When I get into cocktail-party conversation about language and politics, someone inevitably says “and of course there’s the rise of China.” It seems like any conversation these days has to work in the rise-of-China angle. Technology is changing society? Well, it’s the flood of cheap tech from China. Worried about your job? It’s the rise of China. Terrified of nuclear Iran? If only that rising China would stop resisting sanctions. What’s for lunch? Well, we’d all better develop a taste for Chinese food.
I was reminded of this walking down New York’s Park Avenue last night, when I saw a pre-school offering immersion courses in French, Italian, Spanish and Chinese. For years now, we’ve been seeing stories like this: Manhattan parents, always eager to steal some advantage for their children, are hiring Mandarin-speaking nannies, so their children can learn what some see as the language of the future.
But while China’s rise is real, Chinese is in no way rising at the same rate. Yes, Mandarin Chinese is the world’s most commonly spoken language, if you simply count the number of speakers. But the rub is that they’re almost all in China. Yes, we’ve also read that Mandarin is advancing in Hong Kong, Taiwan and overseas Chinese communities (which have traditionally spoken one of China’s other languages, such as Cantonese). And China is trying to expand the use of the language through the expansion of its overseas Confucius Institutes. But English remains the world’s most important language. America’s superpower status has made it everyone’s favourite second language. This is where its power lies. A Japanese businessman does deals in Sweden in English. A German airline pilot landing in Milan speaks English to the tower. English is also the language of writing intended for an international audience, whether scientific, commercial or literary.
Could Chinese gradually assume this role as the world’s language of communication? I'll venture a prediction: No. Not as long as Chinese is written in traditional Chinese characters.
It’s not terrifyingly hard to learn to speak Chinese. Mandarin has few of the blistering array of case- and verb-endings that make languages like Russian or Arabic so difficult. Sentences are built on a simple system that can seem odd and ungrammatical to outsiders. (Sentences like wo shi zhong guo ren can be translated bit-by-bit as I yes middle country person, meaning “I am Chinese.”) The hardest part for non-Asians is probably mastering the “tones”: “shi” pronounced with a falling pitch means something completely different than “shi” pronounced with a rising, flat or dipping pitch.
But writing is a different story. Normal adult literacy requires a knowledge of about 6,000 characters, which must be memorised to be deciphered. Recurring symbols within characters can offer clues to sound and meaning, but they don't quite clarify the whole. Chinese people take years to learn the basics and many more to comprehend a full range of characters (the biggest dictionaries have more than 60,000 of them). For a foreigner, the task is immense—a mammoth memorisation challenge on top of the ordinary one of learning to speak a foreign tongue, usually undertaken in adulthood, without the benefit of immersion.
There is, of course, an alternative. Chinese can be written with the Roman alphabet (there’s an official system called pinyin), for the benefit of foreigners. Chinese people also use pinyin to enter Chinese characters on a standard computer keyboard. But China has resisted all attempts to simply switch to the alphabet for typical reasons: tradition and nationalism.
So should you teach your kids Chinese? Well, foreign languages are always a good thing to know, and if you really want them to live and work intensively in China, sure. But despite China’s rise, Chinese isn’t the world language of the future; the writing system simply makes it far too hard for the vast majority of the world’s people to use if they care to reach for the widest possible audience. I simply can’t imagine a Dutch physicist in 2110 learning Chinese in order to write up his research, or Finnish musicians recording in Chinese, the language “everybody” knows.
If China switches to an alphabet? That’s a different story.