Mar 7, 2011

Will Chinese Supplant English?

So our native English teacher sent us a note to discuss it, and since I love to talk about this stuff, he inspired me to write this entry.

You know there has been lots of discussion about Chinese possibly overwhelming English as the "international language", right? Why? In simple and short, right now China is one of the most powerful economies and a big country with loads of people that are potencial clients. That, and our non-Asian countries are full of Asian people too -plus a good part of them are Chinese-. However, people who think that all of this is enough as for Chinese to supplant English in our schools, universities, etc., are too naive and misinformed, in my opinion.

There are too many reasons why Chinese won't be overwhelming English as the lingua franca, not any time soon, not later either. Both me and my teacher wrote quite some lines about it, he as a native English teacher living abroad and me as both Chinese and English student (my first language is Spanish).

(I'll post my thoughts on that after the post, as a reply to this entry, so that it makes more sense and so that it isn't so long! xD)

So, in short, this is what my teacher thinks: "I highly doubt it.". And then, he explains:

1. English was lucky enough to emerge as the lingua franca during a critical time. Before the Internet, so much international trade/travel, study abroad programs and large political unions (like the European Union), languages used in the past for international communication were confined to relatively small groups of people. Because so many people now travel, move to other countries, participate in research projects with international audiences, conduct business internationally or at the very least use the Internet, many people feel the need to learn English. People are therefore investing large amounts of money and time to learn English like never before. I could be wrong but I think the number of people who can at least maintain a basic conversation in English is exponentially rising. I would argue that this inertia is if not impossible, very difficult to stop. Imagine. If you know English, you'll be very inclined to teach your children English. You wouldn't know the first thing about teaching them Chinese.

2. The lingua franca is often chosen because of political and economic reasons. You're probably thinking that's exactly why Chinese will supplant English; China is a huge economy already and it's bigger every day. True. It will no doubt one day be bigger than the US economy. But, when will it be bigger than all the English-speaking countries? Canada, the UK, Ireland, the US, Australia and New Zealand are all fairly powerful modern economies. Luckily enough for English-speakers, those countries are also conveniently geographically located. There is at least one in the Americas, Europe and the Pacific. Countries from all over the world probably want to do business with at least one English-speaking country. As long as they want to continue those economic relations, they'll want to know English to facilitate those relations.

3. To learn how to communicate in a language, you have to hear it/read it as often as possible. Generally people have a LOT more access to English than they do Chinese. In fact, until recently, it was hard to escape English. A lot of video games, for example, were only available in English, whether or not you spoke it. Books, TV shows, textbooks, research, videos, podcasts are all widely available in English.

4. English is in a lot of ways not the best international language. It's obnoxiously irregular. But, on the other hand, it's relatively simple in comparison to other languages. Often times you just have to add another word and you have another tense. Let's be honest, it's a lot easier to practice/learn a language when you only have to memorize one word (rather than ... potentially 20 new conjugations and irregular verbs that break the rule).

In Spanish, on the other hand (as in many other languages), you have to memorize a number of conjugations JUST to properly speak in the present. Since they don't typically use subject pronouns in Spanish, you HAVE to know the conjugations well just to know who they're talking about. Needless to say, to speak at a very basic level in English, you need to know significantly less grammar than you would to learn most other European languages. Cases, the subjunctive mood and gender (which are common in many languages) are practically non-existent in English.

I don't know that much about Chinese but I know that few people know how to even say hello in Chinese. Someone once told me that depending on intonation, a word can have four different meanings (good luck with that). Beyond that, you'd have to learn a completely different writing system. I think that because of the writing system alone, Europeans and Americans at the very least would feel more comfortable learning a language that at least looks SORT OF similar to theirs. Imagine, a person who knows NOTHING about English (from Europe) can at least read English. Sure, they'd have a really thick accent possibly but you'd probably understand at least something. Learning how to read Chinese, on the other hand, alone would require a great deal of time. I doubt that most people would be willing to take the time.

5. For Chinese to become the international language you'd not only have to convince everyone who is used to learning a foreign language that they have to stop studying/learning a language that is already at least slightly familiar to them, you'd have to convince English-speakers that they have to learn Chinese AND that they have to take it seriously. Historically, we're not very good at this and we're not very willing to do it. Unfortunately that makes a difference. Besides, if the Chinese are already speaking to us in English, why would we feel the need to learn theirs?

Having said all this, I am not "defending" English. I am a proponent of us ALL learning a constructed international auxiliary language. At the very least, I don't think it's fair that everyone makes it easier for English-speakers by learning their language. Unfortunately, I think that's even less likely than Chinese supplanting English as the international language."

Let's know about your opinion! As I said, my own reply is in the comments too!

See you!