5 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Learning Chinese

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With over a billion speakers, Chinese is one of the foremost languages in the world. If you are already fluent in English, learning Chinese may open up many professional possibilities. Ask yourself these questions before you start your studies.

Which Careers Use Chinese Language Skills?

With the rise of China as a major economic power, Chinese fluency can be a valuable skill in many careers. A diverse array of jobs let you use your Chinese language skills to varying degrees. Here are just a few of the many possible choices.

English-Chinese Interpreter

As an English-Chinese interpreter, you accurately provide a neutral voice for people who could not otherwise speak to each other.

You might work for a business, in the court system, or in the healthcare arena. While not mandatory, certification from a body such as the American Translators Association could prove useful for validating your credentials. Learn more about the job duties and requirements for English-Chinese interpreters so that you can make an informed decision about this career path.

Chinese Language Teacher

Another way to put your Chinese language skills front and center is to teach Chinese. Becoming a Chinese language teacher may require additional training in education, as well as teaching certifications.

Foreign Service Officer

Would you like to be a civil servant who works abroad? Think about becoming a Foreign Service Officer. You might work in a consulate or be a foreign policy consultant.


Whether you are an employee or an entrepreneur, your knowledge of Chinese language and culture will help you negotiate trade, manufacturing, and distribution deals with Chinese companies.

Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioner

Complementary and alternative medicine is a rapidly growing field in the United States. A working knowledge of Chinese can be an enormous help if you wish to study acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, or other forms of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Traditional Chinese Medicine

No matter which career option you choose, be prepared to invest significant time learning the Chinese language.

How Long Will it Take to Learn Chinese?

Gaining professional-level proficiency in the Chinese language may take a minimum of 110 weeks. If you study Chinese at least twenty hours a week, you will need to devote a little over two years to your Chinese language studies.

Of course, the amount of time you spend studying Chinese depends on how you plan to use it in your career. For example, someone training to be an interpreter will need to study Chinese in much greater depth than someone who is learning Chinese herbal medicine.

Which Dialect Should I Learn?

What most of us think of as ''Chinese'' is the culture and language of the Han people, who comprise about 92% of the population of mainland China—and about a fifth of the global population. The Chinese language is called ''Hanyu,'' or ''language of the Han,'' in Chinese.

Mandarin and Cantonese are two of the best-known Chinese dialects. Mandarin is considered Standard Chinese in the People's Republic of China. With nearly nine hundred million native speakers—almost twice the number of native English speakers—Mandarin has the most speakers of any Chinese language subgroup.

Hong Kong

Of course, if you plan to do business in Hong Kong or southeastern China, learning Cantonese would be much more useful.

What are the Biggest Challenges I Might Face When Learning Chinese?

Mastering tones and Chinese characters tend to be some of the most difficult aspects of learning Chinese for English speakers.

Learning the Right Tones

Almost all Chinese words are spoken with ''tones,'' or inflections. The number of tones varies from dialect to dialect. In order to pronounce Chinese words correctly, you will need to carefully control when your voice rises and falls.

Using the right tone is crucial to expressing your desired meaning. For example, the word ni in Mandarin, when spoken with a certain tone, means ''you'' (familiar) in English. The same syllable, spoken instead with a rising inflection, means ''mud.''

Comprehending Characters

Unlike English, Chinese does not use an alphabet. Thousands of Chinese characters in various combinations convey the meaning and sound of the Chinese language.

Chinese characters

There are two main character sets: The simplified characters are used primarily in the People's Republic of China and Singapore; the traditional characters are found mainly in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Chinese words can also be represented by Latin letters, if only as a learning tool. In Hanyu Pinyin, the standard Latin alphabet represents the basic phonetics of each word in Mandarin. Diacritical marks, used above most vowels, indicate tones.

Pinyin is a helpful way to grasp the basic sounds of the words. Nonetheless, learning the Chinese characters (whether simplified or traditional) is still indispensable for Chinese fluency.

How Can I Test My Mastery of Chinese?

As you become more proficient in Chinese, you will want some type of metric to gauge your learning and prepare you for any needed certifications.

If you want to work as an interpreter or translator, in business, or in the diplomatic service, use a tool like the Foreign Language Assessment Directory search engine from the Center for Applied Linguistics to find an appropriate assessment for your needs.

If you are planning to teach Chinese, consider taking the Praxis test from the Educational Testing Service.

Keep your specific career goals in mind when deciding which Chinese language assessment to take.

A World Language to Expand Your World

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The United Nations recently observed its annual Chinese Language Day, a celebration that emphasizes the prominence of Chinese as a world language. No matter which career you choose, learning Chinese means embracing a language with an ancient history and a promising future.

By Michelle Baumgartner
December 2017
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