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What will be the New World Language?

June 18th, 2013 by Dexter Findley

Some commentators argue that a shift is currently occurring in the way we talk. English, the dominant language for centuries - by virtue of Britain's colonial reach - is slipping from its top-of-the-chart position. True, it is still the most widely-spoken tongue (as in, number of countries that hold it as a national language), but Chinese has been the most spoken for a while now (when you take into account the number of people actually speaking it), and Spanish is second. English is third by total numbers, with Hindi and Arabic hot on its tail.

This population trend is reflected in economics. China's economy is booming: while it still isn't as big as the USA's, its growth rate is formidable, increasing 10% per year on average. It is the world's largest exporter of goods, and the second-largest importer. Most importantly, its economy is predominantly based on heavy industry and manufacturing, not on a more nebulous 'knowledge economy'.

The argument goes that a combination of population majority and economic importance would see Chinese - specifically Mandarin, but also the Cantonese spoken in Hong Kong and Shenzen - become a new lingua franca of commerce, especially outside the West.

What are the time-scales for this prospective shift? While its hard to pinpoint exact dates, but proponents suggest a gradual move over the next fifty years or so. This isn't to suggest that everyone will speak Chinese; rather, due to China's hegemony in world markets, all businesspeople with big aims will have to become familiar with the language.

There are others who say these claims are unsubstantiated. Firstly, Chinese has yet to spread to its own backyard - the rest of South-East Asia - let alone the world. In countries like South Korea and Japan, English is the preferential language to learn after their own. Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia show similar preference.

Also, the world's media and entertainment sectors remain firmly English-speaking, with no hint of change on the horizon. The majority of the internet speaks English, by virtue of the majority of its infrastructure being American. Hollywood, TV production companies and news giants are all firmly entrenched in the language. By comparison, the Chinese equivalents of these sectors are quietly underdeveloped. And while Hollywood may move productions to China to capture local audiences - the recent Looper being a good example - the primary dialogue in these films will remain in English for the foreseeable future. In Asia itself, Korean and Japanese entertainment industries eclipse the Chinese one by many orders of magnitude, and yet the number of English-Korean or English-Japanese crossover films remains minimal.

Another commentator makes the very prescient point that, while there is an Anglicised form of Chinese - Pinyin - used on some traffic signs in China, even; there is no 'Sinoised' transliteration of English.

Is there a middle ground? Some suggest creating an artificial language, a unifying tongue for the whole world. But English and Chinese are different on an incredibly fundamental level, both in structure and writing. When taking into account other wildly different languages - Arabic, Bantu languages etc - it's clear that there no is direct 'middle ground'. Any manufactured language would show heavy preference to one language group or another (Esperanto, for example, is essentially a European Romance Language), and would thus be socially, politically and linguistically problematic.

So for the moment, at least, the status quo remains. Chinese will no doubt become more prominent in some commercial sectors, but it is still far off being a world lingua franca.

Categories: Research, Mandarin
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