Ok, So you learned Chinese…Now where’s that dream job???

Posted in Linguistics, Society at 12:21 am by Benjamin Ross

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 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.


  1. Fred China said,

    November 17, 2009 at 1:15 am

    As always, you’re dead on. I hope a lot of people thinking about coming to China read this. I wish I had read it before coming to China. I’m also very grateful that you also pointed out that there are ways in which a China experience can be parlayed into a career and how. I agree completely that the skill set issue is crucial. Many of the job ads I read related to Chinese are looking for people with a career skill set already (dentist, lawyer, engineer) who are also completely bilingual.

    One thing I would add to this is that the situation may be slightly different for people a few years younger than us (I think we’re about the same age). When I graduated, at long last, from college a few years back, there were jobs available in my hometown (not a major metropolis) ,even if they were kind of crappy. Now, finding a job of any kind has gotten really, really difficult. In China, there are still vastly more employment opportunities (esp. if you’re white and a native English speaker, or can pass as one) and it’s possible to get a couple of years of solid work experience here, something that gets progressively more difficult back home. Employers are always looking for experience and China, at least right now, offers more in the way of opportunity for building up that part of your resume.

    How’s GRE study coming? I’m doing the same. I enjoyed the bit in your recent post where you talked about explaining to Chinese people that you’re having to study your own language. I’ve been doing that on a regular basis.

  2. Yang Kun China said,

    November 17, 2009 at 2:17 am

    Totally. Language aptitude has nothing to do with getting a “good” job. It’s amazing at the number of foreigners in China who speak fluent Chinese and haven’t parlayed it into a promising career. Likewise, foreigners who speak broken Chinese and have big jobs. Perhaps no one knows this better than Chinese people? 10 years ago in China if you spoke English, you were guaranteed a solid job. These days, English aptitude doesn’t really make a difference. All the multinationals will expect their employees to speak fluent English.

    If you’re going to study a foreign language, you better do it for personal interest first.

  3. John B China said,

    November 17, 2009 at 5:01 am

    I would say, though (perhaps in contrast to Yang Kun above), that not speaking Chinese is increasingly an impediment to finding a good job in China. There are, as you say, lots of people coming to China and learning the language to a pretty impressive level of ability, and so for even the jobs where a foreigner is a must (also, as you point out, increasingly rare), at least enough Chinese ability so you won’t be a burden on the company’s administrative staff is a must.

    I personally wouldn’t hire anybody who couldn’t at least handle, say, the process to open a bank account or apply for a credit card (including reading and filling out forms). Who wants to babysit the white guy all day? :)

  4. GAC China said,

    November 17, 2009 at 5:41 am

    Thank you for this post.

    I have gotten a double dose of the “Oh, learning a foreign language will get you a good job!” because I have a double major in Spanish and Chinese. Needless to say, even before I travelled to China I started to figure out that, yes, I have language skills, but I don’t have the other qualifications I need to use them with. Talking to people is great, but what to talk about?

    This doesn’t bother me too much. My passion is for language itself, and I think I would be happy to become a translator or even study linguistics in the future (though I know the latter really doesn’t require a foreign language). I just know now that I won’t be a shoe-in for a high-paying job purely because of language skills, and I’m OK with that. I never really dreamed about making mega bucks, just getting by doing what I love to do.

  5. Alex United States said,

    November 17, 2009 at 7:39 am

    I’d agree with most you say, other than the MBA point – both language and advanced business degrees are a tool/skill set which make doing things, like speaking or managing, easier.

    But for both, it’s quite important to know what to speak or manage, and both are much much more valuable with a drive and interest.

    I’d suggest to your friend to do what interested him and/or what he was good at, even if it didn’t directly involve Chinese at the outset it could come in useful later. Without demonstrated interest and participation, or a decent load of experience, finding a job anywhere isn’t that easy. One use a commodity makes.

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    November 17, 2009 at 8:47 am

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  7. Chinamatt United States said,

    November 17, 2009 at 9:55 am

    Unfortunately, the jobs I want back in the states have nothing to do with Chinese skills…and most of the jobs I wanted disappeared a few months before I returned.

  8. Tex China said,

    November 17, 2009 at 12:01 pm

    I have yet to really zero in on a skill set. I’m a history major/coaching minor with experience as a basketball referee. I had been really worried about the lack of a real skill set until I talked to Matt @ http://mattschiavenza.com/ (I hesitate to steal his thunder too much cause he posts here). I believe he mentioned in one of our conversations he latched onto a skill set 3 1/2 years after his China arrival (I’m a bit over 1/2 a year away from this). I strangely don’t check Matt’s blog as much as I do Ben’s, but I enjoy most of the work he puts out. So if you’re like me and lacking a dead on skill set-be patient but vigilant looking for what you can offer. As for me so far I’ve thought about the history circuit (but I’d have to learn tons of ancient characters I think), or being a foreign (the first?) CBA referee (hahaha).

  9. Chris Carr United States said,

    November 17, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    Good post, Ben.

    Greetings from sunny California.

