Language, and its main components, reading, writing and speaking, are not merely about communicating thoughts and ideas but about understanding and better appreciating the essence of the culture that invented them. Only then can we deeply appreciate the essence and the soul of a people by knowing the intricacies of both its language and culture. Artificial Intelligence or AI will certainly help us communicate better and better, but it may never help us know enough about the cultural DNA embedded in Chinese characters.
The world’s most popular languages are English and Mandarin. But being the most popular doesn’t mean that they are similar. I’m not even talking about the fact that these two languages look, sound and are completely different, that’s obviously true. I’m talking about the fact that English as a first or native language is spoken by only 20% of English speakers, while 80% learn English as a second or third language making it today’s lingua franca. In the case of Mandarin, however, almost all of the speakers are Chinese people in China or in the Chinese diaspora. So English is the common language bridging many countries, while Mandarin is not generally so because it’s mostly confined within a single, albeit, huge nation.
If we want to understand China, cooperate with it, do business with it or manage our fraught relations with it, we need to know its language and culture. This profound imbalance makes no sense in our 21st-century world when China has resumed the powerful position it held for millennia as a global leader in commerce, culture, thought and science. China is now the world’s second-largest economy, and the first in terms of Purchasing Power Parity. China turns out the most Nobel Prize quality scientific papers of any nation. It’s a nation that has to be reckoned with, not marginalized, encircled or stigmatized.
People, especially young people, should learn China’s language and culture for many compelling reasons. This is not learning merely for the sake of learning, but it’s in one’s self-interest, and in the self-interest of our shared futures.
It’s a scientific fact that when it comes to language learning, earlier is better because learning is easier. It’s because of the way young brains develop. Learning a different language results in more brain synapses or connections being formed, and this in turn has been shown to have a positive impact on cognitive abilities, including better memory, attention, and problem-solving skills. And in an increasingly more competitive world, who doesn’t need these skills?
It’s no wonder that even former US President Trump’s granddaughter, Arabella Rose Kushner, began learning Mandarin at age of three, and became fluent at seven years old. She can converse fluently in Mandarin, and she sings Chinese songs and recites Chinese poetry.
Several years ago I was privileged to address a large group of translators and interpreters in Jilin. I warned them that they needed a Plan B because technology was coming for most of their jobs. Now, in the Age of AI, while it’s true that AI may soon replace the need for many human translators and interpreters, it’s still critical for foreigners to learn Mandarin because it’s unlikely that AI will ever be able to encapsulate the wide sweep of Chinese history and culture embedded in Chinese characters.
No matter at what age learning takes place, however, knowing Mandarin and Chinese culture can open up new social and career opportunities in and outside of China. These include in such diverse fields as commerce, diplomacy and trade, to mention just a few.
Having a Harvard MBA is nice, but in China, it’s simply not enough on its own to compete. Why? Even more so than in the west, one of the main building blocks of Chinese personal and business culture is guanxi, or having strong relationship networks. It’s a Confucian element that was long ago hardwired into China’s DNA. Using a smartphone as a linguistic intermediary just doesn’t cut it! In fact, it may be a barrier to building deep friendships, trust and understanding.
Based on my observations and personal experiences, while it’s possible for foreigners to do business in China, either not speaking the language or not understanding the culture puts a foreigner at a significant disadvantage. And not knowing either is a recipe for disaster. Take my word for it, relying on intermediaries, even trusted ones, puts one in an inferior position in what’s already a very complex and challenging business environment.
Even as a tourist, a visit to China, will be infinitely more rewarding if you can communicate directly with Chinese people and deeply know their culture. Now that travel is resuming, China will soon surpass its annual pre-Covid total of more than 145 million inbound visitors annually.
This is vitally important now that East-West relations are so rocky. At the moment people-to-people diplomacy is one of our best remaining hopes of building international understanding and cooperation.
Albert Einstein was once asked what weapons would be used to fight World War III. He answered that he didn’t know but that he was certain that World War IV would be fought with sticks and stones. Frankly, I think that Einstein’s prediction was wildly overoptimistic. To help ensure that Einstein was wrong, we must try harder to understand each other and to see that we’re much more the same than we are different. The absolute best way to do that is to understand each other better, and for foreigners, this includes knowing both Mandarin and Chinese culture. AI software will never ever replace this need!
Harvey Dzodin is an American who studied at Harvard and London School of Economics. He was a political appointee in Jimmy Carter's administration and has been a Vice President of ABC-TV and in the UN in Vienna. He recently started the HCD Earthcare Culture Association because of his concern for our fragile environment. He has been an active commentator in English language Chinese media for many years and divides his time between Beijing and Vienna.
Yuan Liao（Cecilia）contributed to the story.