Overall, why do Mandarin enrollments continue to decline?

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This is a problem that has been troubling colleagues across the country.

"Why fewer university students are studying Mandarin"

Learning the difficult language does not seem as worthwhile as it once did

Economist (Aug 24th 2023)

China | How do you say “not interested”?

Ten years ago Mandarin, the mother tongue of most Chinese, was being hyped as the language of the future. In 2015 the administration of Barack Obama called for 1m primary- and secondary-school students in America to learn it by 2020. In 2016 Britain followed suit, encouraging kids to study “one of the most important languages for the UK’s future prosperity”. Elsewhere, too, there seemed to be a growing interest in Mandarin, as China’s influence and economic heft increased. So why, a decade later, does Mandarin-learning appear to have declined in many places?

Good numbers are tough to come by in some countries, but the trend is clear among university students in the English-speaking world. In America, for example, the number taking Mandarin courses peaked around 2013. From 2016 to 2020 enrolment in such courses fell by 21%, according to the Modern Language Association, which promotes language study. In Britain the number of students admitted to Chinese-studies programmes dropped by 31% between 2012 and 2021, according to the Higher Education Statistics Association, which counts such things (though it does not count those who take Mandarin as part of other degrees).

China may be the top trade partner of Australia and New Zealand, but in those countries, too, local enthusiasm for learning Mandarin is flagging. Enrolment in university courses fell by a whopping 48% in New Zealand between 2013 and 2022. The dynamic looks similar in Germany, where the data show a decreasing appetite for Chinese studies among first-year university students. Scholars in Nordic countries report similar trends.

According to an international survey taken in 2016 of education agents—consultants who help students to choose institutions—the most common reason people studied Mandarin back then was to improve their employment prospects. At the time, even a little Mandarin went a long way. From 2010 to 2015 the number of job postings in America that required skills in the language increased by 230%, according to the Language Connects Foundation, a lobby group. It reckons that American firms continue to desire Mandarin over any other foreign language, save Spanish. But that no longer seems to motivate students. Jennifer Liu, who runs Harvard University’s Mandarin programme, says engagement by business students has fallen over the past decade, compared with those studying international affairs and security.

It could be that the market has changed. Tools like Google Translate and ChatGPT work so well that low-level Mandarin skills aren’t really needed any more. The market may have also got more competitive. Bilingual Chinese graduates now fill many of the jobs that require Mandarin. In terms of language skills, they are often more qualified than their Western counterparts. All Chinese children start learning English by age eight, some even earlier. University-entrance exams in China require a high level of proficiency.

Students in the West may have also soured on the idea of doing business with China. Mandarin teachers point to the Beijing Olympics in 2008 as a seminal moment, when excitement for learning the language took off. Since then, though, China has grown more oppressive under Xi Jinping. Its human-rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong have been widely reported. In most rich countries negative views of China are at or near all-time highs.

At the same time, tensions between China and the West have risen. American and European leaders now talk of “de-risking” their economic ties with China. Analysts fear that a broader decoupling is taking place. The shift in narratives about China, from a place to make money to America’s main rival, has affected student choices, reckons James Gethyn Evans of Harvard. Many now see no point in studying Mandarin, says Chen Dongdong of Seton Hall University (in New Jersey), where the number of students taking Mandarin classes has nearly halved in ten years.

Recently, Professor Chen participated in the doctoral defense of Melvin Chih-jen Lee at Penn, and I was stunned when I heard her make these remarks weeks before she communicated them to the Economist.  Dr. Lee's dissertation (on the teaching of Mandarin in the United States around the era of WW II) and the discussion surrounding it raised other issues, some of which I will close this post with.

There are also fewer American university students studying in China. The number peaked in 2011, even as the total studying abroad continued to grow. One reason may be pollution. Around that time, Western media regularly reported on Beijing’s “airpocalypse”. The capital’s heavy smog made it difficult for foreign firms and embassies in China to recruit people, with or without Mandarin skills.

In need of a BTS

In many ways, the linguistic reach of a country is an expression of its soft power. Take South Korea, which can point to such cultural exports as BTS, a wildly popular boy band, “Parasite”, an Oscar-winning film, and “Squid Game”, a hit television show. Enrolment in Korean courses at American universities rose by 25% between 2016 and 2020. On Duolingo, a language-learning app, Korean is more popular than Mandarin.

China’s soft power is weak by comparison, in part because its entertainment industry must please the Communist Party.

Confucius Institutes were once prevalent on Western university campuses, too, providing them with cheap Mandarin teachers. But the outposts were accused of pushing a political agenda. Since 2017 more than 100 American universities have closed them. Universities elsewhere in the West have taken similar steps.