    Your post relates to what we try to teach our MBA students over and over and over … for such opportunities (either in China or the USA or elsewhere), one must always be able to explain and offer the “value add” to clients, customers, bosses, etc. If one can’t do that, their dream/vision is highly unlikely to not happen in any job or business venture, at least in this economy. Successful employment and business ventures are very difficult — not the check the box ease and mentality that those coming from non-business disciplines often think it is. The idea is the easy part (sorry engineers and architects, for example). The business side and its execution … now that is the really, really hard part.

    See my related post and some listed resources below:


    Cheers from Cal Poly,


  10. Jeff United States said,

    November 17, 2009 at 10:51 pm

    Hear hear!
    Language proficiency and international experience are skills to add to the repertoire, not the repertoire itself. I think the dialogue is often too much focused on abstract ideas of “making yourself attractive” to recruiters and not enough on good old career building.
    One nitpick, though, about people who grow up speaking Chinese in the home in the states. Often these people lack the proper business talk, or “grown-up talk” that makes their language skills valuable. I remember sitting on a United flight into the states one time and cracking up as a Chinese-American spent 15 minutes trying to explain that we had to wait for another plane to finish loading at our gate.

    Here’s a list of jobs that you can get “just speaking Chinese”:
    – Airline flight attendant or announcer
    – Casino greeter
    – Bank teller (loan officer if you’re good)
    – customer support hotline staffer

    In other words, you’re stuck with about the same kind of supporting roles as your English speaking counterparts in China.

    Keep up with the great posts, Ben.

  11. Bob Page United States said,

    November 18, 2009 at 11:34 am

    excellent post. Beyond Mandarin, I believe it applies to any language. Two points:

    1. As a Midwesterner, you’ll appreciate this. People like your friend are pioneers, and they’re ahead of the curve. This is the experience in 2009. But I believe it will be a different world in 2012, with far greater demand for fluency in Mandarin than at present.

    2. Economic conditions in the USA are such that long job searches are increasingly common. In many cases, it takes longer than three months just to get from identifying a lead to landing an in-person interview.

    Bob Page
    The Mercury Brief

  12. Matt Schiavenza United States said,

    November 19, 2009 at 3:06 am

    Well said Ben (and thanks for the reference Tex). A rule of thumb I’ve always found wise was that in order to succeed with a China-related job, you have to be good at Chinese and one other thing. It used to be that being an interpreter/translator was an exception but nowadays even they are being forced to specialize. I know three people who make a living doing Chinese/English interpreting (including Ben) and one specializes in medicine, one in arts, and one in law.

    I also second the point that being in China matters a lot, a lot, a lot. Everyone I’ve met who has been successful in this country has mastered the art of networking, which includes attending conferences, handing out business cards, using technology efficiently, and generally promoting oneself well. In an ideal world people would be compensated solely for their intelligence and qualifications but we all know that ‘who you know’ is as if not more important than ‘what you know’.

    I realize that not all expats are willing or able to devote a major chunk of their lives to living in China, but it just goes without saying that the more time you spend here the easier you’ll find it to find an interesting job.

  13. fedi Italy said,

    November 19, 2009 at 11:05 am

    Might be also a matter of personal capacity of adapting to the workplace and a bit of luck. I have a friend who just studied chinese for 3 years and is now working in Bank of China, foreign office. No financial background.

    Then, what about a job in international institutions/governative jobs? Yeah I know it’s pretty hard getting into there but as an example, administrative jobs might not require any special pre-existing skill set I guess. A “multi-cultural degree” may be enough, as what you actually need is a state of mind that allows you to work in a multicultural environment. The rest, it’s just experience, you learn to do your job directly on the workplace. And, of course luck is also involved, to be in the right place at the right time is not the easiest part.

  14. david India said,

    November 25, 2009 at 3:03 am

    Nice post. I can understand the the frustration you feel Benjamin. But I didn’t know that it could happen because of languages too. I tried to secure a job in US long back and I didn’t find one. Then I turned to various countries and fortunately I got settled. I always thought learning different languages is good to sustain a career in different countries.
    All the best.
    Thanks for sharing your story here.

  15. Benjamin Ross United States said,

    November 25, 2009 at 6:44 pm


    I’m not frustrated. I just hear from a lot of frustrated, disillusioned people. I use my Chinese every day for my job, and am content with it. I’m also not exactly rich, but under no disillusion that I will ever get some dream job on account of Chinese skills.

  16. DylanK Canada said,

    November 29, 2009 at 1:49 am

    North American university Chinese programs are filled with business students (or Asian Studies majors that think Asian Studies is a business degree), who have bought into the Chinese hype that people are talking about here.

    You’re right on that a majority of business jobs connected to China are filled by Chinese-Canadians/Americans or Chinese/Taiwan/Malay/Singaporean expats that graduated from North American schools.

    A problem a lot of these Chinese-studying business students don’t appreciate is that, first of all, like everyone has noted, it’s really hard to parlay that language talent into a job, and second of all, the majority just suck at Chinese. Even if they can get the basics of spoken Chinese down, a very small percentage ever attain anything near a mastery of reading and writing Chinese.

