We live in a time where globalisation is a buzzword we cannot escape from. Trade is taking place at rapid speed. Communication is a recognisable key facet amongst our ever more so connected world and so, the future of language comes into question. In this blog, we will explore the heavily debated conflict between the future of Chinese Mandarin becoming a possible lingua franca across the globe.
The Current Status
Despite the controversy surrounding the topic, as it stands, English is still regarded as the global ‘lingua franca’, as supported by the numbers which highlight the volume of people speaking the language worldwide. English is still classified as the most ‘learned’ language in terms of second language acquisition. This dates back in history to a time that Crystal (2003) notes, ‘English was in the right place at the right time’. During the era of industrialisation and just as globalisation was taking off, England, home to the English language, as well as America, owned vast amounts of land; colonising New Zealand, India, Sri Lanka, and many other countries. Crystal (2003) further states that it is through this ownership, countries are heavily influenced in political, economic, and social ways. This caused English to naturally become the prominent language for communication.
So why and how does China play a role amongst this?
Just as we see and experience the world evolving around us, global languages are often replaced over time by other languages as the new language becomes more dominant (Ning, 2010). Before English, we had Latin as the lingua franca due to the Roman Empire for instance.
Both English and Mandarin are considered to be key languages in the world culturally and within international business.
And whilst Mandarin is of course the official language of China, it is also rooted within Taiwan, Singapore, and more recently regarded as one of the official languages within the United Nations (Zhang, 2011).
In many western areas, there is a general feeling of “it’s a good time to learn Chinese now”. This probably stems from the lurking threat of China slowly positioning itself as the leader in the global market, gaining more and more influence as time goes on.
An important feature to note is that in modern-day China, in the last two or so decades, 100 million illiterate Chinese have learned to read and write. The reason for this sudden increase is partly due to the simplification of Chinese characters (McBride-Chang & Chen, 2003).
The Case for Mandarin
If you check the labels of items you own, for the common individual, it would not take long, especially in the Western world, to find something labelled ‘Made in China’. Utilising this as a symbol, we can see how in our daily lives we are experiencing elements of growing Chinese influence in a globalising world.
China’s recent global expansion
China is currently investing across the globe. For example, the construction of the new Silk and Maritime road across Asia, Africa, and Europe. In this case, China is making connections through these continents whilst employing Chinese workers, using Chinese tools, thus communicating in Mandarin. This in turn is slowly infiltrating the language subtly through its networks.
Seeing this from an African point of view, for example, it is noted that many of these citizens welcome the language with open arms. Many view this as an opportunity to potentially seek new job opportunities that have been formed from such Chinese investment. If this trend can be sustained, a continent such as Africa, which has the second-highest population on the planet, exceeding 1.3 billion, it is clear to see how exponential growth in Mandarin learning could easily be sustained.
There is a point to be made that the future lingua franca will depend upon what happens in Africa. McCrum (2010) hypotheses that African untapped resources of oil and gas might be a vital motivation for the Chinese government to invest in. He also points to the colonial stigma of the UK in Africa resulting in a possible greater openness to embracing China’s initiatives even more. Another factor that could facilitate Chinese influence in Africa is the willingness to spend massive amounts of money in very poor and uneducated countries. Therefore positioning itself perfectly to spread their language as well as ideology whilst deepen the dependency in these countries.
Measures in China
Whilst it could be noted that the high volume of Chinese speakers is due to the vast population size (1.4 billion), the government has released statements in recent years addressing their concerns over the increasing number of English native immigrants to the country. In turn, this has resulted in many more Chinese residents speaking English as their preferred lexical dialogue, thus potentially hindering the popularity and culture of Chinese.
In response to this, the government has vouched for wanting 80% of its residents to speak Mandarin by 2020. Not only this but they also aim to ensure that all new teachers pass a standard Mandarin test in order to be able to teach. If these targets are met by the end of the year, then the rise of English within China is likely to be impacted and could influence a positive infiltration of Chinese into other countries.
This development in China hints at China’s awareness and readiness to fight the fight for the future lingua franca. It also shows English’s ability to quickly spread in different regions.
