Thursday, December 23, 2010

Voxy: Learning English through the News

My mother's dream is to speak English as fluently as I do. I enjoyed teaching her during my few breaks back home, but after a while I started feeling tired. I was sick of reading through the textbooks that her awful ESL classes at the local community college forced her to labor through - what middle-aged student of English cares about the difference between past imperfect jibbers and future perfect jabbers? I started to amass different language learning sites mainly because I wanted my mother to use them and for me to remember them, but there was something flawed in those sites' curricula as well. They were teaching languages as systematically and academically as her textbooks. I wanted my mother to learn English as naturally as possible so that she could use it as quickly as possible.
Then I heard about Voxy. This is the pitch that its "About Us" says:
Voxy is about learning from what’s around you. From your life. Our unique bite-size language lessons use fresh, entertaining, topical content of your choosing, whether that be a story about your favorite team, some juicy gossip that just came out in the tabloids, or current events like politics and business. We then deliver these lessons to you wherever you want them, whether that is on your computer, in your email inbox, or via SMS. Finally, we make the quizzes, questions and practice fun, rewarding you along the way for becoming a better English speaker.

I forwarded it to my mother immediately. (My mother has been grasping the basics of the computer, the Microsoft Office Suite, and the Internet.) She is testing it out now, but I think Vconcept is brilliant. For now, it focuses on ESL learners (like my mother!), but it plans to expand into another languages. I can't wait until Voxy provides learning tools for East European and Southeast Asian languages!

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

20 Awesomely Untranslatable Words from Around the World

Why do other languages sound more poetic and succinct than English? Either I haven't read enough English literature to lament appropriately, or the grass is always greener on the other side.

I found the final two paragraphs of this article particularly relevant for all language learners. I've tried to answer this question as well in my blog - What does it mean to really learn a language? The author below borrows culinary verbs to express his frustrations on mastering different tongues, concluding that "time and emotion" are the critical factors to absorbing meaning in language. Vividly speaking, everything we learn demands a period of percolation - time for reflection and incorporation. Studying abroad creates this time for you. Abroad, you (hopefully) leave your multiple courses and extracurricular responsibilities to focus on one item alone - the language. The language will take you to places and to people unfathomable now, but perhaps that's what we study abroad for in the first place - to find visual associations to the words and grammar on our textbooks, and to allow them time to sink in.

"For myself, the hardest part about learning a new language isn’t so much getting acquainted with the translations of vocabulary and different grammatical forms and bases, but developing an inner reflex that responds to words’ texture, not their translated “ingredients”. When you hear the word “criminal” you don’t think of “one who commits acts outside the law,” but rather the feeling and mental imagery that comes with that word.

Thus these words, while standing out due to our inability to find an equivalent word in out own language, should not be appreciated for our own words that we try to use to describe them, but for their own taste and texture. Understanding these words should be like eating the best slab of smoked barbequeued ribs: the enjoyment doesn’t come from knowing what the cook put in the sauce or the seasoning, but from the full experience that can only be created by time and emotion."

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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Context and Meaning

I'm not sure that the writer is drawing the right conclusions from Professor Mair's article. Yes, 622 characters make up 90% of Rickshaw Boy and, according to some, only 1500 characters make up 90% of major Chinese newspapers (even less in Chinese newspapers published outside of China), but that does not necessarily mean that memorizing those requisite characters will lead to 90% comprehension. To master a character, one has to see it in either every single context possible, or in its most common environments.

Take the character 然 for example. Students of Professor Zhou's first year Chinese program at Yale will learn 忽然 or 当然, but the former is almost never used in colloquial Chinese whereas the latter is used in virtually any conversation that demands an affirmative declaration. Stepping higher into academic papers, students may come across rhetorical questions, such as 你以为然否?Walking back in time, we come across 然 used as the modern-day 是(yes) or 对(correct/right) in Mencius's treatises. Of course, knowing the meaning of the character is important - 然 means “like this, in this manner" - but learning definitions are useless without practicing the usages.