  17. justin Japan said,

    December 13, 2009 at 2:39 pm

    “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.”

    Nice piece but I don’t get the above quote at all. Have you never met a huaqiao? I will never be able to speak better? That would be sad if true! Speaking a language at home gurantees no more than a tenuous grip on it. I’ve met a Canadian huaqiao whose mother speaks only Mandarin to him but who can only reply in Engilsh. It’s not uncommon at all. In Japan I met a Chinese (race) girl who, despite being native in Japanese and knowing ‘Kanji’ is quite 100% illiterate in Chinese. Even though it is the only language she speaks with her parents and sister, in a short conversation I managed to use several extremely common words she didn’t know. (including the word for roommate, which I tried both tongwu and shiyou)

  18. GAC China said,

    December 13, 2009 at 10:50 pm

    I’m here at a special language program at Zhejiang University and have met several huaqiao here studying Chinese for one of two reasons:

    1) They spoke a fangyan at home and had little or no exposure to Mandarin.
    2) They can speak Mandarin, but never learned to read.

    I think as more Mandarin-speakers move out into the diaspora and more Mandarin-language schools start popping up, there will gradually be more huaqiao that are competent in Mandarin, but it won’t necessarily mean they will all be better than a non-native. Language loss happens in a lot of immigrant groups — I also speak Spanish and I have met a few Hispanics with limited vocabulary or who never really learned Spanish at all (at home, that is), in the US the general rule is that immigrants lose their “mother language” in the third generation.

  19. Benjamin Ross United States said,

    December 14, 2009 at 10:23 am

    @Justin and GAC

    Point I was trying to make is that there is a critical period during which one can acquire native fluency in a language. Linguists generally set this as spanning from birth to puberty. After the critical period, it is essentially impossible to learn a language without an accent and a slight degree of awkwardness.

    Sure, if parents don’t put effort into insuring their children SPEAK the parents’ native language, they won’t learn it properly, which is why you get a lot of Huaqiao who can comprehend Chinese perfectly, but don’t speak it well. Same goes for any ethnic group in a foreign country.

    However for those that do actually grow up speaking the language, and many do, they will speak it better than anybody who learns it in their post-pubescent years.

  20. justin Japan said,

    December 14, 2009 at 10:45 am

    Well… I guess I’m still not clear on the value this better speaking fluency (according to your limited definition). Sure it might be aesthetically more pleasing if they nail the accent perfectly — but that’s about it. A non-huaqiao who actually did his bachelor’s/master’s degree in Chinese (and worked his ass off to learn everything) is going to be light-years ahead in dealing with any actual work/non-casual situation where an adult and/or professional vocabulary and literacy are required. Literacy is a very non-trivial thing I think — there is going to be a huge gap between someone who grew up speaking a language, even extremely fluently, with his family and in the community, but was not educated in that language and a native whose whole educattion was in that same language. Not insurmountable by any means by the advantage “head start” becomes trivial when you consider heritage speakers’ knowledge of the language starts around but ~5% (guess) of what has to be learned for actual near-native proficiency.

    BTW I can cite books which back my claim up. Very few of the learner who reach near-native levels of proficiency (meaning educated erudite command of the language) in a second language spoke the language at home growing up (as in huaqiao, etc.). Research was unable to identify the exact reason why, but at any rate huaqiaos are statistically less likely to reach near-native levels than I — someone with no Chinese ancestory.

  21. GAC China said,

    December 14, 2009 at 9:27 pm

    Justin hit that pretty well, I’d just like to clarify: If someone actually does learn Mandarin and English both from childhood, and their subsequent education makes them literate in both and able to handle professional vocabulary in either language, they will have an advantage. However, AFAIK native bilinguals are fairly rare, to the point that some linguists doubt that it’s possible to have two truly native languages.

    Being able to operate in professional registers in both languages is key. I have Chinese friends who grew up in China speaking Mandarin all their lives who have told me that they would have difficulty explaining their research (these are grad students) in Mandarin because they learned all of the terms in English. I’m not saying it’s impossible, you know better than me that you can attain professional competency in two languages from your translation work, but I doubt it would come easily even to someone born speaking two languages.

  22. Benjamin Ross United States said,

    December 15, 2009 at 3:44 am

    Great discussion here, now my chance to chime in…

    I know exactly what you both are saying in terms of Chinese people speaking the language familiarly but lacking the professional vocabulary necessary for the job market. I have a good friend whose parents are from Taiwan, was born in the US, but learned Mandarin before English. Her Mandarin sounds completely natural and unaccented…but the way she expresses herself makes her sound like a third grader.

    However, what is often overlooked is that expanding ones ideolect to include intelligent terminology and industry jargon is not one of the more demanding aspects of language learning. This is coming from somebody who could describe in perfect medical Chinese, the process, machinery, and medical benefit of a colonoscopy, yet still undoubtedly speaks with a slightly awkward American accent.

    Expanding one’s vocabulary is essentially a matter of memorization. Eliminating one’s accent, plus the other qualities associated with a nonnative 语感 (language feeling?) requires much more precision and care.

