Brits writing bad poetry in bars and elderly French photographers working on photo essays of Chinese new wave bands – they are everywhere.

Many of them are here thanks to the 100,000 Strong initiative launched by US President Barack Obama in 2009. The initiative aims to dramatically increase the number of US students studying in China. From 2001 to 2007 the number of Americans studying in China grew by 30 per cent, and more are coming. It’s also not unusual to meet Americans in China who learnt Mandarin throughout high school.

Sure, Hayley from Wisconsin and Greg from Chicago might be downing 100RMB all-you-can-drink shots in the grottiest bar in Wudaokou today, but tomorrow they will be lining up shots of baijiu while broking multi-million dollar development deals in Mandarin.

This article from Melbourne’s The Age, argues that Australia shouldn’t bother teaching Asian languages, that not all Australian’s are going to be brokering international trade deals and most international business people speak English anyway. This is true and, I suspect, reflects the thinking of many Australians. But how sad. We don’t just need to learn foreign languages to do business, we need to learn them because they expand our understanding of a culture, a place and a people. We need to learn them because they open up worlds of opportunity. Not every Australian will do business in Asia, but they are a lot more likely to if they can speak the language.

At the weekly quiz night at the Bookworm (an ex-pat hub which is an English language library/bar/restaurant/bookshop) I met two middle-aged American stockbrokers who had became friends in the 1980s when they were both working in Tokyo. While their knowlegde of obscure Simpson’s characters and European geography could be described as “wanting” at best, they knew a bit about working in Asia. They said in the ’80s in Tokyo none of the foregin brokers spoke Japanese, now almost all do.

“The same will happen here,” said one of the brokers. He gestured to the table behind us of young Americans in converse sneakers and ironic cardigans. “They’d all be learning Mandarin,” he said.

The other broker proudly showed us photos of his two young boys, aged four and six. Both children speak Japanese with their mother, English with their dad, and Mandarin with their Chinese nanny. To facilitate this multilingual environment, the family moves between Tokyo and Beijing, spending a year in each city at a time.

He’s preparing them for a future where “Do you speak English?” could be replaced by “Ni shuo Hanyu ma?” For many Australians, the answer will be: No.

5 thoughts on “Ni shuo Hanyu ma?

  1. Yes there’s a definite element of arrogance (and laziness) in the west that we just assume everyone else will learn English for us. Perhaps a leftover from British Imperialism. I mean it was only 50 or 60 years ago that Asian migration was referred to as the yellow peril in Australia! So is it we think our language is superior? Having said that I quit learning German in Highschool because it was hard and I am lazy. So perhaps we just don’t work/study as hard.

  2. Ni hao belle- very smart considerations/observations especially re understanding a culture etc – many a time the English translation that I am given doesn’t match the body language, I would love to be able to understand what was really being said without my filtered interpreters translation

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