Aspirational Europeans are increasingly learning Chinese to boost their career prospects, but recruitment firms warn their efforts could be misdirected.
Difficulties mastering the language, plus the insularity of European business, means citizens may do better sticking with the more traditional European languages — even though China is now the number-one destination for expatriates from the continent, according to some estimates.
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"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.
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Furthermore, those Europeans that do speak Chinese should not assume their skills are a one-way ticket to Asia, particularly if they lack experience of working in China.
"If an expat is going to learn a language, I would recommend Mandarin, especially if they will be stationed in Shanghai, Beijing or Guangzhou. But mostly what employers will be looking for is mainland China experience. I know it's a Catch-22. To get the job you need experience, but to get the experience you need the job," said Robert Williams, who heads Asia Media Search, a recruitment firm for senior media and marketing roles in Asia.
Berghofen added: While the job markets in Asia are of course better than in many countries in Europe, it is still very competitive here, especially in a city like Singapore. Many Europeans seem to underestimate this."
Those hoping to better their employment prospects at home may do better to improve their French or German — or even their Norwegian or Swedish, according to a report by the British Academy, the U.K.'s national body for the humanities and social sciences.
In its "Languages: state of the nation" report, published earlier this year, the British Academy noted that U.K. employers expressed a desire for Chinese skills when surveyed, but Italian, Dutch and Scandinavian languages all featured more frequently in job advertisements.
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"This may be because employers fulfill their needs for these languages from other sources — for example, by recruiting directly in the country concerned. However, it is possible that employers… are reflecting general aspirations rather than specifically identified needs, and perhaps underestimate the need for Italian, Dutch and Scandinavian languages, while overemphasizing languages which have a higher profile in current public debate," said the report's authors.
The British Academy acknowledged that Chinese was both a "key" language for the U.K. labor market, and undertaught in schools and universities, putting it in a the same category as Russian, Arabic, Italian and Japanese. However, the institute reserved its greatest concern for the decline in the teaching of German.
"The position of German, despite being one of the languages which is most needed in the labor market (by some measures, the most-needed language), is in decline in both schools and universities, and should be the focus of strategic recovery," the report said.
—By CNBC's Katy Barnato