    Take my Taiwanese friend, give her the textbooks, and throw her in a semester of Chinese medical school. I’m willing to bet her medical Chinese would be smoother than a non-native speaker who went through all 4 years of the same program.

    As for people having multiple native languages, it certainly is possible, but takes a significant effort from the parents. Children innately have a mean streak in them that incites them to mock those who are different (this is completely cross cultural). Nothing marks children as “different” more than speaking a different language. Thus, in a multi-cultural environment like the United States, children, when left unchecked, will generally shun their native language in favor of language. The parents talk to the kids in the native language, the children respond in English, thus the 会听,不会说 phenomenon.

    At my parents house in Kansas City we have Chinese neighbors whose three children were born in the US. Inside the house, the parents absolutely forbid their children from speaking any English. The kids attend regular American schools, and thus picked up a native fluency in English, just like any other American kids. When they speak Chinese, they sound just like regular Chinese children.

    The same would go for Southern China as well. In Fujian, most people outside major cities still learn a dialect before Mandarin. Mandarin comes in kindergarten as their teachers (in theory) use it is the main form of instruction. While you could argue all day that Chinese dialects are not languages, I would disagree, and maintain that by in large most Fujianese possess two native languages. Just my 2 mao.

  23. GAC China said,

    December 15, 2009 at 4:42 am

    I would never argue that “dialects” or fangyan are not languages, I have considered using the term “topolect” as suggested by linguist Victor Mair, since a fangyan could refer to a language or a dialect of a specific language (using the linguistic definition, where two varieties are dialects of the same language if they are “mutually-intelligible”, not going into the complications of that right now).

    I’ll defer to your experience on technical vocabulary. In fact I’ve argued with people who regarded minority languages as inferior because they lacked technical vocabulary (“But can you use it to explain quantum physics.”), saying that all it would take would be for schools and universities to be set up using that language and the technical terms would probably come within a decade. I think this would be a similar thing, even though vocabulary is important, once you have the basic grammar down and about 2,000 words, adding new vocabulary is relatively trivial.

    The basic point is that learning a second language is never trivial, even growing up in a bilingual household (as you alluded, a child’s natural instincts will make them avoid learning more languages than they need). Can a huaqiao with native Mandarin fluency outperform a foreign learner? Sure, but they are still going to have to take some advanced Mandarin courses to get to that professional level, or get some of their higher education in Mandarin. It’s definitely a head start, but they still have to work.

    Wow, been a while since I’ve had a good, thoughtful discussion on the internet, haha.

  24. Fred China said,

    December 17, 2009 at 8:28 pm

    Great post and great comments — I’m always impressed by how thoughtful the discussion on this blog is. Perhaps it’s slightly off topic but I’m going to bring up a tangential issue that I’m curious about and am interested in y’alls learned opinions on. Learning the language is one thing but learning the culture and the customs is another. 两回事 and all that. Probably too broad and stereotypicalized (since we’re in the linguistics section) question, but, are overseas Chinese more culturally attuned to Chinese (I guess it must matter which “parts” of China we’re talking about) culture and thus able to function better here. Seems I see a bunch of reports on companies led by foreign born Chinese running into the ground here but I’m always curious about how to handle things in a positive outcome producing way here.

  25. GAC China said,

    December 18, 2009 at 12:04 am


    I don’t have as much experience with China stuff as Ben and others, but I think they will agree when I say “yes and no”. If the Huaqiao you’re talking about is the kind that regularly goes back and forth to China to visit relatives, then they will be familiar with a lot of the cultural norms and expectations. If they were adopted by an American family as a young child and have never been to China, they’ll have no clue.

    It’s also important to realize that knowing how people act on the street doesn’t tell you how the business world works. From what I’ve read, those overseas Chinese that got into trouble with doing business in China had no idea how to deal with businesses or businesspeople — they were (stupidly) chosen to lead China ventures purely because they were “Chinese”.

    A last note: people who are recognizably foreign, expecially whites, are often given a pass on some cultural customs. You can fake your way through at simple customs like using chopsticks and “ganbei!” and plead ignorance. That doesn’t mean you don’t have to learn to deal with Chinese differently, but the way Chinese interact with whites (or blacks) is different from how they treat Chinese and other East Asians (who are often assumed to be Chinese until they correct someone).

    BTW, I summarized some key points of our previous discussion on my own blog (I thought Ben had pingbacks, but I didn’t see one pop up): http://gacorley.wordpress.com/2009/12/15/do-chinese-americans-speak-better-chinese-than-me/

  26. Benjamin Ross United States said,

    December 18, 2009 at 3:04 am

    I actually had an interesting conversation with Kaiser Kuo on this topic two summers ago when I was in Beijing. If you don’t know Kaiser, he’s ethnically Chinese, but was born and raised American. He mentioned that since he’s Chinese (outwardly) he is expected to comply with most rules of Chinese culture that would often be overlooked on an American who wasn’t of Chinese descent. He also gets a lot of compliments on his English.

  27. Carius United States said,

    January 3, 2010 at 12:58 am

    Wow excellent post and discussions!

    I just want to add my 2 cents.