At least based on my conversations with my friends, Chinese students don't strive to memorize every single character's usage, but feel for what characters frequently surround that character. In this sense, the 1000 or so characters that make up 10% of Rickshaw Boy are grouped and learned together with those 622 more common common characters.

Learning Chinese takes time because mastery requires the observation of each character's various contexts. Sometimes, the connections are not obvious. Learning the word "is" and "are" in English doesn't mean that you know what will accompany those verbs all the time, but at least those words link the subject and object in a specific way. In Chinese, depending on what part of China you are in (and depending on what book you are reading - Rickshaw Boy was written when Mandarin was getting standardized), characters can take on various meanings


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Friday, July 16, 2010

Sealed Management - what????

I had been slowly traveling through cities from Suzhou to Xiamen to Shenzhen, meeting and building relations with migrant writers. Up in Beijing, it seems that some migrant villages are experiencing what the Beijing government has called "sealed management" - in other words, curfew regulation. Quite possibly the most ridiculous piece of news on internal migrants I've read so far. I had to use a VPN Client to open these webpages - I have not seen an article on this "feng1 bi4 shi4 guan3 li3" published on Xinhua, China Daily, or any other domestic media.

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Sunday, June 27, 2010

Migrant Beats: Observations on a Slow Train

There are four classes on a typical train in China – the soft bed (ruanwo), the hard bed (yingwo), the soft seat (ruanzuo), and the hard seat (yingzuo). The soft isn’t as soft it could be, and the hard isn’t as dreary as its lower price suggests. The Lonely Planet quotes most of its train prices by hardbed prices because the soft beds and seats have to be reserved sometimes several months in advance, preparation that most intrepid travelers do not want to do. Not that I’m brave or think very far into the future. I

did buy my train ticket to Suzhou as soon as I got to Beijing, and found two yingzuo tickets, one on a slow train (manche) for 88 RMB and the other for 700 RMB taking a seemingly aerial time of less than 12 hours. I wasn’t in any hurry to arrive in Suzhou, so I bought the former.

I passed through railway station security and found my seat with time to spare. The night before, a friend in Beijing kept on warning me I should lie that I lived in Liaoning or some northeastern province should any fellow passenger curiously ask my origins. “It’s for your safety – those yingzuo can be full of sketchy people,” he said. I was pleasantly surprised to find seating in my booth instead three old ladies on their way home to Jinan, a high school teacher, and just one teenager who carried a punkish air of rebellion that I was instructed to watch out for. After a few greetings, everyone slowly settled into states of hibernation seen only on long train rides in China.

Some immediately broke out their snacks of apples, cucumbers, sausages, breads, ramen noodles and sunflower seeds. Some fiddled with their cell phones or handheld Playstation players. Some just looked outside at passing trees, factories and railroad tracks. Some struck up conversations – parents on their children’s education, elders on gifts of medicine and sweet delicacies for their family back home, students on their summer plans, migrant workers on the increasingly stifling summer heat. Electric fans hanging overhead buzzed forth pockets of cool air. The sun eventually rendered all eyes droopy, and heads rested on small booth tables and strangers’ shoulders. Besides the occasional click of some cell phone or whimper of a hidden baby, the train fell silent.

An hour later, the hibernation resumed. Aromas of salty noodle soups filled the cramped train car, sliced by frequent slurps and burps. A few returned to sleep, content from the warmth of the soup in their bellies and of the sun on their skin. The man next to me sighed while enviously observing a couple of kids playing card games. “Xiaomo shiguang,” he said, “why is it so hard to burn time on a train…” The elderly grandmother trio in my booth chuckled.

The man turned his attention to me. “Where are you going?” he asked.

Suzhou,” I replied.

“Ooh, that sucks. Are you going back home?”

“No, just to see a few people and take in the sights.”

