My recommendation is sincere: “Mandarin. Learn to speak and understand Mandarin.”
China, in spite of its “Communist” label, has been making strong and very successful changes in the direction of privatization. Rather than workers serving the collective and each receiving the same rewards, China rewards its winners. Farmers who have a successful harvest are rewarded with additional privileges as well as more land (and responsibility). Corporate workers who excel have access to better housing and transportation.
And while I can applaud China’s recognition that capitalism works better than communism, at the same time I must recognize that the western world and, in particular, the United States, has moved strongly in the other direction.
Historically, the United States has a number of businesses and industries that started here only to later move off-shore as other countries developed the infrastructure and technology to compete. Oil, steel and plastics all started here but are now developed world-wide.
And in some ways, this is good. Collectively, the world is (slowly) getting better.
But it’s important to recognize that, when shifts do occur, we need to change our ways, and our expectations.
In 2003, I was out of work for a year and, in desperation, accepted an invitation to go to the People’s Republic and teach two one-week seminars on embedded computing. The offer included all travel expenses and a very nice honorarium.
Each of those two seminars at Wuhan University included an audience of nearly 200 undergraduate students. Each of them was well dressed and groomed, and most of them carried new notebook computers on which they took notes during the seminar.
At one point in the first session, a discussion erupted between the translator that had been supplied by the school and the students listening to her say, in Mandarin, what I had just said in English. After a somewhat heated exchange between her and several Chinese student, all in Mandarin of course, the translator burst into tears and fled the room. Shocked and with no one apparently left to translate my concerns, I stood helpless.
One of the students rose and said, in near perfect English, “Please go on. She was translating literally but not saying real message. We understand English fine. Please go on with presentation.”
He sat down and I continued, in English, for the remaining days. There were no more communication problems.
What I saw and learned in those two short weeks is reported in much more detail [here]. There are several pictures in the classroom as well as from the general area.
Today, nine years later and as the economy of mainland China demonstrates more and more clearly what a powerhouse that country is becoming, I would give that same answer but to the population at large, not just computer geeks.
And I would add,
Do not underestimate China because, if the United States continues its decline, they will soon replace us.
Have you practiced your Mandarin today?