    It is indeed true as some have observed most second generation huaqiao can’t speak or if they do speak Mandarin, speak it horribly. My Mandarin accent have been commented by a professor in Chinese department as sounding 怪怪. In my defense, Mandarin is not my native language. As Ben had mentioned various dialects are really different languages. In my case, my mother tongue is the Fuzhou dialect and I have learned Mandarin mostly through watching Chinese TV series and reading the accompanying subtitles. Plus, I lived in Midwest I never really have a chance to speak Mandarin in daily life. Even at home we alway speak the dialect. But sad thing is most second generation can’t even speak the dialect fluently anymore. Far too many huaqiao my age(I’m in mid-20s) or younger I met could only speak English. GAC mentioned third generation will lost their “mother language”, I already observed this process begin in second generation. Also many 3rd/4th generation Indonesian huaqiao I met could no longer speak Chinese. I’m also guilty of doing the same thing; I found that I’m slowly losing my fluency in Chinese. When I was a child I used to be able to speak Cantonese fluently but when I use it recently I found myself not able to express myself as well as I would in English. I firmly believe that speaking a language require constant exercise; just as if a person quit going to gym their some of their muscles will atrophize, if a person stop speaking their language they will lose some of the fluency.

    That all say and done, of course my spoken Mandarin proficiency won’t be able to compete with any non-native speakers who is a graduate of 4 years Chinese program. But I suspect that if I’m dump in the middle of China and forced to speak only Mandarin for a year, I would be able to speak near-native level with some accent. The tough part would be the cultural norm and the written language. Cultural norm can be learn with time but written language will take YEARS no matter what.

    Recently, I was asked to translated a technical paper in my field into English, I failed miserably. I just don’t know the technical vocabulary in Chinese! But give me a week I could master the material as any non-native Chinese student would.

    Anyway who cares about Mandarin, I’m only interested interested reading Chinese :)

  28. FOARP Japan said,

    January 3, 2010 at 11:51 pm

    A lot of people here are pooh-poohing the Mandarin skills of ethnic Chinese living in the west, the only thing I can add to that is that I have met ethnic Chinese, born or raised from an early age in the west, who have failed to achieve fluency either in English or in Chinese. I think life for such people must be quite strange, as there is no language in which they may express themselves without sounding like a non-native speaker.

    However, even if the expat can acheive a high standard of spoken/written fluency, if they are not ethnic Chinese they will still have a significant credibility gap as compared to ethnic Chinese Chinese-speaking people.

    I also have to agree with Ben that Chinese has not turned out to be a killer skill in getting a job in the west, although this was something I pretty much resigned myself to in 2005 after I looked about in the UK for a job then. However, it is possible to gain experience in fields in China which it would be difficult in the west for someone lacking experience to break into. Hence after going back to the UK in 2005 I managed to get a patenting job in China, living in a suburb of Shenzhen which would, for me, have been unbearable to live in had I not been able to speak Chinese. Now I work in Japan, still in the field of patenting, but making much more money than I did in China. Hopefully when the economy recovers in the UK (whenever that is) I will be able to go back to the UK and qualify as a patent attorney.

    Hence, for me at least, learning Chinese and going to China has paid off, not to the extent of getting bombarded by dream jobs, but it has set me feet on the road to a profitable career.

  29. traveler United States said,

    January 4, 2010 at 2:48 pm

    Great post and good comments too.

    I’m a Chinese-American (1st generation, born and raised) but I’d have to answer that my “true” native language would be English. I grew up speaking Cantonese at home (still do), learned Mandarin when I was really young, and was educated in English. I don’t know what it’s like to live in China but I can definitely say that whenever I’ve been to either Hong Kong or Beijing, people think I’m a native when I speak. (Beijing’s a bite trickier though because I don’t look like a ‘northerner’ but aside the difference in looks, people have generally thought I’m a native Beijinger.) The only real differences I’ll say that catches up with me is the fact that I (like many other ABCs) do not read and write Chinese (so reading the newspaper or even street signs is out of the question) and the local customs and the slang are different than in the US. I know enough common idioms and proverbs (went to Chinese school as a kid for a while) to understand what the meaning is when it is used, but by far and for sure, I would never think to use those same idioms when speaking, and the same goes for the slang. Personally, my reading skills have improved, but I think I should also note that it took *A LOT* of patience (and karaoke-ing in Chinese songs!) to finally be able to read some of the harder words. Having an interest in learning helps as well, but people forget that and think that words/vocabulary will automatically ingrain itself in their brains.

    I also think that it’s unfortunate that 2nd or 3rd generation American kids lose the chance to use their ‘native’ language ability because I know plenty of 1st gen people like myself, but who can’t say more than ‘ni hao’ and ‘xie xie’. I would like to think that I know enough ‘adult’ Chinese to not sound like a 3rd grader, but I also know my limitations. I’m lucky enough to have learned all three while young so I can blend in everywhere when I speak even if I am a minority everywhere. (Try explaining *that* to native Chinese people!)