“I see. Where are you from?”

“Um,” I paused. “The northeast.”

“Really? Which province?”


“Interesting. What were you doing in Beijing?”

“I’m in college.”

“Which one?”

“Tsinghua.” (Well, this was true, when I was still attending IUP.)

“Whoa, one of our national geniuses. What are you studying?”


“Whoa! That’s a good major. I have a kid in high school who…”

I’ll end this pointless dialogue of lies here.

There is another class that I forgot to mention. The cheap standing ticket offers some sort of spot on the train, whether in the smoking sections between the train cars, a crouched space on the ground, or a lucky seat departed by a passenger. I woke up sometime around nine in the evening to find new personalities all around me, including a corpulent teenager to tired middle-aged man searching for a comfortable sleeping position on the way down south. In other booths and on the car floor, unfamiliar faces sat munching on ramen noodles. Many took off their shirts and rolled up their pant legs to allow more of their sweat to catch some sort of breeze.

We’re still twelve hours away from Suzhou.

We are now at Nanjing. Changjiang swirls below.

Agh, almost got off at Wuxi in my drowsy hurriedness!

Never again.

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Monday, June 21, 2010

Migrant Beats: Skin Village

“Where’s bus number 641?” Fangrong asked himself as he glanced through the bus schedule plates. We arrived at this bus station after pulling out a complicated list of directions from Sanyuanqiao to Picun. A street cleaner in an orange jumpsuit passed by. “Excuse me, is this where take 641?” I asked.

“641? 641…It’ll come,” the street cleaner replied, not looking up from the pile of dust he swept into

this portable dustbin.

“But there’s no sign here,” says Fangrong.

“It’ll come.”

Twenty minutes later, the mystery bus actually came. Past the fourth and fifth ring roads in the northeast of Chaoyang near the border of Beijing and Tongzhou, it took us to a small country stop called Picun, literally Skin Village. At the stop, the assistant curator and manager of the museum, Mr. Zheng Zhixi, awaited us.

“Get in this van and it’ll take you directly to the museum,” he said, handing the driver a small

bill. “I’ll follow behind on my bike.” He walked over to a pink and white bike parked in front a barley field.

The van stopped at a small neatly paved square with buildings colored with paint drawings done by children’s fingers. The Beijing Migrant Arts and Culture Museum, as I found it online, was more peaceful and less-visited than its pictures suggested. Mr. Zheng opened the museum door. A wave of trapped stale air went up my nose. The artifacts and documents spread throughout the exhibition quickly aroused my attention and ignore the dead scent.

The museum seeks to cover the history of the migrant worker, from its identity as the nongmin (farmer), to the nongmingong (rural migrant worker) and finally the xingongren (the new

worker). It started from the establishment of the household responsibility system in 1981 and the development of the special economic zones in the south, and fades into a bittersweet conclusion on the current hardships that new workers face through discussions on recent grassroots NGO development and changes in Chinese labor laws. I tried to take pictures of letters written by migrants to their factory bosses that they promise never to be late and work hard even after lasting through 22-hour shifts, but Mr. Zheng prevented me doing so. Instead, I bought the museum’s periodical, aptly titled Xin Gong Ren, and a qualitative/quantitative survey called “Research Report on Migrant Workers’ Residential Status and Future Perspectives.” The poetry contained in the periodical will be pertinent later on. The research report seems more relevant for those inclined to a social science essay, but it still contains valuable details on migrant life.

The basic layout of most migrant villages is similar. A grand gate with the village name in flowing xingshu calligraphy stands before a long road of small produce and butcher shops, clothing stands and secondhand electronics stores. Branching off from the main artery, vessels and veins of brick and cement houses that are hot during the summer and cold during the winter form a surveyor’s nightmare. Open waste containers piled with garbage and feces rot under the Beijing sun. And, even though the villages are all set to be demolished within two to three years, landlords continue to build houses and offices.