As China and the West, especially America, struggle to get along, those who learn Mandarin seem more likely to be future spies and diplomats than businesspeople. Whether that will help ease a sense of mutual mistrust is an open question. For now, China and its rivals are doing a good job of misunderstanding each other. ■

Aside from all of the demographics and IT developments that are having an indubitable impact on Chinese language learning, there is a wholly different aspect to the problem.  Namely, what about the question of teaching methods?

The other issues that were debated at Dr. Lee's defense and at The Eighth International Conference on Teaching Chinese as a Second Language, the first of its kind held outside of Asia, called "New Directions in Chinese Language Education in the 21st Century" (6/9/10), convened a few weeks earlier at Swarthmore College, include the proportion of attention paid to character recognition and production vs. ability to speak and hear, pronunciation, grammar, dictation, pattern drills, use of electronic devices, but above all, IT, IT, IT, AI, AI, AI.

Something that I have argued for strongly since the very beginning of my involvement in Chinese language learning and teaching more than half a century ago is that there should be two main tracks:

1. characters + spoken language

2. spoken language only

The latter track would give legitimacy to Sinitic languages such as Shanghainese, Cantonese, Taiwanese, and so forth, which now are treated as second class citizens.  I am pleased that I was able to introduce courses in these languages at Penn, but the university would not grant full credit for them because they were accused of "not being real languages" (exact quotation) because they don't have a writing system.  I think that is so much folderol.  Throughout history, there have been (and still are!) thousands of genuine languages that are unwritten.  In truth, they all can be written phonetically (see here for how Taiwanese, for just one case, can be written in romanization if one cares to do so).

As I have said repeatedly, many of the smartest and best foreign speakers of Mandarin I know rejected characters from the very beginning.  They are the most likely of non-native speakers of Mandarin (and other Sinitic languages) to possess native fluency.

It is high time to give full credit to those courses that do not emphasize writing as a sine qua non of language.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Mark Metcalf]


  1. Tom said,

    September 13, 2023 @ 6:29 am

    It's an expense, an investment, a heavy one. What financial literature since the great depression tells us, grownups with money and those without behave in crowds, like herds, and they are either manic-depressed or unbelievably euphoric. A source of depression is news, bad news, it can be objectively measured, how people withdraw funds merely based on rumors, rumors drive people to react, true or untrue. (Bank runs, too.)

    Nobody thinks that teenagers and young people were unmoved by and less susceptible to crowd and herd behaviour. Popularity is sort of a teenage equivalent of wisdom, sacred. (Does this imply a circular argument, yes it does, there are reinforcing feedback loops, waves, in crowds.)

    Insert here, the constant bad news about China by the NY Times, the WP, anti-China resentment among workers, stabbing of Asian looking people (who cares about the law anyway), etc.

    However, the good news about low interest in enrollment, the teachers can be more effective with fewer students. It's never been better to learn Chinese, then now. And the Chinese are as welcoming of foreigners as before, the fuzz in dhe media has, as always, nothing to do with reality.

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 13, 2023 @ 7:11 am

    At least in the U.S., the let's-learn-Mandarin vogue that arose in the last two decades seemed to be rather parallel to the Sputnik-era let's-learn-Russian vogue and the Eighties let's-learn-Japanese vogue – some sort of nervous cultural response to the perceived rise of a global-power rival. I suspect that Russian enrollment peaked and began declining long before the end of the Cold War and that (although it's harder to find similarly clear milestones) Japanese enrollment peaked and began declining before "objective" indicia about the global importance of Japan had shifted.

    In the school district where I live, Mandarin was introduced to the K-12 curriculum a few years ago, roughly approximating (though I think it was claimed with a straight face that this was a coincidence) the abandonment of Latin. I suppose we'll see if it's still around in 5-10 years.

  3. Jerry Packard said,

    September 13, 2023 @ 7:29 am

    It is, as they say, a ‘perfect storm.’

  4. Philip Taylor said,

    September 13, 2023 @ 8:01 am

    Please forgive my naïvety, but if students are to be encouraged to study "courses that do not emphasize writing as a sine qua non of language", how are those students expected to take notes ? Do you believe, for example, that in such courses students will be expected to bring portable sound-recording devices into the classroom/lecture theatre and to listen to those recordings when (e.g.,) revising for their examinations ? I ask because when I studied Mandarin Chinese (part-time, over three years, with three different teachers from SISU), we were taught neither

    1. characters + spoken language
    2. spoken language only

    We were, rather, taught spoken language + pinyin, which, in part at least, addressed my question above. Now pinyin is by no means perfect as an indication of the true sound of a Chinese character/word/phrase/etc., but it is a darned sight more use than no written record at all.