    I’m relatively sure that for me, no matter how easy it is to use English, I would stick with the “only Chinese at home” rule if I have kids. I’d do it for three reasons – one, because in outwardly appearance, not knowing how to speak a language you look like you should speak becomes just a little shameful (the irony of being teased for having an ability only to realize you shouldn’t have lost it later) and you’ll spend the rest of your life trying to catch up to “looking like you should know that language,” two, knowing more than one language means knowing how two different customs operate (an advantage in the real world even if it doesn’t automatically show), and three, because I grew up that way and know the benefits of speaking two or more languages. (Actually, I don’t know life without knowing 2 languages and I can’t imagine being mono-lingual.) I’m grateful that I can only speak Chinese at home even if I do think it’s unfair so much was dependent on me being able to translate things like bills, signs, or documents, but that’s small potatoes in terms of how much I know in vocabulary, customs, and the ability to communicate with my relatives still in Asia. (Unfortunately, they also say the “Since you know English and Chinese, you should work in Asia” (as if China was all of Asia) or the “People should be knocking down your door asking you to work for them!” solely for my language skills. But they forget, like my peers who can speak 2 or 3 languages as well, when you write a resume, the fact that you speak a second or third language is literally a line or two on the resume and not the resume itself. Mind you, I would love to parlay those 2 or 3 lines into a full resume, but I haven’t quite worked out how yet. (I *am* actually trying to get a job as a translator, so you’d think it would be easier!) If anyone has tips, I’m all ears!

  30. GAC China said,

    January 5, 2010 at 12:58 am


    “I have met ethnic Chinese, born or raised from an early age in the west, who have failed to achieve fluency either in English or in Chinese. I think life for such people must be quite strange, as there is no language in which they may express themselves without sounding like a non-native speaker.”

    I think you might want to clarify that statement a bit. English and Chinese are by far not the only languages around, and they’re not even the only languages with international reach, and it is effectively impossible to not have a native language without having an incredibly severe disability or being a feral child. Maybe you’re talking about people who spoke a fangyan at home and grew up in a non-English speaking country?

  31. justin United States said,

    January 5, 2010 at 5:08 am

    I think he’s likely literally talking about just what he said. As sad as it is, I have a friend who has no native language — no language for which his intuitive grasp of grammar and vocabulary would ever be good enough to allow him to translate into that language. It is sad and a bit frightening, but a very real phenomena indeed. All it requires is (in my friend’s case) a foreign language being spoken at home, a local language which is used as a ‘native’ language up until near the end of the critical period, and a family move and subsequent complete 100% abandonment of the local language (which was previously one’s hope of reaching adult native ability) and adoption of another local language (in this case English) after the move.

    I’ve never discussed it with him cause it doesn’t really serve any purpose and would most likely make him feel bad — but he has told me that English is far and away his best language. His English would be grossly in adequate for any professional use or translation where basic errors are unacceptable.

  32. Benjamin Ross United States said,

    January 5, 2010 at 9:44 am

    The problem of children having no native language is real, and a product of parents’ misunderstandings of the process by which children acquire language. I met a girl once who had a Japanese father and a Chinese mother, but was raised in the United States. Since she was born in the US, and since her parents communicated with one another in English, they decided to speak to her only in English. The result was that while she spoke English “fluently,” she had one of the strangest pigeon accents I have ever heard, which while it didn’t necessarily impede communication, certainly put her at a competitive disadvantage (people make a lot of generalizations based on how you speak, especially in brief encounters, ie. job interviews). She had spent several years of her life, right around the critical period, in China, and thus spoke Mandarin well, but with a heavy American accent, and she spoke no Japanese at all. Her situation was extreme (2 parents speaking 2 different native languages, both in a foreign country), but it examplifies a process I see happening all the time in the US…Chinese parents speaking to children in heavily accented Chinglish, Hipspanic parents speaking to children in Spanglish…etc. Then what you get is essentially, children who grow up natively speaking a pigeon. From my experience (I am no linguist) the best way to linguistically rear children is for parents to speak to them *only* in the parents’ native language. Children will learn the native tongue of the land from their peers with little difficulty at all (assuming they attend public school), and ultimately posses 2 native languages, as opposed to 1 native pigeon.

    I’ve previously cited my neighbors at my parents’ house in Kansas City multiple times, because I have experienced their language policy work first hand as I’ve watched their children grow. The parents were both born in China, moved to the US after college, and speak decent, albeit heavily accented and often grammatically incorrect English. All four of their children were born in the United States, and throughout their lives the parents have retained a strict policy of only speaking Chinese in the house, to the point that they will scold their kids for using English at home. This may seem harsh, but the result has been that their childrens’ Mandarin is virtually indistinguishable from youngsters who have grown up in China. As for English, they simply threw their kids into regular American public schools, starting at kindergarten, and within a few months, poof, native English came. Now, talking to them on the phone (the oldest is probably in sixth grade or so) you could never detect that English was technically their second language.

    The root of the problem is that parents often underestimate the abilities of children to learn languages which exists before the critical period (roughly the time of puberty). This ignorance has been endemic for generations, but seems to be reversing in the US as immigrants are increasingly encouraged to be proud of their heritages rather than abandoning them.