“The local landlords get compensated by the government for every usable square meter that is taken,” explained Mr. Zheng. “If they build, then the extra floors of usable space a

lso count. That’s why the walls are so thin – to maximize space. It costs about 500 RMB to build something per square meter, and compensation is around 1000 to 1200 RMB per square meter per floor… it’s a destructible investment.”

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Friday, June 18, 2010

Migrant Beats: Back in Beijing

I like airplane cabin weather better than Beijing weather. I felt like I was sluicing through a jelly of warm air, fighting my way through the customs gates and to the baggage claims. The terminal still hasn’t changed – unfortunately. While passing through the departure terminal in the electronic tram, I noted that the gates were still numbered in disarray, so that gate 1 is next to gate 72, 23 to 45, and so on. How many other people missed their flights because of the airport’s inefficient layout, I do not know.

This time in China, I am beginning field research for my senior thesis on literature written by internal migrants. As early as during the 1980s, rural migrants to major special economic zones like Shenzhen and Yanhai had recorded their reactions to the strange urban environments, their thoughts on migrant life and, and their witnessing of cruelty upon and discrimination of migrants. Described to “write while surviving” to accent the initiative that some have taken to jot passing thoughts and events despite the exhaustion from working long hours, the initial diaries and short stories created an entire “migrant literature” genre and the diverse physical forms of expression, from novels and poetry to expository essays and movies. During the 1990s, the genre died with a wave of younger migrants who did not care to write. At the turn of the century, literary prizes specified for migrant literature injected new interest in the genre, with award-winning works published in major domestic literary journals. Because migrant writers still lack connections with major publishing houses, some upload their works directly onto literary forums, while some print and distribute independently. With the support of the Robert Bates Fellowship at Yale University, I will interview writers and major literary critics of migrant literature in cities around China while collecting periodicals and books for my senior thesis in Chinese literature. In this blog, I will record my visits to museums and interviews of curators, migrant workers and writers.

For now though, I am still soaking in the changes in my old neighborhood. Wudaokou has changed again. Houbajia Village is completely razed, a microcosm of thousands of migrants reduced to white cement chunks and broken bricks. Northern sections of it are being turned into a park, while the rest of the area will be redeveloped into another residential zone with 20-floor apartments for Tsinghua’s professors and students. However, because the village stood on what was originally a graveyard back in the Ming dynasty (I think), the superstitious elderly of Tsinghua refuse to move out, even if the apartments there will be better. Two more 25-story buildings now stand across the west gate of Dongwangzhuang. Late at night, the shouts and gurgled vomits of Korean students complement the occasional taxi honk.

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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Tea, Cha, Chai: LiveMocha!

A friend sent me a link to a random site called LiveMocha. I thought it was supposed to be some sort of online order espresso delivery site, but it turned out to be a language study site. Naturally, I have to feature it on this blog!
It offers very comprehensive lessons for 38 languages, including Japanese, Korean, and Mandarin Chinese. (It even offers Esperanto!) I've been testing the lessons for those three languages, and have pleasantly been rewarded with grammar and pronunciation corrections. The virtual teachers' recordings sound natural, and the lessons truly build with sufficient repetitions to drill in key grammar patterns and vocabularies.

Like Lang-8, previously discussed in this blog, other members in the LiveMocha community who are native speakers of the languages you study can correct your recordings and writings - and they will. I got a response on one of my recordings in less than 5 minutes. In order to access higher level lessons, you have to accumulate Teacher Points by leaving constructive comments on other users' assignments. Pretty nifty setup.

Essentially, LiveMocha is to the Rosetta Stone as Open Office is to Microsoft Office. So far, I'm enjoying it a lot. I'm waiting for the site to roll out with lessons in Tagalog though. If you give it a try, friend me at runinmusic!