  5. languagehat said,

    September 13, 2023 @ 8:25 am

    Philip Taylor: The vast majority of the world's languages are not written, and yet people study them perfectly well. You take notes in whatever way works for you, and use phonetic notation for the language you're hearing. I have done this myself (for Toba Batak) and it's really not that hard. (Also, it's fun.)

  6. languagehat said,

    September 13, 2023 @ 8:28 am

    I should add that I'm appalled that Penn thinks languages are not "real languages" if they don't have a writing system. That shows a level of official stupidity I confess I had not anticipated.

  7. David Marjanović said,

    September 13, 2023 @ 8:37 am

    I suspect that Russian enrollment peaked and began declining long before the end of the Cold War

    I suspect there was a second peak, perhaps smaller, in the 90s, when communism was over and Russia offered opportunities – including but not limited to financial ones.

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    September 13, 2023 @ 8:56 am

    Languagehat: Well, speaking as one who has never formally studied phonetics, I would dearly have loved to transcribe the audio content of Intimate Chinese using the IPA. But (a) I would have had to put a very great deal of effort in teaching myself those parts of the IPA that are not conventionally used to transcribe English, and (b) not only was I unable to find a Chinese dictionary which used the IPA to transcribe the characters, not even my Chinese teacher could find such a dictionary, even in the best bookshops in Shanghai. Perhaps that situation has changed by now, but it was certainly a major obstacle at the time, and Hanyu Pinyin seemed a reasonable, if not perfect [*], alternative.

    [*] Not perfect, for example, because of the wide variety of sounds that are transcribed as "r".

  9. Uwnwter said,

    September 13, 2023 @ 9:23 am

    To look ahead, what are the other languages would become the next superstars across colleges in the US? Indian (or any one of the languages under this category)? Arabic? Tibetan? Malaysian, Thai or Vietnamese?

  10. JMGN said,

    September 13, 2023 @ 9:53 am

    For such a huge endeavor, the intrinsic motivation might need to exceed the extrinsic one…

  11. Jerry Packard said,

    September 13, 2023 @ 11:03 am

    For my time at Penn, I recall that the real reason they didn’t want to award credit toward the language requirement was that it was administratively difficult to find evaluators to rate the proficiency for the languages in question (a more cynical view was that they wanted to increase butts-in-seats). I think they used the ‘writing’ angle as a convenient excuse. At UIUC, we inferred foreign language competence based on foreign school degree, and found proficiency evaluators for the less commonly taught languages.

  12. mg said,

    September 13, 2023 @ 11:11 am

    Languages go in and out of fashion. When I was a kid in 1960s-1970s, the common languages to learn were French, Spanish, and Russian. Not long before that German was on the list – any serious science student needed to learn it. For a while between then and now, Japanese was pretty popular.

    Spanish is the one with sticking power over the decades – it's useful in the U.S. and neighboring countries and it's has much easier spelling and pronunciation than most alternatives.

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    September 13, 2023 @ 11:27 am

    "much easier spelling and pronunciation" — "Quixote", for example :)

  14. Coby said,

    September 13, 2023 @ 1:00 pm

    Philip Taylor: it's written "Quijote" in Spanish. Yes, there is México, mexicano. But this one of the very few exceptions to the readability of Spanish spelling. (The converse is not true: misspellings are fairly common, especially where seseo is prevalent.)

  15. Philip Taylor said,

    September 13, 2023 @ 1:21 pm

    Quijote, schmihote — neither "j" nor "x" would convey the intended sound to the average English speaker !

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 13, 2023 @ 1:46 pm

    The other thing that has happened in the U.S. is that the "market share" of Spanish has expanded, in large part because more public school systems require all students to take *some* foreign language than had been true in prior generations (at least prior generations after completing high school in the first place had become the rule rather than the exception) and Spanish was ubiquitously viewed as the easiest option by students who would not have signed up for a foreign language if not required to do so. This creates a feedback effect where Spanish (separate and apart from its intrinsic ease/difficulty for an AmEng speaker to pick up) is at some usually-not-explicitly-discussed level taught at a less challenging pace, because U.S. public school students who sign up for e.g. French are generally self-selected from the subset of students who are more committed than average to doing their schoolwork in the first place but those who default to Spanish are not necessarily going to be from that subset.

  17. DaveK said,

    September 13, 2023 @ 2:03 pm

    So what languages are on the upswing when it comes to being taught?
    My first thought is that translation apps have gotten to the point where they can be used for most ordinary business communications (which are overwhelmingly in writing) so the practical need for polyglots in the business world in less than it was.