  33. GAC China said,

    January 5, 2010 at 7:45 pm

    Hmm, seems I was a little hasty in my response. Yes, I can certainly see how those problems occurring. I have a little familiarity with the language acquisition process from linguistics classes and some family members with education training, so I have an idea of how those problems could occur. Definitely something to keep in mind.

  34. Carius United States said,

    January 5, 2010 at 11:12 pm

    Full disclosure, I’m not a linguist.

    I have to disagree with Ben and many others in the comments about children having no native language. In the example given by Ben, could we consider the possibility that the pidgin English is the girl’s native language? She may not be able to speak the standard Midwestern American English but that doesn’t mean she has no native language. If you based a language just on their accent and grammar, what about all the children who were raised in the household that were speaking Southern Twang/Drawl or Ebonics. Do we have to labeled them as having no native language? The only tragedy I see is that she is so unique. If everyone were to speak English with her accent, then we won’t even have this discussion.

    I really have a problem with people labeling a person with no native language. Language is intrinsically what make a person, a human being instead of an animal. In my mind, if you think a person has no native language than she or he is somewhat less than human. I want to EMPHASIZE
    I’m NOT accusing anyone of harboring this extreme view. It is just my opinion. For me, language is just a mean of communication. If that communication occurred then we have a language. All these discussions about accent and grammar while useful, shouldn’t be use to judge whether a person could speak a language.

    If we step back a bit and think about where the Standard Language came from, We ( or at least I) discovered typically the group with biggest gun have benefit of declared their spoken language the standard. For example, how come, Beijing dialect is national language of China instead of Nanjing dialect as argued by some Chinese scholars. Well, Beijing just happened to be capital of China. How come Standard French is based on French that was spoken around Paris? Same reason. How come Standard American English is Midwestern instead of Southern English, which is linguistically closer to Elizabethan English? I don’t know 😛 What I’m trying to say is the standard language itself is artificial and arbitrary.

    Nevertheless, standard exist. I agreed with Ben, a person with accent will be at competitive disadvantage. But at same time the post made it abundantly clear, language is just one of many repository of skills a person could possess. If language is a weak point, focus on acquiring other skills that will make it non-issue. I haven’t been back to China for awhile but I’m sure others will be able to tell us about expats who couldn’t speak any Chinese if their life depend on it. Those expats must possess skills that made their language handicap a non-issue in their career. Concentrate on becoming like them, so even if you have a accent, others will HAVE TO understand you.

    There have been many discussions about “critical period”. Looked like I missed it. Please kindly send any grammatical errors to my throwaway email retardedlegions AT gmail.com Thanks!

  35. FOARP Japan said,

    January 6, 2010 at 6:02 pm

    @GAC -“Maybe you’re talking about people who spoke a fangyan at home and grew up in a non-English speaking country?”

    No, I am genuinely talking about people who do not speak any language to native standard. An example would be a former colleague of mine who was born and raised between Hong Kong and San Diego in the US by a non-English-speaking Hong Kong father and a non-Cantonese-speaking ABC mother (arranged marriage). That he could not speak Cantonese to native standard was vouched for by a HK friend of mine, in English he spoke with a heavy accent, made simple grammar mistakes and lacked a full vocabulary.

    @Carius – But then all you’re doing is redefining ‘native language’ to mean ‘whatever was spoken at home’, rather than the language of a wider community (like ebonics is) presuming there was any actual common language spoken at home.

  36. GAC United States said,

    January 7, 2010 at 12:51 am

    Carius has a point, actually. As I understand it, one’s “native language”, as far as linguistics is concerned, only has to do with the way it was aquired (and how it is represented in the brain). I think the problem people are describing might be described a little differently, not necessarily “no native language”, but more a native language that isn’t shared by the community, or just a rather strange idiolect. But then, I’m not a linguist, either.

  37. justin United States said,

    January 7, 2010 at 11:01 am

    @GAC: We (or at least I) are talking about something lying midway between the language proficiency expected of anyone having no special mental handicap and raised from birth to adulthood in a monolingual environment AND the extreme (and irreparable) inability to ever acquire such an ability in any language as seen in Jody Foster’s character in “Nell”. I reckon that in the case of Nell linguists would indeed call it a lack of a native language or severely impaired form as it lacks so many of the hallmarks of what is considered to be universal linguistic abilities for an adult human.

    This whole discussion is especially interesting to me because I was personally hoping that if I ever have kids that I might be able to speak to them exclusively in Mandarin. If so completely lost interest in my native English that I often find myself not adding points to otherwise interesting conversations with family members and friends just BECAUSE the medium of English by which I would have to convey the information is so utterly unfascinating to me. I *have* heard nightmare stories of well-intentioned Mexican immigrants causing permanent damage to their children’s native language acquisition, but at the same time I read a book written by an Australian linguist who raised his children in German and documented the entire experiment in copious detail. There certainly *IS* a level of sufficient proficiency at which a non-native speaker can function so well that raising a child in that language would not have detrimental effects. I had a professor who was native in Japanese but raised his children exclusively in English. I wish I knew how one could be sure of whether or not his level was sufficient… (whatever level it may be, I’m certainly not there yet — but may have time to make it)

  38. FOARP Japan said,

    January 15, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    @Justin – Exactly. I’m not talking about someone who cannot speak, or even speak at the level required to, for example, graduate university, I’m talking about people who cannot speak any language without making basic, non-habitual, but persistent mistakes, with heavy and obviously foreign accents and vocabulary less than that of someone who engages within the society of the country in which that language is spoken, lacking knowledge of slang. I guess I should add that the people who I have met who have been like this, who of course form a perhaps insignificant sample, seem to have lacked the social skills necessary to learn from people outside the family unit, and the curiosity and flexibility of mind necessary to acquire language from books or television.

