Hey, Kids! Anyone for Chinese?

We all want our children to learn English because it is the world’s business language. But will it always be so? Shouldn’t we also be insisting that they learn the language of the country that is likely to dominate at least half the world within another generation?…..

….. by Paul D Kennedy

People who speak different languages need a way to communicate with each other. They can of course learn each other’s language or employ professional translators but these solutions are time-consuming and expensive. Instead, lingua francas or languages of wider communication (LWCs) have emerged throughout history – Latin in medieval Europe, French for several centuries in the West, and Swahili in many parts of Africa today. And English, of course.

English has been the international LWC for the last fifty years or so. In much the same way as Arabic numbers are the world’s way of counting and the Gregorian calendar is the world’s way of tracking time, English is the world’s way of communicating in international politics and commerce. It provides diplomats, businessmen, scientists, engineers, pilots and air traffic controllers, among many others, with an effective means of communication.

Table showing most widely spoken languages in the world

But nowadays, as can be seen from the table, the most widely used language in the world is Mandarin, the main Chinese language, which is spoken by nearly 18% of the global population. Another 3.5 to 4% or so speak Cantonese, Wu, Min and Hakka, the other major Chinese languages, so nearly 22% of everyone in the world speaks some form of Chinese on a daily basis. On the other hand, current users of English comprise less than 9% of the global population, down from 10% fifty years ago.

So why is English the world’s LWC?

The answer is power. Throughout history the languages used for international politics and commerce have reflected the distribution of power. Many of the most widely-spoken languages today – Chinese, English, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Portuguese and French – are the languages of former imperial states. Rulers usually impose their own languages on those they rule or the ruled adopt their masters’ languages as a matter of convenience. The current dominant power in the world is the USA, which is English speaking.

Unsurprisingly, shifts in the distribution of power produce shifts in the languages used. During the heyday of the Soviet Union, Russian was the lingua franca from Prague to Hanoi, but the demise of the USSR has been accompanied by a decline in the use of Russian and the rejuvenation of suppressed national languages – Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Georgian and Armenian are now the official languages of independent states. Among the Muslim republics of the CIS other chauvino-linguistic assertions have occurred – Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have shifted from the Cyrillic script of their former Russian masters to the Western-style script of their Turkish kinsmen, while Persian-speaking Tajikistan has adopted the Arabic script used in Iran. However as power diffuses and languages multiply, an LWC is needed more than ever.

But people to whom their language is a badge of distinctiveness and national pride seldom wish to learn the languages of their neighbours and nearest rivals and prefer to communicate through a neutral third language. English currently fits this bill.

In the last half century or so English has been de-ethnicized, as happened in the past with Greek, Latin, and Swahili, and its use for international communication helps reinforce cultural identities. It is because they wish to promote their own culture that people use English to communicate with nearby societies, rather than learning and using the languages of those other cultures. That English is still an associate national language in India, nearly sixty years after independence, is a result of the intense desire of non-Hindi speaking Indians to preserve their own languages and ways of thinking and describing the world.

Hence the popularity of English as an LWC. But will this dominance remain? The answer is: probably unlikely.

In non-Western societies two opposing trends are appearing. English is increasingly being taught to the young to enable them to function effectively in the global market-place. But social and political pressures are also leading to a more general use of local languages – Arabic is displacing French in North African officialdom, and Urdu is supplanting English as the language of government and education in Pakistan. As non-Western societies establish democracy and their people participate more extensively in government, they become culturally assertive, indigenous languages come into favour and the use of ex-colonial languages declines. So the use of English can be expected to decline even further at local levels.

However the main reason why the use of English as an LWC is likely to decline is that people in lesser-developed societies feel they ought to learn the language of a more successful society whose power is growing. In the 1970s Japan’s economic power stimulated the learning of Japanese by non-Japanese. Today the economic growth of China is producing a similar interest in Mandarin. Indeed Chinese has already displaced English as the predominant business language in Hong Kong and, due to the role of overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia, has become the LWC in which much of that area’s international commerce is transacted. The power shift in favour of emerging China is now creating a language shift to Mandarin outside China’s borders.

If the power of the West declines relative to other economic blocs, the use of English as an LWC is likely to erode further. Should China eventually displace the USA as the dominant power in the world, English will give away to Mandarin as the global lingua franca. The Chinese, arch-imperialists by nature, are likely to impose their own language within their sphere of influence – though Mandarin may, like English in the 20th century, eventually become de-ethnicized as it is used over a wider and wider area.

Chinese dominance may not become a reality tomorrow, but the groundwork is being laid.

China has been experiencing double-digit growth rates for the last two decades, while the dominant economic powers, the USA, Europe and Japan, have been little better than stagnant, growing at best (in a good year) at a 2.5 percent average. China’s GDP in 2001, at US$5.56 trillion according to the CIA’s World Factbook, is already 55% of the USA’s GDP, though its GDP per capita of $4,300 is still only an eighth of the USA’s $36,300 on a purchasing power parity basis. But, should current rates of growth continue, in less than fifteen years China’s GDP will match that of America.

Indeed, with the economic math working in its favour, China is catching the West up fast and as their economic and military power grows, the Chinese are becoming more assertive politically, culturally and linguistically. This on-going shifting of the centre of economic gravity to the Far East means that by the time our children are grown it is likely that Chinese economic power will equal or exceed that of America and that Mandarin will be the lingua franca of at least half the global economy.

The implication for our children’s education is obvious – they should be learning Chinese. Perhaps, if their native tongue is English, Chinese should be their first choice for a foreign language. But if English is not their first language, they should be taking both English and Chinese as second languages. Most children are capable of learning two foreign languages. In fact an in-depth knowledge of three major languages is a pre-requisite these days for many international MBA courses, so learning both English and Chinese is entirely feasible for an A student. The problems, which are surmountable, are the difficulties of learning Chinese and the lack of suitable teachers.

Chinese is a monosyllabic tonal language, in which the ‘same’ sound has an entirely different meaning depending on the relative pitch at which it is spoken. It is difficult for a Westerner or Arab to hear the difference between a particular syllable spoken in a high tone of voice and the same syllable said in a low tone and then to maintain that difference with a degree of consistency when he or she tries to talk in a tonal language. In addition, the Chinese writing system requires the learning of several thousand characters rather than the two or three dozen phonetic symbols needed to read and write fluently in most other languages.

That Chinese is more laborious and time-consuming to learn than other languages is beyond a doubt, but it can be mastered with the services of good teachers. Therein lies the rub. Even though it is obvious that our children should be taught Chinese, suitable teachers are not available in Kuwait. However this defect can be easily remedied, either by the private schools or by the government. The money is available to hire the teachers, who are paid little in China itself.

Think about it over Iftar. It would be nice to be assured that, in another few decades when Mandarin has become the international business language for half the global economy, our children will be able to grasp opportunities for employment or commerce anywhere in the world. Isn’t it time we acted, for the sake of their future?

Ramadan Kareem to you all!


© Paul D Kennedy, October 2004

This article was first published in the Arab Times in the After Iftar section during Ramadan 2004. Muslims fast throughout the day during Ramadan and Iftar is the time just after sunset when the fast is broken. The hour or two following Iftar is considered by Muslims to be a time that should be set aside for reflection.

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