Will Chinese be the next essential global development language?

Academic books in Chinese. With China on the rise in the international development sector, is it  time to start learning the language? Photo by: Nomad YC / CC BY-NC-ND 

China’s economy is growing fast — and so too its development footprint.

Unofficial figures put Beijing, one of five fast-growing economies that make up emerging donors group BRICS, as the largest contributor of development assistance to sub-Saharan Africa. Further, two days after 50 founding members signed the articles of agreement of the China-led Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank, Beijing ratified an agreement to launch BRICS’ own multilateral financial institution, the New Development Bank.

In the short to midterm, development contractors and consulting firms that are doing business in Asia and Africa may increasingly be bidding for projects funded by the Chinese government and multilateral banks where Beijing is a major stakeholder. Would proficiency in Chinese then be an essential skill for development professionals to have in the next few years?

Results of a recent Devex survey, conducted in partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development and Population Services International, suggest so. Two-thirds of over 1,000 respondents to our survey of skills development professionals would need in the next decade believe Chinese will be a much more important language than it is today. Many of them have had extensive experience in Africa, and a high percentage of them work in the social services sectors.

Experts working in the sectors of agriculture, climate change and democracy promotion meanwhile are least convinced that Chinese will be an important skill to learn in the future.

Proficiency in English followed by Chinese and Arabic will be more important in the next decade, according to our latest survey.

Proficiency in Chinese, Mandarin to be specific, can certainly make a good impression on recruiters, since showing mastery of the language — or any language other than their own for that matter — can show perseverance and interest in another culture. Chinese, in particular, is a language that is difficult to master and practice, Paul Cadario, senior fellow at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, told Devex.

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But precisely because it is such a difficult language to gain mastery over, development professionals should first gauge whether learning Chinese would be worth the investment — or whether they should instead stick to the “more widely spoken languages in development,” such as English, French, Spanish, Arabic and Portuguese. In addition, they should consider whether the time spent to learn the language could be better spent honing practical skills in their areas of expertise, and broaden their interests in “cognate areas, so you're able to be part of multidisciplinary teams that 'do' development,” explained Cadario, a “regular visitor” to China, where he’s spent nearly seven of his 37-year stint at the World Bank.

At present, Chinese doesn’t seem to be an essential requirement at international agencies and nongovernmental organizations.

Some postings on Devex’s job page for instance note Chinese as a “desirable” skill or an asset, particularly among U.N. agencies, but not required. A director of programs position for Mercy Corps in China requires someone with “excellent written and verbal English skills” but Mandarin proficiency is just “preferred.”

UNICEF however is currently looking for a Chinese-speaking digital content producer to provide content for its Chinese website and oversee its social media platforms in China.

Recently, Concern Worldwide, International Medical Corps and Harvard Humanitarian Initiative launched French and Arabic versions of their online learning tool to train disaster responders, a decision they say was “driven by strong demand from the global humanitarian community.”

But Devex learned they have no plans to release a Chinese version.

The importance of Chinese proficiency in the private sector, however, is a bit more divisive. Dan Barigye, a monitoring and evaluations civil engineer for the Somaliland Development Fund, an initiative through which several bilateral donors channel their support for the self-declared state’s development goals, increasingly finds more universities in his country teaching the language as part of business courses.

On the other hand, while having working knowledge of Mandarin may be valuable to those interested in doing work with Chinese companies, English will “always be the most important language in the future,” argued Luciano Salvato, a mining and constructions operations manager with extensive experience in the private sector in Africa.

Chinese companies have a presence in nearly all countries, but “the important managers of Chinese companies know English. If you call suppliers in China, no problems to speak English,” he said.

Even in AIIB and the New Development Bank — which will be headquartered in China’s capital city, Beijing, and main financial center, Shanghai — Chinese proficiency isn’t likely to become a must-have skill, Cadario said. The former World Bank official “suspects” the creation of these two banks may have “started the buzz about languages in development.” But he stressed that English will likely remain the predominant working language at donor agencies and multilaterals, “and not just because their staff will be from many non-Chinese nationalities.

“The Chinese want the best experts, not adequate experts with wonderful Chinese,” he said. “That was true when they joined the Bretton Woods institutions back in the early ‘80s, and it's true today as [China] sets out to make its mark in the world of poverty eradication.”

The jury is still out on whether Chinese will indeed become more important in the next decade. For now, China seems to be supporting the status quo: One of its top higher learning institutions, Tsinghua University, is currently offering the country’s first international development program in English.

To see more results of the next generation development professionals survey, download this report from PSI.

Whether you’re a seasoned expert or budding development professional — check out more news, analysis and advice online to guide your career and professional development, and subscribe to Doing Good to receive top international development career and recruitment news every week.

About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.