  39. fedi Italy said,

    January 28, 2010 at 6:10 pm

    @ Benjamin – “the best way to linguistically rear children is for parents to speak to them *only* in the parents’ native language. Children will learn the native tongue of the land from their peers with little difficulty at all (assuming they attend public school)”

    I agree. I’d like to bring in my personal experience. I was born and raised in Italy from egyptian parents and I grew up basically speaking just arabic at home and italian at school and outside with friends .My mother tongue is of course italian, and now that I’m 24, i can say I speak fluent arabic (though i cannot read nor write arabic and sometimes switch to italian in home conversations too) with a fair pronunciation.

    I feel though that in terms of vocabulary my arabic is much more limited than my english (which I have been studying for 15 years at school first and then at university) and even than my chinese. I’ve been studying chinese for the last 5 years at university and, although I cannot say my spoken chinese is better than my spoken arabic, chinese is catching up fast (and at least I can read/write).

    That is to say, my arabic is good, but still far from native fluency (especially about vocabulary) and it just came to the point that it cannot have any further improvement, although I speak it everyday at home.
    I think this is mainly due to the fact that I basically talk about things belonging to the same “lexical domain” with my parents, (I rarely talk with them of mechanincs or gardening for example) and the arabic I know is mainly made of colloquial and everyday expressions and I never really use the language in other fields and never studied it.
    Then, as far as my personal experience is concerned, I would say that anyone with no knowledge of arabic at all could get a higher level of fluency in arabic than me with some study. As I might be considered an egyptian “huaqiao”, the same would apply to chinese huaqiao as well: they might have an advantage in learning chinese IF they study it, but final outcome can vary and it’s not a foregone conclusion that every huaqiao person will be willing/will have the chance to do that.

  40. Will learning Chinese improve your employment prospects? « Legal and Recruitment News for the Asian Market United States said,

    February 18, 2010 at 4:47 am

    […] held by thousands of expats living in China.  I think the issue is summed up rather well at Ben Ross’s blog.  Here’s a quick except that summarizes his take on the […]

  41. sylvie gina Philippines said,

    April 26, 2010 at 10:34 pm

    Great great great article — I wish to death more people would read it and be enlightened, and not force people to learn Chinese on the pretense that it ALONE will get them a good job and eventually make them rich. This article should be required reading in schools ^_^

  42. ctilde United States said,

    September 16, 2011 at 7:38 am


    love your blog, http://adrianne.diblogotus.com/ ,Thanks again….

  43. Ariel Pao United States said,

    December 30, 2011 at 9:32 pm

    Thanks for sharing your insight. Awesome post! You are absolutely right on all the points.
    It is wrong to expect a job would fall in your laps just because you speak Mandarin, unless you want to be a linguist or translator.

    On the other hand, in terms of workplace diversity, a worker should not be pigeon-holed based on his/her ethic background (language is part of the ethic background even though you can speak Chinese without being Chinese). More and more companies hire people of different races/ethnicities solely based on the demographics of their clientele in specific areas. e.g. We need to staff some Chinese-speaking tellers in Chinatown. It is wrong to hire a person just because s/he is (fill-in-the-blank). Employers can overlook the potentials and true talents of bilingual employees.

    It applies to Spanish speakers as well. Even though certain jobs prefer bilingual candidates, the bottom line is that you have to be able to do the job well regardless of the language skills (given the condition that the job is not related to linguistics/translation services).

  44. Jonathan Miller United Kingdom said,

    January 10, 2014 at 11:38 am

    Great post Ben. It is exactly how it is. I also thought knowing how to speak, read and write I’d be in with a chance to find some kind of job but stupidly no.

    Nothing, zilch, zip, zero, nada, kaput…..here I am still sending off CVs 6 months later and not even one reply.

    Im a Brit by the way so not matter where U are you’ve got to get that skill set sorted out. It is more important than the language !!!!

  45. Sandra said,

    May 10, 2015 at 7:47 pm

    Well speaks chinese open some doors for sure. As somebody said here, speak english is not a major advantage nowadays, however it is not only a matter of just speak the language right? My mother tongue is spanish and sometimes I found chinese guys in my job that said I also speaks spanish and when I start the talk, they hardly can understand what I am saying..
    Still, as foreigners we just can do one thing only and that is in fact open our own business. The best advantage we have is not the language. It is the fact that we both knows both cultures.
    If they can do outside, and have no idea of our culture, why we cannot??

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