  18. Richard Hershberger said,

    September 13, 2023 @ 2:22 pm

    German was routinely offered in American high schools into the 1970s. My guess is that this reflects immigration history. Areas with substantial German populations typically had church-affiliated German-language schools. These often got folded into the public schools, with German offered even when English was the primary language of instruction. German as a language of everyday use fell out of fashion with WWI, when so many Schmidts and Muellers became Smiths and Millers, but there also was some continued immigration and good old fashioned institutional inertia. The last significant wave of German immigration was following WWII, with it taking another three decades or so for institutional inertia to peter out.

  19. JOHN ROHSENOW said,

    September 13, 2023 @ 3:16 pm

    When my father was studying mechanical engineering at Northwestern in the late 1930s, many of the more advanced texts were in German, the language of science at the time, so –even though his own grandmother had grown up speaking some form of German in Chicago before WW I–he had to take a course in "reading German" for his engrg degree in 1939.

  20. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 13, 2023 @ 4:52 pm

    FWIW, I took both German and Latin in U.S. secondary school, at the end of the Seventies and into the early Eighties. My old high school no longer offers either and I believe the same to be true of the other high schools in the district (one of which used to also offer Russian but no longer does). I heard many decades ago a conspiracy theory (which may well have been true!) that when our beloved and charismatic Latin teacher (1920-2009) finally retired, her green and unknown replacement was deliberately "set up to fail" by the bureaucrats and provided inadequate resources and support, so that predictably declining enrollment could then be used as a justification for pulling the plug. Don't know the timeline of and rationale for the elimination of German – and it's not like the German teacher we had was notably better than a random replacement would have been.

    One factor I've heard people muse about is how licensing is set up in many states for public school teachers — you can in many places be certified as a generic "modern Romance languages" teacher and even if French is really your thing you can still legally teach one section of Italian or Spanish while trying to keep a chapter or two ahead of the students in the textbook. So if you offer French/Italian/Spanish you only need one set of teachers that you can redeploy as needed, whereas German, Latin, and I assume Mandarin require separate certifications. OTOH, I expect German has also been suffering long-term secular decline vis-a-vis its competitors in private schools which don't have this specific bureaucratic obstacle. I am told anecdotally that at least in my part of the country plenty of people competent to teach Latin prefer to work in private schools because getting public-school certification seems more of a hassle than the economic upside associated with it, especially if you (rightly!) lack a sense of confidence that there's absolutely no way a given school district will up and abandon Latin in the next 25 or 30 years you need for your retirement benefits to be maximized.

  21. Philip Anderson said,

    September 13, 2023 @ 5:54 pm

    @Philip Taylor
    When you learn to speak and read a language, one of the first things you are taught is how to pronounce the written form; you put English aside and learn a new set of rules. For Spanish the rules are pretty easy to learn (although slightly different for the European and Latin American languages); for English on the other hand, even native speakers can get it wrong.

  22. Tom said,

    September 14, 2023 @ 3:37 am

    Economics and politics play a role.

    German (and many others) did have a bit of a comeback among young (and old) Americans, who wanted to escape during the Trump vs Merkel years.

    Phil Anderson: natives get it wrong, because they've not been taught by phonics teachers and got caught in the wars on how to teach the alphabet, the UK is said to have a good results now, particularly for the boys from minority families, because phonics got re-introduced 15 years ago against (€&_@#_&# people) resistance, phonics doesn't harm the fast and brightest and makes the vulnerable read (boys from minority, non-Enplish parents) in the first crucial years, unlike the alternative fancied by #_€@4'_# people.

    German, Spanish are very consistant in the alphabet-sound correspondence, their phonics is easier, English-French are not, phonics is even more important there, such that it was re-introduced to France, too. The only place where teachers and politicians have issues about this is the US. Webster was a phonics-teaching material writer, too.

    By the way, Germany started to waterdown phonics, too, despite a higher foreign population. Result: more people with reading issues aka illiteracy.

  23. Natasha Warner said,

    September 14, 2023 @ 1:00 pm

    On the last topic in this piece, university credit for less recognized languages with or without writing systems, University of Arizona can offer a solution: a student at any university who already has reasonable knowledge of any language not taught by their university, including say Shanghainese, Taiwanese, but also say Dinka, Czech, Vietnamese, Polish, Amharic, Apache, etc., can take our language exam at University of Arizona, developed and administered by the Department of Linguistics. If their own university will accept UA's exam result, we can test them for 4th semester proficiency, 2nd semester proficiency, or whatever their university requires. We do not require reading in the language, since as linguists we know that reading is an add-on to linguistic competence. Running this program is so much fun, and I get to hear bilingualism in action in so many languages! We do this specifically because the UA values knowledge of all of these languages equally with knowledge of languages the university teaches. Here's info just in case anyone's curious. https://linguistics.arizona.edu/language-exams

  24. Victor Mair said,

    September 14, 2023 @ 1:44 pm

    Bravo, Natasha!

