Saturday, August 23, 2014

Why Chinese Will Never be the Global Language

Having studied languages and linguistics formally and by myself, there are two things that really grind my gears.

1. Asking how many languages I speak.

2. Telling me the massive importance of learning Chinese.

This is something me and my academic brethren have been suffering for decades now. You can easily find news reports claiming Chinese as the next global lingua franca since the 90s. Outlets have been the touting the idea that Chinese is the next 'it language' and it's time to dispel that idea.

Firstly, Chinese is not a language in the way most people think of it. Chinese is a chaotic system of dialects so far apart they can't understand each other (think German and English) that share a writing system. When people say Chinese, they usually mean to say Mandarin, the dialect centered around Beijing.

Let's revise, so you think Mandarin is going to be the next global language.

It's not.

Mandarin is indeed an important language, as is any that has about one-billion speakers. There is value in learning it, both financial and aesthetic. But when you look at it with your skeptic lenses, you see how wildly impractical the idea is.

Any lingua franca requires a few things to function. The first is being able to pronounce it.
Mandarin is a tonal language.You can say a syllable five different ways to produce five different tones.

Nope. NO right there.

There is no way that people, who aren't raised with tones are going to be able to use it in their speech. Some can. Some torture themselves regularly to attain the knowledge, but for the layperson, just nope.

To function a trade language also needs to be effective. While you could write an entire book on why English doesn't quite fit that bill, I'll argue that Chinese does much less.

That crazy writing system.


"I'm not Chinese."

That's a fairly simple sentence, but notice that require six different symbols to write down. To be a functioning member of society, estimates say you should know 2,000-2,500 symbols.

Again Nope. People simply aren't going to commit to that. 

Did I mention that not knowing a single symbol means that you could totally mismanage and misunderstand the whole sentence.

In addition English is spoken natively or official on every continent, a position no other language can really boast. This makes it the most available language ever
To give you an idea, Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese often spend some time in the Philippines with the explicit purpose of improving their English. The same goes for a number of EU countries for the UK and Ireland.

Where English is an official language

One could also consider the Internet itself where two most popular languages are English and Chinese with relatively close numbers. However, when you look at IP address the Chinese Internet is almost exclusively used by China and Chinese ex-patriots. Conversely, English websites have massive clusters in native countries, but also huge usage in the rest of the world.

Let's get serious now.

Everything I've said up to this point has been purely pragmatic, so let's talk about what really matters: MONEY.

The rest of the world spends millions of dollars in teaching their youth English as a second language. English education is its own industry worth more money than the economy of small nations.

Even Asian countries who used Chinese as their trade tongue centuries ago are more likely to use English. If a Thai and Korean business man sit down to talk turkey, you can bet their tongue of choice is going to come from Britain.
Using English among non-native countries is getting more and more common. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) use English despite only one two member countries having native speakers (the Philippines and Singapore).

I've worked for two years as an English teacher in Thailand, then South Korea. I get paid too well and get free airfare with the simple qualification of being a native speaker with a BA. This sort of privilege is offered to no other native speakers on the planet. The geo-political world would have to shift dramatically before Chinese people will get paid to go abroad just to talk.
There are entire organizations, sponsored by governments just to get English teachers in their country. Japan has JET, South Korea has EPIK.

In contrast, the expenditure on Chinese language acquisition in fairly minimal. One country that spends the most on Chinese language education is South Korea. However, SK's spending on Chinese is absurdly dwarfed by their spending on English.

I'm not saying that Chines isn't important. It is. But you can safely ignoredevery hyped story you've heard of Chinese overtaking English, linguistically anyways.

Here how countries speak English today

Good luck finding such a map for Chinese

Some More To Read

Who Speaking English and How
English Ranking by Continent
English Education in Korea
Koreans trying to de-emphasize English


  1. I think you were definitely spot on John, but there are few other major non-linguistic influences at play that were not included in your picture. That map of official English speaking nations? It's essentially just a map of British colonies where English was forced down their throats. While colonialism is a thing of the past, China does flex their muscles with a form of neocolonialism (economic) throughout Africa. Other than colonialism people go where the money is and that has been focused in English speaking nations which is changing swiftly.

    But I think for Chinese to have a chance at becoming a global language they need to at the very least overhaul their writing system, the tones would be nice too.

  2. J. Fossil. I like your analysis of Chinese. Putting it together with Jonahthon Rice's comment...with which I agree.....I call you to put your compassion together and learn Esperanto the language based on logic and compassion. Thousands are learning it every major country of the world, including China, and I have more reliable life-long friends who speak it, than several other languages that I studied. isn't being done in English.....