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Friday, May 14, 2010

Technical Intermission: Linking Blogger to Facebook

You just spent hours crafting your blog entry, resizing and arranging your pictures and changing fonts so that the world (namely, your friends) can read about your life. You've put your link in the "websites" box on Facebook in hopes that your friends will click and check in once in a while. Alas, they don't. When you upload photos of your travels on Facebook, your friends all say, "Whoa, that's so cool! Where did you take that?" And all you want to say is, "stfu. I wrote about this - go read."

Fortunately, you don't have to exclaim profanity. And no, it's not Facebook's fault that you're ignored and isolated from your social network (especially if you're in places like China - can people access Facebook in China now?) All you need to do is built a bridge that will allow your entries to be posted directly on everybody's news feed.

This way, at least your friends will be able to read the title and maybe the first few words of your entry.
So how do you do this?
1. Under the Layout tab on the back-end of your blog, click on "Edit HTML."
2. Check "Expand Widget Templates."
3. Click inside the box with all the code, and find (by pressing Ctrl+F or Apple Sign+F) the text "".
4. Right below that text, copy and paste the following bit of code:

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5. Click on "Save Template." View your blog. Below every entry, you should see the text circled below. Now, you can click on the blue-highlighted text to share your entry through facebook.
I hope this helps!

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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Eminem's "Without Me": Back to China!

I got news from the Office of Fellowship Programs at Yale that I earned a research fellowship to travel throughout China for the summer! Wooo!

I will share my project proposal and rough itinerary soon.

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Sunday, January 31, 2010

DigiLanguage: Using the Web

I wrote around New Year's Day on different dictionaries that I use to study East Asian Languages. The New York Times published a cool article that highlights some paid and free options to learn all sorts of languages. The BBC language site is very fun (I use it to study Polish), but here are some sites that you can use to hone your Korean, Japanese or Chinese language skills.

KBS World created this a while ago. I read and listened through the dialogues - I think this would be a great supplement to anyone studying anywhere from beginning to intermediate Korean at Yale.

Chinese Pod is great in that once you can listen and understand some of the intermediate-advanced recordings, the creators consciously select the latest vocabulary used in China and choose topics that are of immediate interest to its students. Unfortunately, it's a paid service. If you have an iTouch, you can download its recordings for a low cost.

I haven't tried this site out, but according to its homepage, all of its material is free. I'll test it over the next few days.

Happy studying.

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Cymbals - Random realization

As a freshman, I thought I'd be swallowing biophysics, biochemistry and biotechnology courses by now. Funny how I'm savoring seminars on Chinese, Korean and Japanese language and literature instead.

If only I read faster.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Zoom Zoom Zoom: Electric Bikes

I wonder if Mr. Oster has observed the increase of electric bicyclists in cities other than Beijing. I didn't think that traffic was as bad or accidents as frequent as he proclaims. For instance, in Kunming I noticed many more electric bikes in downtown streets back in January 2009 than on those of Beijing. However, what was different was that there were patrol officers who guided traffic and ensured that bicyclists stayed within their lanes, especially in two-way streets. At intersections, the officers fined or stopped anyone who would run the red light.

The rise of electric bicycles in Beijing and other major coastal cities highlights yet another issue on material necessity. I can see why a city like Kunming or Chongqing would have more electric bikes than Beijing - those cities are hilly. Those cities' residents need electric bicycles in order to commute within reasonable time limits. Yet coastal cities like Beijing and Shanghai are relatively flat in the central areas - the only hills are the highways and ring roads, man-made. What convenient obstacles. I suppose the electric bicycle industry has the urban infrastructure department to thank for its growing success. In a sense, the electric bikes are necessary to maneuver the long, rising curvy exits that break off from the main highways like bad hair. But ultimately, the change in the cityscape adjusted residents' needs to be dependent on unnatural additions.

I wonder where my bike is now. If it hasn't been stolen, it's probably still outside my old apartment in Dongwangzhuang, gathering dust next to the 80 year old man and his two flappy-eared dogs.

