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Economy

A Tough Choice For Brazilians: Learn English Or Mandarin

The answer from Chinese professionals may surprise you...

English or Mandarin?
English or Mandarin?

-Essay-

SAO PAULO — At some point before 2030, China's nominal GDP is expected to overtake that of the United States. The Chinese economy will become the biggest in the world. This will arrive well ahead of the forecast of Jim O'Neill, who coined the acronym BRICS, and initially predicted that the C in BRICS would surpass the U.S. in 2027.

The event, when it happens, will be very significant. Until the Industrial Revolution unleashed unprecedented productive forces — especially from the mid-18th century, onwards — the world's biggest economy had been China's. The return of the primacy of the Middle Kingdom will put an end to the epoch that started in 1880, when the U.S. overtook the British economy. At the time, Queen Victoria was ruling over an "empire on which the sun never sets' and the tenant at the White House was the little known Rutherford Hayes.

Naturally, China's impressive rise is having an impact on how people around the world are preparing for the future of the global economy.

Pushing children to learn Mandarin

Back when I was a student, I went to a high school in the U.S. on a foreign-exchange program. It would never have crossed my mind or my family's at the time, 30 years ago, to go study in China or even to learn Mandarin. But now, just focusing on the situation here in Brazil, an increasing number of parents are pushing their children, even at a young age, to learn the basics of the dominant Chinese language. Many elite schools have also started to offer Mandarin on their curriculum to stand out and attract more students.

In bachelor's degrees for International Relations, the number of students learning Mandarin is growing. And they don't just want to speak the language: They also want to go to China on exchange programs, they want to do internships and work for Chinese companies.

Even in areas such as economics or management, I'm impressed with the number of Brazilian students who are now giving it some hard thought before deciding whether to learn English and complement their studies in an English-speaking country or learn Mandarin and going to China to study and work.

English, language of International Relations

At a recent lecture at a Brazilian university about how to build a global career, I was asked whether young people, to better prepare themselves for the future of the world economy, should immerse themselves in the soft power of the Anglophone civilization or of the hard drive of the Chinese one.

Later, as I was telling the story to some of my Chinese friends, I asked them their opinion: What is the smart choice for the next 25 years: study English or Mandarin? Though they all work in different fields (entrepreneurs, academics, textiles, IT), they all had the same, clear answer: English.

Chinese are "importing" American and British Universities.

Estimates are that 300 million people in China are currently learning the English language. And it's estimated that half of the Chinese population aged under 50 will be fluent in English by 2035. My friends also said that the Mandarin language alone isn't enough to overcome China's ethnic and linguistic diversity. Finally, they pointed to the fact that the Chinese were actually "importing" American and British Universities.

Of course, in the best of possible worlds, you should master both English and Mandarin, my Chinese friends argued. But in that case, I'm afraid there would be little time left to study other subjects. So for us Brazilians, it's important to understand that even for the always patriotic — but ever pragmatic — Chinese, the language par excellence for business and international relations will continue to be English.

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