    Bravo, AU!

    I wish Penn would learn from you.

  25. Philip Anderson said,

    September 15, 2023 @ 7:45 am

    I wasn’t thinking so much of children learning to read English (although they find it tough to learn thoroughly how to pronounce every word containing ‘ough’ even with phonics), but of adults confronted with an unfamiliar word or name, like ’victuals’ or ‘boatswain’, if it’s first encountered in written form.
    Heteronyms are less of a problem for fluent speakers, who generally know both words and their context, except for personal names and place names, where the context comes down to one example versus another: I was once in a group with a 'Naomi and a Na'omi, who stressed their names differently.

  26. Tom said,

    September 17, 2023 @ 4:23 pm

    Phil Anderson: Thanks for clarifying. [vitl] might need a spelling reform? I know someone named "Ma'ira" not to be confused with "Maira" or "Maria".

    On booms: SCMP reports that Mandarin gets state-sanctioned traction in block-free (old term from the 1950s) states, as Saudi Arabia and selected African states.


    The international summit diplomacy feels quite a bit like a re-run of the 1950s Bandung conference. If history repeats, some people must be thinking about coup d'etats, now.

    The Internet Archive's ebook section (with pinyin-GR charts from pinyin.info) has Victor Mair's favorite.

  27. David Marjanović said,

    September 18, 2023 @ 11:12 am

    [*] Not perfect, for example, because of the wide variety of sounds that are transcribed as "r".

    A wide variety of sounds, yes, but they're a single Mandarin phoneme; you don't need to distinguish them from each other to speak Mandarin.

    [vitl] might need a spelling reform?

    Is the word still in use?

  28. Philip Anderson said,

    September 18, 2023 @ 2:19 pm

    Victuals tend to be archaic or humorous now, although victualler is still seen, particularly as ‘licensed victualler’; it also means a butcher in Ireland. It came upon a recent discussion on Facebook.

  29. Jonathan Smith said,

    September 18, 2023 @ 2:49 pm

    Re Mand. "r", the onset can be more or less fricated even for a single speaker depending on (factors), but yes a single phoneme. (There was once a long LL thread discussing some of Philip Taylor's recordings of r-…) If you include coda "-r", though, using the same phonetic realization would probably be odd… speaking of which, "segment phonemes" are kinda bad for languages like Mandarin to begin with as they falsely suggest equivalence between onset and coda positions… traditional analyses here have it right in using onset + rime and the like.

  30. Philip Taylor said,

    September 19, 2023 @ 2:00 pm

    "they're a single Mandarin phoneme; you don't need to distinguish them from each other to speak Mandarin" — well, while I would agree that one does not need to distingish them from each other [in order] to speak Mandarin, I would respectfully suggest that if one's aim is not merely to speak Mandarin but rather to sound as close to a native speaker as a westerner can hope to achieve, then being able to produce the "right" sound in each possible context is, in fact, vital. Would you agree, David ? I will ask Zhou Rui, a Chinese friend, the same question when we next talk on Zoom.

  31. Sean said,

    September 20, 2023 @ 11:04 am

    Philip Taylor: learning a Latin-based transliteration for a Sinitic language such as the IPA does not seem harder than learning a whole new alphabet or abjad as one usually has to do when learning a new language. And almost all traditional writing systems have phonetic ambiguity, partially because fluent speakers learn which phoneme is expected in which context.

  32. Philip Taylor said,

    September 20, 2023 @ 1:53 pm

    Sean — "learning a Latin-based transliteration [such as the IPA ] for a Sinitic language does not seem harder than learning a whole new alphabet or abjad as one usually has to do when learning a new language". I agree. But when I tried to find the resources to enable me to learn the IPS transcription for Mandarin Chinese, they simply appeared unavailable. And all three of my Mandarin Chinese teachers (all from SISU) were unaware of the existence of such resources, and could not locate them when asked. That was the real barrier; the ambiguity of Pinyin was, as it were, secondary, but nonetheless also a real problem, in that none of the three could hear the differences that we Westerners were detecting, simply because, as David M. has already observed, what we were hearing were simply different realisations of the same (Mandarin Chinese) phoneme. It would only my second teacher’s son, Zhou Rui, who could both hear the difference and explain the reason for it.

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