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Sunday, January 10, 2010

NYTimes on creativity and Green China

An article about the importance of China for artists. I recommend this read for anybody interested in finding room for creativity and innovation without feeling squeezed by money.

An Op-Ed by Thomas Friedman. Apparently, China is serious about leading the world's Green Revolution. I'm not so convinced, considering China actually seemed to weaken many of the Copenhagen proposals, but an interesting outlook.

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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Mad World: Chinese = Job?

My friend forwarded a very interesting blog entry called "Does learning Chinese lead to a good job in the United States? No." Though its argument creates quite a discouragement for all those who believe that Chinese language skills are an asset, it does have valid points. On campus, we often hear exciting stories of exotic escapades and wild adventures in East Asia, and dream of living it big without really understanding the opportunities created by understanding another world's culture, language and history. This entry grounds language ability in economic reality.

"I have been following Ben Ross' blog since its inception. He is an interesting chap who provided excellent insights into living in China when he worked in a Chinese barbers - long story.

His discussion on what it means for a Westerner to learn Chinese and spend three years in China is interesting. I admit I probably fall into the "wow - you speak Chinese - you must be able to walk into a high paid job".

The problem I now see clearly is that there are so many native Chinese who speak excellent English so the average westerner will never really be able to compete however much they try to learn Chinese.

This is a great quote. To most of my friends the "spouse" bit would be more than enough encouragement.

Rather than a fortune and a new career, most expats seem to return home with little more than a thicker waistline, a prodigious collection of DVD’s, and possibly a new spouse.

Ben speaks a lot of sense and shows some natural ability as an economist as he argues the case why his friend is ultimately doomed. His bleakness is refreshing (to an economist).

Ok, So you learned Chinese…Now where’s that dream job??? [Ben Ross's Blog]

Earlier this week I received an e-mail from an American friend of mine who had recently moved from China back to the US. My friend had spent three years in the Middle Kingdom, taught English, studied Chinese, and even worked a “real” job in Shanghai for half a year, and had now been back in United States for three months. His Chinese was solid, as it should be for anybody who spends three years in China, and good enough to be used on an occupational level. In his e-mail, he explained the frustration he was experiencing trying to secure a job in the United States which could build on his experience in China.

“I thought learning Chinese would be a hot commodity when I got back, and didn’t expect it would be this tough to find a job,” he expressed.

His sentiments are not out of the ordinary. In fact, the post-China unemployment funk is practically unavoidable for former expats upon their re-entry to the Western World, even in times when the economy is healthy. Part of the funk is due to the natural difficulties in transitioning back to American life. However, these frustrations are often aggrandized by high expectations, which are predicated on a fallacy that seems to follow any Westerner who has spent significant time living in China. It usually goes something like this and comes from the likes of parents, grandparents, teachers, generally anybody who is in a natural position to give you advice:

“Oh, you’re learning Chinese? China is the world’s next super-power, you know. You’ll be in high demand when you get back home.”

(Notice how people who make these comments never seem to be in the position to make use of your services. Yet they are confident others will be lining up to do exactly that.)

Chinese people provide similar, unsolicited life coaching. The line I hear most is:

你会英文也会中文。你应该做生意 。 “You speak English and Chinese. You should start a business.”

(As if that’s all it takes.)

The funny thing is that most of the people dispensing this kind of advice have never actually been in the situation which would require testing it out in the first place. They’ve never been an expat in China. And they’ve never looked for a “China job” in the US. However, they have heard all about it in the news, and they all seemingly buy into the axiom that: China is the next world superpower, and therefore there is no better way to cash in than to study Chinese.

The simple fact is however, mastery of Chinese, no matter how good you are, is NOT a golden ticket to employment in the United States.* That is, of course, unless your career goals are purely linguistic in nature (i.e. Chinese teacher, interpreter, or translator). More often than not, expats who learn Chinese and return home, find their way back into the same career (or school) path they had before they ever left for China in the first place.