Another initiative by the Chinese government is the establishment of 282 Confucius Institutes in more than 87 countries. These institutes are designed to cater to the need for learning Mandarin outside China. In addition, western schools and governments are reacting to China’s increased presence in the world by offering more opportunities to learn Mandarin. The most recent example of this would be the implementation of Chinese into the Leaving Vert curriculum in Ireland, starting in September 2020.
English’s Advantage and the Middle Way
But what if there would be a way where both languages can co-exist and be called “global languages”? And assuming this would be possible, how exactly would this world look like?
First of all, the English language is still deeply embedded in domains such as the global entertainment sector, global media, western literature, pop-culture, sports, and science, just to name a few. As Zhang (2011) notes, English’s main advantage roots in its broad appeal rather than only its number of native speakers. It is prevailing in many fields of endeavor and is frequently being considered the default language in many different multicultural settings.
In times of rapid globalisation and technological advancement, it seems likely that intercultural communication will increase, and consequently, a lingua franca will be needed. As of January 2020, English was the most popular language online, representing 25.9 percent of worldwide internet users. It is the dominant language on the internet at the moment, closely followed by Chinese. It has to be considered though that Chinese is more used within China and mostly by native speakers whereas English content is being produced and consumed from all over the world. It seems unlikely that within a not too distant future, the most popular Netflix shows will be in Mandarin or that keyboards around the world will have been replaced with Chinese symbols, and heated Reddit debates will suddenly be fought in Mandarin.
It is hard to imagine that Mandarin will be able to attain this level of broad attraction anytime soon. Especially considering the previously outlined difficulties that westerners face when trying to learn Mandarin.
Global Language, a cultural issue?
Andres Martinez who is the editorial director at Zocalo Public Square in addition to being a professor of journalism at Arizona State University analyses the languages from a different angle. He brings a cultural-linguistic sphere into the discussion. He points to the inherent nature of the English language that is the association with western values, in particular freedom.
Martinez says that English is the more neutral language in comparison to Chinese. This is because the language is not associated with one country only, but due to its history, has many ties with other languages as well. He also notes that certain ideas of equality are built into the English grammar system already.
Furthermore, because of its globality and the fact that English is being used in more than one country, it usually is not being censored in any way. This in turn further cultivates the western (especially England and American) tradition of freedom of speech in English-speaking countries. In contrast, it is widely known how the Chinese government carefully monitors the internet and media within their own country, leaving little to no room for the language to attain western ideas.
In regards to the fundamental differences between the two languages Zhang (2011) points out that:
“…English expressing individualism, competitiveness, and democracy and Chinese and Southeastern Asian languages expressing collectively, harmony and kinship”.
A recent example of this clash would be China’s radical attempt to promote Mandarin in Hong-Kong. For background purposes: China is forcing itself and its ideology into Hong-Kong in order to connect Hong-Kong to the mainland and absorb it consequently. The British colonial influence in Hong-Kong is still very visible and Hong-Kong itself is a democracy. Even though they are technically a part of China, Hong-Kong’s main language is Cantonese with English being the second official language though. According to Vox, the Chinese government is actively trying to push Mandarin as the primary language in the region. For example, the central news is being shown in Mandarin, or textbooks for children are more advertising the Chinese government rather than objectively teaching the language. This caused massive protests in Hong-Kong since the people feel that with their language, they would lose part of their freedom and democracy too.
In contrast, in an older Forbes article author Paul Johnson describes the positive effect that English had and still has in India. He compares the country and its democratic structures to China’s since both countries can be labelled as overpopulated but also completely different. The example of India also shows how the adaptation of English can not only strengthen democracy but help a country engaging in the global market with India being one of the leading countries in IT services for example.
So, will our future global language be decided on how society will change? According to David Crystal yes:
“Language changes to reflect society. The only languages which do not change, are the dead ones” – David Crystal
It is up to be seen in which direction society will drift but could there be a scenario where both languages co-exist as global languages?
