The BBC ran a somewhat rambling and anecdotal article which nevertheless illustrates that linguistically at least, China’s hegemony in East Asia is not a done deal. Though many of the people interviewed in the article acknowledge that speaking Mandarin proficiently is crucial for taking advantage of the ever-expanding opportunities to do business in China, parents are still going out of their way to make sure their children learn English. For example, each day 15,000 students travel from Malaysia’s Johor state to schools in Singapore, at least partly because Singapore’s schools are taught in English.Apart from its influential link to popular youth culture, English is still a kind of shorthand for Western prosperity in the minds of many parents. As one of the Malaysian mothers interviewed for the piece said, “Science and maths are all written in English so it’s essential for my son to be fluent in the language.”The dominance of English has many roots. It is grammatically simpler than other European languages, and irrational as its spelling system is, it is easier for non-native speakers to learn the English writing system than to manage the Chinese model. English benefits from being the language of two successive hegemonic powers; in the 19th century many people were learning English to cope with the Brits and, like the QWERTY keyboard, enough of the world has invested in English to give it a firm base of users.English also benefits from being a kind of offshore balancer in the world of linguistics. Both the French and the Germans would rather use English as a lingua franca than concede the language of the other side pride of place in Europe. In a similar way many Japanese and Thais would rather use English as a common Asian tongue than Mandarin — or Japanese.Languages rise and fall more slowly than empires; back when I was in Pundit School bright young liberal arts types were expected to learn French for diplomacy, Latin for culture and German for philosophy and social science. These days it is more convenient to just learn one language to get it all done. The more languages you know, the better, but for the foreseeable future, even in countries that border China, English is likely to remain the foreign language that most students elect to master first.This is a good thing for Americans, who are even worse than the notoriously bad Brits at learning foreign languages. In Japan they say that the English word for a person who knows two languages is bilingual, for three languages it is trilingual, for four or more it is polyglot — and for someone who speaks only one language le mot juste is: American.