The best language to learn, argues Simon Long, is Chinese. Look at the numbers
“In German oder English I know how to count down
Und I’m learning Chinese,” says Wernher von Braun
Half a century ago, when Tom Lehrer wrote his satirical song, the idea of a German rocket scientist counting backwards to zero in Chinese must have sounded both exotic and rather sinister to his American audience. Now that China is ready to take over from America as the country that sends men to the moon, surely there can be no doubt that it talks the language the rest of us should be learning.
This is not, in fact, rocket science, but economic and political common sense. China is the most populous nation on earth. Even when India assumes that status in the next decade or so, Chinese speakers will still far outnumber those who understand and speak India’s biggest language, Hindi, even if Pakistani speakers of Urdu, which is very similar, are added in. If the point of a language is to be able to communicate with as many people as possible, there is no contest. Of course, there are many languages in China, too. But “standard Chinese”(putonghua, aka “Mandarin”), or something close to it, is understood almost everywhere, as it is taught in schools. So there is no need to agonise over which dialect to learn.
China’s economy is going to be the biggest in the world – the only question is when. You can make your own educated guess by using the clever interactive infographic at economist.com/chinavusa. The default option is 2018. Already China’s spectacular 30-year boom has transformed our lives. When I grew up in London, there were no Chinese tourists, and nothing we owned was made in China. And now? The Chinese economy is likely to continue to outpace the rich world’s for decades to come, tilting the balance of economic power. Learn Chinese, not to impress your future boss, but to understand what she is saying.
Simon Long is the Banyan columnist for The Economist