Big money, international trades, product sourcing…these dreams are all in the trajectory of the scores of Tom Joads who show up annually in the Middle Kingdom. Everybody comes to China with a plan to strike it rich. Rather than a fortune and a new career, most expats seem to return home with little more than a thicker waistline, a prodigious collection of DVD’s, and possibly a new spouse. While China certainly is the current land of opportunity, capitalizing on this fact is not simply a matter of learning the language.

Although Chinese may in fact be in high demand, what’s equally important is to factor in is the supply of Chinese speakers. According to the US census, in 2006 there were 2.5 million** people in the United States who speak Chinese at home. That’s more than any language other than English and Spanish. What this means is that not even counting the hundreds of thousands of American currently studying Chinese as a second language, there are already over two million Americans, who by virtue of growing up speaking Chinese, speak the language better than you ever will, regardless of how much you study. From international traders to insurance salesmen to delivery boys at the local chop suey joint, most of the “China jobs” in the US are filled by Chinese Americans.

On the other side of the ocean, English proficiency in the Middle Kingdom is spreading like SARS in a Chinese train station during Spring Festival. Every year Chinese universities are churning out millions (literally) of graduating English majors, a large percentage of whom don’t find jobs with their bilingualness either. Those that do, tend to start out in the 1000 RMB per month range, about 170 USD. In short, there is no bottleneck in communication between China and the United States. And in a capitalist world governed by the laws of supply and demand, there is little justification for hiring an American and paying him an American wage solely because he can speak Chinese.

That being said, it certainly is possible to create a career out of your China experience, but here are some points you should consider.

-A decent “China job” is best attained by using Chinese to augment a pre-existing skill set. While the language alone won’t procure much in the way of employment, Chinese should give a competitive advantage to individuals who already have existing qualifications such as an engineering degree, a background in biochemistry, or experience in the financial sector.

-There are a substantial amount of career-oriented positions available which will make use of your Chinese skills. The thing is, most of them are in China, particularly Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen. If your goal is to base your career on Chinese, you should be comfortable with the idea that you’re going to be spending the majority of your time in China.

-In order to secure a job using your Chinese, you’re going to have to be pretty good. Basic conversational skills and “knowing the culture” aren’t going to get you squat. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly, but you should be able to sit in on a business meeting, soak up the details, and contribute to the conversation without falling too far behind. We’re talking a pretty advanced proficiency level here. Being literate helps too.

-But most importantly, finding a good China job relies much more on your actual skill set than your language skills per se. This is where people tend to kid themselves and hide behind their HSK scores. If you’re a poor communicator, disorganized, or can’t create an Excel spreadsheet, these traits are going to hurt your chances at employment much more than your inability to properly pronounce the third tone. Regard the bulk of your China job search as you would any other job search which wouldn’t pertain to your China experience. Your Chinese language chops are the gravy.

Now all of this is not to say that learning Chinese is a waste of time. Learning a foreign language, especially one spoken by 20% of the world’s population is, provides access to a wealth of knowledge and experiences unattainable to monolinguals. The ability to speak Chinese will allow opportunities for personal and intellectual growth to which it would be impossible to attach any price tag. But in terms of paying dividends measured in annual salary, the rewards of learning Chinese will likely never exceed the time and effort put into it. If you do decide devote the time and energy to study Chinese, do so out of a desire to further your own personal curiosities and intellectual development, not under the pretense that it will directly boost your career. For that, you’d be better off getting an MBA.

*I am assuming the same would apply to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, or Western Europe, but since I’ve never lived in any of those countries, I’m going to limit my direct discussion to the US.

**I’m willing to grant a significant number of that 2.5 million speak a dialect other than Mandarin (Unfortunately the census lumps all Chinese dialects together). However, current trends in immigration indicate that a) Chinese immigration to the US continues to increase and b) the vast majority of recent immigrants are proficient Mandarin speakers."

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