Category Archives: Culture Shock

Irrelevant Comment: “Why Mandarin Won’t Be a Lingua Franca”

Reading the article “Why Mandarin Won’t Be a Lingua Franca” on time.com gets me to think a little. (http://time.com/3585847/mandarin-lingua-franca/) Well, yes, I don’t use my brain very often.

Recent APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit brings China into highlight, and somehow led the author Andre Martinez to consider the future possibility of Chinese language as an international language. And the author did lay out quite a few obstacles that Chinese dialect needs to overcome to be relevant in such consideration. Interestingly, as a native Chinese speaker, I have thought about similar topics from time to time. Although I do agree with the conclusion in the article that Chinese is unlikely to replace English on international stage, my logic still differs from Mr. Martinez’s.

In my cynical opinion, whether one particular language dominates the international dialogues is mainly dependent upon one thing, “money”. The truth is that the language that the most powerful economic entities/countries use would be widely adopted. If we look back in human history, it is undoubtedly that Spanish was way more popular in terms of population percentage when Spain was the most powerful nation in Europe. Chinese was widely adopted by some Asian countries way back when China was a wealthy and powerful nation. When Great Britain blew open the door to Asian market in 1850s, the English language was also widely accepted in many Asian countries. The initial reason why English became more widely used than other language was solely because of the Britain troops set their feet on almost every continent, every country. We don’t need to go into glory/bloody details about how they achieved this.

Thanks to industrial evolution, English maintained the dominant status after WWI. It is undeniable that when a nation, or certain region drove the world’s technology development, the rest of the world would have no choice but follow. This gave English significant advantage over other languages. Western world was way more advanced in technology, and economy, for over 100 years, and English-speaking countries hardly bother to learn other languages for various reasons. In order to communicate, the rest of the world has to speak English.

Just like many people whose mother language are not English, I often think Chinese is a more beautiful language than English is. The author claimed that Chinese “is just too hard for outsiders to attain fluency”. I don’t know how to judge that, but I do think Chinese is a way more complicated language. One single character could have quite a few meanings dependent upon the situation it is used, and those meanings may not relate to each other. This actually comes in handy when giving a name to children. Chinese names often have some meanings, either some wishes or expections. Chinese could be very concise more often than not (Well, yes, it also depends on who is speaking.) One example, in English, there is a saying “Still water runs deep”. There happens to be a phrase with the exact same meaning in Chinese “静水流深”, it pronounces as “jing shui liu shen”. It saved a few syllables from English pronunciation. I have to say that I am not close to be a fluent English speaker, and my opinion could be far more biased than I would like to admit. So, take this with a grain of salt (自行斟酌, zi xing zhen zhuo).

English might be as neutral as the author claimed it to be. I don’t know if that is a good thing. For example, I know that Chinese and Spanish both use different word when addressing senior individuals (I am pretty sure there are other languages have the same thing, apologize for my ignorance). This is actually one of the very important human sides in a language that do not exist in English. Out of respect, people often use those particular terms to address their grandma, grandpa, parents, older relatives, or the papa next door. But in USA, the most common way to address the other people in this situation is using first name, which is considered to be very disrespectful in China. And it took me very long time to get used to this.

Chinese is more flexible and versatile than many people know of. Because China was way behind these developed countries in science. We learned a lot of the knowledge from western world, but still in Chinese. Many characters, and words were created according to either their English meanings or pronunciations.

At last, just like majority articles published in TIME, the author can’t resist the temptation to remind readers of the unpopularity of China in Asia when writing articles relating to China. Don’t wanna dive too deep in political conversation, just merely point out that, popular or not, that is almost irrelevant in this subject. And China is far from a powerhouse no matter in military nor in individual average economy growth. So, we are not a threat.

Anyhow, no one should expect Chinese to threat English “for global preeminence” in the future. And American citizen rejoice. No need to fill the brain with other unpopular languages.