The Economist (or at least moreintelligentlife.com) thinks you should be learning French, not Chinese. The basic premise is that unless you already have an interest in China or some direct reason for needing to learn it (for business, etc.), it would be much more beneficial to learn French. The author poses the question, "If China is the country of the future, is Chinese the language of the future?" He believes that Chinese Mandarin is too difficult and that past history points to Mandarin not being a prolific language worldwide.
My take is almost the complete opposite of the author's - If you are an art student, in culinary school, an European literature major, or are planning to move to a French speaking country, then I agree that you should be learning French. But if you simply want to learn a foreign language and the above categories do not apply to you, there is no reason not to heavily consider choosing Mandarin.
1. China is not Japan
Remember Japan’s rise? Just as spectacular as China’s, if on a smaller scale, Japan’s economic growth led many to think it would take over the world. It was the world’s second-largest economy for decades (before falling to third, recently, behind China). So is Japanese the world’s third-most useful language? Not even close. If you were to learn ten languages ranked by general usefulness, Japanese would probably not make the list. And the key reason for Japanese’s limited spread will also put the brakes on Chinese.
But the important difference is not only the number of native speakers, but how many of these speakers live abroad. According to Wikipedia, over 40 million native Chinese speakers live outside the greater Chinese region. The US alone is home to almost 4 million native speakers. Many moderately to well-off families I meet wish to send their child/children to study overseas and there is a vaste flow of Chinese scientists, educators, and businessmen either traveling abroad, living abroad temporary, or taking up permanent residence in Western countries. This constant flow of international Chinese travelers is much greater than that seen from Japan. For comparison, it is estimated only 570,000 Japanese total live in Western countries.
2. Yes, there are a lot of characters in the language, but it's not as difficult as you may think.
The learner needs to know at least 3,000-4,000 characters to make sense of written Chinese, and thousands more to have a real feel for it.
3. The proliferation of Chinese imput methods in computers and phones is a positice, not a negative!
A recent survey reported in the People’s Daily found 84% of respondents agreeing that skill in Chinese is declining. If such gripes are common to most languages, there is something more to it in Chinese. Fewer and fewer native speakers learn to produce characters in traditional calligraphy. Instead, they write their language the same way we do—with a computer. And not only that, but they use the Roman alphabet to produce Chinese characters: type in wo and Chinese language-support software will offer a menu of characters pronounced wo; the user selects the one desired. (Or if the user types in wo shi zhongguo ren, “I am Chinese”, the software detects the meaning and picks the right characters.) With less and less need to recall the characters cold, the Chinese are forgetting them. David Moser, a Sinologist, recalls asking three native Chinese graduate students at Peking University how to write “sneeze”:
To my surprise, all three of them simply shrugged in sheepish embarrassment. Not one of them could correctly produce the character. Now, Peking University is usually considered the “Harvard of China”. Can you imagine three phd students in English at Harvard forgetting how to write the English word “sneeze”? Yet this state of affairs is by no means uncommon in China.
As long as China keeps the character-based system—which will probably be a long time, thanks to cultural attachment and practical concerns alike—Chinese is very unlikely to become a true world language
Learning 10 or 15 years ago would have meant needing to know how to write, by hand, every single Chinese character you learned. But the great thing about technology today is that it is now so much easier to write Chinese due to modern day computers and phones. As long as you know the Pinyin (Roman alphabet spelling) and can identify the characters when you see them, it is much easier for non-native speakers to communicate in written Chinese than in any point in history. I write all my class notes on my computer, send Chinese text messages to friends, and communicate by instant message (QQ). All of this is possible because of how easy it now is to write the language electronically.
I notice a lot of Western students that cannot write Chinese by hand. But even for most Westerners living in China, this isn't a necessary skill. Almost all current communication, both in business and everyday life, tends to now happen on computers and phones, and this allows us Westerns the luxury of doing exactly what the author thinks is so wrong: being able to easily and quickly produce Chinese text electronically.
Now unlike some, I do practice writing Chinese in class, but the fact is that outside of class and in real life, I RARELY HAVE TO WRITE CHINESE BY HAND.
Now to the article's point that calligraphy is a dying skill...
I had a long conversation with one of my Chinese teachers this morning about the fact that some Chinese do have problems regurgitating certain characters by hand. Even in some of my classes, I have seen teachers forget exactly how to write certain characters every once in a while.
How ironic that this happened to her right before we discussed this topic. She wanted to write the character 'tong' (统) but couldn't remember if the little triangle on the right had two legs or three (three legs such as this character - 流). She knew as soon as she had written it that it was wrong and did change it.
My teacher explained that from primary through high school (about 20 years), all students have to write characters by hand. No phones or computers are allowed in the classroom and handwritten answers are mandatory on all tests. So even today, all school students must be proficient in the written language. But she did confess that starting at university, students do take a majority of notes and produce essays and assignments on their computers. It is from this point forth that some might begin to lose a little of their hand writing skills. I would argue that it is no different from English speakers whose spelling may be worse over time.
4. Tones are difficult at first, but become more natural once you reach an intermediate leve.
Chinese, with all its tones, is hard enough to speak.
I remember when I first started learning a few years ago and my teacher and I would spend a fair amount of time learning the tones of words and how to pronounce them. They are important at a beginning stage in order to build a strong foundation for future improvement.
But I realized today that while each new word I learn is still presented with it's tones, it is not something we concentrate on in class. After you pass from a beginner to intermediate level, your pronunciation and use of tones becomes more natural and this isn't an area that requires a large amount of focus. There are still times when a teacher will correct your tone if it is completely opposite of how the word should sound and you have terrible pronunciation, but this is few and far between for most intermediate students.
I have witnessed foreigners out on the streets here with terrible pronunciation. And yet, native speakers understand them just fine. Take my father for instance. When he asks for the check at a restaurant, his tones are completely wrong. But he gets the check anyway.
So which is easier to learn? Chinese or English
What's difficult in Chinese:
Tones - As stated before, it is something teachers will devote time to when you start learning the language. But as you improve, it becomes much more nature and less time is spent on it.
Reading - If you have learned the character, it isn't too difficult to recognize it and read it. But you do have to have previously learned the character in order to know how to read and pronounce it.
What's difficult in English:
Grammar - Grammar in beginning Chinese is very simple. Beginning grammar in English is not. For example, just ad a 了 or 过 to any verb in Chinese to make it past tense. The actual form of the verb doesn't change. But in English, many of them do ('I go' verses 'I went'). I learned Spanish in school and this was incredibly difficult for me, as every verb had multiple tenses.
Words - English words can be more intuitive with a prior knowledge of Latin. But how many people now days actually know Latin? Thus, learning and remembering English words can be difficult.
Spoken Language - Chinese grammar and spoken language is very simple. There are not many indefinite articles and other filler words such as 'the,' 'a,' 'am,' and so on. Thus it can be difficult for Chinese speakers to remember to use these when speaking English.
What's easy in Chinese:
Grammar - While it can get progressively more complex, the grammar needed to speak at an elementary level is very basic and easy to use. What to say, "how much does it cost?" Simply put two opposites together ('a lot' and 'a little') which makes the question, 'how much,' and put 'money' at the end - so, 'a lot a little money' (多少钱) means, 'how much money is it?' Easy.
What's easy in English
Writing - English is much easier to write by hand than Chinese. I say by hand, because Chinese is actually very easy to write on a computer or phone.