I recently got into an interesting discussion at Ben Ross’ Blog about language competency and Huaqiao*. The original post topic was on how to get a job using one’s Chinese skills, and the main point of it I am in total agreement on: Unless you are specifically interested in something like translation, knowing a foreign language is not enough to get you a job. Plenty of people have told me that my languages (English, Chinese, and Spanish) would make me a good candidate for companies that do international business and they will be valuable in getting a job, but as I approach graduation I have got to thinking that, while speaking more that one language is definitely an advantage and I would encourage anyone to learn a foreign language, I haven’t quite learned any skills that I can apply that language too.
But that’s for another post, what sparked the discussion was this:
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.
Myself and another commenter took issue with that statement. While there are a large number of people in the United States who speak Chinese at home, their children are not necessarily going to be that good at Chinese. Here’s a basic sample of what I put in:
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.
To expand a bit, I have met Huaqiao here who have no literacy in Chinese to speak of, and others who had noticable foreign accents or who spoke no Chinese at all. Back in the states I have met Hispanics with very good Spanish ability, but also a Mexican American who did not learn Spanish until college and now speaks Spanish with a very noticeable West Virginia accent. So, while there are definitely people back home that speak either of those languages natively, they wouldn’t represent the whole of the immigrant group, and even those who do speak natively may not have any professional vocabulary to speak of. A native speaker of Mandarin would definitely have an edge on me — my Mandarin is still no where near it would need to be to actually do any kind of serious professional work. A native Spanish speaker would to, if he has the professional vocabulary to back it up (and that still might not take much, as my Spanish is slipping through lack of exposure.
Ben later clarified that “expanding ones ideolect to include intelligent terminology and industry jargon is not one of the more demanding aspects of language learning.” I tend to agree with that statement, once you know the language to a certain point, new vocabulary is not so difficult. But native fluency is definitely not a golden ticket, just as having a second language in itself is not a golden ticket into international business.
Anyway, enough recap, if I haven’t bored you to tears and you are really interested in this stuff, read the original discussion thread. Poke around on the other posts over there, too, Ben has a lot more experience than I have with China and Chinese learning, his stuff is a lot more informative than mine.
*Huaqiao 华侨 “Chinese diaspora” (#6 here)