Why we should and why we shouldn't learn Mandarin - RSA

Why we should and why we shouldn't learn Mandarin


  • Enterprise
  • Institutional reform

In the early 1990s, I began to learn Japanese. At the time, there was a great deal of talk about how Japanese was the gateway to trade with Japan. It made practical sense. I was at school in Worcester and there was a Japanese machine tool factory that had just opened near to my school and we'd had a couple of visits. This hammered the point home (with robots). Japan was the future (then the bubble popped...)

At that time, I went on an educational trip to Japan and that whetted my appetite further. So I took some Japanese lessons and ended up applying to study Oriental Studies at University (same college, same subject as James Bond- his career path ended up on a rather more exciting pathway than mine).

So it was of interest that George Osborne urged today's school kids to learn Mandarin so that we could 'trade'. It was precisely the same message that his predecessors in the 1980s and 90s would have given about Japanese. It was one of the persuasive reasons for me taking up the language.

The interesting thing though is that I am not sure that learning Japanese has secured me or the nation any real direct economic benefit at all. When I look at my Japanese language class mates from the 1990s very few of them are engaged in Japanese trade related activities beyond an odd visit to a sushi bar or buying a Takeshi Kitano DVD.

Even more importantly, it matters not one jot. We have all had our minds opened up to an incredible civilisation, culture, way of thinking, and a completely different form of language. To this day, I use and reflect upon all the lessons I have absorbed through contact and immersion in the culture and life of this incredible country probably on a daily basis.

So George Osborne has it wrong. Kids today shouldn't learn Mandarin because it will help them or us 'trade'. They should learn Mandarin because it gives them access to a phenomenal society, culture, history, and a deeper understanding of its political economy. That's the value.

It may result in more 'trade' or it may not. So be it. That is an indirect benefit. Instrumental learning is only part of the story. It's the joy of enlightening experiences that has the real value. That's why I continue to learn about and experience Japanese society. My Japanese language ability is much diminished now but the learning and affection remain.

My next visit to Japan will be in April- I'm taking my mother there as her retirement gift. I hope that I will enthuse her in the same way I've managed to enthuse others. Who wants to shout about their 'trade'? But shouting about one of the great civilisations is an entirely different thing. That is why kids should learn Mandarin and even languages to which little economic opportunity could be attached: it changes your outlook on the world.

Anthony Painter is Director, Independent review of the Police Federation. His latest book is ‘Left without a future? Social Justice in Anxious Times’ .

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