"It is impossible to reach fluency in Mandarin without spending 3-4 years on the ground in China. So unless you are in your early twenties and want to make this significant time investment, it doesn't make much sense career-wise," said Alex Berghofen, the managing partner of HELEX Asia, a pan-Asian recruitment firm for management consultants.
Difficulties arise because Mandarin Chinese — the most commonly spoken Chinese dialect — uses an unfamiliar non-Roman script, and features over 2,000 characters. Unlike Germanic or Romance languages, it is also tonal, meaning that different pitches are required to express different meanings.
Marco Vicario Ramirez, the director general of Instituto Iberochino, a Chinese language school based in four Spanish cities, said Chinese learners must first grapple with its alphabet.
"The intonation of the syllables of each word is very important for their meaning. In Chinese, intonation is more important than pronunciation," said Ramirez, whose Instituto Iberochino currently teaches 650 students, the youngest of which is aged four.
Around 232 schools in Germany offered Chinese in the 2010/2011 academic year, but Andreas Laimböck, a German-born owner of a language school in Beijing, said students in Europe lacked the time needed to progress with the language.
"Eight hours a week is simply not enough. Students arrive in China with sometimes moderate writing skills, however, very poor speaking skills," Laimböck said in a report by language learning software provider Rosetta Stone.
Many students opt to learn in China to better their progress, and 40 million foreigners now study in the country, according to official estimates. The Chinese government forecasts the number could rise to 100 million by 2020.
However, Simon Bell, who headhunts British executives for senior positions abroad, said that Chinese language skills were rarely required by recruiting firms.
"If a company came to us and they wanted someone to be based in Chinese markets, they would say that Chinese was desirable but not essential, so as to not limit the pool of potential applicants… If they came to us saying they would need someone with Chinese skills, the assumption would be that they wouldn't find someone," said Bell, who heads the U.K. branch of recruitment firm Page Executive.
"Chinese is seen as very difficult. And it is not natural for Northern Europeans to pick it up that easily. It is going to take perhaps two years — and they could potentially only be heading to the country for a two-year role," he added.
Bell said that many of the firms he worked with were looking to expand in either China or India, but that in both cases, the language of big business remained English.
"There are lots of English speakers in China… a lot of the Chinese people working for you speak English," he said.
(Read More: Why Indians Have No Choice but to Learn Chinese)