The Middle Way
So, is it possible to have two global languages at the same time? Maybe! For this, we need to go back to language guru David Crystal (2006). He is saying that with the emergence of the internet, there is a shift in language from technological language to a focus on “purposes and people”, meaning that our language changes depending on the situation and people we interact with online.
In a very recent journal article, author Jeffrey Gill (2020) has this to say in regards to the language acquisition of Mandarin and the purposeful use of English.
“There is a flawed assumption that all learners of Chinese must learn to read and write to a native-like level — although this does not reflect the global use of English. People learn as much English as is required for their purposes, and the same would apply if Chinese was a global language.”
Having this in mind, we can argue for the use of both languages at the same time but for different purposes and in different situations. As previously mentioned, it seems inconceivable for English to quickly vanish from being the dominant language in almost all areas of entertainment and global media coverage. However, the growing economic power of China in addition to China’s efforts to connect themselves all over the planet makes for a good argument in favour of the language to get more spread and popular. Based on Crystal’s and Gill’s thoughts, we can think of a scenario where English is still the main language for broad purposes and fields of endeavour but Mandarin the language that is used for business and economic growth.
There is also the option that both languages will adjust to each other and we’ll see a kind of westernised Mandarin at some point. Right now, this seems unlikely though due to China’s pro-active efforts to promote their language in their own way.
The no lingua franca option
The last perspective that has not been mentioned yet is the idea that translation technology will erase the need to learn additional languages in the first place. In this world, content on the internet will be tailors to the user’s main preference. With google translate, this is partially already possible. Furthermore, instant translation technology for spoken language has already been shown by Microsoft in 2012. Though it became quiet in regards to this idea in recent years, it is likely that developers will push this technology as far as they can within the next decades.
The question in what capacity cultural factors such as a specific worldview or general politeness can be transmitted via translation software remains to be seen. However, such kind of software could break down some of the walls westerners have with learning Mandarin. And maybe vice versa.
To summarise, what can we learn from this? Well, firstly the fact that the future of English or Chinese Mandarin as a global language is highly controversial. Therefore it is likely to be a continual debate amongst scholars, theorists, and society for the foreseeable future. We do believe that a shift is lingua franca resulting in some kind of common knowledge of Chinese is certainly possible. The fact that China is proactively pushing their language domestically and internationally shows their willingness to spread their language, especially in Africa. However, this process is less likely to ensure winning the ‘race’, instead, it may occur at a snail pace speed. English still has the advantage of being globally firmly established as the medium of communication, encompassing too many domains of our lives to simply get replaced all of the sudden.
Following the thoughts of David Crystal, Dr. Martinez and Jeffrey Gill, the discussion about the future lingua franca shifts into a discussion about the future dominant ideology in the world. The examples of Hong-Kong and India show the impact a language may have on a country. Time will tell whether or not Mandarin becomes too inevitable due to China’s economic power and will become the one or one of the two lingua francas in the world. It could also be that this whole discussion will not be necessary anymore when technology overtakes language barriers and instant translation becomes the norm.
In any case, with China’s long-term political stability, rapid sustainable economic development, as well as the increasing exchanges in the areas of trade, culture, and education between China and the international society, the demand for learning to speak Chinese, is at least in dramatic growth in various countries across the world and an end is not in near sight.
Ellen Wilson & Janosch Krüger
Crystal, D. (2003). English as a global language. Ernst Klett Sprachen.
Crystal, D. (2006). The linguistic future of the Internet. Language and the Internet, 257-276. doi:10.1017/cbo9780511487002.011
Gil, J. (2020). Will a character based writing system stop Chinese becoming a global language? A review and reconsideration of the debate. Global Chinese, 6(1).
McBride-Chang, C. & Chen, H-C. (2003). Reading developments in Chinese children. Westport, CT: Praeger/Greenwood.
McCrum, R. G. (2010). How English language became the world’s language.
Ning, W. (2010). Global English (es) and Global Chinese (s): toward rewriting a new literary history in Chinese. Journal of Contemporary China, 19(63), 159-174.
Zhang, S. (2011). English as a global language in Chinese context. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 1(2), 167-176