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English vs Mandarin in Asia: Bring It!

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.

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  • Kenny

    The reasons why americans don’t earn other languages is basically because we don’t have to.

    And the second language many of us learn is things like Java, Visual Basic, etc.

  • Kris

    The BBC? Pshaw! All the cool kids use Xinhua.

  • JKB

    A bit un-PC but this footnote from a book on education published in 1886 says most of what needs saying:

    “The multiplicity of languages is due to the policy of international hate, inaugurated by the nations of Europe to promote the selfish purposes of rulers. Barbarism is diversity; civilization is unity. The human race is one, provided it is civilized, and it should have but one language. Language is a tool, and time consumed in acquiring skill in the use of more than one tool designed for the same end, is wasted. The standing armies of Europe obstruct the way to unity of language. The time will come when all civilized peoples will speak one tongue, probably the English. Then language will cease to be a mere vain accomplishment, and become what it ought always to have been, the simple means of familiarizing the mind with things, and of the communication of knowledge.”

  • Toni

    Gabriel Garcia Marquez said he preferred the English translation of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” to the Spanish he’d written. English has short, blunt words combined with more longer, sometimes mellifluous Latinate words.

    That English’s heritage gives it superior expressive possibilities had never occurred to me.

  • Zhao Ningkang

    “Languages rise and fall more slowly than empires”; “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. ”
    That is to say, China is rising. You are quite wrong.

  • LarryD

    While Brits and Americans haven’t been inclined to lean other languages, they haven’t been hesitant in borrowing words from other languages, as James Nicoll put it “We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.” 🙂

    As a result, English has a huge vocabulary, making it a rich environment for writers and poets.

  • Kris

    JKB@3: Eine Sprache!
    And then we’ll build a huge tower.

    LarryD@6: Linguistic appropriation? Boo! Shame!

  • Douglas

    The WSJ reported recently that 300 million Chinese are studying English. ’nuff said.

  • Henry Antenen

    It is true English will remain the dominant language for the foreseeable future. For someone who does not speak English or Chinese it makes more sense (in practical*) to learn English.

    This isn’t news, however, unless one is overly concerned about the competition against China. It is still extremely important for English speakers to learn new languages.

    For practical purposes learning another language is just about the most important thing a human can do. When traveling in or meeting someone from another country, you will have a much stronger connection and relationship if you know their native language. Learning about the culture, history, food, politics, literature etc. will be multiplied 10000x if done in the native language.

    One will never truly understand another country, culture, or people unless they know the language. If a Chinese person, with no English skills, told me he had a firm grasp of America, its culture, politics and history I would politely nod my head but

    Languages are beautiful things to learn as well. The Chinese language, which I study, is so complex but rewarding. It also uses parts of the brain associated with mathematics which may be neglected by students of the humanities.

    Americans should not be smug or complacent that everyone around the world is learning English. They should be enthusiastic to learn a new language enter into a new world / life experience

    (Learning new languages is also extremely beneficial when applying to jobs/working abroad…..)

  • Walter Grumpius

    Simply for security purposes it behooves Americans to learn more and varied languages. It’s good to know what your rivals and enemies are saying on their back channels and in their chat rooms.

    The universality of English also gives an advantage to our enemies when it comes to cyberwar. More of them can and do know more about our stuff than vice versa.

  • mainlander

    he following is to answer a 3 year old kid’s question: why chinese name is shorter than english name?

    “We receive information from around us through the 5 senses: sight (eye), sound (ear), smell (nose), taste (tongue) and touch (skin), with sight and sound being the most important as these 2 senses are responsible for most of the information brought into our brain. The importance of sensing the world through our eyes and ears is well illustrated in the Chinese language: the word meaning “intelligent” is formed by two characters with one meaning “hear well” (pronounced as “cong” and the other “see well” (“ming”). So if you can hear well and see well, you should be intelligent. The information gathered by our senses helps us understand the world and form ideas in our mind. If we want to communicate the ideas in our mind to other people, we need to use language. Language is a system of symbols to translate ideas. Some languages translate ideas based on sound, for example, English, whereas some languages use both sound and sight, for example, Chinese. English is an alphabetic language. Every word is made up from a combination of the 26 alphabets or letters. The main form of communicating information is the sound of the letters. The written symbols (letters) do not carry any extra information. All the European languages are like that. However, each Chinese word carries information through both sound and shape of the character, and this allows the word to be a more compact(or denser) information carrier than english. In other words, the Chinese character can carry more information in shorter sound and less space than the equivalent English word. For example, the English word “mountain” obviously sounds longer than the Chinese word ,山, with “shan” as the sound. This is why a Chinese name is usually shorter than an English name. If a full page of English writing is to be translated into Chinese, the Chinese version may only take up half of the page.

    Chinese is a bit harder than English for people to pick up at the beginning because you have to remember both the sound and the shape of the word together whereas with English you mainly need to remember the sound of the word. However, by including the “sight” (shape) information in the Chinese character it helps the language stay more stable over time as sounds (pronunciation) are more easily changed. This has helped the Chinese language remain as one language over the last 2000 years after the first Chinese emperor united China. Having the same language also helps China remain as a big country. If people uses different languages, there might be more chance of being misunderstood, which may lead to conflict and even fights. 2000 years ago most of the european area was covered by the Roman Empire, the size of which was bigger than China today. The official language used then was Latin, which is also an alphabetical based language. Through time, the language slowly changed into different european languages like italian, spanish and french and the empire also split into different small countries in europe because people speaking different languages wanted to have their own country. From this viewpoint, the Chinese ancestors seem fairly wise in including the “sight” information into the language symbol. ”

    information coded in chinese is said to take up the least memory bytes, ie, very effecient for storing information.

    there are probably many merits to the diversity of language but the downside of different languages is an increase in communicating cost and thus reducing the communication effeciency. one probably can relate this to the story of babel tower.

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